People don’t watch television. They may have it on, but they’re easily distracted, especially in the case of sitcoms. Not so with Police Squad!, the 1982 series which lasted six episodes before being yanked. It relied heavily on visual humor and subtle but corny jokes (“I think we know how he did it,” or “Oh, no, Howie hasn’t been here for weeks”) and did so without a laugh-track, a relatively rebellious idea for the time. In order to “get it,” viewers had to pay attention. Most weren’t willing to take on that responsibility.
In the years since its cancellation, Police Squad! has gained cult status. Now all episodes have been released on DVD with the tag, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. Here are six.” For those unfamiliar with the series and fond of bad puns, the DVD is a great way to watch silliness in the vein of Ernie Kovacs and the Marx Brothers. For diehard fans, it offers little in the way of news.
The series was a parody of the 1957 crime drama M Squad, a joke likely lost on most 1982 viewers. Creators Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker had already made a name for themselves with their film parodies, Airplane and Kentucky Fried Movie. They relied on the same cheesy humor in this outing. Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) solves crime in San Francisco alongside his boss, Captain Ed Hocken (Alan North). Their cases are typical of ’50s crime drama: corruption in the boxing world pits the goodhearted boxer against the mob, a secretary steals the company funds and frames someone else, and a teenaged heiress is kidnapped on her birthday. But the plots are secondary to the sight gags and running jokes.
And Police Squad is filled with running jokes. Each opening credit features a different guest star being killed — William Shatner is poisoned in a restaurant and Florence Henderson is gunned down in her kitchen. (John Belushi had filmed a sequence for the credits in which he drowned, but his real death prevented the clip from airing.) In the first episode, Drebin runs into a trash can, so in subsequent episodes, he runs into the same number of trash cans as the episode number. Whenever Drebin and Hocken are on an elevator, the other passengers have odd destinations — an opera diva gets on the elevator and exits onto an opera house stage, a diver exits into a pool area, and so on. Such gags are repeated from episode to episode.
The show also relies heavily on sight gags, most frequently in the background, for observant viewers to spot. When the cops venture into Little Italy, the backgrounds include famous Italian landmarks, and the view outside the police squad room is constantly changing. Through editing, a shoot-out looks as if it occurring across a great distance, but a long shot reveals the shooters are only two feet apart. Add to these bits a selection of vaudevillian jokes and it is easy to understand why appreciation requires full attention.
If you are the type who groans at a truly corny pun, then sends it in an e-mail to all of your friends, then the humor here may be right up your alley. However, if you’re the type who hears that same corny joke, walks away, and thinks the teller is a dumb-ass, then this DVD set probably has little for you. A good test to ask yourself is this: if a Will Farrell comedy and a Meryl Streep comedy both open on the same day, which would you go see? If you pick Farrell, then you will love Police Squad!.
Regardless of which category one falls into, the DVD extras are paltry. The gag reels section is dull, as is a lengthy explanation of an extended fake freeze-frame, in which the main actors freeze while other action occurs around them, another running gag. Equally uninteresting are the casting tapes of Alan North and Ed Williams, who played police scientist Ted Olson. Photos of the various sets are a useless feature, as the sets are rather basic and one can see them plainly in the actual episodes. Still, copies of memos from the network sponsors prove intriguing, as it is fun to compare what was deemed unacceptable television content 24 years ago to what is allowed today.
The eight-minute interview with Nielsen and selected episode commentaries by Abrahams, Zucker, Zucker, and producer Robert K. Weiss reveal that the series was sold to the network solely on the basis of the opening credits, which featured Rex Harrison as Abraham Lincoln engaged in a shoot-out at Ford Theater. However, the majority of information provided by Nielsen and the producers is old news, having been reported elsewhere. Those viewers who made the series a cult fave already know it. It is rather distracting to have the four men doing voiceovers at the same time. Too much of their conversations involve prodding one another (“Why did we decide to do this scene?”). The commentary is more like a reunion of old friends than an attempt to provide insight into the making of the series.
Abraham, Zucker, Zucker, and Weiss apparently knew what they were doing when they came up with the concept of Police Squad!. Their intention was to develop the parody into a feature film, which they did in 1988. Although too busy for the small screen, the format worked well in the theater, and the three feature spin-offs of the show (the Naked Gun series) grossed over $216 million at the box office.