The 1970s were a great decade for comedy. Creative young baby boomers were starting to come of age, and they were using stand-up far more creatively than their setup-punchline forebears. There were also improv groups, like Second City and the Groundlings, who gave the young and funny a chance to perform sketches. At the same time, there were movie studios who were saying yes to just about any young creative person who wanted to make a movie.
Put ’em all together and whattaya got? A proliferation of low-budget comedies filled with short scenes and no plots, frequently uneven and just as frequently in bad taste.
If the genre has a Jazz Singer – that is, a picture that defines the start of an era in the way that Al Jolson’s 1927 film ushered in sound – it would be 1974’s The Groove Tube, written and directed by Ken Shapiro. The sketches were originally videotaped by the comedy troupe Channel One, who screened them on three TVs in a ratty theater off Broadway; Shapiro assembled the best sketches to share outside of New York City, first on tours of college campuses and then nationwide. It was originally rated X, with plenty of full frontal nudity (both male and female!), but it wasn’t prurient as much as integral to the humor. Take the
case example of Safety Sam, a puppet who gives good advice on VD. As the camera moves in, closer and closer, we realize that he’s no ordinary puppet, but… well, let’s just say it’s a wonder that the clip hasn’t been pulled down from YouTube for violating the nudity rules.
The Groove Tube also served as a good example of another thing these movies have in common – the featuring of a future star very early in his career. Here, we have two – Richard Belzer, as a stoned drug dealer, and Chevy Chase, who appears in perhaps the cleanest sketch in the movie singing “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.”
If Groove Tube is the genre’s Jazz Singer, then Kentucky Fried Movie is its Citizen Kane. This movie was written by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, and directed by John Landis. Considering the next projects of the ZAZ team (Airplane!) and Landis (National Lampoon’s Animal House), it’s fair to say the creative people here were on their way up in Hollywood, and their intelligence shows through in their sketches. For example, an ad for Scot Free, a board game about JFK’s assassination, earns major points for looking just like a ’70s commercial, right down to not going over one minute. Likewise, the “Zinc Oxide and You” sketch looks like a genuine classroom movie, from the jauntiness of the music and the narrator to the shuddering of the film at the beginning, trying to catch in the sprocket holes. It makes the housewife’s disappearing brassiere that much funnier. Also, KFM had real stars like Bill Bixby and Donald Sutherland, playing it straight and getting the joke. The film’s peak: “A Fistful of Yen,” a half-hour parody of a Bruce Lee film.
Many more films, probably more than you think, followed the same modus operandi – a relatively short batch of skits, often making fun of television programs and commercials, often deciding not to bother with a throughline, often released years after being filmed. A few were done by genuine big names and big talents with (relatively) big budgets – mainly, Woody Allen’s anthology Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask and Monty Python’s And Now For Something Completely Different, collecting a few of their TV shows’ greatest hits in refilmed glory. For whatever reason, though, the quicker and dirtier the filming, the more truer to the genre the film. These films include:
* Dynamite Chicken (1971). Tagline: “Let’s hear it for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll!” Predated The Groove Tube. It’s a jumble of sketches about the hippie times; really, it’s less a comedy than an experimental documentary, in part because it’s not that funny. Best known today for featuring early Richard Pryor standup; in fact, he gets top billing despite being in the film for less than ten minutes.
* Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (1979). Tagline: “The TV show that can’t be shown on TV!” Michael O’Donoghue, writer for National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live (and featured in Dynamite Chicken doing an ad for Cojones cigarettes) put together a TV special for when SNL had a week off. NBC wouldn’t show it, so it was patched into theaters instead, where moviegoers wouldn’t watch it. Much of O’Donoghue’s trademark molasses-black humor is here (one woman says, “When I reach down and feel a firm colostomy bag, I know I’m with a real man”), as are portrayals of swimming cats and Christmas on other planets. Truly, as Mr. O’D calls it, “an odyssey of aggressive weirdness.” Watch the whole thing here.
* Tunnel Vision (1976). Tagline: “Laugh or get off the pot.” It’s ten years into the future, a.k.a. 1985, and the president of the Tunnel Vision network (Phil Proctor of the Firesign Theater) is in Washington to defend his channel’s uncensored showings to a senator played by Howard Hesseman, a.k.a. Johnny Fever. Of course, he has to show clips to defend himself, so we get to see parts of shows like “The Pregnant Man” and “Get Head!” (about a disembodied head who’s a cop – blink and you’ll miss John Candy). You also get a chance to see future senator Al Franken in long hair and a bathing suit. Watch it here.
* American Raspberry (1977). Tagline: “The movie that grabs TV by the dials and won’t let go!” Also known as Prime Time and Funny America, it’s the story of what happens when all the airwaves are hijacked by an unknown politically incorrect programmer. Highlights (cough) include Warren Oates as a sportsman taking part in the Charles Whitman Invitational (if you don’t know who Charles Whitman was, your appreciation of the joke may lessen) and a Charlie’s Angels parody called “Manny’s Nymphs.” Watch it here.
* Loose Shoes (1980). Tagline: “There won’t be a dry seat in the house!” Also known as Coming Attractions. A collection of fake trailers, filmed around 1977 and released only after Bill Murray’s movie career took off. The title “Loose Shoes” comes from an ethnic joke told by Gerald Ford’s secretary of agriculture, performed in the movie as a Cab Calloway-esque number in a short called “Darktown After Dark.” Features an excellent Woody Allen spoof.
* If You Don’t Stop It… You’ll Go Blind! (1974) and Can I Do It… ‘Till I Need Glasses? (1977) Taglines: “A super low brow comedy! A cinch to win the Academy Award for laughs!” / “It’s the nuttiest madcap comedy of the year!” If Truly Tasteless Jokes by Blanche Knott (remember those?) were made into a movie and a sequel, these would be they. Robin Williams made his film debut in the sequel; he starred in not one but two brief sketches, and had to sue so the movie wouldn’t be billed as ROBIN WILLIAMS STARS IN… Who can blame him?
The genre petered out in the ’80s; Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life would have to be considered the highwater mark, and there really wasn’t much that could be done after that which could be considered groundbreaking in any way. Also, the times changed. Something about the ’70s was forgiving about the offensiveness of humor; as long you could make someone laugh, you were golden. A few efforts in the 21st century, like The Ten and (especially) Movie 43, were met with absolute horror by both critics and audiences. Apparently, there was only one window where those sorts of movies could not only be made, but be in demand, and that window was called the ’70s.