The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, based on the TV cult classic Police Squad!, is a successful film that spawned two sequels and caught actor Leslie Nielsen at the peak of his comic talents. From beginning to end, the film literally has something funny happening at every moment. It’s a comedy in the same vein as its cousin Airplane!, created by the same madcap team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (otherwise known as ZAZ), but arguably has a more cohesive storyline to link its non-stop puns, wordplay, and sight gags together. So why isn’t it at the tip of one’s tongue when recounting the greatest comedies in Hollywood history?
ZAZ’s Comedic Strengths Come from Its Dramatic Actors
Airplane! was highly successful for ZAZ, and one of the reasons why came from an unlikely source: Leslie Nielsen. The actor had a long career in dramatic roles, building his reputation with films like 1956’s Forbidden Planet, 1966’s The Plainsman, and the 1972 disaster classic The Poseidon Adventure, to name a few. He was looking to expand into comedy, and ZAZ were looking for actors not known for comedies, a stroke of genius that had actors like Nielsen, Robert Stack, and Lloyd Bridges playing against type by playing with type in absurd situations. It was perfect timing, and Nielsen would be the standout in the film as Dr. Rumack, delivering lines in a dramatic, deadpan fashion, like the iconic response to “Surely you can’t be serious?”: “I am serious, and don’t’ call me Shirley”. Deciding to apply the humor of Airplane! to a television series, they took their star Nielsen and cast him as Lt. Frank Drebin, the lead role in a police procedural spoof, Police Squad! And it worked, perhaps too well. Six episodes were made, but only four aired before the series was canceled, for the inane reason that viewers had to “pay too much attention” to the show in order to get the jokes.
ZAZ Transformed ‘Police Squad!’ Into ‘The Naked Gun’
So ZAZ took the show, the concept, and the characters to the big screen, with The Naked Gun being released in 1988. The film centered on Drebin’s attempts to stop the assassination of Queen Elizabeth II (Jeannette Charles) at the hands of Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban), via baseball great Reggie Jackson, hypnotized by Ludwig’s beeper to commit the act. It was wildly successful, to the tune of over $78 million worldwide, and spelled the end for the network executives that axed the show in 1982.
There are many reasons as to why the film took off the way it did. Leslie Nielsen was at the peak of his new-found stardom in comedy. The casting of dramatic actors in comic roles, which at that point wasn’t a surprise any longer, was still very effective, with two standouts (and another we’ll get to). Priscilla Presley stepped out from under the shadow of some guy named Elvis to play Jane Spencer, Ludwig’s assistant and love interest for Drebin, and show off some serious comic chops. Montalban is full in on the joke, giving Ludwig all the charisma and danger of Star Trek‘s Khan amidst the absurdities surrounding him. There isn’t a single maudlin moment, no dramatic bits that slow the film down. From “Nice beaver” to the sight of Ludwig killed by falling to the ground from the top of the stadium, getting run over by a bus, flattened by a steam roller and, worst of all, trampled by a marching band (the same way Ed’s (George Kennedy) father died), every passing second almost literally has something funny in it. The Naked Gun is a film where every viewing surrenders some pun or visual gag missed the time before. Finally, the humor in the film is, for the most part, timeless (two people practicing safe sex in full body condoms will never not be funny).
‘The Naked Gun’ Gets Trapped in ‘Airplane!’s Shadow
There are a few things, however, that do limit the film’s recognition. For starters, as great as The Naked Gun is, it always seems to fall under the shadow of Airplane!, placing behind it in many lists of “Best Comedy Movies” (AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Laughs” lists Airplane! at number 10, while The Naked Gun doesn’t even place), and a substantially lower impact in pop culture, with quotes from Airplane!, like the aforementioned “Shirley”, more prevalent in society today. Additionally, while the humor in the film is largely timeless, there are some dated elements that, despite still being funny, don’t have the same impact today. The use of Reggie Jackson as the hypnotized assassin is much funnier when one knows his place in baseball history… or even knows who he is, period. Likewise, the opening scene where Drebin disrupts a meeting of America’s enemies, the likes of Idi Amin, Mikhail Gorbachev (“I have them thinking I’m a nice guy”), and Yasser Arafat. Again, a funny bit, but you’d be unlikely to find people today who know them. Yet the one thing that has impacted The Naked Gun‘s legacy the most is the one thing the film has no control over: O.J. Simpson.
Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Simpson plays Detective Nordberg in the film, who is shot at, gets flailed about in his hospital bed, and falls down a flight of stairs in a wheelchair before flipping over the edge onto the baseball field. At the time, it was a great casting decision, in the same vein as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s casting in Airplane! Then came 1994, when Simpson was arrested and charged with the murder of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. He was acquitted of those charges, but in the court of public opinion and in civil court, where he was judged to have been responsible for their deaths, Simpson’s involvement quickly proved problematic for ventures associated with him – including, sadly, The Naked Gun.
Taking all of these things into account, The Naked Gun is still a masterstroke of comedy, with even its few demerits not enough to knock it off its perch. If you haven’t seen it, see it. If you have, see it again. To paraphrase Frank Drebin, you’ll notice things you never knew were there before… birds singing, dew glistening on a newly formed leaf, stoplights. That, and the most moving rendition of the American anthem ever committed to film.