Leslie William Nielsen, 1926-2010

by Jeff Laughlin

Among the most humorless people I knew were those who despaired at my love for the Naked Gun trilogy. Blinded by the shuffle of dick and fart jokes — these are the objects of scorn for critics of the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker comedies — they couldn’t see the inventive plot excursions and genius hilarity. Presumably they also didn’t see the genius of the straight man amid the chaos: Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant Police Squad.

After the first time I watched The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad, I aped the dialogue like a crushed-out teen with love song lyrics. I contend that the star-studded booth of broadcasters was some of the best satire ever on sports and broadcasting. The baseball scene introduced me to the sustainably absurd. One evening, in the din of M*A*S*H reruns with my dad, we stumbled upon HBO replay value we’d never known. I didn’t understand the brilliance of a full-body condom at the time, but he did. I caught the woman showering in the background of the police station. He didn’t. There was so much for both of us. The movie was everything we wanted, and it all centered on the shoulders of Leslie Nielsen.

My father went on to show me the Airplane movies, the Naked Gun sequels. Later, I saw that many others failed to feel the glee I experienced with Wrongfully Accused, Spy Hard, Repossessed, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. I was a junkie. Nielsen’s stock goofy-yet-staid facade against anarchy was addictive.

Through the years, he was less and less involved in Hollywood proper. “The studio just doesn’t get the joke though,” one of the Zuckers said when Naked Gun 4 was declared never to be made, and that was a reflection on Nielsen. He’d been working for two and a half decades before Airplane!, and so he was aging and it showed. Unlike the shtick of Rodney Dangerfield (which never got old even as it got tattered), Nielsen suffered publicly without new or undiscovered material — shunted to the sidelines of the next generation of youth-oriented shtick comedy with the rise of the Scary Movie franchise. He became a ghost of TBS.

Aided by my current unemployment, today I will watch as much Nielsen as I can handle. I’ll Youtube, watch for reruns, rent, search. Between “The Simpsons” seasons 3–9, Nielsen and the occasional flash of genius this world has to offer (“Arrested Development” immediately comes to mind), there isn’t that much comic genius to go around, and you must celebrate it when you can.

Nielsen bridged gaps. His shock of silver hair and unbreakable facade created a self-selecting, non-exclusive fraternity. When people frowned at Nielsen’s work, I knew they weren’t bad people: they were just misaligned. They found the obvious humor Neilsen presented detrimental to their own idea of comedy. But they were mistaking the art for the artist.

The money quote there from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (about a minute in): “I definitely don’t think they are crazy, I just think they have a justifiable grudge against a lot of the B.S. we see in the world.” (If you watch all three parts of the making of Naked Gun 2 ½), you see how serious the labors were that Nielsen performed for comedy.) Abdul-Jabbar was talking about the directors, and that was why Nielsen was their avatar. In part three of the Cinemax special, Nielsen says of himself and his own “serious” movie-making history, in which he briefly was a romantic lead, a potential box office commodity: “The expectation of myself, I really think that followed me all my life. Now I can be as dumb and as stupid as I want.”

Their dumb and stupid work together presented an opposing view to the plot-driven “Animal House” or “Blues Brothers” line of comedy. Where those comedies relied on real-life absurdity, situational comedy, Airplane and Naked Gun supplied an absolute zero, of sorts, for comedy lovers. Nielsen was cartoonish and garrulous while keeping his character in place. In opposition to that line — Belushi’s overpowering scenes, Farley’s lovableness, Ferrell’s character-acting, Carrey’s overacting — Nielsen nursed the scenes through their conclusion. Whether falling down stairs or telling a woman he loved her, he was in control by proxy.

Still hanging on the wall of my old Astoria apartment is the yellowed Village Voice obit for Richard Pryor. Now here in my North Carolina apartment, I’ll put up Nielsen’s, and I’ll persevere the way I always do in times of tragedy. I have even prepared a statement in case anyone asks me how I’m dealing with Nielsen’s death: “I just think about baseball.” This is just one more terribly austere situation; how can you not laugh?

Jeff Laughlin is the editor of 10 Listens and is finishing a new book of poetry called “Alcoholics Are Sick People.”