Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Police Squad!"... Making Our Streets Safer (and Also Very Funny)

In 1988, comedy writers Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker scored a hit with The Naked Gun. But, as the film’s subtitle, From the Files of Police Squad!, suggests, the movie is actually a big screen version of a short-lived comedy show. Police Squad!, first broadcast in 1982, was placed on hiatus after just four episodes. The last two episodes were shown a few months later, and the series was canceled.

Police Squad! follows -- as he introduces himself in the pilot -- Sergeant Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), Detective Lieutenant, Police Squad, a special detail of the police department. (Drebin’s rank varies from episode to episode, as he sometimes calls himself Detective Drebin or Lt. Drebin.) Each week, Drebin would tackle a new case, sometimes going undercover, with the help of his boss/partner, Capt. Ed Hocken (Alan North) and Officer Norberg (a surprisingly funny Peter Lupus, who played Willy on the popular show, Mission: Impossible). Drebin is also assisted by Ted Olson (Ed Williams), the department’s lab scientist; Johnny (William Duell), the shoeshiner who provides information for cash; and an officer known simply as Al (“Tiny Ron” Taylor).

One of the many reasons this show works so well is its dedication to formula. Formula, if managed properly, can be an effective tool, especially in comedy. The first film written by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, The Kentucky Fried Movie, which was named after their theater group, Kentucky Fried Theater, and directed by John Landis, was essentially a series of sketches. It includes an assortment of parodies of commercials and news shows, with the “main attraction” being the film, A Fistful of Yen, a humorous take on Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon (1973). The troupe’s style of comedy is not slapstickish, but rather broad absurdist humor full of non-sequiturs (irrelevant and illogical dialogue or action), visual gags, and wordplay (a running gag in Police Squad! is Detective Drebin offering people a smoke, asking, “Cigarette?” with a typical response of, “Yes, I know,” as if he were simply confirming that he has a cigarette).

Taking that brand of humor and inserting it into a formulaic police show, complete with a straight-faced protagonist, truly ma
kes the comedy all the more rewarding. There is a distinct difference between watching a visual gag and seeing the same gag in the background while trying to following dialogue pertaining to the main plot. One recurring joke in Police Squad! is Drebin and Hocken in the elevator discussing their ongoing investigation. Each time a person, apparently out of place (a woman in formal wear, another in a swimsuit and swimcap), steps into the elevator. But then the next floor conforms to the person (a large swimming pool for the swimmer, and a stage and awaiting audience for the other woman), who makes an exit, while splashing water or tossed roses make their way through the open doors of the elevator. The two men, of course, fail to acknowledge anything beyond their conversation.

Each episode begins with the title and announcement of the show and actors (a direct parody of the Lee Marvin police drama, M Squad), one of the actors being “Rex Hamilton” as Abraham Lincoln, who never makes an appearance. Each week, there would be a special guest star, who would be killed during the opening credits, and the title shown would differ from what the announcer calls it (e.g., the pilot’s title is displayed as “A Substantial Gift,” while the announcer says, “Tonight’s episode: ‘The Broken Promise’”). Drebin would usually knock over a trash can or mailbox when parking his car, Olson in the lab would be conducting an inappropriate experiment with a young child, Billy or Katie (such as what hanging object will fall faster, a bowling ball or a next-door neighbor), and Johnny would give incredibly detailed information that no one could possibly know (and also be seen for advice by the likes of Tommy Lasorda and Dr. Joyce Brothers). Al, as portrayed by the seven-foot tall Taylor, could only be seen from his chest down, either adorned in a silly shirt (typically related to the case) or criticized for something on his face or head (which obviously cannot be seen until it’s pointed out, like the “headgear” that isn’t “regulation,” as Al removes a sombrero).

While the series is strong throughout (with only the sixth episode, “Testimony of Evil”/“Dead Men Don’t Laugh,” directed by Joe Dante, faltering with an extended and dull lounge act from an undercover Drebin), none of the episodes match the pilot, written and directed by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. The comedy is delivered full tilt, and although the running time is only 25 minutes sans commercial breaks, the episode needs to be watched multiple times for a true appreciation. (I saw the series several times before realizing that, on the glass door, POLICE is correspondingly a mirror image inside the office, but SQUAD is not. And my wife pointed out that
, in “Rendezvous at Big Gulch”/“Terror in the Neighborhood,” although the series is set somewhere in the U.S., the Eiffel Tower can be seen through a window.) The pilot includes one of my favorite lines of anything that Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker have done, spoken by Drebin to a victim’s widow: “We would’ve come earlier, but your husband wasn’t dead then.” Some have suggested that the series was ahead of its time, and this appears to be the case. In 1982, people were evidently not prepared for a television show that required viewers to pay scrupulous attention. But, particularly with the success of the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker film, Airplane!, two years before, the resulting cult status of Police Squad! could likely have been forecast.

Following Top Secret! in 1984, Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker wrote (with David Zucker directing) The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! The film was very successful and spawned two sequels, The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) and The Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994). In the films, George Kennedy plays Capt. Hocken and O.J. Simpson plays a similarly-named Nordberg. Williams and Taylor reprise their TV roles, but Duell is unfortunately nowhere to be seen. The first film and the first sequel are both hilarious cinematic excursions, but the third movie, directed by Peter Segal, falls flat in many scenes. A fourth film has been rumored for the last couple of years but, as of 2010, very few details have come into fruition. Priscilla Presley is quite charming as Frank Drebin’s love interest in all three films, and Robert Goulet, who played one of the doomed “guest stars” in Police Squad!, is the villain and Drebin’s rival for Presley’s affection in The Naked Gun 2½.

Reportedly, the role of Frank Drebin on
Police Squad! was specifically written for Leslie Nielsen, who’d also starred in Airplane! But it was Nielsen’s cinematic rekindling of Drebin in The Naked Gun that solidified the actor’s reputation as a comic actor. His deadpan delivery against the backdrop of absurd and ludicrous situations and settings was so beloved by audiences that Nielsen has essentially been typecast. Time and again, he is asked to play similar characters, in movies such as 1990’s Repossessed (a spoof of 1974’s The Exorcist), Spy Hard (1996), and 2001: A Space Travesty (2000). Even Mel Brooks directed one with Dracula: Dead and Loving It in 1995. In my opinion, the only one of these films worth watching is Wrongfully Accused (1998), which was written and directed by Pat Proft, who worked on Police Squad! and co-wrote all three Naked Gun movies.

After The Naked Gun, the three men who were once collectively known as the Kentucky Fried Theater seemed to part ways. Just two years later, Jerry Zucker directed the extraordinarily successful Ghost starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and an Oscar®-winning Whoopi Goldberg. His brother, David Zucker, stayed mostly in comedies, producing High School High (1996), co-writing and directing South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone in BASEketball (1998), their first film after their hit TV show, and directing the spoofs, Scary Movie 3 (2003) and Scary Movie 4 (2006). Likewise, Abrahams co-wrote (with Proft) and directed the excellent Hot Shots! (1991) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993), as well as helming Jane Austen’s Mafia! in 1996. He and Proft also co-wrote Scary Movie 4.

So many films of today (particularly ones starring Nielsen) attempt the type of comedy mastered by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, but very few (if any) have succeeded. The comedy is both frivolous and ingenious. It’s goofy fun but can only be savored with an audience on full alert, trying to see and hear every quip, every gag, every moment that makes the quick-eyed viewer laugh aloud. The three writers/directors were comedic Picassos, creating a surreal landscape that easily captures the eyes and, if stared at long enough, captures the heart as well.
Police Squad! may have only lasted six episodes, but its lifespan and influence are immeasurable.


  1. Sark, this is a superb write-up of an under-appreciated TV series. Sadly, I was one of those who didn't appreciate POLICE SQUAD! when it was first on. I watched the first couple of episodes, but didn't stick with it. I think perhaps if ABC had given it a longer run, it might have found an audience. Great shows often get yanked off the air after a handful of episodes (e.g., WONDERFALLS), but they need time to "marinate." I loved your background info on the series and hilarious examples of POLICE SQUAD humor, which often require great attention to background details. I also derive great satisfaction in recognizing the subtle homages and visual gags (perhaps because I miss so many of them). For example, the title card you showed states "IN COLOR" just like TV shows in the 1960s did (when it was a big deal because only some shows were in color). I agree that WRONGFULLY ACCUSED is one of the best post-ZAZ films. I also enjoyed Leslie Nielsen in DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT; I thought it was one of Mel's more consistent outings.

  2. I second Rick's appreciation, Sark...and particularly enjoyed your mentioning the debt Police Squad! owed to the earlier Lee Marvin series M Squad--even the musical theme is similar. The police siren in the opening credits of Police Squad! (as well as the "in color" declaration) is a nod to N.Y.P.D., a forgotten half-hour crime drama that ran from 1967-69 and starred Jack Warden, Frank Converse and Robert Hooks.

  3. Sark, this was so much fun to read that you make me wish I had paid better attention to this short lived series! I enjoyed the "Naked Gun" movies and really liked Leslie Nielsen. I was pleasantly surprised by Priscilla Presley's performance. Try saying that aloud a few times!

    I smiled when I read about Peter Lupus being in "Police Squad!" I saw him in "Muscle Beach Party" and have been catching up on the "Mission: Impossible" series. We have a standing joke in our family as to whom is the most important character to the MI team. Everyone knows it must be Barney, though Rollin is also essential with his masks and acting ability. But certain family members maintain it is Willy, for the muscle he provides.

    Great review!

  4. Great reading your informative post, Sark. I never watched the TV show, but I am quite familiar with most of the movies that spawned from the show. The one problem I have with some of the films (though I thoroughly enjoyed them when I first saw them) is that they don't date well. When a lot of the jokes and gags are topical then people can say "huh?" when watching them 10 years later. For example, I love 30Rock, but it will not look as good as it does now say in 20 years. The one thing I really enjoy are the references to older films.

  5. Sark, I will never forget seeing Leslie Nielsen in "Airplane". I laughed til I was sick at that movie, and it was the first time he ever did that kind of comedy. He is perfect at it. I didn't watch the TV series, but did see the movies, and agree with your assessment of them, except for one point. I think Mel Brooks' "Dracula Dead and Loving It" was hilarious. Nielsen was wonderful, and Peter McNichol (is that right?) who played Renfield was a perfect foil to Nielsen. Of course, I am a rabid Mel Brooks fan! I will have to go back and find some of the TV series so I can compare it. Great article, Sark!

  6. Oh, and by the wsy, I adore movies with the kind of fast-moving humor that you really have to pay attention to. I remember in Airplane even the credits were funny, and if you read them all the way to the end, after all the "This movie is protected by .... you can be fined or arrested", you see under that the phrase "So there." Good stuff

  7. Sark, I always love reading your reviews. I know it is silly.. but, I have a hard time watching Leslie Nielsen, perform in goofy rolls. I always see him as a very sophisticated, highly intelligent, man.

    I have not yet seen Lee Marvin, perform in the police drama, M Squad. That does sound like something I would enjoy watching. Thank you for your wonderful review.

  8. Sark, I haven't seen this, but your review made it seem so funny I may have too. Sometimes I need to see a silly comedy especially after a hectic day. I will keep this one in mind. A nicely written and informative review!