40 Years Ago: ‘Police Squad!’ Valiantly Tries to Change Comedy TV
People often refer to TV shows as "ahead of their time." This is perhaps nowhere truer than Police Squad!, the Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker-produced slapstick comedy that debuted on March 4, 1982, and lasted for only six episodes.
Abrahams and the Zucker brothers were industry veterans by the time of the show. They'd made their debut by writing 1977's The Kentucky Fried Movie – based on the stylings of a theater group they'd founded in college – and had gone on to write and direct Airplane! in 1980.
The success of the latter movie landed them a show with ABC, and they chose Leslie Nielsen – who had started with dramatic and heartthrob roles in the '50s before turning decisively to comedy in Airplane! – to headline it.
Abrahams and the Zuckers decided to turn the show into a riff on cop shows of the '60s and '70s. They borrowed a great deal of their pilot from an episode of the Lee Marvin police procedural M Squad (1957-60), including entire sequences and specific shots. But Police Squad! is far more than a spoof; instead, like all their work, it uses absurdist humor, sight gags and sly, precise wit in an attempt to make every single moment funny.
Watch the Original 'Police Squad!' Promo
This begins in the show's credit sequence, which announces that Rex Hamilton will be playing Abraham Lincoln, over a sequence in which Lincoln engages in a gunfight in Ford's Theater. Of course, neither the Lincoln character nor Hamilton appears in any of the episodes. The credits in each episode also list a "Special Guest Star" who dies as soon as he is introduced – in the pilot, it's Lorne Greene, who gets thrown out of a moving car as his name is announced and expires on the street.
From here, the gags come fast and without pause. The pilot gives everything from a reference to David Lynch's 1980 film The Elephant Man – "I am not an animal!" cries Nielsen's character Frank Drebin, his mouth full of dental equipment, "I am a human being!" – to a backdrop of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in a sequence set in Little Italy, a priest bribing a shoeshine man to tell him about the afterlife and an extended verbal bit along the lines of "Who's on First?" revolving around the fact that a man named Twice was shot only once.
Every sequence also includes an epilogue, in which Nielsen and co-star Alan North talk about the criminals they've sent to "Stateville Prison," then stand motionless, as if the frame has frozen, as the end credits roll.
Watch All Six 'Police Squad!' Epilogues
It's as if Abrahams and the Zuckers would not be satisfied until there was no element in the show that wasn't either funny or leading up to something funny. It doesn't matter if any single joke doesn't quite land, because there's already another one on the way. And while their written and visual wit forms the backbone of the entire show, it's Nielsen's acting elan that pulls it off. As he did in Airplane! — and as he would do in The Naked Gun films that were spun off of the show — Nielsen plays it deadpan-dry at all times, never in on the joke and never giving any inkling that there might be something comedic going on.
In today's day and age, this all seems to be a normal – if inspired – kind of comedy. The Simpsons and Seinfeld were maybe the first shows to fully realize the television possibilities exposed by Police Squad!, but the show's influence can be seen in everything from The Office-style sitcoms and Adult Swim shows to insurance commercials and animated Disney films.
But in 1982, it seems as though audiences had no idea what to make of it. Even though both Nielsen and the Abrahams/Zucker team were nominated for Emmys, Police Squad! ranked 57th out of 105 television shows that season. ABC quickly pulled the plug. In the process, ABC president Tony Thomopoulos gave one of the most famous and appropriate lines in TV cancelation history. The show didn't work, Thomopoulos explained, because "the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it."
Watch 'M Squad' and 'Police Squad!' Comparison
Presumably, he meant that understanding the comedy of the show required too much attention and knowledge from the viewer. If one has never seen The Elephant Man, then the reference to the movie may not land, and if one doesn't catch the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the background (or doesn't know what it is), then it won't be amusing to see it in the backdrop of a show set in a U.S. city.
But Thomopoulos' line cuts unintentionally deeper than that. Not only is it funny in a way that precisely fits the tone of the show that was being canceled, but it also hints at the exact way Police Squad! was ahead of its time. In 1982, audiences weren't yet saturated in a media environment in which, as Tobias Wolff once noted, everything reminds them of something else.
Watching TV in those days meant rather passively falling into the dream cast by the show and allowing yourself to be swept away in it. Watching TV today often means riding along in a state of alertness, constantly searching for references and sight gags, making sure that you "get" every wink that's thrown your way. It can be hilarious, but it requires something entirely different from the viewer.
That's precisely the kind of watching that Police Squad! asked from the audience, a full decade before many people found it entertaining.