Ken Shapiro, Writer, Director and Star of 'The Groove Tube,' Dies at 76

Courtesy of Shapiro Family
Ken Shapiro

The influential and hilarious 1974 spoof of television marked the movie debuts of Chevy Chase and Richard Belzer.

Ken Shapiro, who directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in The Groove Tube, the seminal 1974 sendup of television that marked the movie debuts of Chevy Chase and Richard Belzer, has died. He was 76.

Shapiro died Nov. 18 at his home in Los Cruces, New Mexico, after a long struggle with cancer, his friend Arthur Sellers told The Hollywood Reporter.

Shapiro also directed Chase in another comedy feature, the sci-fi fantasy Modern Problems (1981), which he co-wrote with Sellers and Tom Sherohman.

The Groove Tube employed a hilarious series of skits that spoofed everything from commercials and public service announcements to talk shows, the nightly news and sports commentary.

Shapiro is seen in the film playing a lowlife pot dealer, a TV clown who reads erotic passages from Fanny Hill to young viewers (after the kiddies are told to tell their parents to leave the room) and a female host of a cooking show that doesn't go easy on the shortening product Kramp Easy Lube.

In New York magazine, Judith Crist wrote that The Groove Tube is "bawdy and bright and glisters with some very satisfying bits of originality from the obvious intelligence and burgeoning talents of Ken Shapiro. … [He] has a very nice gift for taking a squint at television's triteness and seeing any number of oddball possibilities with a bit of a leer and a lot of laughter."

The independent release, which Shapiro wrote with Lane Sarasohn, debuted in the U.S. in April 1974, about 18 months before Chase would hit it big as an original castmember on Saturday Night Live. The Groove Tube, in fact, was an inspiration for the NBC show, according to director Gus Van Sant, who, when he first came to Hollywood, served as Shapiro's assistant.

"There was a big group working for him before I arrived, including Lorne Michaels, who was writing a script for him before he went to make Saturday Night Live, which essentially used a lot of the ideas that were in The Groove Tube," Van Sant said in a 1997 interview with Venice Magazine. "Then when Lorne Michaels pitched the idea for SNL, they invited Ken to go along with them, but he felt like he had other important things to do and didn't want to get involved in what was essentially a pilot, even though it was live skit humor."

The Groove Tube was an outgrowth of another Shapiro-Sarasohn innovation, Channel One, which opened in a theater in New York's East Village in 1967 and later toured colleges. Their news anchorman satire, completed with the signature sign-off line, "Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow," was used by Chase on SNL's "Weekend Update."

A native of Newark, New Jersey, and a Bard College graduate, Kenneth Roy Shapiro began showing up in commercials when he was 2 months old. Then known as little Kenny Sharpe, he was a star in the days of live television and appeared often on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater as "The Kid."

Survivors include his wife Kelly, sister Cookie, brother Stanley, daughters Rosy and Emily, step-daughter Danielle and grandchildren Cerulean, Willa, Milo and Romy.