We may take laugh-track-free shows like The Simpsons, Scrubs, and My Name Is Earl for granted, but when the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team that created Airplane! brought this short-lived comedic gem to ABC in 1982, many viewers weren’t paying close enough attention to get the jokes. Back then, people listened to sitcoms more than they watched them, and without the canned guffaws, they were oblivious. Luckily Police Squad! served as inspiration for the successful Naked Gun film trilogy, where the creators’ off-the-wall humor was gobbled up by comedy fans worldwide.
Starring the brilliantly deadpan Leslie Nielsen as hapless Detective Frank Drebin, all six episodes of Police Squad! were bursting with sight gags, visual punnery, and bizarre slapstick unlike anything else on television. The cast and crew’s shenanigans were quite original, from the guest stars (including William Shatner and Florence Henderson) who were killed in the opening credits to the live scene “freeze frames” at the end of each episode, even right down to the title cards (“Act II: Gesundheit”). The lines, delivered earnestly as if the characters were in a serious drama, were classic too. “Cigarette?” “Yes, I know.” Or, even better, “Who are you, and how did you get in here?” “I’m a locksmith, and I’m a locksmith.” And who can forget Drebin’s go-to guy, the all-knowing shoeshine man with street tips for him and career advice for Dick Clark, Tommy Lasorda, and Dr. Joyce Brothers?
The Z-A-Z team knew how to cram the frame with gags, often distracting us with background action or one-liners that ran against the grain of the action. Frankly, this kind of visual sophistication has rarely been seen since on the boob tube, but this offbeat series can now serve as an inspiration for future small-screen comedians. At least Paramount has commemorated it with a DVD, which also includes a gag reel, a recent interview with Nielsen, screen tests, commentaries, and photos. — B.R.