Back in July, when President Barack Obama announced the Iran nuclear deal and its efforts to minimize nuclear facilities in Iran, David Zucker responded with a fake ad dwelling on countless hypothetical side effects involved in the proposition, most of which revolved around the assumption that Islamic Republic forces would be eager to prey on loopholes in the deal in order to more expediently annihilate America. In addition to badly miscasting Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton, it perpetuated falsifications (such as the image of Muslims as interchangeable “ragheads” wielding AK-47s) and created one of its own in the punchline that our commander in chief might enjoy gay affiliations with Irani leaders. The little outburst of regressive thinking wasn’t unprecedented for Zucker, who stumped in 2008 for Mitt Romney, is on record about how “Democrats are so bad for the country,” and whose most recent directorial solo venture, An American Carol, took a left-wing scrooge on a didactic Dickensian tour through American history to re-instill within him the country’s noble values.
The Naked Gun series more or less predates Zucker’s burgeoning tendency to use his comedy as a platform for political haranguing—with a few exceptions, of course. Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear, for instance, concludes with the series’s transcendently buffoonish hero, Lieutenant Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), serving up an impromptu Trump-like speech in which calls for a country “where you can walk into a 7/11 and not need an interpreter” are met with thunderous applause. There’s also a less forthright, but no doubt more insidious, reinforcement of traditional gender roles throughout the series, reflected not only in what must net out to an instinctual boob joke every 10 minutes, but more troublesomely in 33 1/3: The Final Insult’s misunderstanding of feminism as an enterprise in which lonely heterosexual women thoughtlessly villainize the entire male race to fill romantic voids.
Thankfully, on the whole, these irksome traces of Zucker’s political worldview get outpaced by some of the most winning slapstick inanity in American cinema. The more or less accurate party line is that the series’s kickoff film is the highlight, and that the two sequels—out now in new Blu-Ray versions courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment—progressively decline in quality, but the ways in which these films periodically miss their mark doesn’t compare to the ways in which dire dumpster fires like Scary Movie 3 and 4 do.
There, and in Zucker-produced filth like Superhero Movie, the transgressions are primarily of taste. In the Naked Gun series, it’s merely a matter of similar jokes recurring with different (and perhaps less successful) timing and emphasis. Tellingly, directorial duties on The Final Insult were handed over to Peter Segal, which might explain why the film occasionally plays exactly like what it is: a project scripted and produced by Zucker’s usual team (Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker), but manned by someone without Zucker’s particular comic brio—essentially, a Naked Gun movie lacking the ineffable.
What exactly are the ineffable qualities in Naked Gun? They’re in the details, the stuff that occurs on the periphery of the action or between the words: the way a cut to a new angle reveals some hitherto unseen visual element; a close-up held just long enough on an empty expression that it disrupts the conversational flow and becomes a gag in itself; a misdirected eye line; a ludicrous sign in the back of a shot; a hard, throat-clearing cut out of a self-consciously syrupy sex scene; the way in which an elongated 180-degree scan of the eyes by Nielsen can help sell a lousy joke.
Zucker’s best instincts are those that seek to throw a wrench into every single received convention we expect from genre movies, to call attention to their workings not in a way that provokes thought, but in a manner that hijacks the audience’s attention. And these interruptions to conventional narrative flow come so frequently, tumbling atop one another in gleeful excess, that the individual jokes don’t have to be funny, per se. The unmitigated commitment to joke overload is a joke in itself.
Consider the scene in The Smell of Fear when Drebin winds up face to face with Quentin Hapsburg (Robert Goulet), a bigwig funder of nuclear power and the boyfriend to his ex-lady, in a conference room resembling a mafia hideout. Their verbal sparring proceeds in cliché spy-movie vernacular and inopportune code words repeated over and over for Drebin’s surveillance team. The crowning moment in the exchange comes when Hapsburg scowls, “It will give me great pleasure to kill you myself,” and Drebin responds reflexively in that inimitable deadpan of his: “No, the pleasure’s all mine.” The line makes no logical sense other than as a recitation of a familiar macho turn of phrase, and the perfectly timed reaction shot of a confused Hapsburg suggests he’s the only one in the room rightfully baffled by it.
Misinterpretation of dialogue syntax is an obsessively returning trope. It’s tough to keep track of the ridiculous number of times someone offers up a cigarette only to be met with an oblivious “I know,” as if the inquiry pertained to the fundamental ontology of the object in question. Another running gag occurs with even greater regularity: spectacles in which an innocuous hand gesture or bodily movement from Drebin triggers a domino chain of mayhem in his immediate surroundings, the repercussions (to which our hero is oblivious) frequently playing out in the backgrounds of deep-focus compositions. The cleverest of these occurs in The Final Insult, when Drebin recalls being stood up by a prospective girlfriend and a flashback finds him unintentionally sending the luckless lady to her death on a rocky coastline simply by opening the door to his cliffside villa at an inopportune moment.
Women typically bear the brunt of Drebin’s lunacy, and despite always being the butt of the joke, they’re not exactly compensated with wholesome characterizations. Love interest Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley) speaks in the feathery tones of a dame always at the height of romantic desire and rarely gets spoken to without some prefacing acknowledgment of her beauty, but even she fares well alongside Anna Nicole Smith, whose cleavage makes an assertive cameo in The Final Insult. Better to be attractive than old, however, as Zucker’s harshest bits target past-their-prime women such as The Smell of Fear’s caricature of First Lady Barbara Bush (Margery Ross), who repetitively gets face-bashed from her seat by an oblivious Drebin during an embarrassing White House dinner party, or an abrasive matriarch in The Final Insult who’s pancaked by a falling applause box on the stage of the Academy Awards in the series’s most logistically impressive climax.
It’s possible that this stubborn meanness is inextricable from the adolescent instincts that fuel Zucker’s best farce work, as both seem rooted in an utterly un-self-conscious freeing of the id. But if the difference between the Naked Gun franchise and the remarkably unfunny online political comedy now being plied by Zucker could be said to be the result of intellectual maturation, it’s a development to receive with regret. Zucker the smirking overgrown boy knew how to visually sell a joke and took infectious glee in twisting convention and expectation, while Zucker the newly informed GOP cheerleader apparently just picked up a camera and enrolled in comedy classes.