The Naked Gun Was An Itch Leslie Nielsen Always Wanted To Scratch

The 1982 TV series "Police Squad!," created by the famed Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker (ZAZ) comedy team, only lasted six episodes, but it remains one of the best TV shows of all time. In a strange way, its early cancelation was artistically fortuitous. Its small volume allows the show's many fans to savor what was provided. Additionally, the showrunners, fond of repeated jokes and running gags, never had a chance to run their humor into the ground. There's not a lot of "Police Squad!" in terms of raw numbers, but in terms of comedy, it was a feast. 

Six years later, Paramount allowed the ZAZ team to resurrect their creation on the big screen as a means of introducing the tiny cult series to a larger audiences. David Zucker's "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" repeated a lot of the jokes from the series, and brought back star Leslie Nielsen alongside most of the show's cast, but presented everything in a larger and far more polished cinematic aesthetic. The film was a massive hit, perhaps a rare phenomenon for a failed TV series, and helped usher in a wave of new spoof movies and slapstick comedies, many of which also starred Nielsen. 

Just prior to "The Naked Gun," the world was treated to "Spaceballs" and "Amazon Women on the Moon," and shortly after, the dam broke, ushering in "UHF," "Repossessed," "Hot Shots!," "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1," "Fatal Instinct," "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," and "The Silence of the Hams." There was a time when high-profile slapstick comedies were big business. And that includes the 1988 film "Big Business," a riff on Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" with two Bette Midlers and two Lily Tomlins. But it's tough to beat Leslie Nielsen as Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant, Police Squad.

Nielsen the the heavy

One of the reasons the "Police Squad!" series — and by extension, "The Naked Gun" — functioned as well as it did was Nielsen's performance. Perfectly deadpan, his Lt. Frank Drebin was nonplussed and unfazed by some of the wild strangeness that surrounded him. He could watch a clown explode and react like a hyper-serious Joe Friday, gruffly commenting that comedy is dead. 

It's worth recalling that Nielsen's first comedy film was the ZAZ's 1980 slapstick classic "Airplane!," in which he played a stone-faced doctor. In neither "Airplane!" nor "Police Squad!" did Nielsen mug, wink, or giggle. 

Prior to the arrive of "Airplane!" in theaters, Nielsen's career was typically geared more toward playing heavies and commanders. In "Forbidden Planet" (1956), he was a by the-book starship commander. He was more often in Westerns and spy movies. When he did appear in comedy films, like "Tammy and the Bachelor" or "The Reluctant Astronaut," he served as a straight man to comedy stars like Debbie Reynolds and Don Knotts. In 1977, Nielsen appeared in "Day of the Animals," an animal attack movie wherein his character goes insane and declares himself an alpha male capable of killing and harming others indiscriminately. Shockingly, in the 1987 film "Nuts," he played a man who violently sexually assaults Barbra Streisand on camera. 

In a 2018 interview with the website Little White Lies, director David Zucker commented on Nielsen's movement from heavies and monsters to comedy, indicating that Nielsen was finally, after many decades, able to relax and cut loose. Nielsen, he said, always wanted to be funny, and had just never been given the chance. 

The closet comedian

Nielsen, it seems, always wanted to do more comedy. Zucker said: 

"At the time, Leslie said he was a closet comedian and was itching to do comedy. We didn't know that but he was so serious and good at what he did that we thought he was perfect [...] Not only were we doing a failed television series and converting it into a feature, but Leslie had a long history of doing serious movies. He was part of a greater ensemble in 'Airplane!' but made his mark and had some of the best lines. He delivered them so straight and that was the style we were going for: to not have a comedian deliver them. He was a natural choice for Frank Drebin."

Fans of the show might point out that Nielsen was more successful at his "non-comedy" in the TV series than in the movie. "The Naked Gun" does feature a few brief moments of outright buffoonery from Drebin, which is a little out of character when compared to the source material. In one scene, Drebin gives a speech at city hall, then accidentally wears his wireless mic into the bathroom. All of City Hall can hear the sounds of his urination and flatulence. It's hilarious, but the comedy relies on Drebin's cluelessness. This stands counter to his previously steely countenance. 

In the two "Naked Gun" sequels, Drebin's buffoonery was only increased. By the end of the film series, Drebin was a central goofball whose intelligence seems to have decreased. Once a working class stiff, Drebin was now a wide-eyed fool. Call it Homer Simpson syndrome

After the Gun

After "The Naked Gun," Nielsen's wish came true. A quick look over his post-1988 filmography shows a vast string of spoofs and slapstick movies with Nielsen at the center. In addition to the "Naked Gun" sequels, Nielsen was also in the above-mentioned "Exorcist" spoof "Repossessed," as well as a parody of James Bond called "Spy Hard," a parody of "The Fugitive" called "Wrongfully Accused," and Mel Brooks' Dracula send-up "Dracula: Dead and Loving It." Plus, on the lesser end of the spectrum, we have the feature film version of "Mr. Magoo," the Italian comedy "S.P.Q.R.: 2,000 and a Half Years Ago," not to mention "Scary Movie 3," "Scary Movie 4," "2001: A Space Travesty," and "Meet the Spartans." Slapstick comedy became the actor's stock in trade. 

Also after "The Naked Gun," Nielsen's appearances on talk shows increased, as did the actor's penchant for levity. Starting in the 1980s, Nielsen would not appear in interviews without a palm-sized fart machine that he would squeeze surreptitiously and incessantly for the likes of David Letterman or Conan O'Brien. His fart machine is so well-documented, most search engines will now auto-prompt "Leslie Nielsen Fart Interview."

The kind of fart device that Nielsen used is still being manufactured, and the trademarked Fartbag (not to be confused with a Whoopie Cushion) can be purchased from the It's a Gas website for $11 a pair. 

Buy your Fartbag today. Get 50 Fartbags for just $175. Surprise your office.