When John Landis, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams first pitched the idea of a sketch comedy film to Hollywood financiers in the late 1970s, all of them passed believing that there wasn’t an audience for such a production. Ultimately, they proved everyone wrong with “Kentucky Fried Movie,” a gonzo compilation that proved to be something that shouldn’t be compared with what audiences could watch for free on Saturday night, but instead a platform for new talent to break into the industry and an early entry into the cult canon that would soon be rewound again and again in VCRs with the advent of the home video market. However, even as it laid the groundwork for both the careers of its directors and the formula by which more or less all the comedy anthology movies that followed in its wake, the experiment proved to be an anomaly with the most successful often being uneven at best, which makes sense given the number of cooks in the kitchen.
As a result, the number of attempts have been few and far between, but within the span of the next three months alone, two such films will be coming to theaters after spending years in production and reportedly years on the shelf – the Farrelly Brothers’-spearheaded “Movie 43,” which boasts the likes of Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman and Emma Stone in front of the camera and such directors as James Gunn, Brett Ratner, Bob Odenkirk and Elizabeth Banks behind it, and the far less decorated “InAPPropriate Comedy,” which boasts the surefire mix of Oscar winner Adrien Brody, Lindsay Lohan as a gun-wielding Marilyn Monroe and informercial baron Vince Offer calling the shots. With neither film screened for critics – or at least, we’ll assume given the more prominent of the two isn’t – it’s unlikely either will buck the trend of bad comedy anthology films. Yet since hope springs eternal, it should be said that there’s often something of note in even the worst of these movies, so we’ll spare you the trouble of sifting through them and run down the best bits from the genre.
“Amazon Women on the Moon” (1987)
As Entertainment Weekly‘s Chris Nashawaty posited in his review of “Amazon Women on the Moon” when it was first released on DVD in 2006, John Landis’ second dip into the waters of big screen sketch comedy was “the beginning of the end of Landis’ career.” Of course, Landis’ career really took off with “Kentucky Fried Movie,” so after the hot streak that followed of “Animal House,” “The Blues Brothers” and “An American Werewolf in London” finally cooled in the mid-’80s, it seemed appropriate that he would revive a bit of the old magic by gathering together the likes of Joe Dante, “Jaws” writer Carl Gottlieb, future “Thirtysomething” star Peter Horton and “Kentucky” co-producer Robert K. Weiss to pay homage to the late night Z-level programming they loved watching growing up. The exercise proved to adhere to the law of diminishing returns, both creatively and commercially, though it has enough to recommend that it can be appreciated in the same way as the movies and TV shows it sought to spoof.
If Landis’ career was on the decline, it makes sense that the two best segments out of the 21 compiled for the film were from Dante, who made his contributions at the peak of his power in between “Gremlins” films, giving the anthology “Roast Your Loved One,” in which Steve Allen presides over a Friars Club-inspired eulogy with the likes of Henny Youngman and Rip Taylor making a dead man roll over in his grave, and “Critics Choice,” where a Siskel & Ebert-esque duo break the fourth wall and turn their attention from “the haunting abstract symbolism” of Swedish dramas to the domestic life of an audience member trying to unwind after a long day at work.
“Four Rooms” (1995)
If “Pulp Fiction” left Quentin Tarantino drunk with power in 1994, 1995 proved to be the hangover as the director parlayed his newfound notoriety into a supporting role in the oddball comedy “Destiny Turns on the Radio” and throwing his weight behind an idea had by his Sundance class of ’92 chum Alexandre Rockwell, who proposed that they make an anthology film set at a hotel comprised of five pitch black comedies. While Richard Linklater would drop out shortly before production, Rockwell and Tarantino were joined by Allison Anders and Robert Rodriguez, the latter of whom may not have hailed from Sundance ’92 (“El Mariachi” premiered there in ’93), but nonetheless produced its finest chapter.
Tarantino aped the Roald Dahl short story “Man from the South” for his segment, Anders got Madonna to lead a coven of witches in hers and though Rockwell featured his wife at the time, Jennifer Beals, Rodriguez’s “The Misbehavers,” about two young troublemakers who torture the hotel’s bellhop, is the one forged from the most passion. Before it was released, Entertainment Weekly reported that the film’s test screening scores were some of the highest in Miramax history at the time, but after, Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “`Four Rooms” comes billed as a film made by four friends. If they are still friends after finishing this film, that says a lot for their friendship.’” Still, it yielded what be the most accomplished 20 minutes of the “Sin City” director’s career.
“The Ten” (2007)
Although they would birth no fewer than six future film directors out of its 11-member sketch comedy troupe, The State never made an official feature film after they completed a legendary three-year run on MTV. Still, they would reunite twice in 2007, sorta, on the big screen and while both instances were just that – brief instances tucked within much bigger films – they served as a good indication of what the entire collective had been up to in the years since the group disbanded a decade earlier. On one end, you had Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney-Silver’s adaptation of their successful, raucous Comedy Central series “Reno 911!” for the big screen, which brought together the entire troupe in a tattoo parlor, and on the other, you had David Wain’s “The Ten,” a more surreal, cerebral satire about what happens when you run afoul of the Ten Commandments.
Appropriately enough, only 10 of the former State troupers actually made it to the set for various points of “The Ten” – Michael Patrick Jann had to appear in a framed picture due to scheduling conflicts – but it carried on the spirit of the original show by zigzagging between such miscellaneous absurdity as having Oliver Platt play an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator and Winona Ryder fall deeply in love with a ventriloquist dummy. As could’ve been expected, it was a hit-and-miss affair, particularly for critics who emerged from its Sundance premiere with the easy gag of reducing the film’s title to however many of the segments they enjoyed whether it was “The Three” or “The Six.” But the State’s fan base no doubt found plenty to enjoy. Like Wain’s previous film “Wet Hot American Summer,” it boasted a stepping stone for a number of future stars including Jon Hamm and Rashida Jones, but its best segment “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Goods” involved an actor more known for comedy than drama in Liev Schreiber, who goes to insane lengths to outmaneuver the guy next door (Joe LoTruglio) who’s been acquiring CAT Scan machines at an alarming rate.
“The Onion Movie” (2008)
After the National Lampoon successfully extended their brand into films with “Animal House” and the “Vacation” franchise, it set the bar for other satirical publications to follow, whether it was Mad Magazine’s misbegotten teen comedy “Up the Academy” (directed by no less than Robert Downey Sr.) or eventually, The Onion, which hoped to parlay its off-kilter take on the news into a feature. Yet even under the guidance of producer and well-known spoofer David Zucker of “Kentucky Fried Movie” fame with a distribution deal at Fox Searchlight to boot, “The Onion Movie” left nothing but a trail of tears in its wake. Shot in 2003 with a script from then-Onion editor/future “Wrestler” writer Robert D. Siegel and Todd Hanson, the film wouldn’t see the light of day until it was quietly released direct to DVD in 2008 where one could easily fast-forward through its hastily stitched together narrative of a newscast under siege from its monolithic corporate owner to improve ratings to enjoy the few mild pleasures of fake ads such as “Kostman’s The Penis People.” While the film’s premise of a fake news network would work marginally better for TV when The Onion tried its hand at the TV series “The Onion News Network,” it did produce the one-joke-wonder “Cock Puncher,” featuring Steven Seagal in his most lucid film appearance since the days of “Under Siege.”
“Extreme Movie” (2008)
Throughout their years of consulting on the MTV Movie Awards during the aughts, Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson looked around the writers’ room, which at various points included the likes of Will Forte and Andy Samberg, and believed that compared with the few weeks they had to put on a live show, making a movie would be a cakewalk. Unlike other films on this list, they didn’t seek out other directors to pull off the individual sketches, but in addition to Forte, Samberg and their frequent collaborators, a call was put in to future “21 Jump Street” helmers Phil Lord and Chris Miller and suddenly, they had a dream team of comedy writers. Even so, the result was a nightmare for Dimension Films, which sat on the film for a significant amount of time before releasing a 75-minute cut straight-to-DVD with a photoshopped Michael Cera on the cover alongside a goat, Matthew Lillard (who gives sex tips as himself throughout) and scantily clad women in provocative poses.
However, the promises of an outrageous unrated romp are unfounded as “Extreme Movie” may push the boundaries of good taste but fails to push the envelope any more than the “American Pie” series did, save for one bizarre sketch involving a young guy’s fantasy of bedding Abraham Lincoln. Not surprisingly, Epstein and Jacobson say in the film’s DVD commentary that the sequence is the one they were genuinely nervous about. Naturally, it was pitched by Samberg, who can be credited with “Extreme Movie”’s most surreal and cinematic idea as a typically horny teen (Hank Harris) who dresses up his girlfriend (Beverley Mitchell) as the 16th president before he achieves orgasmic transcendence and enters into a silent film fantasy of having sex with the actual Lincoln. Although not as sharply lensed as it would’ve been by either of Samberg’s Lonely Island cohorts, it’s just weird enough to almost work – much like any number of comedy anthology films.
Do you have favorites we may have missed? Let us know in the comments below.