Surely You Can't Be Dead, Leslie Nielsen

28-Nov-10 10:14 PM by
Filed under Fade to Black; 3 comments.

Leslie Nielsen, star of Police Squad, Naked Gun, and Airplane!, died Sunday at the age of 84.

Mr. Nielsen was much loved and fondly remembered for the many laughs the above films brought to generations of American theatergoers, but his legacy is older and more eclectic than many fans may realize. His acting career began with a television appearance 1948, from which he built a diverse portfolio as a talented, serious actor. But it was his turn as Dr. Rumack in the 1980 comedy Airplane! that introduced him to the comedic genre upon which he would establish three decades of celebrity status. The film, itself a parody of Zero Hour!, cast stars who would essentially be playing parodies of the dramatic characters for which they were previously known.

Mr. Nielsen's small but important role in that movie produced what the American Film Institute deemed the 79th top quotation in American cinematic history:

(Other Airplane! stars who passed away this year include Peter Graves [Capt. Clarence Oveur] and Barbara Billingsley [the jive-speaking passenger]. As Lisa Hoover put it: I hate you, 2010.)

Two years later, Mr. Nielsen cemented his transition to the genre and his status as a comedic powerhouse when he landed the leading role in Police Squad!. In this short-lived television series, he maintained his ability to deliver one-liners with a timing and tone that packed as much punch as any buildup:

Though the show lasted only six episodes, it spun off three feature-length films, something accomplished by not even the likes of Get Smart! or Firefly. Mr. Nielsen went on to play the lead in further spoofs such as Mel Brooks' Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Spy Hard, and Wrongfully Accused, and appearing in other comedies including Scary Movie 4 and Superhero Movie.

It was just this past Thanksgiving Eve that my girlfriend and I finished watching the complete Police Squad! on DVD. As it aired before she was born, she'd never heard of the show but immediately cottoned to it, riveted to catch every rapid-fire joke and subtle gag. It didn't take us long to decide that we had to give this set as a Christmas gift to introduce even more people to this brief, overlooked, yet valuable contribution Mr. Nielsen made to comedic history. We never expected that he would so soon be a part of history himself, making it especially poignant to discover there will be no more adventures of Frank Drebin.

As the optimistic Wil Wheaton: Leslie Nielsen's in a better place. "A better place? What is it?" A construct to help cope with grief, but that's not important right now.

To Die a Funny Death

21-Oct-09 4:35 PM by
Filed under Films; Comments Off on To Die a Funny Death

I don't particularly care for horror films, as they often call for something disturbing to happen to a protagonist I'm supposed to care about. What sort of sadism would lead somebody to enjoy such a film?

Science has the answer. According to a recent article, "Horror film gene that makes some scream while others laugh", it's a matter of brain chemistry. The COMT gene weakens our ability to control our emotions: the more copies of the gene you have, the less your restraint, and the more affected you are by unpleasant pictures. In the study, participants with just one COMT gene (which is about half the population) "were able to keep their emotions in check far more readily", while just one COMT gene predisposed viewers to be "significantly more startled by frightening images than others."

The article doesn't live up to its headline before closing by saying other variables influence the situation — which seems obvious to me, and not on a neurochemical level. The horror genre features ample entrails and other viscera, and some moviemakers mistakenly use this visual device as a substitute for plot, tension, character development, and depth. As a result, we're presented with elementary storytelling awash in senseless violence, all masquerading as a horror film. For some people, likely reactions to such cinematic sludge are boredom or nausea; for others, it's laughter. The film may not have been designed to be a comedy, but it inadvertently is, and we can't help but derisively observe by how far the filmmakers missed their target.

Need proof? The Internet Movie Database classifies Manos: The Hands of Fate as horror. This representative of the genre is #9 on the IMDb's Worst 100 Films, voted there as a result of its popularity from being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Anyone who's ever seen Manos knows there's nothing to fear here.

Good comedy is hard to do; so is good horror. A failure at one can result in a success at the other — so long as you have the genes to appreciate it.

So Bad It's Worse

The Broadcast Goes On

11-Nov-07 5:49 PM by
Filed under Potpourri; Comments Off on The Broadcast Goes On

[Editor's note: After seeing Jack Benny in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, I did an online search and found The Jack Benny Show Podcast (link opens in iTunes). I asked a Showbits reader and historian what he thought of this rebroadcast of the 1932 radio show; his response follows.]

I am also a fan of Jack Benny and am still slowly listening through the entire run of shows that are available. I'm up to the fall of 1950, and the last show on radio was the May 22, 1955 show, before he went entirely to television. Most of them are fun to listen to, and I've certainly become a fan of the show.

The first shows are very different from the formula that he settled upon by the early 1940s, and which he continued until the end of the radio series. Also, the quality of the early shows leaves a LOT to be desired. I didn't try downloading the first podcast to see if this guy cleaned the episodes up at all, but some of them are almost unlistenable they are so bad. Not surprising, however, when you consider that what episodes we have prior to 1939 or 1940 were all recorded on home aluminum disk recorders, rather than on something better quality. Broadcasting companies didn't even feel that recording programs was of any value until the mid-1940s, and it wasn't until the late 1940s that any programs said that they were "transcribed" (recorded); almost everything on the radio was live, and any recordings that existed were done from a radio receiver.

Jack's early shows are reminiscent of the talk show format, where he did some topical humor, almost a monologue like Carson or Leno or Letterman might do today, with some skit thrown in later, and a musical number or two from the ever-present house band. With time he added cast members: Mary Livingston, his wife, was one of the first, then Don Wilson the announcer, then the band leader Phil Harris (later Bob Crosby, Bing's brother), and a tenor to sing a number during the show (first Kenny Baker and then Dennis Day). Rochester, whose real name (Eddie Anderson) was never used on the program as far as I know, came on playing bit parts in the late 1930s, and was so popular that he was added as a regular cast member and even got billing at the start of the show by the early 1940s.

As for the copyright: Apparently, due to changes in the copyright law in the mid 1970s, unless specific actions were taken to copyright a radio program, almost none of them fall under any protection today. Consequently, even shows as late as the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which aired during the 1970s, are considered today to be in the public domain. As a result, there are thousands of radio programs out there that can be downloaded either for free or for a nominal fee, depending on the host from which they can be downloaded. There are some serious collectors and preservationists out there who offer programs that have been digitized from very good early generation recordings and have also been cleaned up; these are, of course, more expensive (as usual, you get what you pay for).

Some of the best programs I have listened to in the old time radio (OTR) realm are the dramas Escape and Suspense, which did mystery or adventure dramatizations of written short stories of the day. Also some early radio sci-fi like Dimension X and X Minus One have done radio versions of stories by Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov.