The Naked Gun (1988)
Written by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Pat Proft
Directed by David Zucker
Most television to film adaptations are based on programs that were popular when they aired. This is not the case with The Naked Gun, which I suspect many people don’t even know was based on a television show. In 1982, ABC broadcast half a dozen episodes of the spoof series Police Squad! The film Airplane! was a massive hit in 1980 and opened many doors for the comedy writing team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker, including a television development deal. Apparently, ABC executives and audiences weren’t ready for this constant barrage of jokes. While I didn’t watch Police Squad! when it originally aired, I was lucky enough to catch it on CBS in 1991 when they reaired those six original episodes. It’s a type of humor that isn’t around anymore and honestly only could have existed when it did.
Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) is vacationing in Beirut when he crashes a meeting of America’s greatest enemies, from Fidel Castro to Idi Amin to Muammar Gaddafi and more. At the same time in Los Angeles, Officer Nordberg (O.J. Simpson) is trying to bust a heroin operation but is shot and ends up in a coma. Drebin returns to the state and is briefed by his superior, Captain Hocken (George Kennedy), about poor Nordberg. Queen Elizabeth II is visiting the city, and Drebin is put in charge of her security but is distracted by trying to pick up where Nordberg left off. His chief suspect is business mogul Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban) but Ludwig knows just how to throw the cop off his trail. He sends his assistant Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley) to charm Drebin which leads to one of the strangest love stories committed to film.
The thing about the Zucker/Abrahams collaborations is the high level of jokes per minute. If you are familiar with any of their film work, then you know you must pay attention as an audience member. This is one of the reasons Police Squad! was not well received. It wasn’t a show you could watch passively or in the background. You had to watch it and engage with it to pick up on the one-off jokes but the callbacks even more. A slightly more recent equivalent might be Arrested Development, though Police Squad! was even more evident and broad in its humor. The Naked Gun is a pitch-perfect film adaptation, with the only difference being a larger budget allowing for more on-location scenes and more elaborate stunts.
Some of the jokes are intentionally obvious. When Drebin first visits Vincent, we are immediately aware of the wealthy man’s aquarium tank full of rare exotic fish and an antique pen with historical importance. If you are familiar with comedy, then you see the coming slapstick joke being telegraphed. It sounds like sloppy writing, but the way it’s delivered, the writers extract even more humor from knowing the audience will be expecting certain things to happen. When they do, the laughs serve as a release of that tension being built up. It’s an exceptionally dumb comedy, but damn if it doesn’t make me laugh.
There’s also no lack of sex comedy either. As Drebin escapes Vincent’s office, he has to climb onto the ledge. It just so happens that the statues adorning the building’s facade are anatomically detailed. There’s a moment when the detective slips, and all he can grab onto is the down-curved stone penis of the statue. A woman pokes her head out of her window in reaction to Drebin’s cries of help and finds him pulling himself up, towards the stone penis, with his mouth open in mid-scream. She reacts with shock and slams her window shut. Of course, the inevitable sex scene between Drebin and Jane is overflowing with sight gags and comedy every second, including full-body condoms.
My favorite sequence of the picture is when Drebin commandeers a student driver to chase down a suspect. The driving instructor is played by English acting legend John Houseman who plays the role with a very stoic British persona. His student is played by Winifred Freeman, a familiar character actress from the 1980s who does beautifully in this role. There is almost zero dialogue for her so the acting is all done through her reactions and it’s a masterclass. I always say you can tell who the best actors are when they only have their faces and no words to use. Freeman is hilarious as she goes through stages, first being terrified as Drebdin demands wild driving stunts from her. By the end, Freeman is starting to enjoy it, so the comedy takes another significant turn.
You must like a particular type of comedy to enjoy The Naked Gun. If you aren’t into dumb slapstick & sight gags, I don’t think you’ll enjoy much of this. However, there are clever, quick bits of wordplay and slightly more intelligent jokes; I think that’s why I love this movie so much. It was made by people who love comedy. Since this film was made, the comedic minds behind it eventually seemed to have lost that spark.
Jerry Zucker would go on to direct Ghost and First Knight, which might be a surprise. However, his last directorial outing was twenty-one years ago with the deeply disappointing Rat Race. David Zucker kept at it with the spoof genre, eventually directing two of the Scary Movie films. His nadir is An American Carol, a right-wing attempt at spoof comedy which is a profoundly embarrassing picture. Jim Abrahams would direct the Hot Shots films, a cousin to The Naked Gun franchise but has a writing credit on Scary Movie 4 as his last entry. I’m very much of the belief that spoof movies are a relic of the 1980s; for some reason, I can’t quite articulate that they just don’t work outside of that decade. They still make me laugh, though, and if any of this sounded appealing to you, don’t hesitate to check out The Naked Gun.