The director of ‘Airplane!’ and ‘The Naked Gun’ returns
to parody ‘Signs,’ ‘The Ring’ and more with ‘Scary
by Mike Russell
(Read the bigger, longer and uncut
It’s 1998. David Zucker – writer-director
of such legendary comedies as “Airplane!” and “The
Naked Gun” – tells the Internet’s Onion
AV Club: “The whole idea of spoof, to me, is just
so done and gone.”
It’s 2003. Zucker is putting the finishing touches
on his latest directorial effort: the decidedly spoofy “Scary
Confronted with his dismissal five years
ago of the very type of comedy that made him famous, Zucker
does the decent
thing: He cackles. “Oh, my God! I remember that!” he
says. “Never, never listen to me, you know? I think
that [interview was] before ‘Scary Movie 1’ came
out; I just thought spoof was so dead. I think the Wayans
single-handedly revived the whole thing.”
In all fairness, until “Scary 3” came along,
the 55-year-old Zucker really had ditched the joke-a-second
parody format – a format he pioneered with fellow
Kentucky Fried Theatre founders Jim Abrahams and brother
Jerry Zucker. Together, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (or ZAZ)
created classics and cult classics like “Airplane!” “Top
Secret!” “The Naked Gun” “Kentucky
Fried Movie!” and the short-lived TV series “Police
Squad!” The trio stopped directing their movies as
a threesome after 1986’s “Ruthless People”;
Jerry went on to helm “Ghost” and “First
Knight” while Jim followed the identity-switch comedy “Big
Business” by milking the parody format a bit more
with the “Hot Shots!” movies and “Jane
Austen’s Mafia!” David, subsequent to his work
on the lucrative “Naked Gun” trilogy, began
a move toward more character-oriented projects like “BASEketball” and “My
Boss’s Daughter” (a bona fide romantic comedy
starring Ashton Kutcher and Tara Reid).
So what brought David Zucker back to spoofery – to
directing a sequel to a series that was itself broadly
inspired by ZAZ’s pioneering style? He blames the
head of Dimension Films. “Bob Weinstein came to me
and said, ‘Do you want to do “Scary Movie 3”?’” Zucker
recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, not if it’s
another one of these slasher things.’ Although I
thought ‘Scary Movie 1’ was pretty funny, I’m
not a fan of slasher movies. To do good satire, you have
to have some affection for the genre – as we did
for the Clint Eastwood police-film genre and the airplane
“But then Weinstein said, ‘“Signs” and “The
Ring.”’ And I think those are pretty ripe for
satire. A videotape that kills you? That’s perfect.”
In Focus talked with Zucker about “Scary 3” (which,
by the way, marks the triumphal return of Leslie Nielsen
as a deadpan mayhem catalyst), “My Boss’s Daughter,” the
classic ZAZ comedies, Davy Crockett, and much more.
TO ‘SCARY MOVIE 3’
Will the MacGuffin
in “Scary Movie 3” be a
videotape, just like in “The Ring”?
Yeah. There’s a videotape at the center, plus crop
circles, plus “8 Mile.” We’re spoofing
at least five or six major movies. There are scenes that
combine “Signs” and “The Ring” and
then “The Matrix Reloaded.”
Now, spoofs were
relatively tame when you were doing “Airplane!” – you
know, you might have a boob shot here or there –
Well, actually, as far as the tame-osity of these things,
it’s gotten stricter, if anything.
Yeah. You can’t show boobs any more. You can use
one F-word, but – ugh! – this thought police!
Ask Mike Myers what he has to go through on the “Austin
Powers” movies. They have become so horrible, and
you have Clinton and Lieberman to thank for this bullshit.
It was so much easier on “The Naked Gun”: The
rules were pretty much hard and fast – it was language
and even nudity we got away with. We always had a shower
scene in the “Naked Guns”, and we had boobs
in “Airplane!” and we had Leslie Nielsen hanging
off a statue’s penis in one of those “Naked
Guns.” Now you can’t get away with anything.
AND COMIC GUILT
“My Boss’s Daughter” is the first movie
you’ve made with hot, young stars; you’re working
for the first time in your career with tabloid lust objects.
Working with Tara Reid and Ashton Kutcher is a new thing
for me, because the average age of my casts for the other
movies was deceased.
You made a habit of re-inventing older actors as comedy
Right! Think of what we did with these aging actors – and
still making those movies for a youth audience. Working
with young people is a much different experience. It’s
a lot easier to promote, obviously.
he plays “goofy,” do
you think Mr. Kutcher is underrated somewhat as an actor?
Well, I’ve heard now that Ashton wants to do some
serious things. He’s really talented; I have no doubt
that he could do anything he wanted – but I think
his audience may prefer him as … not so much “goofy”.
... I mean, this is a romantic comedy.
Chris Rock talks
about how actors always feel kind of guilty about being
comedians – they need to go do
dramas, or else they’re somehow not “real” actors.
That’s right, yeah. Even Woody Allen was about being
at the grown-up’s table.
Rock then proceeded
to say that comedy is so much harder than dramatic acting – he
thinks the priorities are all turned around.
I would say so. I’ve never directed a drama, but
it seems like it would be completely different pressure – or
no pressure. [laughs]
Drama is so much in the script and turning
the camera on really good actors. But in comedy, there’s so much
detail work with timing, and the audience knows instantly
whether you’ve succeeded or failed – because
you either get the laugh or you don’t. There’s
no cover-up in a theatre. I mean, on TV, you have a laugh
track; people don’t know if what they’re seeing
is actually funny or it’s all an illusion.
“Police Squad” was
a pioneering TV series in that it jettisoned the laugh
Yeah. And the networks wanted us to put a laugh track in.
It would have ruined it. It would have been on the air
for another three weeks. ... [laughs]
THE FLAWED GENIUS
OF ‘TOP SECRET’
I’ve been a fan of “Top Secret!” since
I was a kid.
You know, so many people talk about “Top Secret!” On “Scary
3,” we have one scene involving all these rap artists – like
Master P, Raekwon, Reza, Method Man, Ja Rule – and
they’re all big “Top Secret!” fans.
One of the things
I think the movie has going for it is its completely
insane mixing of genres – one second
it’s an Elvis film, the next it’s “Where
For a long time, a friend of mine and I had gotten to be
really big fans of what we call “Nazi movies.” They
were movies made about American spying during World War
II from, like, 1938 to ‘45 – half entertainment
and half propaganda. And more often than not, in the end
credits it says, “Buy War Bonds!”
We loved these movies, whether they starred
Cagney or Gary Cooper. They were all black-and-white, and
they all involved
going behind enemy lines – usually in France, sometimes
in Germany. And there were certain things that always ran
through them – there was the French Resistance, which
was always the same, and the German sentries; I always
joked that you could always sneak up behind a German sentry
and kill him – if German sentries could hear, they
would have won the war, you know?
So I loved that genre and then the old Elvis
movies. We just decided to combine them. [laughs]
“Top Secret!” also contains your most surreal
images – a train platform rolling away from a stationary
train, a man shattering after falling from a height, a
gigantic underwater fistfight set in a Western bar, that
incredibly technically complicated scene with Peter Cushing
that was filmed completely in reverse.
There was a hint of that in “Airplane!”: There
was one scene where Robert Stack walks through a mirror.
I always wanted to do these visual puns, I guess, or visual
tricks – to develop stuff that you think about when
you’re smoking something. Although “Top Secret!” was
not written while high at all. ... And we decided we wanted
to explore those visual things in “Top Secret!”
Now, unfortunately, the greatness of those
visual gags – you
pay a price for it. When you do that, you undercut the
believability, the foundation, of your story. In filmmaking,
you have to tell a story – and I think every time
we did one of those [surreal visual jokes], the involvement
of the audience in the story was undermined.
There are a number of reasons why it didn’t do well
at the box office – and it flopped at the box office.
First of all, it was that combination of genres. People
see Leslie Nielsen with a gun and a badge, and they go, “OK,
I get it – this is gonna be a detective movie.” They
see a twisted plane, they go, “OK, this is going
to be an airplane movie.” Now, when they see a cow
with boots [laughs], they don’t know what that is.
And I accept full responsibility, because it was my idea.
I think the studio didn’t know how to promote it.
I mean, if the movie came on TV and I was
just watching, I would probably be stuck there watching – you want
to see the next gag. And they are the best gags that we’ve
ever done. But see, it’s a strange thing about movies:
They’re really won or lost by their structure and
by the last five or 10 minutes.
Do you know who Alex Karras was? He played
for the Detroit Lions back in the ‘60s, and he wrote a book called “Even
Big Guys Cry,” his autobiography. And he told this
story of how, when they would play the Green Bay Packers,
he remembered just beating them all up and down the field – just
scoring and beating the crap out of the Packers – and
then, after the fourth quarter, when they’d look
up at the scoreboard, they’d see that they lost.
And I think this is the only analogy I can
think of for “Top
Secret!” – because it’s a movie where
the characters weren’t accurately defined, or the
story structure wasn’t there so that whatever problem
Val Kilmer had in the first act was solved in the third
act. You weren’t emotionally involved with those
THE POWER OF BASEKETBALL)
Now, “Airplane!” was derived heavily from
the 1957 drama “Zero Hour” –
Have you ever seen that? If you watch that, it gives away
everything [in “Airplane!”]. It’s almost
scene-for-scene in certain parts. I’ve spoken at
college classes and shown scenes from “Zero Hour” and
then the same scene from “Airplane!”
do you think it was necessary to purchase the “Zero Hour” rights before you made “Airplane!”?
I think so, because we followed the plot pretty closely.
I don’t think you can take plot — you can take
characters and occasional dialogue, but I don’t know
if it’s allowable to take plot. And for “Airplane!” we
lifted that plot exactly.
You’ve said that in “Airplane!” Robert
Stack and Leslie Nielsen totally got the joke as far as
deadpanning goes, but that Lloyd Bridges needed, as you
put it, a little more “directional babysitting.” How
did you pull that off?
[Bridges] wanted to change a lot of his dialogue – and
we didn’t want to change any of the dialogue. And
he was in the first week of shooting, and then [Robert]
Stack came onto the set. And then when Stack heard him
complain about one speech or two speeches, he took Lloyd
aside and said, “Lloyd, you know, you have watermelons
crashing in the background and spears hitting the wall.
Just keep talkin’ – they’re not listening
to us.” And he got it. After “Airplane!” came
out, he got it totally. I thought he was just wonderful
in “Hot Shots!”
You’ve said in interviews that “BASEketball” and “Police
Squad!” were both failures as TV ideas, and that
your ideal storytelling form is movies.
Every time I do my forays into TV, it just reminds me that
I should be doing movies. [laughs]
was a real game that you guys played for 10 years – and you’ve
said that the moment in the movie where Ernest Borgnine
steps in and offers
to fund the BASEketball league is when the movie ceases
to be an autobiography.
Yeah. But everything else was really autobiographical.
And the weird thing is, Pete and Bobby Farrelly were part
of the [real] BASEketball league, as was Richard Lovett.
who’s now the head of CAA. We would award the [league]
trophy at the big CAA staff meeting every year. I would
make a speech, and I would give Michael Ovitz a whole introduction
to read – and I would include all these real insults
to Ovitz in the speech, and Ovitz would read them.
So you were the commissioner of BASEketball.
I was the commissioner, and Lovett still calls me “The
Commish.” [laughs] “BASEketball”’s
another one of my unintended cult favorites.
What’s the status of the “Davy Crockett” script
you’ve been developing for years?
I think it needs a re-write; I still think that it could
be a great movie. I think part of the problem is that the
story that we devised was one of Davy Crockett and his
son, and it was a split focus – the son got the big
speech at the end of the movie, so that’s kind of
difficult to sell to a major star.
I’m anxious to see “The Alamo” – that’s
going to have Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett.
at your “Naked Gun” movies,
there are Davy Crockett photos all over the walls.
And there are in “My Boss’s Daughter” and “Scary
You’ve expressed your admiration in interviews for
Crockett as this kind of no-B.S. politician. People always
think of him as just being “the Alamo guy,” but
he had a storied political career.
Oh, yeah. He was the Will Rogers of his day. He was a humorist – he
was like Groucho Marx. He was zany and funny – a
celebrity. I’ll be interested to see, in this “Alamo” movie,
how wide a scope the movie is going to be – if they
have Crockett in Congress at all.
Are you going to be disappointed if Davy Crockett just
shows up wearing buckskins and a coonskin cap?
Well, you know, I won’t care, really; I think I’ll
enjoy the movie because I love that era of history. It
may have an effect on my plans – whatever I do with “Crockett.” This
is something I’ve been working on for 15 years.
This is your “Gangs
of New York.”
[laughs] I hope not, man! These vanity projects. ... You
know, [Davy Crockett’s] a very hard story to tell,
because people’s lives don’t fit neatly into
a three-act structure. His first wife died, and his second
wife, it’s questionable whether he even lived with
her. ... It’s tough. The way to do it may be to
portray Crockett telling it himself – because that
gives me deniability. Then it would be Crockett putting
a little frosting on his own story – which I’m
sure he would have done.
Where did you develop your obsession with Crockett?
I think just from the Disney television show back in the
mid-’50s. Then, in L.A. in the mid-’80s,
I re-connected with some people who were also interested
in him — and they introduced me to the national
organization that was interested in the Alamo and Crockett
and Bowie and Travis and all of those characters; they
put out a little magazine called The
I host a big “Crockett Rifle Frolic” on my
ranch in Ojai; every two years we have one, where everybody
dresses period – artisans, craftsmen, historians,
teachers, gun nuts. I became best friends with the guy
who’s the editor of Guns & Ammo. [laughs] And
then I had all my entertainment-business friends over there – so
it made for an interesting combination.
THE ZAZ STYLE
Does it weird you out when people offer these serious
analyses and deconstructions of the Kentucky Fried style
Well, I’m kind of used to it, because it started
with our old film professor at University of Wisconsin – who
began analyzing and trying to explain how we got to this
style of comedy.
Well, you guys
did invent a new way to do comedy. That’s
hard to do.
I guess so – although we had no awareness of that
at the time. We were just doing kind of what we had started
to do onstage. And there was kind of a forerunner in “Kentucky
Fried Movie” – “Fistful of Yen,” which
was kind of a 20-minute mini-spoof of “Enter the
identified the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy style as
having several key elements: (1) rapid-fire
(2) dramatic B-actors in deadpan comedy situations; (3)
serious foregrounds juxtaposed against comic backgrounds;
(4) extremely rapid delivery of gags, often at the expense
of plot; and (5) a very conscious blending of high and
low humor. Is there anything you’d add to that “formula”?
Or would you even say there is a formula?
Nobody ever really outlined it to me like that. But those
certainly include all the elements. Did you want to break
OK. The pacing: The pacing came from when
we were on stage, in the Kentucky Fried Theatre – and we never wanted
to be up there when people weren’t laughing. Because
that was the biggest shame in the world, to be hanging
out there with no laughs. That’s where we got the
pace from: Everything had to be a joke or a set-up to a
joke – sort of complete efficiency.
The early ZAZ
comedies have dramatic exposition that moves the story
along in the foreground,
with comic stuff going
on in the background. Did you get to do any of that on “Scary
When a joke is too obvious, I like to put it in the background.
I remember at the end of the first “Naked Gun,” we
had this big gag with O.J. falling down a bunch of steps
in Dodger Stadium in a wheelchair. And I felt that was
just such an obvious thing that I wanted to have Leslie
and Priscilla in the foreground.
I think one of
my favorites along those lines is in “Top
Secret!” – when you’ve got the couple
having a lover’s talk in the foreground and behind
them people are divvying up a pizza with endless strings
of cheese. ...
When you have to do exposition in a zany comedy, you have
to keep the laughs going.
The background stuff came from, in real
life, just observing people’s behavior and things
just happening in the background. Like when we watch serious
movies, I always
look at the extras in the background. Or I look at the
extras in a Marx Brothers movie, and everybody there is
You know, the Marx brother that we thought
was the funniest was Zeppo, because he was so uncomfortable – he was
just there because he was the brother. But in the books
that I’ve read about the Marx Brothers, he was the
funniest offscreen. And I totally understand that.
I remember reading
how you had to fight to get those straight-faced actors
Yeah. The casting directors said, “Leslie Nielsen
is the guy you hire the night before.” It was horrible.
And we knew that Leslie Nielsen was just gold. You could
tell he was great; we didn’t even know if he could
do comedy – but it didn’t really matter anyway,
because it was dramatic timing that he needed.
In the later “Naked Gun” movies,
Leslie Nielsen gravitated away from the deadpan approach
and began mugging
more than he did in the earlier films. Was that a conscious
choice, or just the way that it was going?
I think it was not a conscious choice. ... You know, as
he became more known as a comedian, he started to act more
like a comedian.
I think I learned a lesson as the “Naked Gun”s
went on that Leslie was always better when he caused other
people distress. Like, there was a scene in “2-1/2” where
he fell over a guy’s wheelchair and they were twisting
around on this floor – and I think if I had the choice
to do that one over again, I would have had somebody else
fall over the wheelchair – but he caused it.
I was careful that, in “Scary Movie 3,” Leslie
causes the distress – he doesn’t get beat up.
back to very deadpan mode.
Oh, yeah – totally deadpan. And everything Leslie
is in is great – he is terrific. He has not lost
How old is he now?
Seventy-seven, I think.
There are second acts in American lives.
Yeah. In “Scary 3,” he plays the President.
In an East Room reception, he beats up a bunch of handicapped