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"WHAT kind of reactions have you been getting to The Naked Gun?" I asked Bob Weiss before the screening of the movie.
"Mostly rashes," he replied.
Weiss, who produced the film, is a jovial wiseguy, as are his frequent collaborators David Zucker and Jim Abrahams. When I told them I would be reviewing the movie, Zucker, in a facetious attempt to influence my opinion, said, "Really? That's a nice sweater you have on." When Abrahams arrived a few minutes later, I told him the same thing and he retorted, without prompting from Zucker, "Lovely shirt you're wearing."
David Zucker and his brother Jerry met Abrahams in the early 1970s in Madison, Wisconsin, where they all were students. Together they worked up a show comprised of some video and live skits they called Kentucky Fried Theater. Weiss hooked up with the "ZAZ" (Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker) team when he went to see the show and loved it, returning again and again. That production went on to be the basis for their low-budget cult classic, Kentucky Fried Movie.
Their next project, Airplane!, took six years to get to the screen. Every studio rejected their idea for the manic, offbeat satire of everything from film tradition to religion to drug abuse. But the old rags-to-riches fable came true for the team when Paramount finally picked up the film and it became a smash.
Naked Gun is the result of the original idea for the Police Squad! TV series. ZAZ wanted to make a feature film out of the idea but, as Zucker says, "we had no story." Instead, they created a half-hour television show. When the show was cancelled after only four weeks, they were dismayed but somewhat relieved.
"The show failed," says Weiss, "because you actually had to watch it." The series was filled with the kind of visual sight gags that made Airplane! a hit but which were ill suited to television viewers who are apt to iron a shirt or balance a checkbook instead of actually looking at the screen.
Zucker, who cites the Marx Brothers as a major inspiration for the team's trademark humor, a combination of irreverent spoof and slapstick, contends that their brand of film satire requires a particular frame of mind and involves a certain amount of risk. The blockbuster reception of Airplane! was followed up by the disaster of Top Secret. When the latter film is mentioned, both Weiss and Zucker flinch. As Zucker says, "It isn't like drama where you can say `You simply didn't get the "heavyosity" we were aiming for.'" In comedy, the sound (or lack) of laughter is an immediate indication of success (or failure).
The failure of Top Secret deflected the team from their path as ZAZ went on to direct Ruthless People, a film they did not write, and Abrahams went on to direct Big Business, starring Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler.
They clearly relish the opportunity to get back to their own work. Though Naked Gun is "less of a film satire" than Airplane! was, it has a similar loony appeal.
ONE of the trademarks of their style has been to use celebrities that the public is already familiar with in a completely different context. Kareem Abdul Jabbar is the best example from Airplane!. Naked Gun features cameos from "Weird Al" Yankovic, the late John Houseman and others. Working with Priscilla Presley, Zucker told the audience at a recent preview, was great. "She was sweet...the only problems were when Elvis visited the set."
Leslie Nielsen, famous from playing the bland hero type in more than 1000 television adventure shows, has been the straight man for various ZAZ projects. Actually, Zucker says, he is quite funny. Zucker's sister told a story she remembers hearing about Zucker and Nielsen standing in a packed elevator when Nielsen said something like, "I wish I hadn't had that last taco," and provide suitable sound accompaniment with a whoopie cushion he occasionally carried around the set.
Now that they have moved from the $650,000 budget of Kentucky Fried Movie to the $14.5 million budget of Naked Gun, ZAZ seems to be back on track. Their next project? According to Zucker, a possible sequel to Naked Gun is in the works.
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