September 27, 2016
David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker were three wiseasses from Milwaukee who killed time watching movies. They gained an admiration for the stoic leading men in cheap genre productions, those actors who jutted their chins and remained expressionless through the most absurd scenarios. ZAZ’s whole comic ethos stems from these viewings – their main characters are virtuous idiots wandering through a world that explodes with gags around them. These dopes’ deadpan obliviousness provide the majority of punchlines in Airplane!, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun trilogy. And there was no one more virtuous or more idiotic than the fools portrayed by Leslie Nielsen – who was ZAZ’s platonic ideal for a comic actor. Often mistaken for his Airplane!-mates Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves, he had that aging leading man gravitas (and mane of gray hair) and could play everything straight, reciting the most ridiculous lines as if he was in an airplane disaster film like Zero Hour (1957, the model for Airplane!). ZAZ’s follow-up to Airplane! was the short-lived and joke-packed TV show Police Squad! (1982), a parody of M-Squad and other square-jawed cop shows. The TV version was canceled after four episodes (six would air), but strong reviews (and a lead actor Emmy nomination for Nielsen) kept the project alive until ZAZ adapted it into the The Naked Gun, which airs tomorrow night on TCM as part of their “Salute to Slapstick.” It is with The Naked Gun that Nielsen fully displays his comic gifts, a tour-de-force of deadpan, face-pulling, and pratfall.
“We invariably would get to discussing our history together, reminiscing a bit and renewing our good-natured debate about who the hell was luckier to have met the other, Leslie Nielsen or the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team. The truth was, all of us knew how grateful we were to have each other in our lives, both professionally and personally, and we expressed it to each other often.” – David Zucker
Leslie Nielsen was the last person cast in Airplane!, with David Zucker claiming he was the third choice for the part of the questionably educated Dr. Rumack. Nielsen, an inveterate prankster and master of the whoopee cushion, was eager to act stupid on screen, so he told his agent, ‘Do not negotiate. Accept! I’ll pay them to do this part!’ ” He was a perfect fit for ZAZ’s brand of humor, and he was brought on to play Det. Frank Drebin in Police Squad! (1982), a hilarious, doomed enterprise that was canceled because, per ABC entertainment president Tony Thomopoulos “the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it.” In other words, it wasn’t a show you could have on in the background and get the gist – you had to pay close attention to register the density of jokes on display (Joe Dante directed two episodes, and some of his same spirit shows up in Gremlins 2) . It all starts in the opening credits, in which the guest star is always killed (i.e. Robert Goulet is killed by a firing squad) and the on-screen and voice-over episode titles never match up. There are physical bits that reappear in the movies (pillowcases have devastating effects), visual absurdities (a gunfight of inches), and a barrage of verbal punning (my favorite bit: “-How did you know she handled the loan office heist? -It was just a little hunch back at the office. – I thought so, I brought that little hunchback with me. Charlie come out here!”).
Nielsen is gently befuddled throughout. They key to the whole Drebin character is his reactions to the jokes made at his expense. When he offers a credit union teller a smoke by asking, “Cigarette?”, she responds with, “Yes, I know.” Instead of arguing with her about semantics, he pauses a beat, his eyes shifting up and down, before muttering, “Well…” He is confused but wants to play it off as natural, which summarizes Drebin’s whole existence.
The Naked Gun is Police Squad on a bigger budget, so his superior officer Alan North is replaced by George Kennedy, and his airheaded partner is played by O.J. Simpson (no comment). ZAZ has Drebin investigating a hunch that wealthy philanthropist Vincent Ludwig (a hissing Ricardo Montalban) is involved in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth II, who is planning a visit to Los Angeles. Of course Drebin falls for Ludwig’s assistant Jane (Priscilla Presley), a clumsy femme fatale and confused cook (her trademark meal: boiling a roast). The plot climaxes at a California Angels baseball game and an uninterrupted barrage of gags, from insane blooper reels (tiger attacks at 2B, CF wall beheadings) to a hypnotized Reggie Jackson trying to murder a royal family member.
The film keeps the same joke density as the show, with throwaway lines and visual gags pushing out of every frame, whether it’s the floating chalk outline of Nordberg or dialogue like, “I think we can save your husband’s arm…where would you like it sent?”. Then there are the big showpieces, which include a press conference in which Drebin wears a microphone into the bathroom, filling the room with the guttural sounds of his celebratory moaning as he looses his bladder. Or there is his first date with Jane, a masterpiece of visual gags (tearaway suits, full body condoms, a cheery post-Platoon screening) and Drebin’s confession of a lost love: “-It’s the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girl dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day. – Goodyear? -No, the worst”. It is beautifully rhythmic nonsense with a killer punchline that Nielsen intones with passion and sincerity.
In 1988 the New York Times quoted David Zucker: “Mr. Nielsen’s rare gift is to get moviegoers to laugh at him even as they feel sympathetic. ‘Audiences love Leslie,’ he said. ‘Part of it is that he looks so dignified and serious, and yet he betrays such insecurity, such a fumbling quality.’ ‘I always looked like whatever I was doing, I did very well,’ Mr. Nielsen said, laughing. ‘Of course, in ‘Naked Gun’ I do nothing well, and that’s the key to Frank Drebin.’ Nielsen is a master at doing nothing well, and for my limited money, this makes The Naked Gun one of the funniest films ever made.