Obituaries

Ken Shapiro; his ‘Groove Tube’ a raunchy precursor to SNL

NEW YORK — Ken Shapiro, a former child television actor whose hit 1974 film, “The Groove Tube,” anticipated “Saturday Night Live” by a year with sketches that wickedly satirized TV, died Nov. 18 at his home in Las Cruces, N.M. He was 75.

His daughter, Rosy Rosenkrantz, said the cause was cancer.

Mr. Shapiro’s film, with a cast that included Chevy Chase, a future “SNL” star, and comedian Richard Belzer, was simultaneously inspired by Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs’s TV comedy shows of the 1950s and invigorated by the nudity, profanity, and raunchiness commonplace in 1970s movies.

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In one “Groove Tube” sketch, a clown (played by Mr. Shapiro) reads passages from “Fanny Hill,” the 18th-century erotic novel, to children after they’ve shooed the adults from their rooms; in another, a West German couple’s sexual coupling is described by announcers as if they were competing in a segment of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” A public service announcement about venereal disease is narrated by a puppet whose face is a set of male genitalia.

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“The Groove Tube” began as a project with Mr. Shapiro’s childhood friend and Bard College classmate Lane Sarasohn. In 1967 they began showing sketches they had videotaped on closed-circuit TV screens in a small theater in the East Village in Manhattan. (They had met Chase at Bard, where he was also a student.)

Mr. Shapiro and Sarasohn found additional theaters and colleges where they could show the sketches. When they decided to adapt the sketches for a film, they used $150,000 in Mr. Shapiro’s trust fund from his child performing days and borrowed $50,000 from his father, Sarasohn said in 1974.

Mr. Shapiro had had a role as “the kid’’ on Milton Berle’s variety show.

Mr. Shapiro’s next movie was “Modern Problems” (1981), about an air traffic controller (portrayed by Chase) who gains telekinetic powers from being soaked with radioactive soapsuds. Mr. Shapiro wrote it with Sellers and Tom Sherohman.

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But that would be Mr. Shapiro’s final film. Unhappy with Hollywood, he retired from show business before his 40th birthday.