Posted on by Scott Delahunt

"Yes, it is very impressive, but that's not why we're here."

In 1982, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, collectively known as ZAZ, brought their brand of humour to the small screeen.  Police Squad!, a parody of classic Quinn-Martin police procedural series, starred Leslie Nielsen as Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective-Lieutenant, Police Squad. The show was a torrent of jokes and gags subtle and blatant, from the opening titles to the freeze frame of the closing credits. Alas, the series lasted just six episodes. The network (ABC) claimed that the show required people to pay attention; their studies showed that most households used the TV as background noise, paying attention only time to time. The network may have had a point; in the first episode, if you missed Drebin's opening narration mentioning a rash of assaults of models that left them nude in laundromats on the west side of town that wasn't his assignment, seeing the laundry basket in his back seat in a later act would be confusing.

ZAZ continued making feature films. In 1988, they released The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, with Nielsen returning as Drebin.  This time, ZAZ didn't have to worry about people not paying attention; at the theatre, people are paying to watch the movie.  The jokes could get a little racier as well, though the Naked Gun series is relatively clean. With a larger budget, ZAZ got Ricardo Montalban to play the conniving villain who schemed to cause an international incident by killing the Queen of England, and Reggie Jackson, who was paid half a million for just three days of work. (I'd say Jackson was very convincing in his role as an outfielder for the Angels.)

Several running gags from the TV series were brought back for the movie, including having the guest star killed in an unusual manner. However, instead of killing Montalban in the opening credits, his character was killed at the climax of the movie in one of the more unusual deaths in cinematic history. (Fell off the upper deck of the stadium, run over by a bus, run over by a steamroller, and run over by the USC Trojan Marching Band playing "Louie, Louie". Heck of a way to go.) The sequels followed the pattern. Robert Goulet was the lucky actor to be killed both in the TV series (executed by firing squad) and Naked Gun 2-1/2: The Smell of Fear (knocked off the roof of a tall building, bounced off an awning to land safely on his feet, then mauled by a lion).

One of the main problems in bringing a TV series, especially a half-hour comedy, to the big screen is fleshing out the plot to last ninety to one hundred and twenty minutes.  Fortunately, the ZAZ team had several movies already under their belt by the time Police Squad! aired, including Airplane! and Top Secret. On top, the entire purpose of Police Squad! was to spoof police procedurals, throwing in as many gags as possible during the running time. Extending both the plot and the number of gags was simple enough; adding a romantic subplot and a plot-relevant baseball game helped with both.

The adaptation to the movies benefited Police Squad!. The reputation ZAZ gained through their previous works brought in new viewers while the audience that had seen the show on TV could finally get more. Movie audiences would pay attention to what was on screen; the distraction of a busy home would not be a factor. Restrictions imposed by the network's Broadcast Standards and Practices could be ignored to a greater degree.

The Naked Gun is an unusual case in terms of movie adaptations. It was more finding the right format for Police Squad! than remaking it for the silver screen. Ultimately, the change of format was the best thing that could happen.

Next time, a twist for the column.


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