35 Years Ago, One Classic Movie Was Just Basically Non-Stop Dad Jokes
All hail 'The Naked Gun.'
Thirty-five years ago Police Squad!, a detective show spoof that was canceled after just six episodes, was then adapted for the big screen in the surprise 1988 blockbuster The Naked Gun. The movie was as commercially successful as the show that inspired it was unsuccessful. It was a huge hit with myriad demographics but it had particular appeal to dads. Or, should we say people who love “dad jokes.” Here’s why The Naked Gun holds, thirty-five years later.
The dad appeal is somewhat obvious: It’s a detective show comedy that climaxes at a baseball game filled with real players (most notably Reggie Jackson) and announcers and partially because its humor veers unmistakably into the realm of dad jokes: puns, wordplay, shtick and other cornball forms of humor that our children reluctantly tolerate if we’re lucky. Think of perhaps the most famous and iconic line in Airplane. It comes after Leslie Nielsen asks Robert Hays’ Ted Striker if he can fly and land the plane they’re on with a look of intense seriousness. The traumatized pilot replies, “Surely, you can’t be serious”, to which Leslie Nielsen retorts: “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
That is more or less a pure dad joke. It’s a minor variation on responding to “I’m hungry” with, “Hi Hungry, I’m Dad.” It's a gag rooted in homophone confusion that became legendary in the annals of film comedy, not because of its sophistication or nuance but rather because of its perfect deadpan.
The Naked Gun is full of dad jokes that inspire a sort of double laughter, where you laugh at something you really shouldn’t, then laugh at yourself for finding something so silly laugh-out-loud funny. In a representative example, Frank Drebin delivers a deadpan monologue about a romance gone wrong to love interest Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley) that ended with her dying in a blimp accident. When Jane inquires, “Goodyear?” Frank responds obliviously and inevitably, “No, the worst year.”
It shouldn’t be funny but in this context it’s hilarious. Writers David and Jerry Zucker stumbled upon a winning formula that executed cornball jokes and cheesy gags with a faux-seriousness that made everything funnier. In Airplane, they deliberately sought out dramatic actors like Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Robert Stack, and Nielsen. They guessed correctly that these dramatic actors could get bigger laughs playing dad joke comedy seriously than professional funnymen could by hamming it up.
Police Squad! was even more deliciously deadpan than Airplane! It mastered the visual vocabulary of detective shows so completely that unless you were paying close attention it would be easy to mistake it for what it is parodying. And, The Naked Gun continued this proud tradition. Nielsen was still playing it straight at this point in his career. He was still the dramatic TV actor who was hilarious in movie comedies precisely because he seemed so out of place. It’s safe to assume that The Naked Gun’s verbal comedy, comic craftsmanship and unusually restrained approach to parody didn’t make anywhere near as strong an impression on audiences as a series of slapstick set-pieces.
When dads look back lovingly at The Naked Gun, the first thing that pops into their head is probably some brilliant piece of physical comedy executed by masters of the form, like the climax at the baseball game, easily one of the best pieces of sports-based comedy ever, or Frank Drebin sliding across a table with the Queen.
Audiences wanted more and more is what they got, both in the inferior sequels The Naked Gun 2 and The Naked Gun 3: The Final Insult and a series of dud wannabes, many starring Leslie Nielsen at his broadest. Basically, Nielsen was a victim of his own success. He was so hilarious in Zucker Brothers movies that people assumed that he was naturally hilarious when he needed good material and collaborators like The Zucker Brothers.
There’s a wonderful moment in the baseball game set-piece that anticipates the direction Nielsen’s career would be heading in the aftermath of The Naked Gun’s massive success.
The detective is going undercover as a major league umpire during an Angels game where a player has been brainwashed, The Manchurian Candidate style. He calls the first pitch tentatively as a strike. It gets a response from the crowd so Frank begins hamming it up shamelessly. Every pitch inspires an elaborate bit of physical business. At one point, through the magic of body doubles, he even Moonwalks in an effort to further whip the crowd up into a frenzy.
That’s pretty much what was happening to Nielsen and his career. A dramatic actor largely relegated to supporting parts was suddenly being laughed at by an adoring public that seemingly couldn’t get enough. Studios threw great gobs of cash and lead roles at Nielsen. It’s easy to see how he could be seduced into accepting an endless series of thankless roles in dire The Naked Gun knockoffs.
But before things too silly and too broad the Zucker Brothers and their leading man of choice delivered an instant classic that could only be more dad-friendly if it included a lengthy set-piece at Home Depot or a Civil War historical site.
Yes, The Naked Gun traffics shamelessly in dad jokes. It loves the kind of cornball gags we tell our perpetually unamused progeny. The key difference is that in The Naked Gun, the dad joke humor isn’t just funny: it’s hilarious on a historic level.
The Naked Gun is streaming on Max.
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