It all comes down to “A Fistful Of Yen.” The 1977 anthology comedy The Kentucky Fried Movie fills most of its 83 minutes with parodies of commercials, documentaries, and TV news—some of which are funny, and some painfully not—but the movie is at its most brilliant during the 30-minute martial-arts spoof in the middle of the film. With “A Fistful Of Yen,” writers Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (helped along by director John Landis) didn’t just find their stride, they discovered their reason to be.
Abrahams and the Zuckers came out of Wisconsin, where they founded the sketch-comedy troupe “Kentucky Fried Theater,” which originated many of the bits in their first movie. Later, the trio wrote and directed Airplane!, Top Secret!, and The Naked Gun, popularizing a style of freewheeling, smart-ass parody with roots in Mad magazine and Your Show Of Shows. The key to Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker’s success was that they didn’t just take shots at easy targets. They also sifted through the minutiae of old movies, making fun of character actors, camera angles, sound effects, and the self-serious tone of B-pictures. At their best, the ZAZ parodies serve as a savage kind of film criticism, eviscerating cinematic phoniness by highlighting it in a way that few had before.
“A Fistful Of Yen” is The Kentucky Fried Movie’s take on Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon, with Evan C. Kim playing martial-arts expert Loo, drafted by the government to infiltrate the secret lair of the one-armed Dr. Klahn (Bong Soo Han). Some of the jokes in “A Fistful Of Yen” just engage in silly wordplay—such as the introduction of two Klahn henchmen who are “tough and ruthless” and “rough and toothless.” But the filmmakers also tweak an otherwise-bland establishing shot by slapping “Hong Kong” under the New York skyline, and they spice up a typical martial-arts training sequence by showing some of the students doing basketball warm-ups. Throughout the half-hour—the longest segment in The Kentucky Fried Movie by far—“A Fistful Of Yen” makes the familiar ridiculous by changing a few minor elements, with the cumulative effect that all the pro-forma qualities of moviemaking start to seem hackneyed and insulting.
The ZAZ boys surely never intended anything that high-minded with The Kentucky Fried Movie, or even with the more polished movies that followed. They were mainly looking for gags wherever they could find them. Some of The Kentucky Fried Movie takes “gag” literally by loading up on gross-out jokes (including the fake commercial that opens the film, which describes the potential to extract natural gas from chili belches, teenagers’ faces, and Italians’ combs). But more often, the comedy stems from the way the cast and crew replicates, with uncanny precision, the look and tone of the pop culture they’re mocking, and then upends it with flashes of goofiness and bald truth. The Kentucky Fried Movie skewers the fake-politeness of a home-deodorant commercial by having a staid-looking housewife ask, “Christ, did a cow shit in here?” and the fake-tastefulness of a sex guide by having the narrator suggest, “The female, if she is so inclined, may latch on to the male’s honker.” Abrahams and the Zuckers found all forms of pretension hysterical, and by turning them into jokes, they also exposed them.
A big reason why The Kentucky Fried Movie worked so well (and became a substantial cult hit) is that in the 1970s, subversion thrived after prime time, on late-night TV and at midnight movies. The Kentucky Fried Movie is pitched at that audience: people familiar with softcore sex romps like this movie’s “Catholic High School Girls In Trouble” (tagline: “Never before has the beauty of the sexual act been so crassly exploited!”), and people who stayed up to watch the old black-and-white courtroom shows that the ZAZ team riffs on in the film’s most densely joke-packed segment. The Kentucky Fried Movie misses as often as it hits, but when the writers and Landis arrive at a great idea like “That’s Armageddon!”—a disaster movie that focuses on two corny lovers in the foreground while the world goes down in flames behind them—it’s like watching an entire fruitful comic perspective being spawned.
Abrahams, Landis, and the Zuckers join producer Robert K. Weiss for a chuckle-heavy commentary track. Between all the ripping on each other, the five men talk about the long, arduous road to getting KFM made—which included getting the parodies cleared by attorneys unused to this kind of comedy. The filmmakers also call attention to some of the actors the audience might otherwise not recognize, such as Rick Baker in an ape suit during one of the news parodies, and buxom softcore queen Uschi Digard in the shower for “Catholic High School Girls In Trouble.” (When they express mild shame at letting the camera ogle the naked Digard for so long, Landis cracks, “I got news for you, that paid for your house.”) Elsewhere on the disc, the Zuckers sit for an hourlong, career-spanning interview that goes further into how they infiltrated Hollywood, and how even after all their successes, they’re still stumping to raise money for projects that no one in town will buy.