Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Madeline Kahn Was an Alien Freak in “Slapstick of Another Kind,” with Jerry Lewis

She was a comedy film queen throughout the seventies, but in the eighties she misfired with this sci-fi adaptation.
by Rich Watson 

This post is part of the So Bad It’s Good Blogathon, a blog event for bad movies with cult followings. At the end I’ll tell you where you can find more posts like this.

Madeline Kahn was a hilarious comic and a talented singer, who died too early, at age fifty-seven. Before that, though, she appeared in some of the funniest films of the seventies: Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety and History of the World Part I by Mel Brooks, and Paper Moon and What’s Up Doc? by Peter Bogdanovich.

Unfortunately, she also made a few stinkers. One of them was a sci-fi movie with Jerry Lewis called Slapstick of Another Kind, based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

Madeline Kahn: from singing waitress to Oscar nominee 

The Boston native started as a singing waitress in upstate New York, doing songs from musical comedies and even opera. After some minor stage roles, her big break came in 1968. As part of composer Leonard Bernstein’s fiftieth-birthday concert, she performed Candide.

This led to roles on Broadway, and ultimately, Hollywood. In 1972, she made Doc, her feature film debut, followed by Moon the next year.

In Moon, Kahn played the carnival dancer who accompanies Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal on their trek across the midwest, scamming people. Kahn earned her first Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Her second came the next year, with her funniest and perhaps her best role, as the burlesque singer who seduces sheriff Cleavon Little in Saddles.

Kahn’s career escalated. Then in 1982 came the chance to work with a comedy superstar in a film based on a book by a popular author.

Kurt Vonnegut and Slapstick

Noted sci-fi scribe Kurt Vonnegut published Slapstick in 1976. An active television and prose writer since the early fifties, his biggest success was 1969’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel with a strong anti-war theme, inspired by Vonnegut’s own experiences in combat. It became a film in 1972.

Slapstick, despite the title, was, in Vonnegut’s words, “grotesque, situational poetry—like the slapstick film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago.” 

It concerns a pair of freakish twins with great mental powers. They conspire to rewrite the rules of western society in an effort to combat human isolation, even as civilization falls to pieces—except for the Chinese.

Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and Rolling Stone all panned the book upon its release.

Yet it was made into a movie.

Slapstick the movie

Slapstick of Another Kind
 was producer-writer-actor Steven Paul’s second time in the director’s chair. He had made the Elliot Gould movie Falling in Love Again at the age of twenty-one. As an actor, Paul was in both the play and film of Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June

Stars Kahn and Lewis both play the twins (conceived by aliens) and the parents of the twins. Marty Feldman, Kahn’s co-star from Young Frankenstein, plays their nanny. 

Pat Morita, Jim Backus, John Abbott, Merv Griffin, and even director Samuel Fuller round out the cast. Orson Welles (!) co-narrates.

In this making-of documentary about the film, Paul expresses his great appreciation not only for Vonnegut, but for Lewis. Kahn states the double-role appealed to her.

Paul tried to play up the comedic aspects of Vonnegut’s book, but the film isn’t funny at all. The theme of the twins being intelligent in a society getting dumber reminded me of Idiocracy, but Slapstick has none of that great film’s satirical bite. Instead, it has Lewis and Kahn throwing food at each other wearing onesies. It also looks cheap, despite the star power of Lewis and Kahn.

Paul made it in 1982 (the same year as The King of Comedy for Lewis), but it wasn’t released until 1984. The later version had parts cut, including a song sung by Kahn. You can hear it in the making-of doc.

Siskel & Ebert gave Slapstick two thumbs down. The Onion AV Club, in a 2010 review, called it “a crass violation of everything Vonnegut stood for, and continues to stand for today.”

Paul went on to a long, if schlock-filled, career, producing films such as the Ghost Rider movies, the live-action Ghost in the Shell, and the Baby Geniuses franchise. He remains active.

Kahn in later work 

Kahn recovered from Slapstick. Despite only lasting one season starring in a TV series, she came back with the films Clue in 1985 and the animated musical An American Tail in 1986. 

She did comedies and dramas, TV and film—including an episode of a show based on Vonnegut short stories called Monkey House—until her death in 1999.

She’s remembered for much better movies.



More entries in the So Bad It’s Good Blogathon can be found at Taking Up Room, from February 23-25.


  1. Wow, this sounds like a misfire on every level! Vonnegut is hard enough to adapt to the screen, and picking Slapstick doomed the project from the beginning.
    Madeline's Marlene Dietrich routine in Blazing Saddles is one of the greatest gut laughs of all time. It's so tragic that we lost her at such a young age.

  2. It sure is.

    Not having read Vonnegut’s book, I don’t know how funny it actually is, but it’s gotta be funnier than what made the screenplay. And to misfire with a cast like this makes it even worse.

  3. Haven't seen it, but my personal opinion without having seen it it is it can't be all bad if Kahn is in it. She even made Clue better....

  4. It’s not like she stands out that much. She’s Jerry Lewis’ twin sister in one role and his wife in the other, so everything she does reflects off of what he does. Her big solo scene, where she sings her song, got cut.

  5. Wow! I saw this film as a kid but totally forgot about it until now! After reading your entertaining and informative review, there's probably a reason why it escaped my memory!

  6. Maybe it looked better from a kid’s perspective.

  7. You had me at Vonnegut and Kahn! I have to see this :)

  8. LOVE Madeline Kahn, but not sure I'll drop everything to see this. However, the makeup looks great!

  9. I never thought much about the makeup beyond the crime of making a beautiful woman like Madeline Kahn look ugly—but I guess she was supposed to look that way.

  10. Well, this sounds absolutely nuts! (Having just seen Poor Things over the weekend, though, the part about Lewis and Kahn throwing food at each other made me laugh.)

  11. That scene sounds funnier than it actually is.

  12. I remember seeing images of Kahn and Lewis similar to the one you included in the publicity for this movie. It immediately turned me off ever seeing it, and I've seen Lewis' Hardly Working. :D

  13. Yikes. I can't believe Kurt Vonnegut had a hand in this. It's kinda got Conehead vibes. Thanks again for joining the blogathon, Rich--this was a doozy. :-)

  14. Glad you like. In my old film blog I once said life was too short to watch bad movies. Every now and then, though…