I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Satire Isn't Always Smart: Prime Time

by Thomas Michalski
April 27, 2014

Though the format’s popped up now and again since, feature film parodies of television tropes were something of a fad in the mid-to-late 1970s. In part it was just something in the air; with Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon in the ascendancy, the time was right for envelope-pushing satire and sketch comedy, which naturally took aim at the ol’ idiot box, but it’s also way too easy to imagine a bunch of doobie-smoking, channel-flipping comedy writers coming up with the same simple idea at roughly the same time. Whatever the case may be, stoned cinema-goers were treated to The Groove Tube, The Boob Tube and Kentucky Fried Movie, in addition to a host of others, all within the span of three or four years. Of the lot, Kentucky Fried Movie, directed by a young John Landis and scripted by the legendary team of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, is by far the best remembered, while most of the others have, for better or worse, been consigned to obscurity, none more so than 1977’s Prime Time, alternately entitled American Raspberry or Funny America, which was shelved by Warner Brothers for being un-releasable, not hitting theatres until the genre’s moment had passed.

It’s not hard to see why Warner Brothers was unhappy with what they got in return for their $30,000 investment. The film, which strings together short segments parodying corny commercials, cheesy game shows and every other cliché the television medium has to offer (with a wholly pointless framing story about mysterious pirates hijacking the airwaves thrown in to pad out it’s 70-minute runtime) is wildly offensive, even for a pre-PC era when SNL could get away with something like the infamous “Word Association” sketch, basically having Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor trade racial epithets that would give a modern-day standards and practices rep a massive coronary. To its credit, the film at least attempts to be an equal opportunity offender, going after just about every ethnic group, religious affiliation and sexual orientation with similar gusto, also working in tasteless jabs at children, the disabled and other marginalized folk just to cover all the bases. Elsewhere, Charles Whitman’s horrific 1966 shooting spree on the University of Texas campus gets gleefully transformed into a sporting event, the rampant child starvation then ravaging Biafra provides fodder for a spoof of TV dinner advertisements and, throughout, sexual and scatological gags of every kind abound.

Transgressive humor is all well and good, but from a comedic standpoint, Prime Time’s most outrageously objectionable moments are also its most ham-fisted, happily lacking any wit or social commentary whatsoever. If you’re the type to take a movie that posits the existence of a TV show called “The Shitheads”, where people get shit dumped on their heads, at all seriously, the film will have you seeing red, but the less sensitive among us can merely sit back and marvel at how this ridiculous, racist train wreck ever even got made, let alone how it finally convinced a distributor, Cannon Pictures, to give it a theatrical run, albeit a brief one, in 1980. By then though, the gags had become more outdated than they already were and, despite cameos by some recognizable faces like Harry Shearer, Kinky Friedman and Warren Oates, the film disappeared once more, becoming grist for cheapo grindhouse DVD collections before turning up in the beautiful cultural dumping ground that is YouTube. To be fair, the film does offer up a few genuine laughs, but most come courtesy of 10-15 seconds zingers that stand in stark contrast to the rest of this stupendously, almost self-consciously stupid movie.

  1. http://www.midnightonly.com/2011/04/30/american-raspberry-1977/

  2. http://books.google.com/books?id=F98vK4yBAaAC&pg=PA97&dq=american+raspberry+prime+time&hl=en&sa=X&ei=4_dZU4bkEtipyASc3YH4Ag&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=american%20raspberry%20prime%20time&f=false

Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/