Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)

With Vampires Suck polluting multiplexes this weekend, I continue to believe that one of the biggest unanswered questions of the universe is why the ”comedy” team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer are still allowed to make movies. It’s sad to think that these are the main “go-to” guys for parody films in Hollywood these days because they just do not possess one iota of the wit and talent that the team of Jim Abrahams and Jerry & David Zucker displayed in their prime. The trio has been responsible for some full-fledged comedy classics like Airplane! and The Naked Gun, but when it comes to sheer belly laughs, I don’t think anything has topped their screenplay for The Kentucky Fried Movie. The title was taken from The Kentucky Fried Theater, an improv troupe that Abrahams and the Zucker Bros. had used to perform sketch comedy before they got into filmmaking. They decided to assemble a lot of their sketches into a feature-length movie script and got a then-unknown filmmaker named John Landis to direct it. Landis would soon hit it big with Animal House and The Blues Brothers and the ZAZ trio would do the same thing with Airplane!, which might be why The Kentucky Fried Movie is often overlooked when lists of the all-time greatest comedies are made.

Because of the new-found popularity of Saturday Night Live and the crossover appeal of Monty Python, sketch comedy films were fairly prominent in the seventies. These films would usually contain no real plot and simply be a collection of comedy skits that mostly consisted of material that was far too raunchy for television. While most of these films were pretty lousy, The Kentucky Fried Movie was pure comedy gold. Today, the feature-length sketch comedy film is all but extinct and I doubt any studio today would release a film that’s anything like The Kentucky Fried Movie. In fact, if this film were released today, it would probably be slapped with an NC-17 rating! One of the best elements of this film is how unapalogetically tasteless and politically incorrect it is. It’s definitely not for the easily offended, but most open-minded viewers with a good sense of humour should find themselves laughing hysterically. I cannot think of many movie moments that have made me laugh harder than this PSA parody for the “United Appeal for the Dead'”.

If you’ve seen the other films from the ZAZ trio, you’ll know exactly what style of comedy to expect here. These guys feel that the best approach is throw everything they can think of at the wall and see what sticks. When a gag doesn’t work, you know you won’t have to wait too long for a joke that makes you laugh again. To be sure, there are gags in The Kentucky Fried Movie that fall flat, but they are easily overshadowed by the gags that hit a bullseye, so that the movie’s overall ratio of hits to misses is pretty large. Since it’s a parody, the film also has to avoid the danger of becoming dated. Since it satirizes movies, TV shows, commercials, PSAs and trends that were prominent in 1977, there’s a chance that some modern viewers won’t understand many of the references. However, most of the parodies are funny enough on their accord that you really don’t have to be that familiar with the target that’s being satirized in order to laugh. There are a lot hilarious fake trailers in The Kentucky Fried Movie, the funniest of which is undoubtedly “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble”, an over-the-top parody of the raunchy sexploitation flicks of the time. You really don’t have to be familiar with the genre its satirizing in order to find this trailer hilarious.

The sketch that probably best showcases the brand of humour that the ZAZ trio would use in their subsequent films is a parody of 1950s courtroom dramas. It’s absolutely filled to the brim with horrible groan-inducing puns (like when a lawyer says “Your Honour, let me check with briefs” and then looks at his underwear), but you still wind up laughing in spite of yourself. These guys have made a career out of packing their films with incredibly stupid gags, but what sets them apart from the likes of Friedberg and Seltzer is that their “stupid” gags are usually quite clever and look like they require a lot of thought to dream up. While most of the sketches in The Kentucky Fried Movie are only a few minutes long, it’s central setpiece is a 30-minute parody of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon entitled “A Fistful of Yen”. To this day, this is probably still the best martial arts parody I’ve ever seen and, par for the course with these guys, contains a plethora of really stupid gags that still manage to make you laugh.

Anyway, there are just so many great bits from The Kentucky Fried Movie that I would love to post clips of here, but I don’t want to spoil the whole film. On the list of movies that I like to pop in the DVD player when I’m in the mood to laugh, this is definitely right near the very top. Unfortunately, the later films by the likes of John Landis, Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Bros. have been nowhere near the level of their early stuff and, quite frankly, haven’t been much better than the awful Friedberg & Seltzer comedies. That’s why it’s great to harken back to their earliest major film to see their levels of hilarity when they weren’t working within the studio system and were too inexperienced to care about being politically correct and not offending people. I’m sure that most people today are convinced that any comedy that’s released with the word “Movie” at the end of its title is going to suck, but The Kentucky Fried Movie is a definite exception to the rule.

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