The Joy of Sketch

Many of the greatest comedy movies from the dawn of its invention have effectively been a series of singularly funny sequences strung together with plots that provided little more than a narrative thread to tie them all together. After all, did it really matter to you whether W.C. Fields got his orange grove in It’s a Gift when you were still thinking about the poor shopkeeper’s ordeal with Mr. Muckle’s cane and Carl LaFong’s business associate? Is it a spoiler to say that despite all the chaos he causes, Jerry Lewis keeps his job in The Bellboy?

But in the ‘70s, stimulated by the increased popularity of anthology movies, where a series of shorter self-contained stories unfolded which could be funny like Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow or scary as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, and the ascension of so many performers and memorable skits from the Second City improv program and its various offshoots, a wave of films came to cinema screens that dispensed with clothesline plots and straight-man filler, and focused entirely on the sketches themselves. And for the month of March, each Saturday at midnight, the New Beverly is presenting one great comedy omnibus after another. Maybe back in the day you sneaked a look at one of these on cable when your parents were asleep, or rented them on video, but now you can take in all the outrageous jokes with a live audience laughing along with you, and experience these cult favorites in the manner that first made them cult favorites in the first place!

Our series opens on March 2nd with possibly the gold standard for all sketch movies to follow, as well as the launchpad for several classic laugh creators, The Kentucky Fried Movie from 1977. Three childhood friends from Wisconsin – brothers David & Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams – had been performing as the Kentucky Fried Theater in Madison before moving their merriment to Los Angeles. The group set up shop in a warehouse on Pico in West L.A. and became a talked-about comedy destination, which led to TV appearances. After initial difficulties pitching a feature version of their work to backers, they self-financed a short, which Parallax Theatres (the forerunner to the Landmark Theatres chain) ran in some locations. The short drew such great responses Parallax helped secure more investors, including the United Artists Theatres chain, who ultimately released it through their United Film Distribtion company. John Landis, who had made the monster movie spoof Schlock when he was 21, was hired to direct. Most of the cast were unknowns, with a few celebrity cameos thrown in, most memorably Donald Sutherland as “The Clumsy Waiter.” KFM grossed over $7 million in first-run, and led to both the hiring of Landis to direct National Lampoon’s Animal House and the development and release of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker masterpiece Airplane!. Here is a rare clip of the original Kentucky Fried Theater troupe, including Lisa Davis and future Airplane! co-star Stephen Stucker, performing on “The Midnight Special” in 1974.

 

 

One week later on March 9th, we go back to one of the first and most influential of the independently-made omnibus comedies, Ken Shapiro’s 1974 The Groove Tube. Shapiro, a former child star who, under the name Kenny Sharpe, made multiple appearances with Milton Berle on “Texaco Star Theatre”, partnered with college friends Chevy Chase and Lane Sarasohn in a group called Channel One Underground Television in 1967, making video shorts and playing them to live audiences in Greenwich Village, in a theatre equipped with three closed circuit TVs. Some of these vignettes were later broadcast on the PBS counterculture series “The Great American Dream Machine.” Off this initial good reception, they packaged their best shorts into two compilations that played colleges in the ‘70s, then chose the best-received sketches from those screenings to reshoot on film, which comprised The Groove Tube. The film was the first film exposure for Chase and Richard Belzer, and notable cameos include Buzzy Linehart, who wrote the Bette Midler hit “(You Gotta Have) Friends”, as a frustrated hitchhiker, and adult film performers Jennifer Welles as “The Geritan Girl” and Mary Mendum as an unusual Olympic athlete.  The $200,000 film grossed over $20 million, and served as a major influence on Lorne Michaels’ creation of “Saturday Night Live,” with Chase hired to write and perform on the show, and Shapiro invited to join as well, though he passed on the opportunity. Shapiro would write and direct Chase’s 1981 telekinesis comedy Modern Problems, while Lane Sarasohn would go on to write for HBO’s long-running topical series “Not Necessarily the News.” Here is a rare surviving Channel One tape with Shapiro and Richard Belzer, which would later be restaged for The Groove Tube.

 

 

The proverbial “idiot box” gets a second shellacking on March 16th in Tunnel Vision from 1976, where the viewer is given a look at what programming in the future of 1985 would resemble in a no-holds-barred, no-demographic-protected joke onslaught. While many of the punchlines and cultural references in today’s climate are certainly outdated, the peculiar nature of history has made some of the material you’ll see all-too-relevant once again! Co-directors Bradley Swirnoff and Neal Israel brought extra levels of real-life experience to the satire: Swirnoff was a successful TV commercial director, and Israel had been director of on-air promotion at CBS. In a 2016 interview, Israel remembered “We saw so much unrelatable and dumb stuff on TV that was ripe for parody, and we wanted to break away from the comedy of the time, which was like the Carol Burnett variety show type of humor.” Performers from many acclaimed groups – Firesign Theatre, The Committee, Ace Trucking Company, and The Groundlings – participated, and working TV announcers Dick Tufeld, Danny Dark, and Ernie Anderson joined in to add extra verisimilitude. The project was shot and edited on video, and was acquired for release by Stuart Shapiro, who had previously handled midnight movie favorites Shame of the Jungle and Pink Floyd at Pompeii, and would later create the influential counterculture programming block Night Flighton USA Network. Israel, in his day job for CBS, was likely responsible for this segment of their 1974 “See the Best” fall preview special, which plays like a straight-faced template for much of Tunnel Vision’s fake promos, right down to the Ernie Anderson narration; so much so that it explains why Israel would later claim his involvement in the film got him fired by the network.

 

 

Here are some particularly fun facts connected to Tunnel Vision. Not only will you see director Paul Thomas Anderson’s father Ernie and hear his famous voice, you’ll also see Paul’s mother Edwina Gough as well playing opposite her then-husband. The red lips in the movie’s infamous CBS logo parody are provided by Shelley Duvall. Dody Dorn, Academy Award-nominated editor of Memento, appears in a rather radical church PSA, and Joe Roth, later to preside at Fox, Disney, and Revolution Studios, appears as an extra-hands-on sports reporter. And while there was no official sequel to Tunnel Vision, all the major creators made more sketch comedy films. Bradley Swirnoff skewered TV once more in 1977 with Prime Time aka American Raspberry, which was made for Warner Bros. but shunted off to Cannon Films instead. And Neal Isreal and Michael Mislove would collaborate with the Firesign Theatre and the Credibility Gap on the speculative L.A.-after-The-Big-One satire Cracking Up in 1977, and the more plot-structured Americathon in 1979. Israel would also direct Bachelor Party in 1984, and with frequent ZAZ collaborator Pat Proft, wrote Police Academy that same year.

March 23rd brings one of the funniest films ever made from otherwise serious source material. California-based psychiatrist Dr. David Reuben became a world celebrity after publishing Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*but were afraid to ask) in 1969; the book, which sought to promote healthy dialogue about humanity’s favorite activity, became a #1 bestseller in 51 countries. In 1970, Paramount optioned the book, intending to make a straight biopic about Reuben and his research, but never came up with a satisfying script. It was after an appearance Reuben made on “The Tonight Show” that spurred the idea that it could be explored as a comedy, with the producers selling their option to United Artists. Using actual questions from the book, a memorable collection of wild interludes provided irreverent answers that referenced Shakespeare, Italian minimalist dramas, ‘50s game shows, and science fiction tropes. The success led to several more similiarly-themed anthologies, including How Funny Can Sex Be? and Sex with a Smile, a frequent New Beverly favorite. Paramount would try again at mining a movie from unlikely material, optioning Alex Comfort’s 1972 manual The Joy of Sex, which spent years in development until only the title was retained for their 1984 release; Charles Grodin, who had previously been courted to adapt the book, turned the experience into his screenplay Movers and Shakers, which United Artists made into a movie in 1985. Here is a follow-up appearance by Dr. Reuben with Johnny Carson from November 1972, where earlier guest Rob Reiner references the incident that spawned the film’s creation.

 

 

And finally, this fun anthology of funny anthologies concludes on March 30th with the 1987 spoof Amazon Women on the Moon, conceived by John Landis and producer Robert K. Weiss as a spiritual sequel to The Kentucky Fried Movie. All the scenes were scripted by the team of Michael Barrie & Jim Mulholland, longtime gag men for Johnny Carson, David Letterman, several sitcoms, and later writers of Landis’ Oscar and Michael Bay’s Bad Boys; reportedly, the pair wrote material for a year before paring their ideas down to the ones that were filmed. Directing duties were spread among Landis, Weiss, Carl Gottlieb of The Committee and co-screenwriter of Jaws, Joe Dante, who directed two episodes of ZAZ’s sitcom “Police Squad,” and actor Peter Horton, making a feature directing debut after previously helming the ABC Afterschool Special One Too Many with his then-wife Michelle Pfeiffer. At one point, the creators wanted to call the film Closed for Remodeling but Universal execs and theatre owners feared patrons would take the joke seriously; after its small 50 screen release by the studio, Dante reportedly observed that they couldn’t have earned less box revenue than if they committed to the planned title. Here is a sequence omitted from the theatrical release but included in the TV version, directed by Dante, starring prolific and treasured character actor Dick Miller as a ventriloquist with an unexpected problem.

 

 

Los Angeles is a city that many people say is full of funny people engaged in sketchy behavior, but they’re not always talking about comedians. Thankfully, every Saturday night at midnight this March, you’ll see the right kind of funny people doing sketchy things on the New Beverly cinema screen, so come indulge in the Joy of Sketch with us all month long!

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