In 1969, brothers David and Jerry Zucker and their childhood friend, Jim Abrahams, all of whom were students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, began performing a multimedia stage act out of the back of a bookstore. Combining short, improvisational skits with filmed spoofs of television commercials, their comedic venture was the start of what would later become The Kentucky Fried Theater.
The Kentucky Fried Theater was successful enough that ZAZ (as they came to be known) took their small theater troupe to Los Angeles in 1972 and began performing in an abandoned warehouse. There, over five years, they gained enough of a following that they were able to raise money to film some of their work, which allowed them to secure a movie deal.
The final product, 1977's "The Kentucky Fried Movie," was a small watershed event in cinematic comedy. It would be the founding base from which a whole new form of screen humor would emerge--for better or for worse. David Zucker likes to call it "Guerilla Comedy" or "Take No Prisoners Comedy," and the central idea seems to be a complete lack of restraint in terms of both taste and pace. Movies both created and inspired by the members of the ZAZ team--which include "Airplane!" (1980) and its sequel, "Top Secret!" (1984), "The Naked Gun" (1988) and its two sequels, "Hot Shots" (1990) and its sequel, and "Jane Austen's Mafia" (1997)--are comedic machine guns, constantly firing jokes and pratfalls with reckless abandon. There is, simply, no letting up.
"The Kentucky Fried Movie" can be seen as a kind of testing grounds for Guerilla Comedy, and, for the most part, it works wonderfully. The movie is comprised of two-dozen short comedy sketches, most of which are parodies of TV shows, news programs, commercials, talk shows, and movie previews. The screenplay was written by the three founding members of the Kentucky Fried Theater--Abrahams and the two Zucker brothers--and many of the movie sketches are variations of their best stage acts. The movie was directed by John Landis, who went on to enormous success over the next decade with films like "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978), "Blues Brothers" (1980), "Trading Places" (1983), and "Coming to America" (1988). But, when "The Kentucky Fried Movie" was made, he was a nobody, a confident but inexperienced young director who was looking to make his mark in Hollywood.
As with most sketch comedy, the individual parts of "The Kentucky Fried Movie" tend to range in quality. Some of the sketches are absolutely hilarious, others are ambitious, but miss the mark. Some of the ZAZ formula that would be repeated in "Airplane!" is apparent here, such as their obsession with making fun of Hare Krishnas (here they are used in a mock beer commercial) and parodying '70s-era disaster films (one of the best sketches is a preview for a disaster movie called "That's Armageddon!" starring George Lazenby and Donald Sutherland, who make cameos as themselves). The movie's targets for parody range from blaxploitation films (a preview for "Cleopatra Schwartz," in which the titular Pam Grier-inspired female warrior is paired with a Hasidic Jewish rabbi) to junior high science filmstrips (this one being about "Zinc Oxide and You").
Unfortunately, the filmmakers gambled that they could sustain a long sketch in the middle of the film, and this is the weakest spot. "A Fistful of Yen," a 30-minute parody of Kung Fu films, runs out of jokes quickly and spends most of its time simply standing back while its lisping, Bruce Lee-lookalike hero kicks and punches an endless stream of attackers. This sketch almost brings the movie to a dead halt in the middle, but it quickly recovers with a pair of mock commercials, including one for a board game called "Scot Free," based on the Kennedy assassination.
Much of "The Kentucky Fried Movie" is hit-and-miss, and many of the jokes would be considered out of bounds today (some of the racial jokes, especially). But, when the jokes do land (and many of them do), it is one of the funniest movies available.
Widescreen: 1.85:1 / 4:3 pan-and-scan
Video: The anamorphic widescreen transfer is good, but it is limited to the quality of the source material. "The Kentucky Fried Movie" was not exactly high-budget filmmaking, and it shows in the picture. Image quality ranges widely, some of which is due to the fact that old stock footage was incorporated into many sequences and some sketches were shot on video. Many of the scenes are soft, with colors that slightly bleed. Other images are sharp and nicely rendered. There were no apparent compression artifacts, and for the most part the print appears clean and free of scratches.
Audio: The mono soundtrack works well with this movie because so much of it parodies television, most of which is not presented in full stereo surround sound (at least not back in the '70s). Thus, you get a better sensation that you are actually watching '70s-era TV, rather than a movie. Dialogue is always audible, and the cheesy sound effects (especially during the Kung Fu parody) are delightfully cheesy, as they were meant to be.
Extras: Unfortunately, what should be the best supplement on the disc, the running audio commentary that reunited director John Landis, producer Robert K. Weiss, and writers Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, is a bit weak. The commentary was recorded with all five men at once, and while that lends it a relaxed, conversational quality and avoids the stilted flatness that sometimes characterizes commentaries that are edited together, it is often problematic because they all talk at once or spend time too much time making in-jokes and laughing. Granted, it fits the mood of the movie and the five men are often quite funny, but it cuts down on the amount of background information that is presented (plus, it is hard to tell who is talking; they don't introduce themselves until after they have already been rambling for almost five minutes). A better supplement is the 8-mm on-set footage shot by David Zucker (supposedly he shot it to prove to his parents that he and his brother were working in Hollywood). The footage of Landis setting up shots shows that what appears so effortlessly funny on film is actually the result of a great deal of time and preparation. The theatrical trailer, which is hosted by "producer" Samuel L. Bronkowitz, is a small gem of comedy in and of itself.
©2000 James Kendrick
Overall Rating: (3)
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