Asked about the difference between American and British comedy, Eric Morecambe replied that in America they had funny lines but no funny men. I sort of know what he means: A funny man is someone an audience is happy to hang out with even when the funny lines are thin on the ground. Likeability comes into it, but also the ability to disguise the comedian's desperate desire to be liked - which I recall talking about in one of the many pre-interviews I did for the tour dates with Dennis Miller. But, for a while, my favorite Hollywood funny man was, in fact, a Canadian - Leslie Nielsen, the silver fox of the LAPD in the Naked Gun movies. I was happy to watch him in almost anything, just because I enjoyed the pleasure of the company of his comedic persona. Which is odd because his funny-man persona was no more than a smidgeonette of variation on his previous straightest-of-straight-men persona.
His most successful movie franchise came to an end a quarter-century ago, with the release of Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult. I don't think I took that sub-title terribly seriously, but a couple of months later Leslie Nielsen's co-star OJ Simpson was arrested for the murder of his wife and that was that. "There'll never be a Naked Gun 4," Mr Nielsen told me sometime that summer. "What about if he's acquitted?" I asked. "It still wouldn't be funny," he said sadly.
And so Naked Gun 33⅓ was the last hurrah. In those days, just about every movie came shadowed by a parody: Top Gun had Hot Shots; Lethal Weapon, which was tongue-in-cheek to begin with, spawned Loaded Weapon. But Hot Shots' Charlie Sheen and whoever the guy in the execrable Loaded Weapon was can't compete with Nielsen. Thirty years earlier, he was playing police roles for real, in forgettable television series like "The New Breed" and "The Bold Ones"; then, without changing his performance one iota, he started playing them for laughs. Fifty years earlier, incidentally, he was an aerial gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and I'd like to think he did even that with the same deadly deadpan deadpan-ness for which he's justly celebrated. It was Airplane! in 1979 which made him a comedy star with one lethally straight-faced exchange:
Surely you can't be serious?
I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.
The first Naked Gun gave him one of the great visual jokes of latterday movie comedy: with the hi-fi high and the lights down low, Lt Frank Drebin (Nielsen) and Jane (Priscilla Presley) are on the bearskin rug as the log fire crackles; Jane stands up and, in one clean movement, her gown drops from her shoulders to reveal her lush, full body in all its beauty; Frank then stands up and, in one clean movement, his three-piece suit, shirt and necktie drops to the floor to reveal his lush full body in all its beauty...
But times change and now Frank's marriage is in trouble. To rekindle the old spark, Jane arranges a passionate evening in, selects her sexiest camisole and tunes the radio to the 24-hour Johnny Mathis station. Unfortunately, Frank has spent the day on an undercover mission at a sperm bank, where he hadn't banked on having to make quite so many deposits. Utterly drained, he heads home and inches awkwardly through the front door, and sees the champagne Jane already has on ice. He tips the bucket onto the sofa, sits on the mound of ice cubes, shoves the champagne bottle down his trousers and waits for his pants to stop smouldering:
It's a wonderfully detailed scene: notice the bandages on thumb and forefinger. Very considerate of the sperm bank.
Nielsen imbues Frank, under the bluff cop exterior, with a child-like innocence, all the more remarkable when you consider that in a zillion terrible television movies — one thinks of Shadow Over Elveron (1968) — Nielsen, under the same bluff cop exterior, invariably turned out to be a weakling on the take or a ruthless killer who'd stop at nothing. It's the same with Priscilla Presley: her trembling wide-eyed sappy love lines are identical to those she used in "Dallas" as she ricocheted week by week from Bobby Ewing to Ray Krebs and back. The only difference is that this relationship is oddly touching: when the marriage counselor asks the couple if they've tried alleviating their bedroom difficulties with "sexy lingerie, some lacy underwear, a black teddy", Frank replies, "I've tried wearing them all. They don't work."
The plot is complex, as Frank's narration periodically concedes: "Like a midget in a urinal, I was going to have to stay on my toes." And: "Like a blind man at an orgy, I was going to have to feel things out." David Zucker, director/producer/co-writer of the earlier movies, ceded the director's chair to Peter Segal for this one, but, if anything, the pace is even more assured. I especially liked the aerial shot of the stars arriving for the Oscar telecast — Los Angeles at night, with various city neighborhoods consumed by flames. Don't find it funny? Heigh-ho, there'll be another gag in a few nanoseconds.
The mistake most movies make with comedy is in assuming that, if you have lots of jokes, everyone has to be incredibly frantic. In Naked Gun, the jokes tumble fast and furious, but the cast is relaxed, almost oblivious of them. From the rolling brass of Ira Newborn's magnificent opening theme music, everything is done for real. And as Jim Abrahams, the series producer, once told me, "Our one inviolable rule is that in this kind of comedy after eighty-nine minutes every minute counts double." So in this film they stop after eighty-three. But not before giving us a joke that wouldn't make it into the script today:
Papshmir: My people are very upset.
Muriel: They're always upset. They're Arab terrorists.
~There'll be plenty of movie talk on the Second Annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise, sailing up the Alaska coast in early September. Among Mark's guests will be Dennis Miller, star of Disclosure, The Net, What Happens in Vegas and, of course, Bordello of Blood, as well as Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, producers of last year's Gosnell. And Kathy Shaidle, who covered for Steyn in Mark at the Movies last summer, will also be aboard. More details here.