Where the Hell Was I? The Infantile Genius of The Naked Gun Trilogy

The Naked Gun poster

Celebrating one of modern cinema’s most unique comedy creations and the actor who embodied it so spectacularly

Airplane will always be the original Zucker/Abrahams absurdity, and there were a few other worthy efforts in-between, most notably 1984’s underappreciated Cold War spy parody Top Secret!, but for me The Naked Gun is the pinnacle of their deadpan genius, and there is nothing you can suggest that will ever change my mind. There are a number of reasons for my particular bias, but the most telling is the fact that I saw The Naked Gun long before I did its puerile predecessor, and by the time I got around to finally seeing Airplane – of which I had acquired lofty expectations – the comedy seemed just a little watered down by comparison. As sharp and as influential as the original Zucker/Abrahams creation was, The Naked Gun seemed to take it to the next level.

It all began with a short-lived TV show named Police Squad! — an underdeveloped blueprint for what would become known as The Naked Gun series. Only six episodes aired — an incredibly short run for a TV series — but it certainly made an impression, receiving two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series (Leslie Nielsen) and Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series. This was two years after Airplane!, and the show had a similar gag ratio, one that the Abrahams/Zucker team would considerably up by the time its silver screen offspring hit theatres six years later. ABC entertainment president Tony Thomopoulos would attribute the show’s cancellation to a mainstream audience who, “had to watch it in order to appreciate it.” As silly as the whole affair was, its quick wit and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gags were too much for viewers back in 1982.

It’s not surprising. TV has come a long way since The Sopranos at the turn of the millennium, and even before then with the likes of Hill Street Blues, a comparatively conventional prime time show that required more than just a passing glance. Comedy TV in the the early ’80s was predominantly situation-based and invariably accompanied by canned laughter, an audio cue that told people exactly when to laugh. Police Squad! was a whole other entity. It challenged people to think, to discover humour in places they weren’t used to finding it. Almost a decade later The Simpsons would take a similar format mainstream. Before then, animation was considered a medium exclusively for children, many adults struggling to break down those barriers, seeing but not hearing, being aware but not really taking it in. Police Squad! served up a similar paradox. On the surface it was transparently dumb, when in reality it was sharper and more quick-witted than the vast majority of American television.

The Naked Gun Frank

The same can be said about The Naked Gun series. I was eight years old when I first discovered the original movie, and I found it as side-splitting then as I do now. There’s something about its absurd brand of comedy that is so universal, something so fundamental that it can be enjoyed by all ages and cultures. How can you not laugh at the sight of a straight-faced detective borrowing a criminal 20 bucks so he can bribe HIM for answers in return, or that same detective shooting at his own car and asking citizens for a make on the registration plate as it careens toward a path of wanton destruction. If you played that scene to a member of the world’s most disconnected tribe, I guarantee you it would at least raise a smile, regardless of how remote their understanding of the culture.

This is Frank Drebin, Police Squad. Throw down your guns, and come on out with your hands up. Or come on out, then throw down your guns, whichever way you wanna do it. Just remember the two key elements here: one, guns to be thrown down; two, come on out!

Frank Drebin

The Zucker/Abrahams formula is so irresistibly simple it’s amazing nobody thought of it before they unleashed the likes of Frank Drebin onto the cinematic landscape. Before his transformation into the comedy icon he is now so fondly remembered as, Leslie Nielsen was a serious actor who had never been near a funny role, but the transition was hardly one of intensive labour. All he had to do was exactly what he’d been doing his entire acting career: play it straight. The hardest part of his job was trying not to burst into laughter as gangs of decorators tumbled from background scaffold or prisoners pole-vaulted their way to freedom over the prison yard walls. That’s not to say Nielsen wasn’t a genius ― there isn’t a man in the world who could carry those movies the way he did ― but underwhelming roles in tepid imitations such as Spy Hard and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, film’s that desperately tried to recapture that special magic, proved there was much more to The Naked Gun franchise than our leading man’s irresistible star turn.

The obvious hallmark of the series is its wonderful juxtapose of straight-faced seriousness and inane stupidity. So effective are the reams of absurd dialogue and comic set-pieces that the plots of all three movies, themselves as blatantly farcical as you could ever strain to imagine, almost pale by comparison. There is something about serious people stuck in silly situations that really connects with modern day humanity, particularly when those people are seemingly unaware of what is going on around them. Despite his almost total disconnection from reality, Drebin proves one of cinema’s most relatable characters, a man so mired in his own inadequacies that accidental heroism is the only foreseeable outcome. Avoiding failure with a nonchalance that he is never quite aware of, he is somehow able to shrug off the perils of fate, accepting his legacy as the precinct’s most decorated cop as a dog accepts his place at the foot of a bed. Whether he succeeds is not the question. It’s the offbeat, seemingly impossible manner of his success that we pay to see.

1988’s The Naked Gun already had the character down to a fine art. Actors usually grow into a role as the sequels come, even if those movies weaken the original formula (think Robert Englund in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series). The late, great Nielsen hits the ground running with a hop, skip, and a jump, even performing a Michael Jackson style moonwalk (a blatantly obvious body double) during the original instalment’s side-splitting finale, one that sees a catcher crudely decapitated and another run over by a car in a series of absurd bloopers broadcast to attending fans on the big screen. It doesn’t take long for the series to establish Frank’s exquisite brand of sublime ineptitude either. A scene involving the original film’s villain, William Ludwig, a gloriously slimy businessman who looks to assassinate the Queen of England using a radical (and comically underdeveloped) form of mind control, gets straight to the point, Drebin somehow managing to accidentally kill his prized Japanese Fighting Fish with a priceless Samurai pen, a rare gift from Emperor Hirohito, while undertaking some routine questioning. The irony pours from this man like a suspiciously drenched shirt sleeve.

Of course, every successful cop needs a dependable partner, and Frank just happens to have two of them in George Kennedy’s bumbling old school tough Captain Ed Hocken and OJ Simpson’s next-level disastrous third wheel Detective Fred Nordberg, who in The Naked Gun‘s opening post-credits scene manages to kick a hole through a door, hit his head on a light, burn his hand on a furnace, lean on wet paint, trap his fingers in a falling window, fall face-first into a conveniently placed wedding cake and stand in an even more dubiously positioned bear trap before leaping overboard in front of an audience of gobsmacked bad guys. In The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear, that same character gets caught underneath a van, and later a bus to Detroit, while attempting to install a tracking device that allows his colleagues an intimate view of his imbecilic police work. In the Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, he manages to get his afro stuck in a doorway during a priceless 70s flashback, only to straighten his collar and strut confidently away in a prime example of the show’s exquisite ability to play it straight amid so much silliness. Every cop stereotype is lampooned to dizzying levels. The three together are pure comedic gold.

The attempt on Nordberg’s life left me shaken and disturbed, and all the questions kept coming up over and over again, like bubbles in a case of club soda. Who was this character in the hospital? And why was he trying to kill Nordberg? And for whom? Did Ludwig lie to me? I didn’t have any proof, but somehow, I didn’t entirely trust him either. Why was the ‘I Luv You’ not listed in Ludwig’s records? And if it was, did he know about it? And if he didn’t, who did? And where the hell was I?

Lt. Frank Drebin

Despite it reliance on genre tropes, and more accurately because of them, the buddy cop dynamic of Drebin, Ed and Nordberg, who spend their days grappling with pneumatic dildos, embracing hand-to-hand combat with hairdryers, or wrestling with the queen while the bad guys run amok, is one of the most endearingly unconventional ever devised. In the world of The Naked Gun, and only in that world, Frank is the brains of the equation, a leader who goes unquestioned despite a debilitating clumsiness and a tireless propensity for self-sabotage. In 1991‘s The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear, Frank diffuses a bomb by tripping over the plug and releasing it from the socket. Moments before, Ed accidentally pushes shady Hexagon Oil executive Quentin Hapsburg (Robert Goulet),the only person with the bomb-negating code, out of a ten storey window, a gaff which almost leads to the perpetrator’s escape until a lion, having escaped a zoo during an earlier tank pursuit, pounces out of nowhere and mauls him to death (when it comes to The Naked Gun, expect the unexpected). As a unit the three are dumb, dumber and dumber still, but ignorance inspires fearlessness, and the cast of The Naked Gun somehow manage to make it the trademark for success.

The Naked Gun cops

In a film that’s littered with movie references, it was inevitable that the James Bond series would find its way into the mix, and it does so in typically inglorious fashion, our not-so-super cops plunged into a recurring Q parody that plays host to some of the finest gags in the series. Introduced to a stupendously crappy selection of laughable gadgets that make Roger Moore’s typically cute reaction to a limp rope seem serious by comparison, our trio do everything possible to balls things up, becoming as shaken as they are hopelessly stirred. Here, our cast are the uproariously unaware butt of the joke, Kennedy’s Ed often used as the demonstrative patsy of paralysis-inducing weapons. When it comes to analysing evidence, Frank is just as bumbling, accidentally swigging back urine samples or struggling with the most rudimentary tools at his disposal. The moment when he attempts to analyse evidence through a microscope is a high point that never fails to reduce me to tears. For god’s sake, “Use your open eye, Frank.”

If there’s one blight on the endless re-watchability of the gloriously timeless Naked Gun franchise, it’s the legacy of Simpson, a former pro footballer who has been in trouble with the law ever since he was miraculously acquitted of the double murder of former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman on October 3, 1995, only to later be found guilty in a civil trial and forced to pay $33,500,000 million in compensatory and punitive damages to the victims’ families. Simpson, who would fail to turn himself in following the murders, was captured fleeing the scene by news helicopters in a nationally broadcast high-speed chase, pointing a gun at his own head to deter police as friend Al Cowlings drove the white 1993 Ford Bronco SUV at high-speed across the Los Angeles highway system. Simpson, who immediately filed for bankruptcy, relocating to Florida where laws protected his pension from seizure, paid a very small percentage of the compensation imposed. If that wasn’t bad enough, Simpson, who served only 9 years of a 33-year sentence on kidnapping and robbery charges in 2007, wrote a book based on the Brown/Goldman murders titled If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer, which as the title suggests proposes a hypothetical description of the murders. The fact that Simpson’s character in The Naked Gun is portrayed as such a lovable, childlike goof can be pretty jarring in hindsight, and quite surreal.

Just as finely attuned to the whole farcical parade are the series villains. Whether it’s Ricardo Montalbán’s Ludwig, Goulet’s Hapsburg or Fred Ward’s gloriously hammy jail thug-come-bomb expert Rocco Dillon, the movie’s exquisite buffoonery never falters, those deadpan expressions creating a world in which logicality is temporarily pondered but never challenged, a one-note gag that never becomes diluted. Despite the movie’s juvenile idiocy, it is rich with variation — all of it borrowed, but never cheapened. We have that brand of ludicrous physical comedy reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, a screenplay of spellbinding absurdity, and a cast so onboard with the movie’s slapstick vision that you come to love them like family. Drebin narrates his story like a two-bit lead in a classic noir flick, one who performs a little hopscotch while sombrely musing, expressions of straight-laced confusion beautifully embellishing the Zucker/Abrahams formula. If by some incredible stroke of misfortune you are still unfamiliar with the series, imagine Humphrey Bogart, as moody and as debonair as you remember, delivering voice-over similes such as, “It’s like eating a spoonful of Drano; sure, it’ll clean you out, but it’ll leave you hollow inside”.

It’s the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girl dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Lt. Frank Drebin

The Naked Gun series is powered by exceptional against-type casting, or bald-faced, self-aware typecasting, everyone from late Sopranos alumni and theatre darling Nancy Marchand to perennial 80s curmudgeon Kathleen Freeman getting deliriously onboard, but the trump card of the series was a real shot in the dark. Every debonair hero, no matter how oblivious and undeserving of his status, needs a dependable dame to share the burden, and in Priscilla Presley’s Jane Spencer, Frank finds just that, though for the most part their on/off relationship is just as haphazard and devoid of self-awareness. I mean, why wouldn’t it be? Their beautifully derivative saga journeys from Casablanca to Thelma and Louise, with a healthy dose of Escape From Alcatraz thrown in for good measure, all of it punctuated by a musclebound Ghost parody, 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall (They’re playing our song), and a sexual montage of pumping pistons, star-spangled slam dunks and wretchedly symbolic hot dogs. Name another silver screen couple who can take part in a full-blown domestic dispute while performing the tango, flips and all, to an audience of breathless spectators. Presley is a revelation as Frank’s eternally conflicted squeeze, a role that would connect so well with mainstream audiences that she was finally able to step out of her late husband’s shadow. And we’re talking about Elvis here! “Jane, Jane; that name will always remind me of her!”

The Naked Gun 2 Frank and Jane

The Naked Gun formula is an infinitesimal patchwork of comedic glory which even extends to the movie’s opening and closing credits. With so many sight gags and ludicrous movie references you’re unable to blink for fear of missing something (I’m still finding undiscovered treasures to this very day), but shameless lampooning aside, it’s fair to say that the series also exhibits something of a social conscience. It is perhaps too ridiculous to be labelled satire, but for all its facetiousness it still manages to squeeze in moments of relevant commentary, and is infinitely more cultured than its infantile embellishments would have you believe. Not only do we have warnings about pollution and the environment, we have giant safe sex condoms, humorous protests against racial stereotyping, inner-city high school violence, and even police corruption. “Just think,” Drebin muses during a scene in The Naked Gun in which his badge is under threat “the next time I shoot someone, I could be arrested.”

Some will point to a slight deterioration in quality as the series unfolded, particularly in the third instalment, which relied more on hyper-referential parody and celebrity appearances as the series reached its peak of mainstream popularity, and though there’s an argument to be made that the Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult is consistently less funny overall, it still features some of the most hilarious moments in the trilogy, its delirious finale at the Academy Awards ceremony arguably the finest of the lot, particularly Frank’s ludicrously anomalous involvement in a highly choreographed dance number and a hostage situation that transcends even Naked Gun levels of stupidity. Even at its most played-out and repetitive you’ll struggle to find anything as uniquely tear-inducing as the Naked Gun films — that’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. Seth McFarlane’s upcoming reboot has an almost impossible task on its hands, especially without the man who embodies the formula so immaculately.

The reality is, you would have to be inhuman to ‘rise above’ The Naked Gun’s unrelenting farce for more than five minutes, regardless of how seriously you take yourself. There are movies that are so immature some of us refuse to stoop to their level, and then there’s The Naked Gun films. I have watched the series with some pretty humourless people, and by the end of Drebin and co’s puerile escapades, those in question have gone on to experience something of a renaissance, a kind of uncontrollable regression into the throes of childhood, and that is essentially what the series is about, rekindling the lost child in all of us, stripping away the debilitating deadwood of adult responsibility and once again making laughter and enjoyment our one and only concern. In those terms, The Naked Gun movies are perhaps the funniest and most liberating of all. In the thirty years since the original film’s release there have been a plethora of imitators, but all they have served to do is highlight just how tricky such a deceptively difficult formula is to get right. For unabashed joy and belly-aching laughter nothing has come close, and it’s hard to imagine that anything will. Don’t believe Frank when he erroneously informs you that, “There’s nothing to see here.” There are fireworks, big, bright spectacular fireworks, the kind that mainstream comedies rarely display.

The Naked Gun Trilogy logo

Director: David Zucker & Peter Segal
Screenplay: David Zucker,
Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker,
Pat Proft & Robert LoCash
Music: Ira Newborn
Cinematography: Robert M. Stevens
Editing: Michael Jablow, Christopher Greenbury
& James R. Symons

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