1977's The Kentucky Fried Movie is a cult classic comedy film that was almost never made. Inspired by sketch comedy like Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, and improvisational theater like Second City and The Groundlings, movie studios were unsure how American audiences would respond to sketch comedy in a feature film. Coming up with the $650,000 needed to shoot the film was a long process full of rejection and false starts. Luckily, the brains behind The Kentucky Fried Movie eventually convinced backers that the movie had value, and a comedy classic was born.
The Kentucky Fried Movie- A cult classic comedy movie from John Landis and Zukcer, Abrahams, and Zucker in 1977.
Based on an improv comedy show called Kentucky Fried Theater, the script for The Kentucky Fried Movie was created and refined both in rehearsal and in front of live audiences before it was turned into a film script. The comedy trio of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker (who would go on to produce Airplane! among other comedy classics) came up with the idea for the skit-based comedy while attending the University of Wisconsin together.
The Kentucky Fried Movie was not director John Landis' first foray into film--he'd done some stunt and acting work as well as unit direction in Europe as well as a feature film called Schlock that sank like a stone--but it would set his career in motion, leading directly to his work on Animal House and The Blues Brothers. Landis' career includes comedy blockbusters like Spies Like Us and Three Amigos, but it all started with his success on The Kentucky Fried Movie.
After shopping the screenplay around to various Hollywood production companies, Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker realized that they needed something solid to hand to potential producers to convince them of the value of their idea. A real estate developer friend suggested that they make a ten-minute film he could show to other potential investors to raise the planned $500,000 budget, but backed out when the trio asked for $30,000 to make the short.
The Kentucky Fried Movie trailer, featuring Samuel L. Bronkowitz.
Eventually, the three made the short on their own, spending $32,000 of their own money to do so. John Landis joined the team, but even with a working director and a ten-minute short, Hollywood wouldn't bite. At this point, The Kentucky Fried Movie was little more than a screenplay, a couple of reels, and $30,000 worth of personal debt for the writers.
John Landis and the writers wanted to know how movie audiences would react to their short, so they convinced a couple of movie houses to show the short before feature films. One of these exhibitors, a man named Kim Jorgenson, found the short so hilarious that he got a group of investors together and together they raised $650,000. The Kentucky Fried Movie would eventually earn $20 million worldwide.
Kim Jorgenson reportedly laughed so hard the first time he saw the short that he literally fell out of his chair. That's the appeal of The Kentucky Fried Movie--a collection of comedy sketches without a unified plot. TV audiences loved Saturday Night Live and Monty Python had proven that sketch comedy could work on film, but no mass-market American movie featuring sketch comedy had ever been made. Though rejected time and again by major production companies, when the short film was created and shown to actual audiences, the appeal of the film became clear, and investors knew they had a winner on their hands.
To appreciate The Kentucky Fried Movie, you have to know a little bit about America in the 1970s. The Kentucky Fried Movie is little more than a series of sketches parodying American 1970s culture, from TV to commercials and advertising, from 70s movies and "educational films" to pornography and even race relations. The only thing close to a "feature presentation" in The Kentucky Fried Movie is the Enter the Dragon spoof called "A Fistful of Yen." The rest of the movie consists of parodies of courtroom TV shows, softcore porn, prison movies, nature shows, and advertising.
A video review of The Kentucky Fried Movie.
The biggest names in The Kentucky Fried movie are Donald Sutherland, Bill Bixby, and George Lazenby, all three of which play small parts. Sutherland would go on to star in Ordinary People, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and a host of other hits. Lazenby was one of the original James Bonds. Bill Bixby would go on to be the alter-ego of The Incredible Hulk in the 70s and 80s.
Outside of those three, there aren't any real stars in the cast of The Kentucky Fried Movie, though many members of the production team went on to bigger and better things. There's an apocryphal story about David Letterman auditioning for the part of the Newscaster, though that role eventually went to Neil Thompson, who played a couple of bit parts on MASH and Laverne & Shirley but not much more than that. The only thing close to a recognizable actor in The Kentucky Fried Movie is Marcy Goldman, a journeyman TV and movie actress best known for a bit part in Airplane.
As for the production team, the writing trio of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams went on to long careers in Hollywood. They wrote Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and other projects. David Zucker directed cult classic comedy BASEketball while his brother Jerry directed blockbuster drama/comedy Ghost.
The Kentucky Fried Movie was not created in a vacuum. It owes a ton to The Groove Tube, an earlier and even more low budget comedy movie parodying American television. That film starred a young Chevy Chase and Richard Belzer, and along with The Kentucky Fried Movie is one of the great cult hits of the 1970s.
Expect to hear a little more about The Kentucky Fried Movie now that a new DVD edition has been released. The film is available in both widescreen and full frame versions, with the original mono audio, commentary by John Landis, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and producer Robert K. Wei, some cool home video footage shot during the making of the movie, the original trailer, fancy packaging, and critical writing about the career of John Landis.