One noir detective in a world of fools
Hundreds of years ago, which is to say way before George Méliès was born, comedy meant ‘a story that ends with a wedding’ (that epitome of a happy ending), and not necessarily ‘anything that is funny’. This is why Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – a harrowing tale of racism and cutting pounds of meat out of people – is a comedy and not the English Renaissance equivalent of Saw.
Since the advent of film, the definition of comedy has become a little more specific. Generally speaking, a comedy should make people laugh, preferably all the way throughout its running time. But how to make that happen? Is it enough to just have a lot of silly things occur? On the surface, that’s what The Naked Gun does. It fires off an endless spray of jokes, funny situations and gags in the background. But the three writers (Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams) knew there was more to it than that, something that almost all the comedies starring Leslie Nielsen afterwards forgot.
There are two ways to make comedy work, and both exploit a contrast. The first is to put a crazy character in a normal world. Think of Ace Ventura or really anything else that Jim Carrey has done in the genre. The comedy springs from the central character doing funny things and the world around him reacting in a shocked way: "that’s not how you’re supposed to behave!" The second is to place a normal character in a crazy world. That’s The Naked Gun. Of course, detective Frank Drebin is far from normal, but what matters is that he takes himself very seriously and is not ‘doing funny things’.
This turns out to be the core of the comedy. Frank is oblivious that he is trapped in a preposterous, nonsensical environment. The people he meets are caricatures. The scenes he visits are elaborate pranks. Everything around him is a joke. But he looks it all in the eye as if it were perfectly normal. In this he is himself a spoof of the overly serious film noir heroes of yore, but it’s also what makes the comedy so effective. It worked in Airplane!, and it works here.
In a classic scene, Frank infiltrates the offices of the villainous Vincent Ludwig. The moment is presented without any hint of comedy: this might just as well be a regular crime drama. Here commences an escalation of absurdity. Frank accidentally starts a fire, initiates the mechanical piano, destroys a priceless painting and plays catch with falling vases. When the apartment is in ruins, he escapes the fire by climbing out of the window. What happens next is comedy genius. The point is that throughout all of this, Frank takes it thoroughly seriously and Nielsen plays the scene with complete dramatic intent.
Later films starring him all sought to replicate this success, but fell short. Not just because they lacked the talent of the Zuckers and Abrahams, but also because Nielsen was playing characters that were aware of their own funny business. Suddenly, he was winking at the audience, milking gags. It removed the contrast, the comedic tension. A crazy person in a crazy world isn’t comedy, it’s an asylum for the deranged. Even Shakespeare knew that.