I enjoyed Tad Friend’s piece in the July 5th issue of The New Yorker, “First Banana,” about Steve Carell and the new improvisatory process of film and TV comedy. In a nutshell, it’s about how contemporary movie comedies—made by filmmakers like Judd Apatow, Adam McKay, Nicholas Stoller, and Jay Roach, and featuring actors like Carell, Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Jason Siegel, Seth Rogen, and Paul Rudd—often find their biggest laughs through the adlibbing of the actors rather than through their scripted punchlines. So much so that it’s inconceivable that these kinds of movies could exist in their present forms if they were made any other way. In essence, the method of their creation equals the style of the comedy.
He contrasts this new approach to comedy with the “written” style, as exemplified by more classical writer/directors like Billy Wilder (who he reports as bewildered by an act of improvisation on his set) and Woody Allen (who actually encourages every actor to improvise freely, although few do). But I admit I was a little pissed off when he used this example to illustrate the stodgy old ways:
Traditional comedies have a sleekness that calls to mind the typewriter. Consider the moment in the 1980 film “Airplane!” when two passengers chat before takeoff: “Nervous?” “Yes.” “First Time?” “No, I’ve been nervous a lot of times.”
For one thing, I thought it was weird that he would use the movie that was such a dramatic break from the past in its day, and ultimately led to “Saturday Night Live” and ultimately the movies that Friend is describing. And the other thing, is as I mentioned last week, I worked on “The Naked Gun” and have a real soft spot for the guys who made that film as well as “Airplane!” and “Top Secret!”
But yeah, they were guilty of writing funny stuff, and staging it exactly as they wrote it. On the other hand, unlike Billy Wilder or Woody Allen, they were a team of three, brothers David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams. In fact there were four of them if you counted producer Robert K. Weiss, who was an equal player in the posse that constantly engaged in a Talmudesque debates about what was funny and what was not. Like the comedies described by Friend, it was very much a collaborative approach to making movies.
I remember one day we were shooting a scene where the film’s clueless policeman, Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant Police Squad (played by Leslie Nielson), stuck on the high ledge of a building, slips and grabs onto the penis of an ornamental statue to break his fall. Numerous variations of the stunt were tried, as the team wrangled over the best way to execute the gag. The stuntman was tiring. Finally David shouted, “I’m the director, I’m the director! Two hands isn’t funny! One hand is funny!”
They were very influenced by Mad Magazine and in particular the little pictures that would be hidden in the magazine, funny stuff you might not notice the first time around. They wanted people to find things on second viewing that they might miss the first time. For example, Drebin’s cop car said “To Warm and Serve.” On each episode of “Police Squad!,” the cult TV series that “The Naked Gun” was adapted from, Drebin would stop his car and knock over a bunch of garbage cans. The number of garbage cans he hit corresponded to the episode number. Needless to say, he was hitting a lot of garbage cans by the time the movie came along.
There were rules. Driving home every day from work I would pass this sign that said “dip,” and it gave me a dumb idea for a joke. I asked Abrahams if he thought it would be funny if Drebin stopped at the sign, and dunked a corn chip in a jar of salsa conveniently waiting there. “We have found that there can only be a limited amount of puns in our movies,” he intoned earnestly. He wasn’t making any value judgment about my idea; it was just over the limit. On the other hand, I remember driving to a location for a week or so and passing a pair of odd-looking industrial silos. They looked like a giant brassiere. And sure enough, when I saw the movie, they turned up on-screen, underneath Drebin’s voice-over, “Everything I saw reminded me of you.”
While I don’t remember much improvisation on the set, their method was to shoot a lot more material than they planned to use. They’d see how funny it turned out to be at dailies. The final test was to screen the movie. If people didn’t laugh at a joke, I don’t think it made it in.
I have many warm memories of working on that movie: rich conversations with Ricardo Montalban, George Kennedy about their careers; many laughs with the late Nancy Marchand (so brilliant years later as Livia Soprano); hanging out with Reggie Jackson on the field of Dodger Stadium; going to Priscilla Presley’s house for a photo shoot. Leslie Nielsen had a piece of rubber that he kept in his pocket to make fart noises. He said that it changed his life; it made everybody think about him in a different way. He sure had that right. When my family came to visit the set, I tried to nudge him into action. “That Mexican food we had for lunch, Leslie… I don’t know…”
But O.J. Simpson? There wasn’t much depth to him, as far as I could tell. Generally he would say stuff like, “I hope shooting doesn’t go on too long tonight. I have a golf tournament I want to get to in Palm Springs.” Believe it or not, when he exploded onto the front pages of the media, I got calls from many major media outlets. Journalists were scouring for anybody who had any contact him and I suppose they thought, he’s a publicist. I told them all, “I spent a lot of time with the guy, but there is no one in the world who knows less about O.J. Simpson than me. He never said a single thing that was interesting.”