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Culture Warrior: Don’t Call Him Shirley

By  · Published on November 30th, 2010

Had Leslie Nielsen never been cast in Airplane!, he still would have had a decent working career. He certainly never would have gone down as one of the great entertainers, but the man would have had work. After all, he did have a few noticeable (if not entirely notable) dramatic roles in genre fare ranging from Forbidden Planet (1956) to Prom Night (1980, the same year as Airplane!).

But Nielsen did co-star in Airplane!, delivering one immortal line after another, which later catapulted his persona into legendary synonymy with contemporary cinematic parody. Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers may have been the minds behind what exactly the movie parody came to be, but Nielsen was undoubtedly the face and the voice. There is a reason that Leslie Nielsen happened.

The Serious Business of Comedy

It is of no small significance that Nielsen starred in a straightforward (and iconic) disaster film, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) before taking part in the genre’s lampooning and dismantling eight years later. That pedigree, and the self-seriousness required of actors in such a ridiculous genre, informs the effectiveness of Nielsen’s deadpan delivery. While the lines he delivers are comically ridiculous in any context, it is Nielsen’s precise execution of that dialogue – with a straight face and sincere, earnest obliviousness – that makes his role in Airplane! so god damn funny. Nielsen taught us that movie comedy works best when the actors act as if nothing is funny about the situation at all, which informed Nielsen’s continued persona as a man who was funny precisely because he himself wasn’t in on the joke. It is quite telling, then, that one of Nielsen’s most quoted lines from Airplane starts with the words, “I am serious…”

Compare Nielsen with the famous movie comedians that came before him. If you look at Jerry Lewis’ visage on the poster for The Nutty Professor (1963) or remember Lucille Ball’s signature facial expressions on I Love Lucy (1951–57), you see a degree of mugging that is nowhere to be found when Nielsen was working at the top of his game. This is not to say that Nielsen was somehow a superior comedian to Lewis or Ball; rather, such a comparison is, in fact, incomparable. What this distinction does illuminate, however, is the incredibly disparate cultures in which these comedians worked in. Lewis and Ball knew they were funny, and created wonderful characters in full consciousness of this fact, so it’s easy to see how much the landscape of comedy changed by Nielsen’s “arrival.”

Nielsen didn’t perform stand-up or involve himself in sketch comedy or variety shows. His forte was exclusively within the four walls of the silver screen (he did, however, do a one-man show very late in his life and career), so he didn’t even come to film comedy from a conventional route. This lack of a persona outside film acting is no doubt part of what made his brand of absurdist humor so effective. His characters always seemed stuck in the movies they found themselves within, forced to accept the world around them with poker-faced solemnity. Because we saw Nielsen within this context and rarely within any other, a smiling, laughing, or mugging Nielsen would’ve broken the act entirely. Between Airplane!, Police Squad, the Naked Gun movies, and later collaborations, the Zucker Brothers played with this persona very delicately, which is why nothing more than a rare, subtle look to the camera can be monumentally valuable when used with caution. Case in point:

Nielsen doesn’t so much break the fourth wall here as he simply taps on it. His collaborations with the Zucker Brothers not only signaled a transition point in terms of comic delivery, but heralded a truly postmodern era of American comedy cinema. While Gene Wilder’s The Waco Kid from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) arguably provided the prototype for the Nielsen persona (and Brooks is the godfather of modern Hollywood parody, with the Zucker Bros as his benefactors), straightfaced comedy is largely limited to Wilder’s performance in that film. While Nielsen’s career ultimately benefited most from Airplane!, nearly the entire cast is on the same page in terms of deadpan delivery of absurd humor.

…But That’s Not Important Right Now

It is no coincidence that the success of Airplane! came on the heels of Ed Wood’s pop-culture resurrection and predicated the founding of the Golden Raspberry Awards (basically the anti-Oscars) one year later. By the early 1980s, American cinemagoing culture had clearly learned to laugh at things that were ostensibly serious and enjoy them for reasons never intended by the creators. Airplane! served as a means of giving the new ironic culture exactly what they wanted: to point and laugh at irreverent absurdity in the guise of profound sobriety, and the bloated austerities underlying the 1970s disaster genre were ripe for this exact brand of plucking.

Nielsen and the Zucker Brothers proved that truly great parody lied in conventions people didn’t realize existed. They lampooned conventions that were so pervasive that one didn’t actually need to see the movies they were reacting to in order to be in on the joke. This is why Airplane! and The Naked Gun have outlived many of the subjects of their parody. At the same time, their brand of humor often had little to do with the exact movies being parodied. There is many a moment in Airplane! and the Naked Gun films that are funny on their own because the absurd illogic determining the world of the film had created its own peculiar rhythm. It was a reactionary genre that, as a genre itself, created its signature arsenal of expectations, like Lloyd Bridges’ building joke throughout Airplane!: “I picked a bad day to stop drinking” becomes “I picked a bad day to stop sniffing glue.” Thus, the Zucker/Nielsen/Abrahams movies did indeed embody a postmodern brand of humor, but never in the referential way that trades in cheap callbacks for actual laughs.

Don’t Call Him Shirley

In this respect, Leslie Nielsen’s death is depressingly symbolic. While he left behind some truly timeless deadpan performances, the next generation of parody filmmakers to take the baton have done nothing short of a disservice to the early legacy of postmodern cinematic parody. I’m of course speaking about the Aaron Seltzer/Jason Friedberg films, which prefer empty references over actual humor. Let’s be honest, though: Nielsen and his working partners are/were somewhat complicit in this downhill trend. By the mid-nineties, Nielsen’s career of parodying had become a parody in of itself, and his deadpan delivery was no longer as effective as a result of it being a callback to his own previous comic characters rather than the actual “serious” characters he aimed to mock. In films like Spy Hard, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and (for the most part) Wrongfully Accused, uninspired comic setups which lampooned cinematic trends whose pervasiveness was passing at best met with a stretched-thin and unchallenged Nielsen. For me, the hardest moment to watch in Nielsen’s late career was his role in Scary Movie 3 (2003, directed by the Zucker brothers who have since produced Seltzer/Friedberg films), in which the genius visage of parody’s recent past was stuck in the grating trends of the genre’s unfortunate present.

But perhaps the fact that nobody has been able to take the reigns and replace Nielsen is evidence of his standalone place in the legacy of American parody cinema. The unfortunate state of the genre today only proves further the extent of Nielsen’s past accomplishment. More so than ever, Leslie Nielsen, we’re all counting on you.

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