Police Squad! The cult classic that was too funny for television
Normally when a television show only lasts for four episodes before being cancelled, it's never heard from again. Police Squad! was an exception that rule as it lived on as a cult favorite in reruns and DVD, eventually spawning the popular Naked Gun movie franchise. How could a show packed with wall to wall jokes fail to catch on in the ratings? Were the audiences in 1982 not capable of getting the silly and fast-moving humor of this police spoof?
In 1980, the writing and producing team of Jim Abrams and Jerry and David Zucker broke through with the funny and popular spoof of airport dramas- Airplane! The movie showcased serious actors like Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges doing silly things in bizarre situations with a straight face. The contrast between the comedy and attempts to play it straight led to a comedic tension that has rarely been duplicated. After the success of that movie, the trio decided to try their hand with television comedy in 1982 with this show lampooning police dramas. Leslie Nielsen was hired as the main character, officer Frank Drebbin, a no-nonsense cop who played it straight through bizarre setups.
Police Squad! revolved around real crimes, but lightened things up at every turn with puns and absurdities that made you know this was a world that made no sense. When they call for a tow truck, a giant toe-shaped truck comes up. When Lieutenant Drebbin says "Cigarette?" as he offers on to a suspect, they stare at it and reply "yes, I know". When an officer is told to put a tail on a suspect, he reaches into his desk and grabs a long, furry tail. When they get into an elevator, it opens up in random spots and lets opera divas and Olympic divers on to get off and sing and swim as soon as the door opens again.
The type of comedy showcased on Police Squad! and later in the Naked Gun movies, was crude, fast-moving, and loaded with sight gags. You had to pay attention to get the jokes, which was part of the problem. 1982 was before VCR and DVD copies allowed repeated viewings, and most American television viewers didn't want to have to pay close attention to their shows. They preferred shows like Laverne & Shirley or Cheers, which were more character and story driven, and if you missed a few phrases here or there you still enjoyed the show. Formats with puns, sight gags, and jokes that made you think twice were more suited to a dark movie theater with few distractions, which the writers finally figured out in 1988 when The Naked Gun premiered. (Rewarded by over $500 million at the box office!)
Police Squad! had a number of running gags that were hilarious, and it's hard now to imaging how they could have kept the show going over a full 26 episode season. Here are some of my favorites:
1- The show opened by killing off famous celebrity guest stars. William Shatner survives a gunfight only to succumb to poisoned wine. Florience Henderson sings and falls to machine gun fire. Lorne Greene and William Conrad fall out of vehicles. Right away you know they are making fun of the whole guest star gimmick.
2- Johnny the Snitch runs a shoe shine near the police station. Nielsen's character visits him every episode for tips on how to solve each case, plying him with money for inside information from the streets. And after he leaves, Johnny is visited by famous celebrities like Dr. Joyce Brothers, Dick Clark, or Tommy Lasorda for advice on how to handle their own work-related issues.
3- At the end of each episode the actors would laugh and freeze their bodies completely still, while one bit of mayhem happens around them. In the photo above, they freeze as they are pouring a cup of coffee. As the end music rolls, the coffee overflows and spills, while the actors try mightily to not react. They play with this concept at the end of each show, allowing criminals, cops, or chimpanzees to run around confused while the rest of the actors are frozen in time.
Comedy is constantly evolving, as is everything else. There are things they could get away with in 1982 that wouldn't work now, but the episodes hold up fairly well and shine a light on how absurdity can lighten our days. Comedies today are edgier and much more story- and character-driven, rarely letting actors break with reality. But too much reality can be a downer, which is why we need comedians to show us a way around it. Police Squad! shatters reality in a cathartic way, and that explains its cult status.
Police Squad! is not available currently on any streaming service, although all six shows are easily found on DVD. Clips are plentiful on You Tube. See below for some highlights that give you an idea of what this comedic farce was all about.