“Well, the series didn’t work, because you had to watch it.”
–Tony Thomopoulos, Head of ABC Programming, 1982
I’ve been a student of television for almost my entire life. An old girlfriend once told me that “you watch the commercials more intently than most people watch the shows”. (She was right.) And yet, every once in a while there’s a show that makes me grateful for things like rewind buttons on remotes, so I can see and hear what actually just happened — to catch those lines or jokes that I didn’t catch the first time. In fact, for a certain show, the rewind button is practically necessary… too bad it originally aired in 1982, before that feature was commonplace.
And yet, the show lived on to become the basis for a hit motion picture series, even though it only lasted six episodes on TV. For that, we have to thank the warped minds of producers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, and the files of Police Squad!
Following their success with the joke-a-minute spoof movie Airplane!, the trio of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker were looking for their next project. This time, they were hoping to parody the conventions of cop dramas. To do this, they wanted Leslie Nielsen, who had made a lengthy career as a serious dramatic actor, but had played a significant comedic part in Airplane!
As Detective Frank Drebin, Nielsen was superb at delivering funny lines in a deadpan and droll manner, the serious center around which the craziness occurred. He and his boss Captain Hocken (played by Alan North) were involved in all the tropes of traditional cop dramas, no matter what absurdity was going on around them.
“We sold the show just with the credits. Normally a show just does a pilot. We shot the credits beforehand so we could say, ‘It’s like Airplane!, but for the cop show genre.’ And then we went to New York to pitch the show, and we showed that opening credits sequence. We showed that in front of all those ABC executives, and it was like a mortician’s convention. The credit sequence was an exact replica of M-Squad, which starred Lee Marvin in the late ’50s or early ’60s.”
–Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker
The series was full of visual puns, gags, and non-sequiturs, all sending up the TV cop show motif. Even that opening credit sequence was full of jokes, especially if you were familiar with the genre. The original announcer for many of the popular Quinn Martin-produced shows of the sixties and seventies (such as the original Untouchables, The FBI, Cannon, and The Streets of San Francisco) was hired to do credit voice-overs for Police Squad! in the same ultra-serious manner. The opening credit sequence also featured a couple of running gags: One was that each episode had two titles, one onscreen, and a different one heard in the voice-over (for example, you’d see the words “Ring of Fear”, but the announcer would say “A Dangerous Assignment”).
The other running gag was the announcement of that week’s “guest star”… who would be “killed off” during the credits, and never actually appear in the episode itself! The “death of the week” included television favorites like Robert Goulet, Florence Henderson, Lorne Greene, and William Shatner (who actually avoided a hail of bullets in a restaurant… and then promptly died, overacting, after drinking a poisoned glass of champagne.) This actually proved to be a point of controversy that the show barely avoided, as they had filmed one of these “guest” scenes with comic John Belushi being drowned… and two weeks before the episode was to air, Belushi died in real life due to a drug overdose. Another actor and sequence was quickly substituted, and that footage was likely destroyed, as it has never seen the light of day.
“We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn’t dead then.”
–Detective Frank Drebin to a murder victim’s wife in the opening episode
Our heroes were aided by a few other regulars. Officer Norberg (played by Peter Lupus) was a younger detective, who usually was far more interested in circumstances surrounding the crime being investigated than the crime itself, with absurd results (in one episode, there’s a sting operation using a phony locksmith shop as a front, and Norberg is ecstatic over the business that they’re doing, and completely forgets the fact that they’re actually there to catch the crooks). Ted Olson (played by Ed Williams) runs the Crime Lab (and you can tell, because the sign on the door literally says “The Lab”). He is usually teaching some innocent child how science is supposed to work when interrupted by Drebin for information on a case… and he sends the child off with instructions along the lines of “next week, make sure you bring along some of your mother’s underwear”. Finally, whenever Drebin is stuck on a case, his street informant is the shoeshine guy Johnny (William Duell), who is so connected that he knows every detail about every possible situation, even items that it would be impossible for him to know. The running gag with him is that, after Drebin leaves with whatever information is needed to advance the plot, someone else comes up to the shoeshine stand for help. This included a doctor (in full surgical scrubs) needing advice on how to perform complex surgery, Dodgers baseball manager Tommy Lasorda on what to do about his pitching rotation, and even eternally young American Bandstand host Dick Clark wondering what this new “ska” music was that the kids were talking about (and getting another supply of miracle youth cream from Johnny as well!!)
Much of the humor in the show was hilariously obvious, but some of it was so understated and “in the background” that it was easy to miss a joke… or three… as they went by. The show was done without a laugh track because, as the producers stated, “Where do you put the laugh track for a visual joke that the audience is discovering at different times?” This truly was a show that could NOT be watched casually, or used as background noise, and you HAD to pay attention to really “get” the show.
I wasn’t kidding about having the rewind button. While watching the episodes again recently for research on this article, and it took a friend and me an average of forty-five minutes to watch each twenty-five minute episode. First, because we were laughing so hard we’d miss the next lines and have to rewind the scene to hear them, and second, because there would be so many visual jokes in the background of a scene (that didn’t always call attention to themselves) we’d have to keep hitting rewind to check and see that we’d caught the gag that was actually there. One of us would catch a joke that the other hadn’t, and we’d back up the episode to show the other what we were laughing about. You couldn’t do that in 1982 (well, most couldn’t, as the VCR was just hitting the market at that time), and so many of the jokes on Police Squad! were simply missed by the audience instead of being “pointed out” by a laugh track (or a convenient friend with a rewind button). And there were lots of jokes. If you didn’t like one, wait 10 seconds.. there would be another one coming by.
The show also ate up material with amazing speed. The producers were almost glad that they’d gotten canceled after only six episodes, as they hadn’t realized how many jokes were necessary for each half-hour episode. But they’d also figured out that the problem with doing Police Squad! as a TV series was, as the network had noted, the series had to be actively watched, by an engaged audience. Unfortunately, for an audience whose standard of comedy at the time was Happy Days and Mork and Mindy, constant attention to detail and background wasn’t a skill that had developed around a television set, and rewind buttons were practically nonexistent. The show’s studio, Paramount, believed in the idea of the series nonetheless, and soon decided that the problem wasn’t the material, it was the attention span of the audience. And so, a failed TV series became a major motion picture.
“It sounds funny, and sounds dumb, but it was true. You had to pay attention. You couldn’t look away, you had to watch to make sure that you caught the humor, or where it was coming from… and television, people don’t really “watch” TV. (…) The television screen is too small, because in the screening room, if it’s big enough, you don’t miss the humor, you don’t miss a chance to participate in that humor, because it comes out and hits you. That’s why it works in the movie, because that movie screen can fall on you, and you’re not going to miss it. And you’re not going to miss what’s up there to be seen.”
The first Naked Gun movie (subtitled From the Files of Police Squad!, just in case anyone HAD paid attention to the series) did tremendous business in 1988. It made over $78 million dollars during its run in theaters. That may not sound like much compared to the blockbusters of today, but realize that movie tickets were much cheaper then, and the movie was still comfortably in the Top Ten movies of the year as far as money earned. And what makes it even more amazing is that the movie stole a significant amount of its humor directly from gags that had been used on the original TV series! (If people had just paid attention, they could have essentially seen it for free six years earlier, and not had to pay for a babysitter and popcorn….)
There were eventually two more movies in the series, and more gags from the original show were used in addition to all new material, but the feel of those movies was a bit more slapstick and the visual jokes more blatant, and ironically, as a result, the sequels didn’t do as well. But the source material is still very, very funny, and holds up well, even today. Clever wordplay, sight-gags, and straight, deadpan delivery of outrageous material is timeless. One good joke, done properly, can last a lifetime.
LESLIE NIELSEN (Detective Frank Drebin) was known primarily as a serious dramatic actor before Airplane! came along, most famously in the sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet and as the lead in the 50’s Disney series The Swamp Fox. Numerous TV guest roles (over 100) followed, before his second career as a comedian, and an Emmy nomination for his role in Police Squad!. He loves golf, and was featured in a comic series of films about playing the sport, titled Bad Golf Made Easier.
ALAN NORTH (Captain Ed Hocken) appeared on the soap opera Another World for more than 3 years, and was also featured on the TV series Love, Sydney and Kate and Allie, in addition to movie roles in the original Highlander and The Long Kiss Goodnight. He died in early 2000 of kidney and lung cancer.
PETER LUPUS (Norberg) played the strong, protective Willy Armitage for six years on Mission: Impossible, and again was a serious actor turned into a comedian. He also is a bodybuilder, and holds records for weightlifting, the most recent set at the age of 75.
ED WILLIAMS (Ted Olson) was the only actor besides Leslie Nielsen to re-create his role in the Naked Gun movies, which is surprising since acting was actually his second career. His first was as a teacher, which means all those scenes with the kids in Police Squad! were just an extension of his original profession.
WILLIAM DUELL (Johnny) was originally a stage actor, appearing in both the original Broadway and movie versions of the musical 1776. He was also featured as one of the inmates in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and later returned to Broadway for the revival of 1776, making him the only actor to appear in all three versions of the production.
The series is available on DVD, with interesting and funny commentary by the writers and producers on three of the six episodes. Obviously, the three movies are also available on DVD. But if you’re too impatient, or just too cheap to buy them, then once again YouTube is your best bet. Most of the information on the internet focuses on both the TV series and the movies, but the best site for specific information about just the series is here.
“If Police Squad! had been made twenty years later, it would have been a smash. It was before its time. In 1982, your average viewer was unable to cope with its pace, its quick-fire jokes. But these days they’d have no problems keeping up, I think we’ve proved that.”
–Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons
Police Squad! certainly won’t go down in history as one of the great works of mankind. It didn’t show the strength of the human spirit, or the struggle for acceptance, or any of those terrific, dramatic things that great television can do. But it did do one thing, and did it well, and that was to make people laugh. And that’s a pretty good thing for a television show to be able to do… but only if you’re paying attention.
6 aired episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: March 4, 1982
Last aired episode: July 8, 1982
Aired Friday 8/7 Central? No, it aired for the month of March on Thursdays at 8/7 Central, and got clobbered in the ratings by Magnum P.I and Fame during a sweeps period. The final two episodes were burned off later in July.
Comments and suggestions welcomed, as always.