After 20 years in Hollywood, filmmaker David Zucker decided at last to publish his insights into the cinematic art. Alas, the writer-producer-director discovered, “no one cared! It was in the New York Times, it was reprinted across the country, but no one cared!”
Rather than allow his manifesto, “15 Recipes for a Laugh (Lobster Not Included),” to languish, Zucker, whose credits include “Airplane!,” “Ruthless People” and two “Naked Gun” films, decided to bring his case directly to those who matter most: the 18- to 25-year-old audience that keeps Hollywood afloat. On Friday, the quest brought Zucker to Chapman University, whose campus was celebrating the mirth-maker’s craft with a daylong tribute.
For the university’s students, Zucker’s visit promised a rare audience with an artist who had helped define humor throughout their teen years.
“ ‘Airplane!’ is my favorite film,” said freshman Armando Valenzuela, the first of hundreds to arrive at Chapman’s Waltmar Theatre for the address.
A film student, Valenzuela had come an hour early, hoping that Zucker would illuminate the one aspect of comedy he felt had eluded him: “How to be funny. Right now, I’m just not sure how to do it,” he said.
Before answering that question, however, the 44-year-old Zucker recounted in eulogistic terms the journey that brought him from Shorewood, Wis., to Hollywood.
Frequently displaying artifacts that revealed his comedic vision--such as a photo of the young Zucker proudly showing off his family’s 1957 Edsel--the filmmaker held the rapt attention of his audience as he recalled his suburban Milwaukee boyhood, his student days at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the founding there of the seminal Kentucky Fried Theater in 1971.
That troupe, which also included Zucker’s brother Jerry and friend Jim Abrahams, moved to Los Angeles in 1972, where their storefront revues drew positive notices and won them a spot on “The Tonight Show.”
But Hollywood did not come knocking, so the trio arranged independent financing for their 1977 film debut, “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” an assemblage of sight gags that parodied film and television. The low-budget feature, directed by John Landis, was a hit that won the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team a studio deal to make “Airplane!” in 1980.
“Airplane!,” a homage to the disaster pictures that distinguished American cinema of the 1970s, was a huge hit that grossed $83 million. After that heady triumph, the ZAZ partners went on to a handful of other projects, including two commercial failures--the 1982 TV series “Police Squad!” and the 1984 feature “Top Secret!"--before directing the 1986 hit “Ruthless People.”
With the success of the Danny DeVito-Bette Midler vehicle, Zucker said, “we were so encouraged, we decided to split up.” Abrahams went on to direct comedies, including “Big Business” and last summer’s “Hot Shots!,” while Jerry Zucker gravitated to a less-antic realm, directing the metaphysical hit romance “Ghost.”
It was David Zucker, however, who mined the most gold from the ZAZ formula. With “Police Squad!” as a base, he co-wrote and directed the 1988 hit “The Naked Gun” and this summer’s sequel, “The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear.”
His reputation established, Zucker said, he has moved on to tackle other projects dear to his heart, including a picture based on the Marx Brothers, another on frontiersman Davy Crockett and, he added, another “Naked Gun” sequel, tentatively numbered “33 1/3": Just for the Record.”
The filmmaker then outlined 13 techniques he described as “the 10 types of gags.” These he listed as 1) puns; 2) slapstick; 3) incongruity; 4) role reversal; 5) background humor; 6) farce; 7) ad absurdum; 8) cinematic tricks; 9) satire; 10) film convention techniques; 11) film cliches in absurd settings; 12) awareness of real-life situations, 13) relativity (specifically, casting one’s mother in every picture).
Finally, he enumerated his 15 rules governing the dos and don’ts of comedy, developed over the years with Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. These included the first commandment about placing only one joke before the audience at a time (thou shalt not put a joke on a joke) through advisements against taking too many potshots at the same target and the use of material that is, in his words, “merely clever.”
Zucker then answered student questions, commenting on the stature of “Naked Gun” star Leslie Nielsen (“Our casting director was embarrassed to cast him. He said, ‘Leslie Nielsen? That’s the guy you cast the night before you have to shoot.’ ”) and offering suggestions to aspiring filmmakers (“My best advice about getting into the business? Quit now.”).
He also reflected on the fact that his former partners had each gone on to somewhat more serious work.
“They can do whatever they want, as long as they’re not borrowing money from me anymore,” he said. For his part, though, Zucker said he intended to keep making the zany films that had become his hallmark.
Citing Groucho Marx and Woody Allen as his models, Zucker said that Allen’s 1969 prison spoof, “Take the Money and Run,” “was kind of an inspiration to me.
“And,” he added in an interview following the lecture, “I was always disappointed that Woody Allen stopped making his earlier, funnier movies. My goal is to keep on making those earlier, funnier movies.”
Nonetheless, Zucker confided a fear: “I have this theory that you have only 10 years to be funny, and that’s it. After that, you start making ‘Interiors,’ ” he said, in reference to Allen’s 1978 family drama that disappointed many fans of his early comedies. “After a time,” Zucker said, “that generational thing starts to show.”
Regardless of Zucker’s doubts, Chapman students, many of whom had not been born when the Kentucky Fried Theater first arrived in Los Angeles, said they ranked the filmmaker as one of the century’s great artists.
“I view Zucker as a real cinematic pioneer,” said senior Doug Howell. “ ‘Airplane!’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ both came out (about the same time),” the film major said by way of explanation, “and while I could quote ‘Airplane!’ line by line, I don’t remember any of the jokes in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ ”
Freshman Maria Lopez compared Zucker to another widely admired American filmmaker.
“Like Orson Welles, Zucker is quite formalistic,” she said. “True, Welles is more realistic and deals more with human nature and society, while Zucker appeals more to the absurd with his thematic use of comedy. But altogether, you’d have to say they are equally significant to film.”
And for theater major Todd Canedy, who said he is looking for ideas in staging a student play, the Zucker address was like an audience with the paterfamilias of all English-language drama.
“I’m having a little trouble with the play, so I thought, ‘Why not listen to someone who’s a master?’ After all, if you’re going to write a play, why not talk to Shakespeare?”
Remarks such as this pleased Zucker, who commented: “Chapman probably has the most perceptive group of kids in the country. They certainly have the best taste.”
But not all fell under David Zucker’s spell.
“They told us it was going to be Jerry Zucker,” said sophomore Brian Morrison. “We were all disappointed.”