A Heaping Helping of KFC’s Comedy Colonels

The always bronze George Hamilton is the latest in the carousel of Colonel Sanders characters in a new, buzzy KFC TV ad campaign. Hamilton is the new face for KFC’s extra crispy chicken.

The always bronze George Hamilton is the latest in the carousel of Colonel Sanders characters in a new, buzzy KFC TV ad campaign. Hamilton is the new face for KFC’s extra crispy chicken.

Keeping track of who wears KFC’s Colonel Sanders iconic white suit is becoming as hard as holding on to a greasy fried chicken leg.

The latest addition to the cast is George Hamilton who depicts, with a certain unsettling realism, Extra Crispy Colonel Sanders. Hamilton follows in the footsteps of Darrell Hammond, Norm Macdonald and Jim Gaffigan to assume the Southern fried charm of KFC founder Harland Sanders who died in 1980.

The rotating Colonels is an attempt by the restaurant chain to add zip and lightheartedness to its TV ads. KFC Chief Marketing Officer Keven Hochman says, “Just like no one person can play the Colonel, no one Colonel can sell both Original Recipe and Extra Crispy fried chicken.” In the sequence of ads, the Macdonald and Gaffigan “Colonels” call their predecessors an impostor and a bad dream, respectively.

Who will be the next Colonel Sanders in KFC's clever marketing campaign?

Who will be the next Colonel Sanders in KFC's clever marketing campaign?

KFC has trafficked in Sanders’ image before. There was an animated Colonel in TV commercials from 1998-2001 with Randy Quaid’s voice.

Jim Gaffigan made a bold impression in his round as Colonel Sanders.

Jim Gaffigan made a bold impression in his round as Colonel Sanders.

Unquestionably the new actor-shifting Colonel routine has attracted notice and brought some fun to the KFC brand, but not everyone is happy. Some traditional KFC consumers find it disrespectful to have a carousel of Colonels replace the original brand ambassador.

Norm Macdonald brought his signature comedy style to the role, as each of his successors continues to do.

Norm Macdonald brought his signature comedy style to the role, as each of his successors continues to do.

Sanders may not have minded. In his lifetime, he worked as a steam engine stoker, insurance salesman, teamster in Cuba, lawyer and ferry boat operator before setting up a roadside stand next to a gas station in Kentucky to hawk his special recipe fried chicken. Viewed by some as a dandy Southern gentleman, Sanders was actually born in Indiana and spent much of his life away from Kentucky, including in Canada. He learned to cook after his father died, his mother was forced to take a job and he was left to care for his younger siblings. 

Many of Sanders’ occupations ended abruptly. He was fired as an insurance salesman for insubordination. His legal career ended after a brawl with a client.

There is plenty of evidence that Sanders was a character, but no trace that he told funny jokes, so the selection of an SNL regular, a Canadian stand-up comic and an American jokester who makes fun of fatherhood might seem questionable choices to carry on his legacy. George Hamilton is close to unthinkable, which is why his Colonel Sanders get-up features an unbuttoned white shirt with no tie.

Ironically, Hamilton makes the most sense as Colonel Sanders’ face for extra crispy chicken. "I like to think I know a thing or two about being extra crispy,” says the Hollywood actor known for his bronzed appearance. “It didn’t take long for me to get into character. One could argue that my entire career has been leading up to this role.” 

Instead of breezy ads, KFC might consider commissioning someone to make a movie about Sanders, though it may have to tone down the part about the Colonel throwing food on the floor, swearing and denouncing the restaurant chain he founded and was paid to promote in his adopted uniform. Sanders described KFC’s reformulated gravy as tasting like “wallpaper paste” and “sludge.”

A colorful character who once was almost a victim in a shootout involving a competitor was officially commissioned as a colonel in Kentucky and became a sort of cult figure. There is even a Japanese twist called the “Curse of the Colonel” that began when his statue was mistakenly tossed into a river causing the Hansin Tigers baseball team to go into a prolonged tailspin.

When Sanders died at age 90 in 1980, his body lay in state at the Kentucky state capitol and more than 1,000 people attended his funeral. Of course, Sanders was buried wearing his trademark white suit and string tie.