The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night*. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The eleventh entry into this disreputable canon is the gag-a-second ZAZ sketch comedy classic, The Kentucky Fried Movie…
David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker didn’t even know how to properly format a script when they first approached John Landis about their idea for The Kentucky Fried Movie. Having honed their sketch comedy talents as “The Kentucky Fried Theater”, an improvisational troupe formed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they trusted the material they perfected before a tiny 140-seat auditorium. After spotting Landis on “The Tonight Show” (where he was promoting his first film – the monster movie tribute, Schlock), the three comedians thought the director would be an easy candidate to reach out to, as there was no way a twenty-one-year-old kid could turn down a meeting with them.
After enraging Landis to no end by obtaining his phone number via Schlock’s distributor, a meeting was set. The company invited the director out to see their show and, after taking him to lunch and picking his brain about the motion picture business, presented their pitch. Upon hearing that they had no screenplay, or even an inkling regarding how to craft such a document, Landis immediately pulled a spec from the trunk of his car (which just happened to be titled An American Werewolf in London) and told them to get back to him when they had something on paper. Using Werewolf as a basic guide to formatting, the three began work on what would eventually become the screenplay for The Kentucky Fried Movie. All told, close to ninety amateurish pages of pure, unadulterated insanity.
While it’s easy to simply view The Kentucky Fried Movie as being a series of disconnected bits (which, to be fair, is 90% true), the reality is that the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams were pushing the limits of comedic cinema. Freed from the trappings of narrative, the trio was able to toss as many gags at the wall as they could, hoping at least a few would stick. It’s the filmic equivalent of improv, as you can practically feel the prompts being scribbled onto little white note cards as these goofballs brainstorm the segments. “What if, instead of jumping cars, a daredevil heads into the city and starts screaming racial slurs?” Its lowbrow art, paraded with a shit-eating grin and not a care in the world when it comes to basic decency.
The sketch format wasn’t new, either on the big screen or the boob tube. Saturday Night Live had already been airing for nearly two years, with arguably the greatest cast of comedians ever assembled. Every week, the antics of Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin and Gilda Radner were beamed into living rooms, as Lorne Michaels’ brainchild made history. Playing at small dive theaters were movies like Tunnel Vision(the trailer for which played before this print), spoofing the episodic counterparts that shared the same airwaves with the variety show. But what made The Kentucky Fried Movie special was it’s tweaking of these ideas; expounding upon them to the point that a mini-movie is inserted smack dab in the middle of its eighty-three minute runtime.
In a way, The Kentucky Fried Movie works as sillier cinematic kin to Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, as the film parodies everything from grindhouse trailers to commercials for household products to full on action films (the ZAZ answer to Enter The Dragon, A Fistful of Yen, carbon copies whole scenes from the Bruce Lee classic). Like Downey, Landis completely understands the aesthetics of his time, and replicates the feel of these trashy gems, right down to slapping a satirical play on their producer’s name (Samuel L. Bronkowitz being a stand-in for the legendary Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International). This is cinema eating its own and then spewing it out for us to point and laugh at. But The Kentucky Fried Movie became a template – not only for ZAZ, but also for what audiences would come to know as the “parody film” as a whole. It was revolutionary.
There are moments contained within The Kentucky Fried Movie that are positively subversive, as ZAZ approach race and creed with reckless abandon, peppering in a healthy amount of naked breasts to keep teenage boys fantasizing for years to come (Catholic School Girls in Trouble, indeed). The film also takes on the very industry its creative team were finding impossible to break into. On top of sexploitation and Kung Fu, The Kentucky Fries Movie spoofs disaster pictures (That’s Armageddon), and presents a promo for the Blax/Jewsploitation film nobody ever had the balls to make (Cleopatra Schwartz). While a gorilla assaulting a news team will always be better enhanced by marijuana (or booze, or mushrooms, or LSD, or…), you won’t need any chemical aid in order to find these other bits not only funny, but also daring and intelligent.
Like most movies in the Weird Wednesday series, there’s certainly a #problematic element that comes into play (but any informed audience member recognizes this inherent pitfall of exploitation programming). The humor here is often antiquated and completely un-PC, forgiven mostly via contextualization within the cultural attitudes of its times. More sensitive viewers are going to find it not too unlike hanging out with your inappropriate Republican uncle at the family reunion. He’s a nice guy and all, but once he starts slinging the racial jokes, things get somewhat uncomfortable rather quickly.
While most of the movie’s offenses can be written off to juvenile vulgarity that never feels mean-spirited, the worst example of this insensitivity most definitely comes in the form of Stephen Stucker. The iconic, high-strung gay comedian allows himself to be transformed into a caricature by the movie’s homo-leery posturing and, in hindsight (especially following the actor’s untimely death and the Zuckers’ later conservative bent), is about as far from progressive as one can get. Stucker was an original KFT cast member, and would go on to harass Lloyd Bridges in the control tower of Airplane!, so this is in no way an attempt to label ZAZ or Landis homophobes. Rather, a mere acknowledgement that The Kentucky Fried Movie is just as exploitive as the pictures it’s parodying in the way it treats the incredibly talented man’s sexual orientation.
There’s obviously a “hit and miss” factor to any “anthology”, but the hits in The Kentucky Fried Movie are so huge that you forgive any ill-conceived or overlong segments. But beyond investigating whether or not the ZAZ team’s first cinematic foray is fit for your own personal funny bone, it’s a diverting, easy trek through comedic history. And even if you end up hating the film altogether, just remember that ZAZ and Landis made sure that The Kentucky Fried Movie comes equipped with Big Jim Slade, in order to save you from any such hypothetical boredom emergency.
Tonight on Weird Wednesday: Gone With the Pope