by D.W. Lundberg

Friday, March 7, 2014


In which we take a look at a series of odd movie coincidences - scenes, jokes, dialogue, even specific camera shots shared between two seemingly unrelated films. Anyone who's sat through a particular scene in a movie and thought, "Gee, haven't I seen someone do this somewhere before?" will know exactly what I'm talking about.

The other week, I posted an MCOD connecting a joke in A League Of Their Own (1992) with an earlier one, from The Naked Gun (1988). Actually, that wasn't entirely fair: Though the setup is basically the same - man urinates, long and loudly, for a captive audience, seems to stop... then picks up again, just as long and as loud as before - the context is not, so I feel the need to backtrack a bit. In A League, you see, the joke is all about character: by the time Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) is introduced to his fellow Peaches, he's already been established as a louse and a loser, so his little stint at the latrine (or was that a sink?), at least, makes sense from a certain point of view. In The Naked Gun, it's less about character than out-and-out silliness, for which its creators - a comedy team known as ZAZ, for David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker - had pretty much cornered the market.

Abrahams and the Zucker brothers first gained notoriety in 1971, for co-founding the Kentucky Fried Theater troupe in Madison, WI. Their offbeat brand of sketch comedy played to sold-out crowds across the U.S., eventually landing them in Los Angeles. There, they penned their first screenplay, for the aptly titled Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), which parodied everything from chop socky flicks to television news broadcasts. It wasn't until 1980, though, that they finally became a household name, with Airplane!, a spoof on 70s disaster films. With its clever wordplay ("I am serious... and don't call me Shirley"), silly sight gags, and dramatic actors cast against type (nowadays, it's hard to imagine Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen as ever being "dramatic"), Airplane! was a hit with audiences, grossing $83 million at the box office. Its success led to the release of Top Secret! (1984), Hot Shots! (1991), and the short-lived TV series Police Squad! (1982, also starring Nielsen), later resurrected as The Naked Gun.

Keep in mind, there's a fine line between parody and plagiarism. ZAZ was a master at both. A scene like this one (from Airplane!) is clearly a send-up of Saturday Night Fever (1977), complete with "Stayin' Alive" on the soundtrack, and it keeps adding layers - slapstick, juggling, Russian Cossack dancing - to remind us all that it's all just a joke. Or this opening credit sequence from Top Secret!, which lampoons just about every Elvis Presley/Beach Party musical ever made.

This scene, from Episode 1 of Police Squad!, takes its cues from any number of word-centric comedy sketches throughout history, Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First?" routine in particular. Many writers have tried to emulate this classic comedy bit over the years, but ZAZ, I think, comes closest to matching it for sheer verbal lunacy:

For The Naked Gun, though, the filmmakers tried their hand at something new: they started plagiarizing themselves. It's as if, still smarting over Police Squad!'s premature cancellation (the show was pulled after just six episodes), they decided to recycle some of their favorite jokes for the movie. Some are vague, like this sample dialogue, first spoken by Lt. Frank Drebin (Nielsen) during Episode 6 ("Testimony Of Evil") of the series:

Now here's the same dialogue, delivered again by Drebin in 1988 (also note the characters' red- stained lips, from snacking on too many pistachio shells):

This gag, involving two bystanders, a cop, and a bullhorn, aired first during Episode 4 ("Revenge And Remorse"), and then again for the movie:

And later, this gag, lifted from Episode 1 ("A Substantial Gift"):

These are different from in-jokes or running gags, which make constant reappearances throughout the series. Drebin's knack for knocking over stationary objects when parking his car, say, or his pitch-perfect 70s cop show narration ("I drove back to Police Squad," Drebin says in voiceover, as we watch him driving, backwards, down the street).

For The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell Of Fear (1991; written by David Zucker and Pat Proft), this rampant self-plagiarism becomes even more obvious. These jokes, which both appear during "A Substantial Gift," helped establish the tone of the series. In the first, Drebin takes an unsuspecting passenger with him back to the station:

Here, Drebin exchanges close-quarters gunfire with a suspect. Note the punchline of the scene, which gets a laugh from anyone expecting them to be positioned further apart:

In the sequel, we get a repeat of virtually the same jokes, but with a substantially bigger budget (yes, that's a pre-murderous O.J. Simpson in a supporting role as Officer Nordberg, we can only assume in preparation for his big night):

Notice, too, the budget bump in the makeup department during these two scenes, the first of which aired in Episode 5 ("Rendezvous At Big Gulch"):

Then again, who am I to judge? Only one joke from the original series rears its ugly head during 1994's Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult ("Cigarette?" "Yes, I know"), but the movie itself is almost blissfully devoid of genuine laughs. So maybe the ZAZ boys were on to something.

In the end, it hardly matters where the filmmakers got their inspiration. The key to Police Squad! was always the late, great Leslie Nielsen's deadpan comic delivery (if he'd played his part with anything less than a straight face, he wouldn't have been half as funny), a trait his comedic contemporaries have mastered only on occasion. If rumors of a forthcoming Naked Gun reboot are true (starring Ed Helms of The Hangover and The Office fame), they'll be hard-pressed to capture any of that old Nielsen magic. Here's hoping they learn how to tell some new jokes.


Interested in more Movie Coincidences of the Day? Click here for our introductory article. Then click here and here for Parts 2 and 3.


  1. A Naked Gun reboot? Hmm...
    "The studio has tapped the scripting team of Thomas Lennon and R. Ben Garant — best known for the 'Night at the Museum' and 'Reno 911' franchises, to write the screenplay as a new spin on the Drebin character."

    That's not saying much.

  2. True, but it does say something about Hollywood's desire to remake anything and everything, no matter how outdated. I wonder... is there still an audience for ZAZ's type of humor?