Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Groove Tube (1974)

Directed by Ken Shapiro
Starring Ken Shapiro, Richard Belzer, Chevy Chase, Jennifer Welles
Rated R

Ken Shapiro’s The Groove Tube played something like an “R-rated Saturday Night Live” for most audiences in the late ’70s who probably caught it either as a midnight show, as part of a drive-in double-feature, or for a brief spell in the early ’80s on cable.

While some of the targets of its satire will be unfamiliar to new viewers, the general level of craziness is high enough to sustain interest, with quite a few of the gags still landing despite the film’s age.

After a slow build-up, the first sketch delivers a kind-of-obvious-but-still-grin-producing send-up of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a television taking the place of the monolith for a group of spellbound apes.

The opening credits next roll, accompanied by a psychedelic montage of various means of communication culminating with the primary target of this satire -- the almighty TV.

Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” carries us through a postscript with the apes and into the next sketch, one involving a hitchhiker getting picked up by a freethinking, attractive lady driving a yellow VW. Soon they’ve pulled over to the side of the highway, and the lady driver leads our young traveler on a chase through the woods, both happily discarding their clothing along the way.

That little fantasy rapidly resolves into a punchline in which the hitchhiker not only fails to get the girl, but doesn’t seem to have his ID, either.

Next comes “The Koko Show,” a parody of those locally-produced, early-morning kids’ shows some of us recall from the ’70s, a good example of how the TV stood in as an “electronic babysitter.” Only here, the caretaking of the young’uns takes a disturbing turn when Koko (played by Shapiro, who appears in many of the skits) starts reading viewer requests from John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and the like.

A couple of inspired, genuinely laugh-out-loud commercial parodies take us to a longer cooking show segment from the “Kramp TV Kitchen.” Shapiro again stars (from the neck down, in drag) as the hapless cook trying to follow narrated instructions to prepare a Fourth of July Heritage Loaf, “a traditional favorite in Newark.” All goes hilariously awry, gunked up even further by copious coatings of “Kramp Easy-Lube Brand Vegetable Shortening.”

Another commercial parody follows for Geritan, a dietary supplement that appears to have another pleasant effect. This one features a brief appearance by a young Chevy Chase, appearing here with Jennifer Welles, star of various exploitation and porn films in the ’60s and ’70s (including 1977's Inside Jennifer Welles).

Following skits spoofing political roundtable shows and Yellow Pages commercials comes the longest segment, “The Dealers,” starring Shapiro and Richard Belzer as a couple of dope smugglers enduring a sequence of entertaining highs and lows.

Among their hijinks comes an “eat-the-grass-to-hide-the-grass” episode (straight outta “Cruising with Pedro de Pacas”), an impromptu visit to a matinee at which Belzer receives an impromptu blowjob, and a memorably trippy animated sequence.

A commercial for Butz beer then takes us to the “Channel One Evening News” which incorporates more low-budgeted lunacy, including a series of commercials from the Uranus Corporation, makers of Brown 25, a revolutionary new product with “the strength of steel, the flexibility of rubber, and the nutritional value of beef stew.”

“At Uranus, things come out a little differently.”

Next is “Channel One Wild World of Sports” and another inspired bit, coverage of the “The 34th Annual International Sex Games.” The West German team is featured, although the signal “via early bird satellite” could stand to be improved.

A funny bit matching footage of Watergate hearings with Clark Terry’s “Mumbles” comes next, followed by Shapiro and Chase performing an abusive rendition of “Four-Leaf Clover.”

The PSA segment with a strange-looking character with a bulbous head and wrinkly trunk sitting on a park bench informing us about sexually-transmitted diseases that comes next has to be seen to be believed. Sort of analogous to those “magic eye” pictures that once you figure out what is hidden there, you never see it the same way again.

Shapiro then dances us out with a zany song-and-dance number.

Calling The Groove Tube an “R-rated SNL” probably made more sense back during the Chase-Belushi-Murray days. Other points of comparison might include 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), another sketch-comedy based film, or early Firesign Theatre records such as Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, another satirical work focusing on early ’70s TV.

Despite the inventiveness and promise of his debut, Shapiro would only return for one more feature, the Chevy Chase-vehicle Modern Problems, another comedy remembered fondly by some but which mostly misfired with audiences when released in 1981. Wouldn’t necessarily recommend that one, other than to note it contains one of the most outrageous nosebleed scenes I can remember.

But for some riotous ’70s-style grins -- and a few girls, too -- do put The Groove Tube in the queue.

- Triple S


  1. This was originally from a live show called "Channel One" where the sketches were not performed live but on a TV screen. Ken Shapiro was later writer for that Blooper show that was on in the mid 80s.

  2. I'm a do a non stop on you choo choo! Love this film!


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