Law and Disorder: The Naked Gun (1988)

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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.

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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!”). 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 moneythis makes The Naked Gun one of the funniest films ever made.

13 Responses Law and Disorder: The Naked Gun (1988)
Posted By Chris Wuchte : September 27, 2016 7:20 pm

To date, I think the most I’ve ever laughed at a film in a theater was seeing “The Naked Gun” as a teenager.

I’d actually watched every episode of Police Squad when it originally aired, and I remember not understanding how something I found so funny could be canceled so soon. But I also remember no one else in my family or any of my friends at school finding the jokes funny when I repeated them. It’s strange how simply shifting the concept to film pulled everything together.

Posted By chris : September 27, 2016 7:30 pm

There was a debate not too long ago about how old a movie should be to air on TCM. One person suggested that anything past 1960 should immediately be disqualified. I suggested that anything 25 years or older should be able to play. By these rules, The Naked Gun qualifies as it 25 this year. However, when I forwarded through TCM on my DirecTV line to see what I should record for later viewing, I found that they are going to air “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” which is only 12 years old. This is sacrilege. TCM needs to remember that their middle initial stands for Classic and as much as some would argue otherwise there is no such thing as an Instant Classic.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : September 27, 2016 7:40 pm

If they’re doing an overview of the history of slapstick, I can see it extending further than the norm. As long as they don’t routinely do it. I guess no one wants to see it go the way of AMC. Or at least AMC before they re-branded in recent years. And even then, I think it’s literally been a decade since I watched an actual film on AMC.

Posted By Doug : September 27, 2016 8:12 pm

A couple of points:
Priscilla Presley was gorgeous and a perfect mate for Drebin-comic acting is much harder than drama, and she was great.
Speaking of great, and gorgeous-no mention of Police Squad’s unofficial red headed step-child, “Angie Tribeca”? Let’s just say that Angie is carrying on the blow torch in this generation.
“Angie is carrying on the blow torch in this generation.”

Posted By EricJ : September 27, 2016 8:54 pm

Naked Gun 33-1/3 was a sad mess, but it had two of the isolated funniest jokes that I’d ever laughed at in a theater. (One was a newspaper headline reading “Dyslexia for Cure Found”.)

With the Zuckers split up and David Zucker making the Naked Gun movies and Jim Abrahams making the Hot Shots movies (with Lloyd Bridges taking Leslie Nielsen’s place), I always found the Jim Abrahams half funnier–
The Naked Gun movies mostly recycled gags we knew from the TV series, while the Hot Shots movies continued the tradition of taking on deservingly pompous scene-specific movie targets. A squarejaw-deadpan (and still sane) Charlie Sheen is funny as a preening Tom Cruise in the first Hot Shots, and flat-out hysterical as Sly Stallone’s pompous Rambo in “Hot Shots: Part Deux”. HSPD may be the funniest Zucker ever made–mostly due to a string of neocon David Zucker jokes subjecting a Saddam Hussein lookalike to everything short of what the Three Stooges gave Hitler in “You Nazty Spy”–but an equally deadpan Val Kilmer in “Top Secret” is tough competition.
One drawback to HSPD is that you can see the boys starting to be lured into the traps of easy grossout-visual jokes and drive-by current movie parodies (we also get a Basic Instinct parody as subplot), and by the time we got the mournfully semi-funny “Mafia!”, you could see pointless trailer-jokes of Scary Movie 3 & 4 coming just around the corner. :(

Posted By AL : September 27, 2016 11:05 pm

4 of the best comedy films + TV series ever! Hilarious. I was fortunate to see (twice) their phenomenal Kentucky Fried Theatre in the early 80′s in L.A./Century City. Amazing. They were in a small theatre located directly across the street from 20th Century Fox, and they built a façade that made the place look like a Colonel Sanders take-out. Check out Kentucky Fried Movie.

Posted By AL : September 27, 2016 11:13 pm

Priscilla Presley was one of the most spectacular beauty’s of all time; and she’s at her Prime in these films. And sorry, Leslie Nielson , but you’ll always be “Shirley” to me…

Posted By swac44 : September 28, 2016 4:22 am

The Naked Gun series may have been their most popular creation, but ZAZ’s Top Secret w. Val Kilmer as an ersatz Elvis is their true masterpiece. Who doesn’t want to go Skeet Surfing?

I loved Police Squad, but somehow stretching the concept past the length of a TV cop show and putting it on the big screen robbed it of some of its potency (not to mention doing it over two more sequels). Still, those films are better than what would follow for Nielsen in Spy Hard and Mr. Magoo. Too bad many of his American fans didn’t see him do fine work in his native Canada in films like Men With Brooms (about curling, natch) and the TV series Due South, and one created by a friend of mine called Liography, a Nielsen-hosted parody of A&E’s Biography which was in turn hosted by….his Airplane! cohort Peter Graves!

Posted By Doug : September 28, 2016 11:10 am

Leslie Nielsen-somewhere, somehow I had Due South on DVD. Nielsen’s father was a Mountie, so he knew exactly how the uniform was to be worn.
Even though just an extended cameo, his work in “Stan Helsing” was prime Nielsen.
One of the drawbacks of his work with ZAZ-when we see him in dramas made before “Airplane!”, we expect at least a pratfall or funny comment every five seconds.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : September 28, 2016 3:51 pm

Not too long ago, I saw Nielsen in “Viva Knievel” (actually, watched the Rifftrax version, which is probably the best way to get through that awful film).

Funny thing is, even though it’s clearly a dramatic role, it plays a lot better if you read it as Nielsen leaning into the joke on each line.

“Viva Knievel” – the film that gives Evel Knievel billing above Gene Kelly, Red Buttons, and Leslie Nielsen. The ’70s were a strange time…

Posted By robbushblog : September 28, 2016 5:10 pm

Nielsen was great as Francis Marion, “the Swamp Fox” on Walt Disney’s anthology series way back when. I eventually got over the idea that he had to do something funny while watching him on that.

The hardest I have ever laughed at a movie in the theater was when I saw THE NAKED GUN. I didn’t get to see AIRPLANE! at the theater. AIRPLANE! is the true ZAZ masterpiece, but THE NAKED GUN is a close second. I have Police Squad on DVD and have laughed and laughed at that as well over the years. I vaguely remembered it being on TV back in ’82, and buying it on DVD reminded me of just how much I remembered from way back.

And Angie Tribeca was mentioned above. I highly recommend it. It starts out a little slow, but a couple episodes in and the jokes and asides fly fairly fast.

Posted By Doug : September 28, 2016 9:22 pm

“Angie Tribeca was mentioned above. I highly recommend it.” Angie carries the same warning as Police Squad-you have to actually watch it, as many of the funniest jokes are visual.

Posted By Joel Barlow : September 28, 2016 9:31 pm

ANGIE TRIBECA doesn’t carry on the tradition of POLICE SQUAD unless you count the ratings being equally lousy. TRIBECA shamelessly steals from POLICE SQUAD, GET SMART, THE NAKED GUN and SLEDGE HAMMER and even had the audacity to ripoff the “nice beaver” routine using a mole instead. POLICE SQUAD wasn’t about a bumbler and didn’t rely on slapstick as much as THE NAKED GUN which made the character closer to Clouseau or Maxwell Smart. AIRPLANE remains the pinnacle and Leslie Nielsen was best when he played it straight as opposed to all the mugging that took over, especially when he worked away from Zuckers Abrahams.

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