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‘The Kentucky Fried Movie’: How The Cult Classic Spawned Modern Film Comedy

It’s rare that you can trace an entire genre of movies to a single source, but you can with modern film comedy. Most of the landmark comedy films and filmmakers of the past 35 years can track their lineage back to one picture: “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” which opened exactly 35 years ago this week (on August 10, 1977).

The film may not be as well remembered today as other hits from the same family, like “Airplane!”, “Animal House,” “Trading Places,” or the “Naked Gun” and “Scary Movie” films, but “Kentucky” was enormously influential in terms of its source material (the vast array of movies and TV fare absorbed by the first generation to grow up in front of the tube), its envelope-pushing raunchiness, and even the way its gags were staged and paced (if you didn’t like one joke, another would come along in just a few seconds).

Seen today, “Kentucky Fried Movie” may look dated, but in 1977, its structure and content were still novelties. The movie was a collection of parodic sketches of all kinds of movies (from instructional films to disaster movies to kung-fu flicks to porno) and all kinds of TV fare (from news reports to commercials to courtroom shows). The movie wasn’t just parodying individual genres but the entire medium of moving pictures. A handful of actual stars (Donald Sutherland, Bill Bixby, George Lazenby, Tony Dow) showed up to lampoon themselves and prove they were hip enough to be in on the joke. The content was especially risque (trims had to be made to keep the movie from earning an X rating, though director John Landis has said he believes that even that tamer cut would earn an NC-17 today), the gags were full of visual misdirection (often, the joke would be taking place in the back of the frame while actors in front deadpanned filler dialogue), and the pace was rapid and jumbled. It was the sort of edgy, Boomer-oriented humor specialized in National Lampoon magazine and by TV’s “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Saturday Night Live,” but was then barely evident in movies. (Yes, there was “The Groove Tube,” now all but forgotten, and there were the feature-length parodies by Mel Brooks, but the “Kentucky Fried” filmmakers took genre parody to a new level of raunchiness, speed, variety, and visual subversion of the medium.)

With “Kentucky” as the acorn of screen comedy’s family tree, it’s easy to follow the descendants along two branches, one from the film’s writers (the “ZAZ” team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker) and one from its director, Landis. ZAZ had grown up together and had gone to college together at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where they formed a comedy troupe called Kentucky Fried Theater. They imported their act to Los Angeles, where they decided to turn their sketches into a movie. To direct, they enlisted Landis, whose sole previous feature, low-budget monster movie spoof “Schlock,” suggested a kindred parodic sensibility. They shot “Kentucky” for just $ 650,000, but it earned back at least $ 15 million. Suddenly, they were the four hottest comedy filmmakers in Hollywood.

ZAZ took one path, creating the similarly parodic and ultra-fast “Airplane!” (1980), one of the most popular and beloved comedies of all time. “Airplane!” begat the “Naked Gun” trilogy, which in turn begat a whole slew of ’90s movie parodies starring Leslie Nielsen, which begat the “Scary Movie” series in the 2000s (which brought in David Zucker for a couple of installments), which begat the whole “____ Movie” series of genre parodies by Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg. The ZAZ style of genial vulgarity was also an influence on such comedy fountainheads as “Dumb & Dumber”‘s Farrelly Brothers (who’ve cited “Kentucky” as a touchstone), “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who worked with David Zucker on “BASEketball”), Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”), and Seth McFarlane (who once paid homage to the “Zinc Oxide and You” sketch from “Kentucky” in an episode of “Family Guy”).

Taking a more traditional narrative path was Landis, who landed the job directing “National Lampoon’s Animal House” on the strength of “Kentucky” before it had even been released. “Animal House” begat every snobs-vs.-slobs movie that followed (from “Caddyshack” to “Revenge of the Nerds”), every teen sex comedy (from “Porky’s” to “American Pie”), and every comedy starring a firebrand from “Saturday Night Live.” Many of those were directed by Landis himself, including “The Blues Brothers,” “Trading Places,” “Three Amigos,” and “Coming to America.” (Landis also co-directed 1987’s “Amazon Women on the Moon,” another “Kentucky”-style collection of movie and TV parody sketches.) The notion of Not Ready For Prime Time sketch comedy players as ready-made movie leads (a notion that made film stars out of “SNL” alumni Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, and Will Ferrell, as well as “In Living Color” stars Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and several Wayans siblings) all goes back to Landis amplifying his “Kentucky Fried Movie” sensibility by casting John Belushi in “Animal House.”

It’s hard to watch “Kentucky” today with fresh eyes. It’s very hit-or-miss, unlike the consistently funny “Animal House” or “Airplane!” (Although “A Fistful of Yen,” a surprisingly faithful and exacting spoof of Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon,” sustains its appeal continuously for nearly half an hour.) Much of the humor relies on dated pop cultural references. Most of all, there are bits here that have lost their capacity to shock or delight you into laughter because they’ve been copied so much. Still, in those instances, it’s worth remembering that “Kentucky Fried Movie” got there first.

One other way “Kentucky Fried Movie” exerted a lasting influence on comedy, albeit through an act of omission. For the role of a newscaster in one sketch, Landis rejected an auditioning performer, a little-known stand-up comic named David Letterman. Imagine if he’d cast the comedian and Letterman had become a movie star: Letterman would never have launched his vastly influential late-night talk show, and the whole landscape of comedy would be different.

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