Leslie Nielsen may be the only American alive who can still coax waves of laughter out of supposedly sophisticated audiences with the repeated use of . . . a whoopee cushion.
It’s the debonair looks and deadpan manner, of course, that set audiences up to believe that Nielsen must be as straight a man as his three decades of straight-man roles would have led them to believe. This presumption of dignity on Nielsen’s part inevitably leaves unsuspecting viewers vulnerable to his complete lack of same when it comes to doing anything unexpected for a belly laugh.
That left-field comic sensibility also just happens to be one shared by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, the team that made Nielsen into an unexpected screen comedian in “Airplane!,” the short-lived TV series “Police Squad!” and the new hit movie “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!”
Nielsen doesn’t get to use the whoopee cushion in “The Naked Gun,” but he has been trying it out on college audiences on a tour promoting the film, and he’s wont to spring it on media interrogators as well. One unnamed female TV interviewer proved curiously impervious to his uncomfortable simulations of indigestion--only to later tell Nielsen’s longtime publicist that he ought to get his client to a doctor.
“I’ve always had fun, but I’ve always done it behind the camera,” says the actor. “I had begun laughing at my own stuff long before I did ‘Airplane’ ” he says. “That’s why when I got the script, I knew exactly what they wanted. Doing their lines as seriously and with as much gravity as we had approached the police-action material, it was going to be terribly funny.
“Jerry Zucker gave me one of the nicest compliments I could have had. An interviewer had asked Jerry what I was like, how I functioned, and he said, ‘Nielsen?’ (A pause.) He swings with a cracked bat.’ ”