Before Airplane!, before Animal House, there was The Kentucky Fried Movie (usually spoken of without the definite article), the first film written and produced by the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, then and previously performing as The Kentucky Fried Movie. I first learned of it via Barry Norman and Film 77, on which he had to be very careful about which extract to feature, and went to see it in the cinema after I’d moved to Nottingham the following year.
I came out of it with my face aching from laughing so hard, videoed it off the television the first chance I got (must have been BBC2, nobody else would have dared), was one of the first DVDs I bought once we had a player, and is spot-welded to any list of films to take on retirement to a desert island. In short, I like this film, people.
What it is is a low-budget sketch compilation played by a cast of unknowns, which includes both Zuckers and Mr Abrahams in several small parts, featuring multiple sketches of various lengths, the centre of the film, but by no means overshadowing what is around it, being a 20 minute spoof Kung Fu movie titled ‘ Fistful of Yen’. There are a handful of cameos from established personages such as Bill Bixby, George Lazenby, Henry Gibson, Stephen Bishop, and Donald Sutherland, but basically no-one you’d ever see again, except from Stephen Stucker, who had a larger part in Airplane!
For those who don’t know the film, it’s structured around a pseudo-television schedule, with news shows, ads, promotions and the feature presentation, all of which are skewered with merciless precision. In some places there’s a Spike Milligan/The Goon Show style satire by extending an idea into absurdity, in others there’s just absurdity, throwaway gags (one literally) are piled up until the pips squeak, and all the way through there’s a delightfully outrageous eagerness to be crude, filthy and hysterically funny.
Kudos too to Director John Landis for marrying up the various perfect film stocks for each segment.
Forty years on, and a couple of dozen viewings, I still laugh my head off every time I watch this. it’s so tempting to fill this review up with quoting my favourite gags, a couple of which are just punchlines to a tiny sketch that exists just to build up to them, but on the off chance you’ve never seen the film, and are going to do so now – you must, you must – I don’t want to spoil the moment. There’s at least one I could ever quote properly to friends because I couldn’t deliver the punchline without cracking up all over again. (It’s the air-freshener ad, you’ll know what I mean when you see it).
Given the exuberance of the film – a future presentation for ‘Catholic high School Girls in Trouble’ proudly boasts that “never has the beauty of the sexual act been so crassly exploited” – there’s a great deal of difficulty in finding a scene to promote on TV, and Barry Norman went for ‘Feel-A-Round’. That was a riff off the Seventies idea of immersive sound in certain cinemas, Sensurround, which during disaster movies like Earthquake would shake the cinema and make yoou fel you were in the middle of an earthquake.
‘Feel-A-Round’ is its much cheaper cousin. A hapless schlub goes to watch an afternoon movie. After he settles in his seat, a uniformed commissionaire comes to stand behind him and provide a sensory experience. We hear the dialogue, the guy provides the actions: “I see you’ve started smoking again” (lights cigarette, blows smoke in guy’s face), “You haven’t noticed my perfume” (sprays guy and his popcorn from cheap bottle) etc. You can imagine where we’re going with the line “Put down that knife”… The punchline is the (notorious) title of the next feature…
Which leads me to the film’s only weakness. ‘Feel-A-Round’ is funny in itself, but it’s funnier if you get the reference to Sensurround, and it’s like that throughout. So much of the film builds upon things instantly recognisable in 1977 that an audience not old enough to remember will miss a lot of it. Who the hell is Stephen Bishop anyway? Or Henry Gibson? I know, and I get it.
But I think the film rises above that (or slithers under it, depending on your take). Think how much of Alice in Wonderland is a detailed parody of things popular when the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote it, and who since the Victorian era has cared? More pertinently, take ‘A Fistful of Yen’.
As I said, it’s a spoof of a Kung Fu movie. Now I escaped the Kung Fu fad of the early mid-Seventies so I had no idea what was being taken off but even I could recognise that this was coming from someone who knew their stuff and I was laughing my head off. It was at least fifteen years later that I found out, through watching part of the latter one evening when there was nothing else on, that it wasn’t generic, but actually a dead-on accurate parody of Enter the Dragon. You don’t need to get what they’re piss-taking when the piss-take is so spectacularly funny.
And I have an indelible memory of watching ‘A Fistful of Yen’ the first time. it’s the final confrontation between the hero, Mr Loo, and the villain of extraordinary magnitude, Dr Klarn. It’s a spectacular fight with its comic edges. The cinema is silent, tense, until one lone voice bursts out in raucous laughter, all alone. It was me, suddenly realising what other, even more famous film this was disbelievingly morphing into, about five seconds ahead of everyone else in the cinema. It got pretty near the biggest gale of laughter in the whole movie.
Once again, I’m not giving it away. Go watch it, if you haven’t already. Especially if you’ve seen and loved Airplane! or Animal House, because this is the pure stuff, baby, the uncut, unsoftened crystal. Though, if you are an Airplane! or Animal House fan, you’ve probably found that out for yourself all those years ago and, like me, Kentucky Fried Movie runs are welcome nostalgia.
And forever funny.