'The Groove Tube,' Where Sketch Comedy Started
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everyone needs a bit of college humor in their lives.
By Jim Knipfel
I can no longer hear Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” without thinking of The Groove Tube.
There was something in the air in the early ’70s, a new and deep cynicism that accompanied the death of the hippie era, the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the breaking Watergate scandal. A sense of resentment, disillusionment, violence and doom seemed to infect the entire country. But as so often happens, that overarching sense of doom spawned a new kind of comedy in response. It was social commentary without any fixed agenda as it skewered the media, politics, religion and sexual taboos. Mostly the media, though. It was also (speaking of the media) aimed at an audience with an ever-shrinking attention span, and was far more raucous and raunchy and crass than anyone had seen in movie theaters before.
There are hits and misses along the way, but what makes it work as a whole is that it’s all played so perfectly straight.
This new sensibility was first inflicted on the American public in 1974 with writer-director Ken Shapiro’s The Groove Tube. After an opening parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey that segues into a bit about a hitchhiker who gets lucky and then, well, doesn’t, the film takes the form of a day’s worth of television programming. This gives Shapiro the freedom to toss out a string of quick sketches satirizing kids’ shows, cooking programs, talk shows, the evening news, sports broadcasts, movies, cop shows (though turned upside down), public service announcements and endless commercials, ranging from the subversive and unnerving (Koko the Clown) to the downright stomach-turning (the Brown 25 spot is a perennial favorite). As with any such collection of sketches, there are hits and misses along the way, but what makes it work as a whole is that it’s all played so perfectly straight.
Not that there weren’t precedents for this sort of thing dating back to the 1930s and earlier, but what Shapiro did was bring a countercultural, post-Lenny Bruce rawness to it all that very quickly became mainstream. Whenever you see a bit about a TV clown who isn’t what he seems, or a news broadcast gone awry in a way your parents would find shocking and disgusting, whoever was responsible owes The Groove Tube a debt of gratitude. In terms of contemporary American comedy, I’m hard-pressed to think of another single film that was more widely influential.
Three years after The Groove Tube, John Landis, Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers, working with a bigger budget and a few surprising guest stars, released Kentucky Fried Movie. It followed the same “TV broadcast” format so closely I still sometimes have trouble recalling which sketch appeared in which film. The following year Landis brought the same no-holds-barred comic attitude to Animal House while Abrahams and the Zuckers went on to make Airplane!.
The Groove Tube’s direct influence can be seen in other satirical sketch films like Loose Shoes, Amazon Women on the Moon and Viewer Discretion Advised, and has been inescapable on TV (ironically enough) for the past 40 years in the form of Saturday Night Live, SCTV, In Living Color, Fridays, MAD TV, Robot Chicken, even Conan and Letterman. Whether Ken Shapiro should be hailed or damned for this, I guess, depends entirely on your tolerance for boobs, poop jokes and the grittiest of lowbrow college humor. Yet for the impact he’s had on the shape of the culture, and all the careers he launched by proxy, it’s a shame he’s been so completely forgotten.
- Jim KnipfelContact Jim Knipfel