Police Squad!

Police Squad!Synopsis: There are 8 Million Storiesiin theiNaked City. Here are Six.

Join Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) and Capt. Ed Hocken (Alan North) as they solve the toughest cases – full of all the sight-gags, puns, and non-sequiturs that made the series famous!

Created by David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, who gave us the other classics such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun series.

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Police Squad! 8.0

eyelights: the non-sequiturs. the silly sight gags. the absurd word plays. the concept. Leslie Nielsen. Peter Lupus. Ed Williams. Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln.
eyesores: the long-term lack of inspiration. Alan North.

PS0

“My name is Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective-Lieutenant, Police Squad, a special detail of the police department. There’d been a recent wave of gorgeous fashion models found naked and unconscious in laundromats on the West Side. Unfortunately, I was assigned to investigate holdups of neighborhood credit unions. “

I still remember the night I first discovered ‘Police Squad!’. A buddy and I were in some furniture shop that also happened to have a VHS rental section at the back. I can’t remember why we were there or if the store was a bedding supplies store (as it is now), but I remember the location and I recall the power that ‘Police Squad!’ had over me.

We may have been there to check out the video rentals. Who knows. But I vividly remember that we didn’t rent the video that evening.

Dammit, I wanted to see this tape! The picture of Leslie Nielsen as Lieutenant Frank Drebin and the description at the back of the box promised such hilarity that I could barely contain myself. My enthusiasm may also have been inspired by the then-recently released ‘The Naked Gun’ (which is based on ‘Police Squad!’, and which I couldn’t coax my dad to go see); everyone was talking about it.

If anything, I suspect that my compulsive viewings of ‘Airplane!’ (the first time I saw it, as a kid, I watched it seven times in one weekend) is what did the trick; its sense of humour no doubt informed my own.

‘Police Squad!’ was the mad creation of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, the creative team behind ‘Airplane!’ and ‘The Kentucky Fried Movie‘. Pitched as an ‘Airplane!’-like spoof of police procedural shows, ‘Police Squad!’ would be bursting with the same type of zany and absurdist humour that made their films cultural landmarks.

I can’t say that I’m a big fan of cop shows, but I’ve seen enough of them to get most of the references in this spoof. Thankfully, what makes the Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams formula so clever is that it doesn’t strictly resort to parody, it also injects slapstick, sophomoric humour, corniness, sight gags, word plays, and non sequiturs (one of my all-time favourites) all into one.

Basically, ‘Police Squad!’ is a smorgasbord of comedy played completely straight-faced by its participants. In my estimation, this is what makes it work: if all the gags had been played for what they are by the cast and crew, the would have lost their impetus. But, given that the characters exist in an absurd world that they take at face value, it adds levels of amusement to each gag, each pratfall.

This is perfectly exemplified by the series’ first interrogation scene, inspired by Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine, when Detective-Lieutenant Frank Drebin tries to get some information from the bank robbery’s only witness:

Det. Frank Drebin: “Wait a minute, let me get this straight: Twice came in and shot the teller and Jim Fell. “
Sally Decker: “No, he only shot the teller, Jim Johnson. Fell is ill.”
Det. Frank Drebin: “Okay, then after he shot the teller, you shot Twice.”
Sally Decker: “No, I only shot once.”
Capt. Ed Hocken: “Twice is the hold up man.”
Sally Decker: “Then I guess I did shoot Twice.”
Det. Frank Drebin: “Oh, so now you’re changing your story.”
Sally Decker: “No, I shot Twice after Jim fell.”
Det. Frank Drebin: “You shot twice and Jim Fell?”
Sally Decker: “No, Jim fell first and then I shot Twice once.”
Det. Frank Drebin: “Well, who fired twice?”
Sally Decker: “Once!”
Capt. Ed Hocken: “He’s the owner of the tire company, Frank.”
(pause)
Det. Frank Drebin: “Okay. Once is the owner of the tire company and he fired Twice. Then Twice shot the teller once.”
Sally Decker: “Twice.”
Det. Frank Drebin: “…and Jim fell and then you fired Twice.”
Sally Decker: “Once!”
Det. Frank Drebin: “Okay. All right, that will be all for now, Ms. Decker.”
Capt. Ed Hocken: “We’ll need you to make a formal statement down at the station.”
Sally Decker: “Oh, of course!”
Det. Frank Drebin: “You’ve been very helpful. We think we know how he did it.”
Sally Decker: “Oh, Howie couldn’t have done it. He hasn’t been in for weeks.”
Det. Frank Drebin: “Well…”
(pause)
Det. Frank Drebin: “Thank you again, Ms. Decker.”
(to Ed)
Det. Frank Drebin: “Weeks?”
Capt. Ed Hocken: “Saul Weeks. He’s the comptroller, Frank.”

As delivered by Leslie Nielsen, who was spotlighted in ‘Airplane!’ in a similarly deadpan performance, it’s a completely outrageous moment: none of these people realize just how ridiculous they sound, but they’re muddling their way through it as best as their limited awareness will allow them to. The confused exchange combined with the obvious mental confusion is a total delight to observe. And Nielsen’s performance as Drebin seals the deal.

Another character that I quite liked was Officer Norberg (as played by Peter Lupus of ‘Mission: Impossible’ fame). An imposing figure, he was known most of his career as a silent, strong-man. Here he plays an eager, well-intentioned, but somewhat dim-witted straight man. He only showed up in a cameo in Episode 3, but gradually got more screen time as the show went on. Personally, I thought that most of his lines were excellent, and his delivery totally fit the bill. I can’t fathom why, but, O.J. Simpson would replace Lupus for the big screen version in ‘The Naked Gun’.

‘Police Squad’ revolves around a series of staples, or recurring gags, that can be found in each episode:

Recurring gags

  • It always features guest stars that die during the opening credits sequence, never making it into the actual episode (ex: Robert Goulet, William Shatner).
  • The episode are always given an on-screen title, but then given are given an entirely different title by the show’s announcer.
  • Detective-Lieutenant Drebin is always driving back from some unusual assignment when he gets called in on the episode’s case.

PS2

Det. Frank Drebin: “I’d just come from the stockyards. We’d gotten reports of hundreds of cows had been senselessly slaughtered in the area, but I couldn’t find any evidence. I stopped off for a hamburger and checked in with headquarters.”

  • Drebin always has a visit to the police labs to Ted Olsen, the Police Squad scientist. Not only are their exchange absurd, but Olsen always starts the segment by showing inappropriate things to children (such as how to course electricity through an electric chair to light a lightbulb), in a spoof of those TV science shows for kids.

PS3

Ted Olsen: “So Billy, when the moisture in the air comes in contact with the cold pitcher, it forms water droplets. What we call condensation. Just like your mother when she gets out of the shower, glistening with tiny little beads of… Oh, hi Frank.”

  • Drebin always visits Johnny the Snitch, the local shoe shine guy (played by William Duell, of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ fame). This is where he gets key clues for lack of any other breaks in his case. Then he is always followed by either by a celebrity (Tommy Lasorda, Joyce Brothers, Dick Clark) or an important figure (surgeon, firefighter, priest) who are in the middle of something important and need advice.

PS1

Minister: “What do you know about life after death?”
Johnny the Snitch: “I wouldn’t know anything about it.”
([the Minister gives Johnny a dollar bill bribe)
Johnny the Snitch: “You talking existential being, or anthropomorphic deity?”

  • The episode is broken into two act (which are given unusual titles as well), and an epilogue.
  • Frank Drebin always parks into garbage cans and other parked cars. He must be the worst driver on the force!
  • There are constant word plays – some clever, some absurd, some corny.

Johnny the Snitch: “She’s in big trouble. She’s being held by Martin’s goon, Luca.”
Det. Frank Drebin: “What’s a goonluca?”

  • There are frequent misunderstandings between characters due to double entendres.

Mimi: “Is this some kind of bust?”
Det. Frank Drebin: “Yes, it’s very impressive, but we’d just like to ask a few questions.”

  • It is rife with silly sight gags such as wacky signage, or unusual activity taking place in the background, …etc. One has to be alert to catch everything in any given scene.
  • One the Police Squad characters is an unusually tall man whose head is always kept out of the frame; we never see his face. He’s always wearing a weird shirt, a wig or something peculiar to make him stand out further.
  • Many episodes feature a discussion between Frank and Ed at police headquarters, in the elevator. These are expository exchanges, but there’s always something going on outside the elevator doors that shouldn’t be taking place in a police station.
  • Each episode ends with an epilogue and a “freeze frame” moment like they used to do in the olden days of television. Except that, in ‘Police Squad!’, the actors are pretending to be freeze framed, and there’s always something taking place to ruin the shot, such as a character being unable to sit still, or a criminal trying to escape.

The series only lasted for 6 episodes, being famously cancelled by Tony Thomopoulos, ABC’s President of Entertainment at the time, because it demanded too much attention from its viewers in order to be appreciated. In other words, one couldn’t eat dinner or iron the laundry while watching the show – one actually needed to be attentive. So it got cancelled.

Episodes

1-
1. A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise)

Detective Frank Drebin is called in to investigate a bank hold-up gone wrong. While delving into the bank robber’s past, he finds a lot of pieces that don’t seem to fit. Puzzled, he gets help from a number of unusual sources. Eventually, he gets a clue.

The series opener goes all out right from the onset with all sorts of misunderstandings, non-sequiturs, sight gags galore and back-to-back one-liners. It’s a superb introduction to the show’s cast, style and conventions, and it’s the blueprint for the rest of the series. It was written and directed by show creators Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams. 8.25

Memorable quote

Frank Drebin: “We’re sorry to bother you at a time like this, Mrs. Twice. We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn’t dead then.”

Favourite bits (that are not recurring gags)

The bank manager who refuses to die until his paperwork is done with.

The visit at the dental office in which Drebin poses as a client and ends up drooling uncontrollably in the file cabinets.

2-
2. Ring of Fear (A Dangerous Assignment)

After a boxer is found murdered in his changing room, Drebin is brought in to track down the killer. Having no leads whatsoever, he decides to pose as a boxing manager in the hope of connecting with people in the know. After finding a down-on-his-luck fighter and rehabilitating him, he eventually uses him to knock out a crime boss.

Personally, I don’t like setting (boxing is an abhorrent “sport” in my mind), but the episode is filled with all manners of sight gags and delightfully corny lines. And it does spoof the genre conventions quite well, all things considered. It’s just too bad that it feels like it’s riding on the previous episode’s coattails. Of note is that this episode was directed by none other than Joe Dante himself. 7.5

Memorable quote

Frank Drebin: “Now do you think you can beat The Champ?”
Buddy: “I can take him blindfolded.”
Frank Drebin: “What if he’s not blindfolded?”
Buddy: “I can still beat him.”

Favourite bits (that are not recurring gags)

Seeing the aftermath of the murder, with the victim hanging from the ceiling and everyone bumping into it.

The poker match between Drebin and the crooked manager, which was highlighted by some clueless guy who misunderstood everything that was being said.

3-
3. The Butler Did It (A Bird in the Hand)

Some rich girl gets kidnapped at her birthday party and Drebin is called in find her. After driving around for hours for no particular reason, he and his boss come back empty-handed. So he puts a tap on her parents’ phone and discovers that there’s one or tuba red herrings.

This episode is staged quite conventionally, and it has a few pretty horrible gags (such as the Japanese garden), but it also has its fair share of excellent moments along the way. As with episode two, most of the biggest laughs are found in the series’ conventions. This one also introduces Peter Lupus as Norberg, and he became an essential part of the formula. This episode was written by Pat Proft, a key writer in the careers of Zucker/Zucker/Abraham 7.75

Memorable quote

Det. Frank Drebin: “Mr. Burton, we have men combing the entire lakefront area. If your daughter is close, we’ll find her.”
Warner: “The lakefront? My God, do you know how big that area is? My daughter’s a needle in a haystack!”
Det. Frank Drebin: “That’s not true. I’ve seen a picture of her, she’s very attractive.”

Favourite bits (that are not recurring gags)

The basketball game interrogation that has Drebin join in and doing double-duty

The ridiculously insensitive interviews with the parents, post-kidnapping.

4-
4. Revenge and Remorse (The Guilty Alibi)

In the aftermath of a bombing at the courthouse, Frank Drebin is hot on the heels of a convicted bomber who so happens to have been sent to jail by the victims of this particular attack. Convinced that this is a set-up, Drebin decides to dig deeper and discovers who’s wearing the pants in this matter.

By this point in the series, the jokes are getting cornier and cornier. There are still a few hilarious ones, but you can see that the writers are lacking inspiration. 7.75

Memorable quote

Mimi: “Is this some kind of bust?”
Det. Frank Drebin: “Yes, it’s very impressive, but we’d just like to ask a few questions.”

Favourite bits (that are not recurring gags)

The opening murder, which plays with all the genre conventions (such as only seeing the killer’s feet, …etc.)

5-
5. Rendezvous at Big Gulch (Terror in the Neighborhood)

In order to unearth a small-business extortion ring, Frank Drebin and Norberg open up a locksmith shop in the affected neighbourhood. After being personally threatened, they show the hoods the door and become local heroes – only to soon find out that their key witness is in mortal danger.

I love the story behind this one and it sure was nice to see Norberg become a major player instead of just the comic relief – Lupus plays him with such earnestness that it makes him funny. Unfortunately, many of the jokes are either poor or poorly-staged by the director (case-in-point, the opening extortion montage). 7.25

Memorable quote

Det. Frank Drebin: “It took me two weeks to find Stella’s apartment. She had neglected to give me her address.”

Favourite bits (that are not recurring gags)

Norberg getting into the locksmith business way too seriously.

The way that Drebin and Norberg ran the shop: they couldn’t even open their own door, made keys in front of client (shooting the sparks directly at them, …etc.), offered home deliveries, deals, that sort of thing.

6-
6. Testimony of Evil (Dead Men Don’t Laugh)

When a stand-up comic takes his car over a cliff, foul play is suspected and Police Squad is on the case. Frank Drebin is sent to infiltrate the cabaret the deceased worked in, posing as a comedian. As he entertains the nightclub’s patrons, he sees a few things that are amiss, leading him to conclude that there was more to the stand-up comic’s murder.

This particular episode amuses me greatly due to the setting, the excellent cast, and the verve with which Drebin takes on the challenge of being a stand-up comedian. But the episode is mired by poor direction, which leaves mistakes littered along the way, and quite a few desperate gags. 7.5

Memorable quote

Det. Frank Drebin: “When I arrived at the morgue, my boss had already begun to investigate the physical evidence. As was our custom in such cases, we began to talk.”

Favourite bits (that are not recurring gags)

The absurd hallucinations of the stand-up comic as he is driving along the coast, drugged up. No doubt that this inspired the opening credits of ‘Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult’.

It’s quite clear that the series couldn’t have sustained its brisk pace for much longer. It got gradually cornier and less clever as it wore on and would likely have devolved further. While it’s unfortunate that there are only a half-dozen episodes to enjoy, it’s its very brevity that makes it so enjoyable – it didn’t wear out its welcome.

Many years later, having watched the shows far too often for my own good, the novelty has worn off slightly: I rate many of the episodes somewhat low because they’re frequently weakly scripted, directed or even acted. However, I still love the format and think that it’s a very clever idea. At its best, ‘Police Squad!’ is rip-roaringly hilarious, making up for all the lame bits.

It may have under-performed at the time, but it’s become a cult classic for a reason: it has found a niche with people who love the type of humour that Zucker/Zucker/Abraham were bringing to the masses at the time. They took a chance on the small screen, and found only limited success, but they would hit box office gold when they delved into the files of ‘Police Squad!’ for its big screen adaptation, ‘The Naked Gun’.

Veronica: “Say, that was nice work. You took a big chance doing that.”
Det. Frank Drebin: “Well, you take a chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street, or sticking your face in a fan.”

Date of viewing: February 25-March 1, 2013

4 responses to “Police Squad!

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