Talking Comedy with Leslie Nielsen

2001: A Space Travesty

by Donato Totaro Volume 3, Issue 5 / September 1999 15 minutes (3668 words)

Since the fortuitous coupling of Leslie Nielsen and the ZAZ comedy production team (Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abraham) in 1980 with Airplane!, American comedy has been enriched by the comic brilliance of (Canadian) Leslie Nielsen. Following the success of Airplane!, Nielsen went on to star in the sorely misunderstood, short-lived television series Police Squad, where he introduced the comic persona he would develop and embellish throughout the 1980’s, 1990’s, and, it seems, will carry into the next millenium: Detective Frank Drebin. As Frank Drebin, Nielsen developed and refined a unique comic persona: a dumb, bland, and incompetent detective with a deadpan obliviousness to the consequences of his bumbling actions (as noted in the book Mondo Canuck, there is a healthy amount of self-parody in this character based on the archetypal bland Canadian authority figure). According to scholar Steve Seidman, since the 1920’s American cinema has been blessed with the great tradition of the “comedian comedy”. These are films featuring performers who have honed their comic skills outside film (vaudeville, music hall, radio, television, stand-up, etc.) and have identifiable, fully developed comic characters that carry over from film to film. The films are also marked by reflexive moments where individual “comedian comedy” performance supercedes diegesis. Film comedy centered on the “comedian comedy” rather than the comic actor (Peter Sellers, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Katherine Hepburn, Bill Murray, John Cusak, etc.) has become a rare thing in recent American comedy. A few “comedian comedy” names that come to mind are Jim Carrey (also Canadian), Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Albert Brooks. I think Leslie Nielsen, although he does not have the prerequisite training, should be added to the short list as one of the few guiding figures in the “comedian comedy” tradition. What sets Nielsen apart from the other, more strongly identified comedian comedy performers is his strong identification with a particular form of comedy that he has been a major innovator in: general or specific parodies in which the central character acts calm and normal within an abnormal and crazy world. This is a structural flip of the older form of parody where “funny” characters would be placed within an otherwise serious, normal world (i.e. Abbott & Costello, Martin & Lewis). Leslie Nielsen has become the “comedian comedy” of parody. In fact there are very few genres that he has not tackled yet, of the specific variety, where one basic film is being parodied, or the “compound parody” (termed by Wes D. Gehring), where there is riffing around a general area: Titanic Too: It Missed the Iceberg (as yet unreleased), Spy Hard (1996, James Bond), Dracula: Dead and Loving it (1995), Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad! (1988), Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (1991), and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994, crime, detective genre); Repossessed (1990, The Exorcist), Airplane! (1980, disaster films). Leslie Nielsen was in Montreal this past summer shooting his latest (Canadian-German co-production) film, 2001: A Space Travesty (title still tentative, directed by Allan Goldstein), which he not only stars in but also co-wrote with Joseph Bitonti, Francesco Lucente, and Olimpia Lucente, and served as executive producer. The following interview took place during a set visit on August 25th, 1999.

Offscreen: How did you get involved in this project Mr. Nielsen?

Nielsen: Well the production team had heard about the success of a number of my films in Germany and they said listen, there is a way we could put a picture together where we have a German producer, maybe a French producer, maybe a UK producer, a Canadian producer, and there are certain government grants that can take place, where you can end up starting a picture and have it totally financed before you begin. Without having to worry about distribution. And I said, really, well why don’t we try that. And we decided what kind of picture, why, and it ended up with somebody dumb and stupid, like a Marshall Dicks, a lawman turned loose in space with the technology of modern science. And all of the things that technology, chaos and the confusion that it creates with people who are a little older like I am.

Offscreen: But still feeling young and vim?

Nielsen: Well, why not, you bet.

Offscreen: You’re character’s name, Richard Dick Dix, is that a play on Philip K. Dick?

Nielsen: Well Richard Dix was actually the name of an old movie star. But Marshall Richard Dix, or Marshal Dick Dix, is just a dumb name.

Offscreen: Is the character you play similar to the one you played in the Naked Gun series?

Nielsen: No, it is not similar, but he does have characteristics of stupidity, but that is a time-worn comedy character, not just reserved by me but by many people.

Offscreen: How would you describe this comedy?

Nielsen: It’s a dumb and stupid comedy. That was always the problem with having the working title as 2001: A Space Travesty, because it seems like we are going to parody 2001: A Space Odyssey, which we don’t. There is a sequence with a shuttle going up, but we have plenty of shuttles today, and it’s a comedy sequence. There’s no real parody in there that I can think of.

Offscreen: Is this the first time you’ve starred, produced, and written?

Nielsen: Well I’ve always had a say in the writing, but never to the point where I say, hey I am the co-author of this film. Period. Though I have often spent a lot of time, thinking, writing, correcting, etc.

Offscreen: Since this is science fiction, didn’t you feel like parodying your own former character from Forbidden Planet, just a little bit?

Nielsen: No, not at all. I’m not sure that can even be parodied that easily.

Offscreen: You’ve parodied the disaster film, the horror film, the science fiction film and the spy film. Is there a genre that you would like to parody that you haven’t?

Nielsen: Well I think Spy Hard was also a parody of James Bond. Parody is ok, but you really have to have something charmed. The best thing to parody right now would be Titanic. Because it is such a “titanic” success, though it might even be getting a little late for that now.

Offscreen: In this film you are working with many fantastic creatures, like the Butt Ugly Alien. Is that something that is new for you?

Nielsen: Yes that is kind of new, working with CGI, prosthetics, special make-up, masks, and all that kind of stuff.

Offscreen: Did you find it difficult, acting with something that is not real?

Nielsen: Well, that is what acting is all about. The thing is to try and work in such a way that if you can create something that is in your eyeline that you can use. But many times you are looking at blank space. And if you are supposed to have some kind of emotional reaction, then you are going to have to use whatever technique you have to make that happen.

Offscreen: I know earlier on you were doing mainly drama, then fell into comedy.

Nielsen: But I’ve always done comedy behind the camera, always had fun. Only I never had the courage to say I could do this in front of the camera. But we did Airplane!, and that turned out to be satisfactory enough to Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, and they spotted me for being what I really was, a closet comedian. Really, and they came knocking on my door, come on out and play! And, how lucky can you get.

Offscreen: Are you happy doing comedy?

Nielsen: As I said, I did Airplane! and then Zuckers and Abraham came up to me a short time after about doing a thing called Police Squad. I felt flattered and complemented, that they would think to use me as the linchpin for their brand of humor, because that happens to be my humor also. That’s why we fit like hand and glove. But it was something that I knew I would never let pass by, to work with those guys under their auspices, doing the thing that I’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have the courage to tell anybody.

Offscreen: I think what made those films also special is the chemistry between you and George Kennedy. I thought that worked so well in those films, because he’s in a sense dumber than you are, like in Laurel and Hardy.

Nielsen: But we were always co-operative with each other and we were always trying to help each other, as a character. When he gets knocked out in the laboratory with the little stem from the bracelet that the lab technician is wearing. When he comes to I’m looking through the microscope and he’s trying to figure out what just happened regains consciousness and stands up. I’m looking in the microscope and say, “I can’t see anything in the microscope here.” And so he looks over and says, “Ah, Frank, use the other eye, the open eye.” So I look and say, “Oh yea, that’s good.” Well he didn’t say, “Frank, use the open eye, don’t you know enough to use the open eye.” There was none of that, he was being helpful.

Offscreen: Do you like the type of visual pun the ZAZ do so often?

Nielsen: Sure, I love puns, I love pratfalls, plays on words, all kinds of comedy. And I love looks. I’m a clown really more than anything else. I’m not a comic. I’m not really a stand-up comic, although sometimes I think of a spontaneous routine for three, four, five minutes, and it pours out. But you can’t repeat it.There are certain comedians who work stand-up as well. And they love being in front of an audience. I still have my trepidation about getting in front of an audience. But not when I do my drama. I’m doing a one-man play, Darrow. Clarence Darrow. And I’m going on a big tour for three months starting the tenth of September. But to stand up in front of an audience and be funny, that’s another thing. I know I can be funny, and put things together, and say them and tell them, if I worked on a routine. Maybe I would have to do quite a bit more to grow accustomed enough to find pleasure in it. Because the work is just too hard. Like Buddy Hackett. He can charm a couple of thousand people, but he wants to do acting. He doesn’t want to do that incredible thing of the lion tamer taming ten thousand lions.

Offscreen: That’s an important distinction between a comic actor and a comedian. I think someone like Peter Sellers, who is a brilliant comic actor, but not a comedian. He had to have a certain role, the script had to be there. But what he did with it was great. And I think you’re good with your facial expressions as well. You almost seem to be improvising with them.

Nielsen: The main thing that is going on in the work that I do is that it has to be credible, believable. It must be believable to me to do it. Because that makes it easy for me to do my kind of comedy. But there are wonderful, zany people, like Jim Carrey for example, who go off the mountaintop with the rocket. And you just give them the chance to fly and they are gone.

Offscreen: It’s amazing how many Canadians have a wicked sense of humor. But it bubbles underneath.

Nielsen: We’re nuts. I don’t know exactly what it is but it is a characteristic that is partly Canadian, because Canadian humor is off the wall. No matter how quiet and easygoing we seem in the stories they tell about us, but we’re wacko.

Offscreen: Speaking of zany, do you like Mr. Bean?

Nielsen: It is wonderful work that he does. He’s weird, eccentric, he’s a fascination. I’m watching him working, thinking, wow. But I don’t necessarily like him, or dislike him. But I don’t really have any tremendous affection for him as a character.

Offscreen: No he’s not a likeable character.

Nielsen: For me, if you’re going to do comedy and be a protagonist, then find a way to make sure that things are presented in a way that the audience will like the protagonist. This is wonderful thing that travels with Naked Gun. There is a gentle affection that comes with it no matter what. Wherever I go there’s people acknowledging it, giving me the high sign. And you know that because Frank Drebin was totally none threatening. He was just dumb. They liked him. And that’s the name of the game isn’t it.

Offscreen: Well there have been certain unlikable characters that have been funny.

Nielsen: Well a few people, like the Ted Knight character in the Mary Tyler Moore Show. He was kind of a ridiculous, insensitive character, but he was funny. You didn’t mind him at all. You found him kind of crazy. And it worked. He found a way to walk that line. Which was very difficult. The same with a lot of the Monty Python stuff, which is extraordinary, wonderful, yet you don’t really have an affection for any of them, to speak of. They are so off the wall and talented.

Offscreen: I guess if the whole world that is being presented is divorced from reality then perhaps you can get away with that a bit more than if you are in a character-driven, realist film. But getting back to what you said about affection. That’s why I don’t like Abbott & Costello. They don’t seem to like each other.

Nielsen: They didn’t.

Offscreen: Yes, I know, that’s what I mean. They couldn’t stand each other, and it shows in their films. Apparently when Abbott used to hit Costello, he really hit him!

Nielsen: Bud Abbott really whacked.

Offscreen: Whereas Laurel and Hardy. They loved each other and that love comes through the mayhem in their films.

Nielsen: Yes. You remember the Chump at Oxford where Laurel was playing two parts, and Oliver was in the background. There you have a wonderful generosity. I can just see him, “no Laurel you must do this, I’ll work over here and we’ll see if we can’t pull something.

Offscreen: When Laurel turns into the Oxford dean. There’s a moment when Oliver is at the door to Laurel’s office, and Laurel instructs him on good posture and tells him, “Hold your head up, hold your chin up….both of them.” And Hardy gets really angry and then scolds him, “And I didn’t like that double chin joke.” And then when Laurel hits his head and returns to his former dumb self, Oliver is so overjoyed, his best friend is back.

Nielsen: You have the friend losing and then regaining a friend. That’s were the affection comes in. It’s the same thing in the first Naked Gun with O.J. He’s been shot up, hit six times and every bullet missed a vital organ! He was my partner. But the affection is very important so you can identify and root for your central character.

Offscreen: Someone like Woody Allen is also a character you generally do not like as well, but is not an anti-hero, like W.C. Fields.

Nielsen: Well you don’t care about his fortunes that much, but you are able to be in such total control because you can sit back and either like or not. You have the control, there’s nothing going to happen to you that suddenly flips you, like Chaplain when he drops that thing on the coin and all of a sudden you are out of comedy and in total pathos. I choke up every time I think of it.

Offscreen: Broadway Danny Rose is the one film where Allen plays a likeable, sympathetic character, an talent agent for talentless, pathetic performers.

Nielsen: No I didn’t see that.

Offscreen: Do your films make you laugh?

Nielsen: Yes, they do. That was one of my pleasures of seeing Airplane! the first time. Since it is first of all a comedy, you are wondering, now why did they laugh, or why didn’t they laugh. So you are learning all the time. The second thing is that, often times you were part of that scene they were laughing at, they were laughing at you. And I don’t care what, but that’s an awfully good feeling. It made me feel good.

Offscreen: Yes, with comedy sometimes you can be sitting at home alone and it elicits one response, but then with a big audience, it creates a different atmosphere. So comedy is very social. Do you see a function in comedy, a social function, or do you see it as pure entertainment?

Nielsen: I think anytime you make anybody feel good there is a social function in what you are doing. When people are feeling good they don’t bite each other and hate each other. And usually they are nice to their kids, and they have the groundwork laid for being affectionate and gentle. And that’s social.

Offscreen: Would you ever think of directing?

Nielsen: Yes, I think of directing comedy, not drama. When we did Police Squad, I thought about it but it didn’t go on long enough.

Offscreen: Which is a shame.

Nielsen: They never gave it a chance. They did 4 shows, then two more at a different, later time slot. They didn’t even pay attention to the scheduling. But it was wrong for the small screen. We knew it was good in the screening room, because we had a big screen. We were falling on the floor.

Offscreen: I teach film here at a local university, and I’ve actually taught Naked Gun in a comedy course, so it has been a real treat talking to you about comedy.

Nielsen: Well the essence of the humor in the Naked Gun films is that they never try tell you what is funny. They put it up there on the screen, what they think is funny, but they won’t take you by the hand and lead you to the trough. If you see it, fine. That’s why if you go see Naked Gun a second or fifth time you usually find something that you missed before. You weren’t led by the hand to the joke. And I think that people respond to that, because you are leaving them alone. You are treating them with respect.

Offscreen: And that makes them active, and there is something about discovering it for yourself.

Nielsen: Exactly. That’s exactly it.

Nielsen: You are a teacher, now let me ask you something. That wonderful tail end sequence of City Lights, were she can now see and he’s looking into the window at her. And she looks up and sees him, and thinks, I’ve made a conquest. And she waves, and nods. She goes to give him a flower and he starts to run and she goes out and catches him. She gives him the flower and he takes it and smells it. She then realizes he’s a tramp, so takes his hand to give him some money. She puts her hand in his hand and at that moment she realizes that this was the hand that touched her’s before, and she knows, “you’re the one.” So painfully beautiful, it’s incredible. And he has only one line. “You can see now.” But, he doesn’t say it of course, it is said with an intertitle. It is so beautiful. But, if he had said it, would it have been as beautiful? Because the audience’s concentration is never interrupted and they are free to continue to focus. And then I started to think further, in directing this comedy, about Charlie Chaplin and others. The incredible detail that Chaplin, and Keaton, and others, had to be aware of. They had to know every split second what was going on in that head so they can minimize any intertitles. And then you have to stand by that choice. And you may have to insist against the odds. Maybe two or three other people are saying it is not funny. But you could just as well end up being right, and them wrong. Because you have the picture in your mind. And you can’t really stand up and do it for them. You just know it has to be done this way. So you just have to end up doing what Chaplin did from the very beginning. Control everything.

Offscreen: Yes, well that was a wholly different cinematic language, especially for comedy. And maybe something that could not be duplicated with the spoken word.

Offscreen: How are feeling physically with such a demanding shooting schedule?

Nielsen: I’ve been physical all my live and I’m still in good shape.

Offscreen: Are you conscious of what you eat.

Nielsen: Oh yea. Very much so, That’s been the latest revelation for me. The ratio of carbohydrates, to protein, to fatty foods, according to your size, age, weight, and so on. I dropped three two inches off my waist in two weeks.

Offscreen: Well, I hope you continue making comedy.

Nielsen: Me too. You see that my interest in it is very solid. And I express it to you because I feel that is how you are. And so I know that you’ll understand. Because of the kinship.

Talking Comedy with Leslie Nielsen

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 3, Issue 5 / September 1999 Interviews canadian cinemacomedyleslie nielsenscience fictionsilent comedy