"The Naked Gun"

The people who brought you "Airplane!" talk about O.J. Simpson, what "funny" is and how "Nice beaver!" became a classic comic moment.



Bill Wyman
September 12, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

"The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!"
Directed by David Zucker
Starring Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, O.J. Simpson, George Kennedy and Ricardo Montalban
Paramount; widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: trailer; director and producer commentary

"The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" the first of three movies spun off from a not-very-popular TV series, is a lesson in how a not-that-good movie can make for a great DVD. The 1988 film was made by the trio of writers and directors who gave us "Airplane!" -- Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker -- and who, in the wake of the successful "Naked Gun" series, have gone on to many other, and, it must be said, many lesser exercises in the genre, including "Top Secret!" and "Hot Shots!"

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"The Naked Gun" follows the adventures of Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), a Los Angeles detective, along with partners Nordberg (O.J. Simpson) and Ed (the ever-game George Kennedy), as they try to foil a plot to assassinate the Queen of England during an official visit. Z-A-Z's humor is rooted in the painful antics of the Three Stooges and the deadpan Pink Panther movies, but they are otherwise cheerfully catholic in their approach to comedy, with absurdity, puns, spoof, slapstick and satire vying for attention at any given moment, and often simultaneously. ("The Naked Gun" movies can -- with "Airplane!" -- certainly claim to be the densest comedies ever committed to film.) I used the word "pun" above; it has to be said that the trio is capable of making even the pun seem a higher form of humor. Their most famous one-liner comes in "The Naked Gun" when Nielsen, the group's muse, watches Priscilla Presley climb up a ladder. "Nice beaver," he says politely, looking up her dress. Presley hands him down a stuffed beaver.

The commentary accompanying the movie features director David Zucker, producer Robert Weiss and someone named Peter Tilden, who does a good job questioning the other two. The result is oddly fulfilling, as the group discusses various scenes, tells tales about the performers, delightedly reams Simpson and divulges lots of Z-A-Z trivia. The funniest of that last comes when Weiss relates that he told Jerry Zucker not to direct "Ghost": "You're walking into an ambush!" he said. (The joke is that "Ghost" went on to become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.) Did the group ever pull punches? Ricardo Montalban, a devout Catholic, begged them to change the name of a hospital from "Our Lady Who Never Had the Pickle"; they changed it to "The Hospital."

Even on paper, the trio knew the "nice beaver" remark would make the film a hit. When the scene was finally put before a test audience, the response was riotous. "The air was sucked out of the theater!" Zucker says proudly. Test screenings frankly play a big part in the Z-A-Z world, though they are held in contempt by some filmmakers. But the "Naked Gun" crew's aim is to make people laugh; at a test screening, they find out in a fundamental way whether they did a good job. In one scene, Presley walks down a sweeping staircase. We see her slip; then the camera cuts to Nielsen's face as it registers each bump Presley makes as she tumbles to the bottom of the stairs. "Why did you cut away?" Tilden asks. "It's funnier this way!" the two chorus back. You want to argue with them?

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Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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