Ah, nostalgia! Be it that old cartoon, a favorite toy or a comic book from days gone by, isn’t it great, when out of the blue, the memories come flooding back, and you’ve no choice but to exclaim “Holy Crap! Remember?”
The recent passing of the great Leslie Nielsen made me think of the sorry state of the parody movie subgenre nowadays and how inspired they were in their heydey during the seventies and eighties. Nielsen of course is most famous for his roles in Airplane! and the Naked Gun series of films, all of which were helmed by the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, who along with Mel Brooks were responsible for some of the best parody films ever made. Before hitting it big with Airplane!, the Zuckers wrote the screenplay for Kentucky Fried Movie, which also marked the directorial debut of John Landis, who would later give us such classics as The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and An American Werewolf in London. Kentucky Fried Movie came out in 1977 and is definitely a movie of its time, and yet its humor is so timeless and silly that it is still as funny now as it was then, and the things that work within that odd little gem of a film just further expose the shallowness of the garbage that passes for parody films today.
Unlike most parody flicks, Kentucky Fried Movie doesn’t focus on one particular movie genre or series but rather spends its entire 83 minutes of running time skewering several aspects of the popular culture of the time, from TV newscasts and commercials to exploitation movie trailers and educational filmstrips. The movie has no overarching plot but rather goes from one absurd vignette to the next at a rapid pace that resembles a viewer changing the channels on a television. This style should be familiar to fans of the Adult Swim show Robot Chicken, which most likely was heavily influenced by this movie. It bridges the gap between the “sketch film” that enjoyed a brief moment of popularity in the 1970′s and the parody movies that the Zuckers ushered into prominence in the Eighties. The humor in the movie frequently stretches the boundaries of good taste and many times crosses it. One early segment of the movie, a fake trailer for a T&A flick called “Catholic High School Girls In Trouble”, seems only to have been shot to show a whole lot of naked ladies on screen, which no doubt is why it’s one of the most popular bits in the film. Another segment pokes fun at daredevils like Evil Kneivel and features a moment that is one of the most offensively hilarious moments I’ve ever seen on film, not so much because of what happens but because the film managed to get away with it. Even at its most offensive, however, the movie is never mean-spirited and is always winking at the audience, letting them know that it’s just joking.
Even though John Landis is the director, the movies’ style is completely dominated by the Zuckers’ corny and twisted sense of humor. All of the characteristics of their best-known films are here, from the groan-worthy puns to the juvenile sight gags to the unusual cameos by such normally reserved actors such as Donald Sutherland, George Lazenby, and Bill Bixby. Just like in their two best films Airplane! and Top Secret, the actors play everything almost completely straight, which makes everything that much funnier. The centerpiece of the movie is the dead-on parody “A Fistful of Yen,” which perfectly skewers all of the tropes found in Kung Fu films of that era. It fits the tone of those movies and then goes completely nuts by the end, but it works because it went to such pains to appear authentic at first. This is an art that is lost on the makers of many current parody movies whose already paper-thin plots tend to grind to a halt every ten minutes so that the writers can make an unfunny joke based on an already dated pop culture reference. The humor in Kentucky Fried Movie is grounded in the seventies but is timeless enough to still make people laugh today. It’s this style that sets it and the Zuckers’ best movies apart from the usual dreck that comprises the genre.
Ten years after Kentucky Fried Movie was released, Landis directed another sketch film entitled Amazon Women On The Moon, along with the great Joe Dante. While that movie had its moments, there was nothing in it that matched the hilarity of the original, mostly because the Zuckers had nothing to do with it. Kentucky Fried Movie still holds up as a near-perfect smart/dumb comedy. Even the pop culture references in it are general and universal enough that viewers can still laugh at them over thirty years later, which is more than I can say about Meet the Spartans and its ilk. Kentucky Fried Movie is highly recommended for all fans of silly and raunchy comedy, and it is especially recommended as proof that these kind of movies were legitimately funny way back when. 4.5 out of 5 Runaway Gorillas.