Sunday, March 04, 2012
"Buddy, no sax before a fight, remember."
By Edward Copeland
Since the first episode of Police Squad! remains the only flawless one, that's the only one I felt I needed to cover in a lot of detail. When we got to its second act, the first time they used the gag, it read ACT II: YANKEES ONE. I already showed you a photo from my favorite, from the second episode. (If you got here first and missed it, click here.) The remaining jokes for the other four episodes were:
Where Act II begins in "A Substantial Gift/The Broken Promise" ends up being hysterically funny, not so much for the scene itself but because one of those reactionary watchdog groups used it, combined with the rest of that episode of Police Squad!, as one of the most violent episodes of a TV series at that time.
Taking the information that Olson gave him about the discrepancies between Sally Decker's story and Olson's ballistics tests, Drebin returns to the credit union to test possible bullet trajectories — using real guns, real bullets and real people. Leslie Nielsen's deadpan narration works great again as he weighs theories in his mind, not noticing the increasing pile of corpses around him. The National Coalition Against Television Violence cited in May 1982 Police Squad! alongside such shows as The Fall Guy, The Greatest American Hero, Strike Force, T.J. Hooker and The Dukes of Hazzard as "the most violent programs," with ABC the worst network, showing "an average of 10 violent acts an hour." I couldn't find a report on the average times an hour a coalition member had to adjust the stick shoved up their ass for more comfortable seating or if their sense of humor ever was located. Drebin eventually gets a tip about one of Sally's old boyfriends who works at "one of those all-night wicker places." He eventually finds out about Sally's dental bills and visits her dentist, Dr. Zubatsky (Terrence Beasor), who Frank shoves against the wall, his mouth full of toothpaste so he's foaming at the mouth and Zubatsky getting Drebin to insist, "I am not an animal. I am a human being," in reference to David Lynch's The Elephant Man. If any problems exist through all the episodes of Police Squad! today, it's that the series used many very time-specific references that will be lost on many over time. When Frank and Sally have their showdown, he unmasks her multiple identities, taking off a series of wigs, before they have a shoot-out behind benches just a couple feet apart, one of many gags that would be recycled in the movies, something ZAZ freely admit in the commentaries. Once Hocken shows up to help Frank apprehend Sally (complete with other officers and a police car conveniently marked "POLICE CAR" on the hood), he asks him how he figured it out. Drebin tells his captain it was a little hunch back at the office. Hocken says he thought so and that's why he brought that little hunchback with him which, of course, leads literally to a short, hunchbacked man arriving to shake Drebin's hand.
I skipped out of order a bit because I wanted to devote a fair amount of space to the second recurring character introduced in the premiere. William Duell, the fine film, TV and theater character actor who died in December at the age of 88, should be recognizable to just about everyone for something. The last feature he appeared in was 2003's How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. His first film was an uncredited appearance in The Hustler. His most famous film roles probably remain the congressional custodian in the 1972 screen adaptation of the musical 1776 and Sefelt, one of the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. On TV, his last appearances were on Ed. On Broadway, he appeared frequently, including playing the same 1776 role when the musical premiered and replacing the original actor playing Caesar Rodney when 1776 was revived in the 1990s. I got to see Duell play Erronius in the 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring Nathan Lane. On Police Squad!, Duell played Johnny the shoeshine boy who everyone went to for answers to their questions — and I do mean everyone. It always would start with Frank seeking a tip, as in that first episode. "What's the word on the street, Johnny?" Frank asks. "I don't know. I hear a lot of things. Pick a topic," Johnny replies. Some variation on that would be how every conversation with Johnny would begin, followed by the person in Johnny's shoeshine chair slipping him some cash. "You're barking up the wrong tree with this Ralph Twice. He's a decent family man and makes a good living. Wasn't his fault he got fired from the tire company, but who could predict Brazil would cut off the rubber supply? They're nationalizing the industry in two weeks so he would have gotten his job back anyway," Johnny informs Frank. Yes, this shoeshine man seemed to know what was going on everywhere and leads Drebin toward Sally. After Frank leaves, someone else would always step into Johnny's chair. In the first episode, it was a priest wanting to know if there really is life after death. "Are you talking existential being or anthropomorphic deity?" Johnny asks. Because the episodes aired out of order, the next two should have been the heart surgeon and the fireman but instead after the heart surgeon the celebrity parade began. First to sit in Johnny's chair was Tommy LaSorda, the legendary manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers seeking advice as to whether he needed to add another pitcher. Johnny explains the rigors of a season can punish a four-man rotation and he needs a left-handed swingman to fill out his long relief spot. He slips LaSorda some names and then adds, "You wouldn't be in this mess if you hadn't given up Tommy John." In the next episode, Dr. Joyce Brothers turns up wanting advice about what to tell her female patients about the Cinderella Complex. They aired the fireman after that and in the last episode, Dick Clark steps up to ask Johnny about this new form of music some of the kids talk about called ska. He also requests more of that secret formula youth cream. The Johnny scenes were the one recurring bit that always worked and it's a shame that they didn't bring Duell back for the pseudo-tipster scene they had in the first Naked Gun movie.
While the Zuckers and Abrahams served as executive producers on all six episodes, they didn't write or direct any of the other five Police Squad! installments, though according to the commentaries, they kept a presence on the set to make sure their comic style held. With that in mind, they tended to hire dramatic directors over TV comedy directors because the TV comedy directors would have their own ideas about humor that didn't necessarily jell with the ZAZ wackiness. That's why they selected directors such as Georg Stanford Brown, who helmed episodes of Hill Street Blues, Roots: The Next Generation, Family and Charlie's Angels, among others; Paul Krasny, who directed episodes of Quincy M.E., CHiPs, Mannix and Mission: Impossible; and Reza Badiyi who directed episodes of Hawaii Five-O, The Rockford Files, Mannix and Mission: Impossible, though Badiyi did start by directing comedies, specifically Get Smart and The Doris Day Show. The only director who got the chance to helm Police Squad! twice happens to be Joe Dante, who prior to his work on Police Squad! had made Piranha! and The Howling. In the second of the two episodes that Dante directed, the final episode "Dead Men Don't Laugh"/"Testimony of Evil," he even got to include one of his trademarks — cult actor Dick Miller. ZAZ had to keep a watchful eye anyway to make certain that the humor stuck close to their style. One of the trio admits on the second commentary that news of the cancellation almost came as a relief. "If we're gonna work this hard, we might as well do a feature," one of the commentary voices says he thought at the time. I can imagine. When I rewatched the first episode, I laughed nearly nonstop from beginning to end but in each of the subsequent five episodes, the laughs became more sporadic. How Police Squad! could be maintained on a weekly basis for 22 episodes a year for multiple seasons would seem to be an impossibility for that format.
Of the writers who worked on the staff of Police Squad!, one, in a way, became the fourth member of ZAZ. Prior to his work on Police Squad!, Pat Proft wrote for The Carol Burnett Show, Mel Brooks' original Robin Hood spoof, the TV show When Things Were Rotten and even the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special. (See — that was intended as a spoof.) On Police Squad!, Proft received story credit for "Rendezvous at Big Gulch"/"Terror in the Neighborhood" and wrote "A Bird in the Hand"/"The Butler Did It." When ZAZ finally decided to revive Police Squad! as The Naked Gun movie, which only David Zucker directed, Proft wrote the screenplay with ZAZ. (One person who couldn't have been more thrilled by the news of the Police Squad! movie was Leslie Nielsen, who had reverted to straight roles and was on the set of the Barbra Streisand drama Nuts when ZAZ contacted him about bringing Frank back.) On the sequels, Proft and David Zucker alone scripted the films. Proft also wrote Hot Shots! with Abrahams, who directed that film solo. Outside ZAZ-related projects, Proft co-wrote Bachelor Party, Police Academy and Real Genius. The other familiar name hired on the writing stuff was actor/comedian Robert Wuhl, who co-wrote both episodes that Dante directed and recorded his own commentary. He first met ZAZ when he was one of the many comics, including David Letterman, auditioning for Robert Hays' Ted Stryker role in Airplane!. The brothers and Abrahams later caught Wuhl's act at The Improv and invited him to write for Police Squad! "It was such a short period of time. We were only together for six episodes and we were gone," Wuhl says, explaining why he doesn't recall much in his commentary, which was recorded in 2006, 24 years after his time on the show. It did convince Wuhl that network television wasn't for him and the only other time he wrote for network TV was an episode of Sledge Hammer!, a series that definitely owes its beginnings to Police Squad! Wuhl did go on to create and star in Arli$$ for seven years on HBO. Insert your own joke about whether or not cable television is a place for Wuhl either.
Before I forget, I should note the last of the recurring characters on the show, Officer Norberg, portrayed by Peter Lupus, who played Willy Armitage on Mission: Impossible from 1966-73. The joke always has been that when they made The Naked Gun movies, they changed his race, but technically the two officers don't have to be the same character since the role O.J. played was named Nordberg, not Norberg. Of course, Mr. Olson's last name switched between Olsen and Olson, so consistency wasn't a paramount concern, at least that's what Capt. Sgt. Det. Lt. Drebin told me. Lupus' Norberg certainly came off as being as dumb as O.J.'s Nordberg, but the TV show didn't have any running gag about him being constantly injured as Nordberg would be in the films. On the commentaries, ZAZ and Weiss briefly discuss the decision to hire Simpson for the movie with one of the four voices saying that Lupus "didn't seem violent enough for the part, so we cast O.J." One of the remaining three admits not having seen O.J. since the wrap party for the third Naked Gun movie "when I sold him a set of knives." Lupus did get some fun moments in the series even though he didn't show up until the third installment, such as when they ask him to "put a tap on the phone," or when they want him to test suspected drugs to see if they are real and he gets high as a kite and grooves to The Mills Brothers' "Glow Worm." Perhaps his crowning achievement remains in the freeze frame when he comes in while everyone else has frozen in place and Norberg keeps changing his mind about what position to take.
In the first half of this post, I mentioned how the then-president of ABC blamed the failure of Police Squad! on the fact that you had to watch it. Thirty years later, I don't believe attention spans have grown longer, but with the expanded universe of television, you can find the influence of Police Squad! in the most unexpected places. Not just in an obvious show such as the already-mentioned Sledge Hammer!, which audiences still weren't ready for in 1986, or the not-so-obvious "It's Garry Shandling's Show." that debuted the same year but petered out, though it lasted four seasons. The most obvious direct descendant, at least in terms of having to watch to catch those sight gags, is The Simpsons, though the animated series has characters with more depth and dimensions than Police Squad! That close attention to detail can be found outside the comic realm though as well. The Wire wasn't tossing sight gags in the background, but some minor bit in an early episode of a season often came back later and you had to watch closely. That has applied to many of the recent cable dramas such as Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire. They demand more of their viewers and it ultimately makes the viewing experience more rewarding. You wouldn't think of Frank Drebin paving the way for Walter White but, in a way, I think he did.
I grabbed so many screenshots and wrote down so many gags, I can't possibly squeeze them all into this piece, but Police Squad! should be watched anyway. Nielsen blamed the size of television screens as another reason for the series' failure, which might be true, but one unfortunate development that happened to the ZAZ style of comedy was that it eventually lost that magic deadpan touch. Nielsen and other cast members reacted far too often to the chaos around them and it lessened the humor quotient. Nielsen's work (as well as old pros such as Robert Stack and Peter Graves) wowed in Airplane! and he maintained that in Police Squad!, but when The Naked Gun movies came about, Drebin became more about being silly and accidentally catching the crooks. I missed the Frank who could go undercover as a boxing manager in "Ring of Fear"/"A Dangerous Assignment" and have this straight-faced, fast-paced conversation with boxer Buddy Briggs (Patrick St. Esprit).
DREBIN: Buddy, I'm here to help you. Do you think you can beat the champ?
BUDDY: I can take him blindfolded.
DREBIN: What if he's not blindfolded?
BUDDY: I can still beat him.
I regret to say that improved technology actually has ruined one of the best, most subtle jokes that Police Squad! ever pulled off. Anyone who grew up with 1970s television probably recalls what an imperfect device color TV sets were even then. Often, you'd have to fiddle with the color and tint dials to try to get rid of inexplicable fuzziness. In that second episode, which I was watching on an old color TV set (forget the brand), Frank's suit kept driving me up the wall with fuzzy blue and green lines. I went up to the set to attempt to adjust it, but then I noticed that only Frank's suit had the problem. The rest of the screen was fine. Those clever people had designed a suit coat for him made up of subtle bands of blue and green to make viewers go nuts. Unfortunately, taking screenshots of the image of the suit from a DVD doesn't do justice to that inferior technology. That episode also had some other nice ones such as when Buddy shadowboxes and knocks his shadow out. When an earlier fighter (Thomas Rosales Jr.) managed by the crooked Cooper (Floyd Levine) is told that Martin (Rudy Solari), the man fixing the fight, will give the sign when he's supposed to take a dive, Martin signals a scuba diver in the back row who falls backward followed by a splash of water. When the undercover Frank gets in a poker game with Cooper to win Buddy's contract, he comments that the game was "as crooked as Cooper's smile" and we see that one of the players holds the Official Rules card in his hand. It also has a great freeze-frame epilogue where they bring Martin in. When he realizes that no one else is moving, he unlocks his handcuffs and tries to get out of the squad room.
The other episodes did have priceless moments as well. In "The Butler Did It"/"A Bird in the Hand," there was an overabundance of sight gags. A young heiress named Terri (Lilibet Stern) celebrates her birthday but she gets kidnapped when visiting the family's Chinese Garden with her fiancé Kingsley (Ken Michelman). The ransom note is tied to a window and thrown into a rock garden. We see the typical shot of Frank driving his car except we soon realize that he's in the back seat and someone short must be driving because Frank scratches his nose while the hand stays on the steering wheel and later the driver hands the CB over the seat to Frank. Hocken decides to check a glove compartment which is, of course, filled with gloves. The kidnapper, the butler Thames (Byron Webster), holds a gun to Terri's head so Drebin tells him that "two can play at that game" and grabs a bystander and puts his gun to her hand, one of many gags that ZAZ freely admit to recycling later. Hocken asks Frank to cover him so he can sneak behind the butler so, yes, he throws a blanket over him. The final one before the epilogue is after the butler gets apprehended and Hocken announces that "the black and white is here." I'll let that photo speak for itself. This episode aired out of order. In each epilogue, they list all the criminals that have been sent to Statesville Prison and they mention a crook whose episode hadn't aired, presumably because ABC was eager to get those celebrities on to see Johnny.
Other sight gags and repeated jokes prevail, but returning to Police Squad!, what stands out above all else remains the incredible performance of Leslie Nielsen. It went beyond his deadpan delivery. In the last episode, "Testimony of Evil"/"Dead Men Don't Laugh," Drebin goes undercover as a nightclub entertainer and Nielsen performs an extended bit as a standup where we only hear punchlines such as "He looked up at her and said, 'Lady, I don't think I can take 60 more of those," and the crowd eats it up. He then segues into a medley of Judy Garland songs. He's awful of course, but it's a riot. That episode also has a great scene where a ventriloquist and his dummy pull a gun on Frank and the owner because he wasn't allowed to audition. Frank overpowers them — but he punches the doll first. The boss (Claudette Nevins), part of his investigation into a drug ring, commends him for taking such a chance. In great straight-faced delivery, Frank tells her, "You take a chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street or sticking your face in a fan." I've accumulated a lot of the gags and photos of them to share, but I should retire this tribute at some point. From the beginning, I planned to end this tribute with a YouTube assemblage of all six Epilogues and freeze frames the show employed. What other way could I?
Labels: 80s, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, D. Zucker, Garland, HBO, J. Zucker, Jim Abrahams, Joe Dante, Letterman, Lynch, Mel Brooks, Nielsen, Star Wars, Streisand, The Simpsons, The Wire, TV Tribute