Did You Know: The Naked Gun movies actually began life as a revival of a short-lived ABC TV series?
No Priscilla Presley or Ricardo Montalbán. No O.J. Simpson. But these 30-minute episodes are still pretty funny, even if the funny bits are mixed in with some dated (and suspect) gags.
Only six episodes aired in 1982, so either viewers weren’t quite ready for it or the idea was better suited for the movie screen. I suspect the latter is closer to the truth; in preparing to write this review I watched all six Police Squad! episodes over the course of a week, then followed with a screening of The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!.
Set in a large metropolitan city, Police Squad! was a throwback to the police procedurals of the 1950s and ’60s, with M Squad and Quinn Martin-produced shows its primary target. Leslie Nielsen stars as Detective Frank Drebin, a throwback policeman who plays it straight and by-the-book. Actor Alan North is Drebin’s boss, Captain Ed Hocken.
The show sports one of my favorite opening themes, and I didn’t skip past it on any of the episodes while watching the DVD set. Just watch as Captain Hocken braves a flurry of gunfire at his desk along with all the other madness.
What makes Police Squad! so funny is the contrast between Drebin’s straight, deadpan worldview within the surreal, wacky and comedic world the writers and producers place him in. It’s as if the TV gods pulled Drebin straight from a late ’50s TV show and plopped him into an early ’80s comedy, unbeknownst to him.
And Leslie Nielsen was the perfect actor to play the part.
Having met Police Squad! writer/producers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker on their highly regarded 1980 film Airplane!, Nielsen was asked by the trio if he’d be interested in playing the part of Frank Drebin in a send-up of ancient cop shows, and he was game. That Nielsen had actually played serious cops in that mold on television just added to the casting’s brilliance.
Police Squad! lasted just six episodes on ABC in the spring of 1982, and from listening to commentaries from those involved, they may have been told as early as the first episode that the show was going to be canceled. (Four episodes aired as planned in March opposite stiff competition from Magum P.I. on CBS and NBC’s Fame; the final two episodes were burned off in July.)
But watching the show decades later shows hints of greatness, and it’s easy to see why they came back to the idea in 1988 for the first Naked Gun film. The gags are fast and furious for early ’80s television. Those involved speculated that TV was the wrong medium for the ahead-of-its-time program — you had to actually pay attention to get it! Where watching a film in the theater demands your attention, television is one of many things occupying a viewer’s attention.
There’s no laugh track on Police Squad!, despite the network requesting one. (The producers said they couldn’t figure out where laughter should go for a visual gag.)
Over the course of six episodes, recurring parodies emerged such as “shoe shine guy” Johnny the Snitch (played by William Duell), who Frank hits up each episode for “street info,” which he only receives after slipping Johnny a little cash. After Drebin is satisfied, he exits and a real-life celebrity shows up to get some information from Johnny. (L.A. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda shows up in uniform to ask Johnny how to improve his team’s pitching staff; Dick Clark asks Johnny about a new style of dance the kids are into before asking for a shot of anti-aging cream.)
Another recurring parody is the “Special Guest Star,” which features a then-famous film or TV star credited in the opening titles, only to be killed off in the same shot prior to the actual episode beginning. William Shatner and Florence Henderson were among the Special Guest Stars.
Leslie Nielsen and real life high school teacher-turned-actor Ed Williams, who plays inappropriate police scientist Ted Olson, were the only two actors to reprise their roles in the Naked Gun movies. Alan North’s Captain Hocken was played by George Kennedy in films when the Paramount studio requested a bigger name.
An interesting bit of Police Squad! casting is Peter Lupus (TV’s Mission: Impossible) as Officer Norberg. It’s not the best performance as there isn’t much for Lupus to do, but it’s fun to see another “serious” crime show actor stuck in the middle of the craziness. In the movies, the producers changed the character’s name slightly (to Nordberg) and cast O.J. Simpson in the role.
Police Squad! has its share of bad puns and groaners (even the producers are embarrassed at some of the gags as evidenced in the commentary tracks), but for every gag that fails I found myself gut chuckling at something that’s still funny today.
When viewing TV show alongside the first Naked Gun film, you can see that greater care is taken with the choice of humor, gags and scenery, proving that a bigger budget and fewer time constraints allowed the filmmakers to craft a more cohesive comedic caper. In fact, some of the best gags and jokes in the films are recycled from the Police Squad! TV series.
By 1988, the Naked Gun was interested in parodying a wider swath of pop culture, not just the square TV cops of days gone by. It’s immediately apparent in the film’s opening sequence where Drebin takes on a rogues gallery of foreign leaders a la Rambo. In fact, Frank Drebin himself appears to be the lone holdover parody of 1950s television cop shows.
For viewers who enjoy this type of slapstick parody, the Naked Gun series of films more than fulfills what Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker set out to do, but it’s still a trip seeing the kernel of their original idea in these six short episodes of a long forgotten failed television series.
Police Squad! was released on DVD back in 2006, complete with commentaries and an interview with Leslie Nielsen among the extras. The success of the movie franchise is likely the reason we’re still able to enjoy this short-lived television footnote at home.