Creators of a TV Flop Get Just Dessert with 'Naked Gun'

San Diego County Arts Writer

"The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" could become the only successful movie based on a failed television series.

The 1982 ABC cop show parody lasted only four weeks. But that didn't daunt its creators. They viewed its quick demise as a badge of honor.

"I refer to it as a failed TV show, but in a way, it's a backhanded compliment," said Robert Weiss, the producer of both the television series "Police Squad!" and "Naked Gun."

"This is the best revenge a failed TV show could have: a loyal following that persists over six years. This is just desserts for us, to be able to do a movie of it," he said.

Weiss said that one-third of the people who were surveyed had heard of "Police Squad!" All six episodes (four aired, two didn't) are available on videocassette.

The tall, hefty producer was in San Diego earlier this month for one of 40 nationwide advance screenings set up primarily for college students. The movie opens nationally Dec. 2. When a student asked him why the network pulled the show, Weiss said then-ABC President Anthony Thomopoulos had called the series ahead of its time "because you had to watch the TV."

"Police Squad!," the story of earnest but dense LAPD Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), was neither typical cop story nor situation comedy. Its Ernie Kovacs brand of humor and content included simultaneous visual and verbal routines. Each segment, for instance, ended with the shaky actors trying to physically hold a freeze frame as the credits rolled.

It was the same sight gag, pun-filled sort of wackiness with which its creative team made "The Kentucky Fried Movie," "Airplane!" and "Top Secret." The three writers-directors--the brothers David and Jerry Zucker and their longtime buddy Jim Abrahams--refused to use a laugh track for the TV episodes because much of the humor came from events occurring in the background of scenes.

"It's hard to figure out where to put the sound of a laugh for a joke of something that's in the background," said Weiss, who also produced "Blues Brother" and "Dragnet." "People discover it at different times. And, if someone doesn't discover a particular thing, it doesn't get in the way of their appreciating the show. So you couldn't put little cues like that in the TV show, like a laugh track.

"We were sort of the rogue boys," Weiss said of the days at ABC. "So, when it came time to make some decisions, we were canceled."

Fans of Abrahams and the Zucker brothers, known collectively in Hollywood as "The Boys," will be pleased to learn that "Naked Gun" is closer in spirit and style to "Airplane!" than "Ruthless People," which all three directed, or "Big Business," which Abrahams directed.

For the film version of "Naked Gun," Nielsen returns as the hard-boiled but easily confused Lt. Drebin, who is on a mission to protect Queen Elizabeth II from an assassination plot. Priscilla Presley makes her feature film debut as a femme fatale working for the evil tycoon, Ricardo Montalban. George Kennedy and O. J. Simpson are cops saddled with the impossible Drebin, and Nancy Marchand (recently seen in the "Cocktail Hour" at the Old Globe Theatre), plays the mayor of L. A.

The late John Houseman appears briefly as a driver's education teacher. The film also has cameos for Weird Al Yankovic and baseball great Reggie Jackson.

The secret to making such parodies as "Airplane!" work is "to cut the time between the laughs," Weiss said. It also helps if the jokes work, something the Zuckers and Abrahams learned to do while students at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960s.

Weiss, who was producing dog-food commercials and training videos for the Los Angeles Police Department, saw the Zuckers and Abrahams in Los Angeles, where they had transplanted their comedy stage show, the Kentucky Fried Theatre, from Wisconsin in 1972. He immediately understood their brand of comedy.

"It's a particular sense of humor, a particular tilt that I share with Jerry, David and Jim and Pat Proft, who's the fourth writer (of 'Naked Gun')," Weiss said. "We all grew up watching the same TV shows and reading Mad magazine. Part of how we describe it is 'Scenes We'd Like to See.'

"That was a department in Mad magazine where in a few panels they would set up some movie situation, something archetypical you'd seen lots of times before, then give it some odd twist or bizarre punch. And this is the kind of thing we like to do."

"Naked Gun" is filled with those kinds of scenes, one after the other: a character, riddled by bullets, who can't fall because he keeps bumping into things and hurting himself; a baseball umpire calling the strikes with the enthusiasm of a break dancer and Drebin taking the place of a Pavarotti-like opera singer to sneak onto a baseball field, then croaking his way through the National Anthem before 60,000 fans.

The movie may have earned its PG-13 rating from a scene in which Drebin saves himself from a fall from a building ledge by clinging to the anatomically correct member of a decorative concrete Greek god.

Although Weiss directed his first film segment for last year's comedy anthology, "Amazon Women on the Moon," and both directed the second unit filming and appears as a hot dog vendor in "The Naked Gun," his favorite role remains the producer.

"For me it's a very hands-on, nuts-and-bolts, on-the-set kind of job," he said. "That's the fun part. It's a service job with a vision. There are a lot of problems to solve. I like the challenge, the idea of taking a script, you know, which is just print on a paper that costs 49 cents to Xerox. In the beginning you basically start with that and a telephone. And then a year later there's a movie on the screen. It's that scope of the process that intrigues me."

Faced with certain competition from several comedies opening over the holidays, Weiss and his colleagues are hustling "The Naked Gun" across the country, from San Diego, to Phoenix to Washington, on a whirlwind tour of college campuses.

"It's going to be a busy Christmas with six or seven different comedies," Weiss said. "We wanted to precipitate some word-of-mouth before the Thanksgiving break."

He also thinks the tour will put the film makers back in touch with a real audience.

"We make a film in Hollywood, and I think it's hard not to be insulated somewhat," Weiss said. "This is a chance for us to go with the film. We feel we know how the film works and doesn't work; or at least what it was designed to do . . . .

"There are lots of different types of films. But one that purports to get laughs, should. The test is very empirical. You can hear the audience laughing if it's funny.

"Almost in any other type of movie you can convince yourself about how well it's doing, because there's no way to tell. The only way you can tell is people's reactions afterward. But a comedy, you can tell if it's working or not, and there's no place for a comedy that's not funny."

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