Overdone and Stale
I only recently saw for the first time 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, director John Landis’s second feature film. If I had been introduced to the film at a more impressionable age, I might today have pleasant adolescent memories of it that would color my grownup response to it today, and perhaps I could be kinder to a movie considered a comedy classic by some. But I wasn’t, I haven’t, and I can’t.
This collection of comedic sketches mostly replicates an afternoon of channel surfing, with its snippets of parody movies, news updates, fake commercials, and the like, though it also sometimes addresses the viewer assuming he — and it also does assume the viewer is a he, natch — is sitting in a movie theater. I kept expecting that that duality would build to some sort of punchline of its own, but it never does… or else the juxtaposition of, say, a TV newsreader speaking to a cinema audience is itself meant to be funny but simply can’t be anymore today, when the viewer is watching on a TV at home.
I’d like to be able to say that, as the development of sketch comedy goes, KFM has historical value, but I can’t see that, either, alas, when Saturday Night Live had been doing the same thing, only better, on TV for two years prior to this… and Monty Python had been doing something far more subversive and positively genius with their Flying Circus for nearly a decade prior, and in doing so created material that still does not feel dated today. (It’s notable that the “Big Jim Slade” segment, which is about how to take all the fun out of sex by reducing it to something that one can be dispassionately instructed in, was pulled off much more effectively, in a way far more biting and bitter and just plain funny, by the Pythons in their film The Meaning of Life.)
It’s hard to imagine that KFM’s obvious punchlines — and the humor here is all about punchlines, and then punching the punchlines to death — didn’t feel tired already in 1977. If they didn’t, it can only have been merely that there simply wasn’t much sketch comedy to be had at the time, and so the novelty was in the form, not the content. Perhaps the rampant sexism and occasional homophobia weren’t as obvious, either: today it’s clear that, say, “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” is no more and no less exploitive than the grade-Z movies its (barely) sending up, and that some of the “humor” works only if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of men finding other men attractive. Even the “Fistful of Yen” sequence, which some appear to consider the film’s best stuff, milks too much from “funny” Asian accents. (Though I will confess that “Yen” supplied the only laugh I got from the film: “Take him to Detroit!” That, unlike almost everything else intended to be funny, is actually unexpected. And unlike most of what passes for humor in the film, it can’t be spoiled, because it needs the larger context in which is occurs in order to tickle.)
The Kentucky Fried Movie believes itself to be wild, but it’s depressingly quite restrained: it sets up a formula for itself — cheap setup, obvious punchline, then a treadmill of repeating the punchline instead of developing it even further — and never once deviates from it. I wish I could sense the ocean of anarchy it’s desperate to convince me it’s swimming in. If there’s anything notable about it at all, it’s that there may be the slightest glimmer of the witty insanity writers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker would bring a few years later to the brilliant Airplane!.
But that still doesn’t make me laugh.
(Reader JoshDM has been waiting patiently for this review for years. Sorry it couldn’t be more positive, Josh…)
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