Dvd extras

Straight Men

The comedy of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker.

Scary entry of spoofs

The truly puzzling thing about Scary Movie 3—other than its $50 million haul this weekend—is its distinct lack of Wayans brothers. What happened, exactly? We were led to believe the Wayanses had achieved the same permanence in Hollywood as the Sheens and the Fondas and that prying them loose could only be accomplished by thermonuclear event. The answer, I hope, has something to do with Scary Movie 3’s director, David Zucker. A decade ago, Zucker, along with buddy Jim Abrahams and brother Jerry Zucker—the ZAZ boys, for short—practiced an art they dubbed “comedy without comedians.” The trio issued Airplane! (1980) and The Naked Gun (1988), two of the finest parodies ever conceived, and Top Secret! (1984), which would pass a zippy evening on DVD. The ZAZ boys presided over the rebirth of the film spoof. So it’s ironic that David Zucker now presides over its demise.

The non-comedians of Airplane! Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker had a strange notion about casting a comedy. If asked to prepare a funny movie, most directors would center their efforts on one or more funny actors. The ZAZ boys, on the other hand, preferred brutally unfunny men, like Robert Stack or Peter Graves, the kind of guys who found work in cop shows and TV movies of the week. The result was the opposite of a Mel Brooks free-for-all: a film full of straight men, each topping the other with his own drabness. Brooks gave his best lines to comedians, who added their own vinegar; the ZAZ boys gave theirs to stiffs, who added nothing—they just read the dialogue as dully and flatly as possible. When they approached Graves about appearing in Airplane!, he replied, “Why don’t you get some funny people?”

Airplane! stands for many viewers as the best of the ZAZ pictures, a ripe parody of the “we have no landing lights!” thrillers that occurred regularly throughout the 1970s. The film owes much to Zero Hour! (1957), an airborne-disaster film the ZAZ boys discovered on late-night TV and plundered for lines, shots, and the titular exclamation point—they plundered so much, in fact, that Paramount had to buy the rights to the original. Then they cast Airplane! not with comedians but with the kind of B-list actors—Graves, Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen—who would have appeared in the straight version of such a film. They deadpanned lines like:

“This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.””A hospital—what is it?””A big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.”

Top Secret’s low laughs The ZAZ boys hired more stiffs for their second film, Top Secret!, a so-so parody of spy movies and the Elvis pictures, then still more for The Naked Gun, a police procedural that, joke for joke, is probably the funniest picture they ever made. (Jerry Zucker and Abrahams helped write it but left David Zucker to direct.) The Naked Gun players—none of them with comic gifts outpacing your typical U.S. senator—include Nielsen, Ricardo Montalban, and O.J. Simpson.

Kentucky yuks Why this odd devotion to straight men? Listening to the commentaries on their DVDs, you sense the ZAZ boys desperately wanted to take all the laugh-making credit for themselves. They honed their comedy skills at the Kentucky Fried Theater, an act they moved from their native Wisconsin to Los Angeles’ Pico Boulevard in 1972. (Its sketches inspired Kentucky Fried Movie [1977], which they wrote for director John Landis. See a clip from the film at the left.) Without the benefit of comic stars, they learned to milk laughs from their own writing. They often seemed contemptuous of their actors. David Zucker once told an interviewer, “Everything guys like Leslie Nielsen say and do onscreen is put in from backstage. Everything’s being controlled from Houston.”

The straight men also tend to elicit a naughty double laugh—once for the funny line and a second time for the poor actor who has to say it. In the funniest scene in Top Secret!, two spies make common cause in East Berlin. The first laugh is that one of the men finds himself holding dog sh-t. The second laugh is that the man is Omar Sharif.

Naked rip-off of hard crimes But there’s a more important reason for casting stiffs. The best film parodists—from Mel Brooks to Chuck Jones—know that a good spoof must convince you, if only for a few moments, that you are watching an actual genre film. The ZAZ players, who had slummed in the kind of films they were now parodying, brought a blessed obliviousness to the stock roles. (A Mike Myers or Adam Sandler would smirk and ruin the whole effect.) Watch The Naked Gun clip at the left, in which Nielsen, playing a Los Angeles police lieutenant, swoons over the villain’s secretary. His soliloquy—“her hair was the color of gold in old paintings”—could have been lifted straight from hard-boiled crime fiction, yet Nielsen would hardly seem to know it.

This dedication to genre is what’s so sorely lacking from the spoofs of the post-ZAZ age. The trio split up after The Naked Gun, with Jerry Zucker drifting toward more saccharine projects like Ghost (1990) while Abrahams and David Zucker continued to direct comedies. Sadly, the latter pair has blended in with the faceless, uninspired parodists that now dominate Hollywood. Take Scary Movie 3. The film zeroes in on Signs, The Ring, and The Others—all worthy targets, perhaps. But you never believe for a second that you’re watching a horror movie, and the jokes lose their pop. The rest of the picture bends to crude sensibilities: Children are run over and pummeled with baseball bats; rappers show up and start a gang war. There are only a few moments of ZAZ’s deadpan charm. Standing over the rappers’ corpses, Nielsen, playing the president, says, “These men died for their country. Send letters to their bitches and hos.”

David Zucker is such a sharp, funny guy that it feels a bit unfair to blame the decline of the spoof on him, and I suspect it has more to do with the durability of the form itself. Spoofs flourished during the 1920s, back when Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton were tweaking Hollywood, and then all but disappeared from American theaters during World War II—the studios preferred the comfort of straight genre films. They reappeared a few decades later, with Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and the ZAZ boys, and since then, they’ve targeted the Western, the silent movie, the monster movie, the airport movie, the ghetto movie, the horror movie, the ironic horror movie, the mafia movie, the James Bond movie, and on and on and on. Perhaps it’s time again to take a break for a decade or two and let the genre artists catch up to the parodists. David Zucker told an interviewer a few years back, “The whole idea of spoof, to me, is just so done and gone.” So why, pray, does he insist on making more of them?