Leslie Nielsen, one of the great deadpan comics of our time, died over the weekend, Our Drew McWeeny has some thoughts on his movie career, and of course it’s for his movie roles – specifically for “Airplane!,” “The Naked Gun” trilogy and all the other spoofs that followed – that he’ll be best remembered.
But I want to talk for a moment about the TV show that spawned the “Naked Gun” franchise: “Police Squad!”
In 1982, still hot off the success of “Airplane!,” the ZAZ team (brothers Jerry and David Zucker and their friend Jim Abrahams) took that film’s breakout performer in Nielsen and built a TV comedy around him. Like “Airplane!,” and “Kentucky Fried Movie” before it, “Police Squad!” was an anything-for-a-laugh parody, this time of hard-boiled cop shows like “Dragnet.”
ZAZ made it clear from the opening moments that nothing on the show should be taken the least bit seriously, as you can see from the opening credits for the pilot episode:
All the credits followed the same pattern: a special guest-star who died seconds after being introduced, an announced title that never matched up with the one on the screen, etc. And each episode ended in similarly silly fashion, with the show’s best-remembered running gag, a parody of the cheerful freeze-frames that were in vogue at the time as the closing note of many dramas:
What was in between wasn’t too shabby, either. Though I’d argue that only three of the six produced episodes represent ZAZ and Nielsen at their best, all of them were so packed with gags in so many different styles that even if some jokes didn’t work, another, potentially better one would come by almost immediately. They would do Abbott & Costello-style wordplay:
Or they might try some “Airplane!”-esque spoofing of hard-boiled tough guy cliches:
And Nielsen marvelously kept a straight face through all of it. (I’d argue that one of the reasons so many of his later films like “Repossessed,” and even the last “Naked Gun” film, weren’t as good as his ’80s work, is that Nielsen started playing things like he knew there was a joke there.)
Like I said, ABC only aired six low-rated episodes of the show, and the Zuckers and Abrahams went back to the movies with “Top Secret” (possibly my favorite of theirs, and certainly their most underrated). But then they did something that happens on occasion in the entertainment industry: they took a failed TV show and turned it into a movie. And unlike “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,” or the “Firefly” movie “Serenity,” “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” was a massive hit, which spun off two more films, led Nielsen to many more gigs in the same vein that kept him working into his 80s, allowed ZAZ to split up (to varying degrees of success), etc. Though not a hit on the level of the “Star Trek” movie franchise, it’s still the rare example of making something that failed on the small screen work on the big screen with many of the same actors and/or creative people, and it’s the example that still gives hope to those who keep expecting that “Arrested Development” movie to land in theaters any decade now.
And while I’m embedding, I might as well include one clip from the films, which was so influential on young Alan that I am no longer able to sing our national anthem at baseball games without substituting some of the lyrics Frank Drebin comes up with while impersonating opera star Enrico Palazzo:
Rest in peace, Leslie. Thanks for the many, many laughs.