“A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise)” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 3/4/1982)
The comedic sensibility of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker isn’t one of quantity over quality—it’s quantity over all. In its crowning film achievement, Airplane!, the trio known collectively as Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker—or the much punchier, Don-Martin-sound-effect-esque ZAZ—pile gag upon gag, rarely giving the audience the time to reflect on a punchline before the next one arrives. It’d be exhausting were it not for the confidence projected in every sight gag, every pun, every hole poked through the fourth wall. For this, Airplane! is rightfully heralded as one of the funniest movies ever made, and its success at the box-office eventually secured the ZAZ team a slot on ABC’s 1982 programming schedule. The idea was to bring the swift, deadpan stylings of Airplane! to the airwaves, with the Zuckers and Abrahams digging deep into their pop-culture damaged memories to satirize the sober police dramas of the 1950s and ’60s in the same way Airplane! sent up the disaster films of the ’70s.
Yet, despite being “Airplane! in a police precinct,” Police Squad! failed to find an audience in its scattered spring and summer broadcasts. In a quote worthy of Yogi Berra or a Beatles-era Ringo Starr, ABC president of entertainment Tony Thomopoulos stated that the network cancelled Police Squad! because “the viewer had to watch it to appreciate it.” It’s a line as funny as any Leslie Nielsen utters as Sergeant Frank Drebin.
As dunderheaded as that Thomopoulos quote is, there’s truth to it: There’s a lot going on in any given frame of Police Squad!, and the show announces that fact with the blare of a siren and several dozen rounds of blank ammunition. The show’s opening sequence is a noisy parade of visual humor, modeled off the screeching-tires-and-Count-Basie intro of the Lee Marvin vehicle M Squad. The first 53 seconds of Police Squad! introduce several recurring gags that viewers will be called upon to recollect in the coming weeks: Rex Hamilton as a bad-ass, confined-to-the-credits Abraham Lincoln; a murdered Lorne Greene, the first of many guests stars to meet their maker under the credits; an onscreen title (“A Substantial Gift”) that doesn’t match the one read by narrator Marvin Miller (“The Broken Promise”). Clearly, this is a television comedy that’s going to demand a lot of your attention.
The cop show is a curious genre for the Zuckers and Abrahams to tackle: The “just the facts” manner of Dragnet and its ilk projects a tone begging to be cast in ZAZ’s funhouse mirror, yet those shows are highly dependent on plot, an element that’s made a lower priority by the trio’s rapid-fire style. Rather than get hung up on wringing laughs out of the specifics of the investigation portrayed in “A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise),” the script zeroes in on the archetypal beats of the TV-gumshoe story: the crime-scene interrogation, for instance, or a ballistics experiment. These rote frameworks free Police Squad! up to doodle in the margins of the cop show, exaggerating certain qualities (Stoic Drebin’s indifference to his skyrocketing personal body count; the suspect with five aliases and a hairdo to go with each one) while making its own improvements in the television equivalent of bright red ink (the background character seen posing with a dead body; the cruiser plainly branded “POLICE CAR.”)
It’s in the swift kicks “A Substantial Gift” makes at the confines of the cop show where Police Squad! truly shines. The episode takes its licks at—and earns its laughs from—the visual vocabulary of past series as well, turning tricks of cinematography and editing inside out, as when the climactic gunfight between Drebin and the duplicitous Sally is revealed to be taking place at extremely close range. ZAZ was interested in telling jokes outside of the frame as well as inside of it: the series première introduces one of Police Squad!’s most inventive visual gags, Al the too-tall cop. (One that would that would be revived in the much more successful film spinoff, The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad!) Like his face, Tiny Ron Taylor’s character lives outside of the four sides of the TV screen, gathering evidence and delivering exposition, all the while serving as the vessel for some of the episode’s most restrained humor. Of course, in the world of ZAZ, “restraint” amounts to a character brushing a whole half of a banana from the side of his face.
The one place where it’s always safe to hold back on Police Squad! is in performance. The impact of Nielsen’s straight-faced portrayl as Drebin cannot be understated, but Alan North does a similarly commendable job as Drebin’s commanding officer, Ed Hocken. Both are superb actors committing to very, very silly material, and they deliver their lines with a gravity that suggests the “A” in ZAZ stands for “Albee, Edward.” In the première, Nielsen gives off the impression that he’s played Drebin for years—and, discounting his turn as Airplane!’s steely medical expert, he pretty much did—and he imbues the character with a palpable sense of blustery self-importance. Even if he wasn’t the lead in Police Squad!, Drebin would be the star of the cop show playing in his own head. The layers upon layers of Nielsen’s performance come into play in a wonderful sequence during the episode’s first act, when the questions from a victim’s wife triggers a deeply detailed, tangential monologue about a former roommate of Drebin’s who was ran “out of town like a common pygmy.” That Nielsen monologizes as if there was no one else in the room underlines how far up his own ass Frank is. Bad for the citizens served and protected by Drebin and crew, but good for the viewer.
But, like Thomopoulos suggested, that all depends on whether or not the viewer could keep up with Police Squad!. The show’s “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach begs for repeat views—not only to catch the laughs that are covered by other laughs on first watch, but for the ones from which the bad jokes distract. The former occurs far more than the latter, thankfully: I was so tickled by the landmarks spotted during the episode’s trip to Little Italy that I completely missed one of the finest, ZAZ-ian lines of “A Substantial Gift”: “We’re sorry to bother you at a time like this, Mrs. Twice. We would’ve come earlier, but your husband wasn’t dead then.”
Police Squad! is often portrayed as a victim of bad timing, and its debut preceded the beginning of an era of comedies you had to watch to understand. The trickle-down effect of the show’s meta-humor and absurdist streak wouldn’t go mainstream until the debut of The Simpsons, but it did herald a new era of “smart” comedy on television. The fall after ABC canceled Police Squad! saw the debuts of Cheers, Newhart, and Family Ties, sitcoms that helped guide TV comedy out of a Garry Marshall/Three’s Company feedback loop. Like the poor schlubs who die in faux-slow motion at the top of “A Substantial Gift,” Police Squad! was in the right place at the wrong time. Thankfully, a generation accustomed to watching TV tooclosely has come to embrace it.
- Welcome to TV Club Classic’s coverage of Police Squad! There are only six episodes of this thing, so I’ll be reviewing them one at a time through the beginning of July.
- Police Squad!’s finest (Playing favorites with the show’s many, many jokes): There are a lot of Police Squad! classics in “A Substantial Gift”—including the first “Cigarette?” “Yes, it is”—but on this viewing, I really enjoyed Frank’s suggestion for how Mrs. Twice should tell her daughter about her father’s death: “No, wait a minute: How about a big monster came and took him to Daddy Heaven?”
- Internal affairs (To paraphrase a piece of audio commentary from the DVD, “Why did they think this would be funny?”): The episode’s procession of increasingly ludicrous dental appliances simply isn’t ludicrous enough. ZAZ must’ve blown the props budget at that all-night wicker place. (Fun fact: If IMDB is to be believed, among Dr. Zubatsky’s teenaged patients are David Schwimmer and Anthony Edwards.)
- Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker weren’t immune to the allure of a hot pop-culture allusion, hence Drebin’s then-timely shout out to The Elephant Man in the orthodontist’s office. If anything, it’s a reminder that David Lynch’s weird little world seeped into the public consciousness well before Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
- Like the swiftly disposed guest stars, the phony freeze frame is a regular Police Squad! device that stays funny through the end of the series’ short run. Alan North kills it in the gag’s first appearance, visibly unsure about how long he has to hold the position he’s in.
- Great examples of Police Squad being unafraid to overplay its hand: Following the “Take ’er away and book ’er” punchline with Drebin’s “Just a little hunch back at the office.” The laughs get lost in the translation from TV to print, so here’s another clip—you’ve earned it!