This is the worst cancellation in TV history. Some Firefly fans are probably bitching at me right now, some Dead Like Me fans, maybe a Freaks and Geeks aficionado or two, and probably at least one person who felt slighted by there only being 6 episodes of The Winner (the rest of us thought that was too many). But, the fact is, there are only 6 episodes of Police Squad!, only 4 that got aired, and that’s just not enough, even with the Naked Gun films.
It’s not like they were running low on material or ideas at this point. If anything, the show really was just starting to find its rhythm when it got cancelled. Maybe that’s a something to be held against it, that it took a few episodes to get going, but the truth is it was too far ahead of its time to do otherwise. Much in the way that Monty Python changed comedy by deconstructing traditional comedy routines and television (and, later, the Arthurian myth and, to a lesser extent, the story of Jesus), Police Squad! picked up the surrealist baton that Airplane! had carried and applied it to police procedurals.
For those of you who are younger, you might not realize that Airplane! was actually a comedic re-make of the movie Zero Hour. Some of the lines in the film, including Leslie Nielsen’s ridiculous line “The life of everybody on board depends on just one thing: Finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner” were VERBATIM lines in the original. But, more than that, the film was also a lampoon of the fact that people not only kept re-making Zero Hour (which was itself a re-make of Flight into Danger), but that there had emerged in the 1970s a series of films which were based on a book derived from Zero Hour… the Airport series. And, while the first Airport is a pretty good film, its 3 remakes/sequels were not (though they made bank). America was getting an overdose of Airport-based catastrophe movies that were progressively getting worse… which made it all the more fitting when Airplane! just decided to undermine the entire genre and premise by making everything all the more surreal to keep the audience from ever figuring out how far to suspend their disbelief. (Update: someone already did a video comparing them online, so that last paragraph was useless)
In the late 70s and early 80s, police procedurals were much the same as Airport movies: they were taking over, they were getting increasingly ridiculous, and they were STILL MAKING MONEY. So, the team behind Airplane!, Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker, along with Leslie Nielsen, decided to go ahead and make a TV show that would lampoon how insane police dramas were getting. So, they took shots and lines from other series, ran them through the ridiculous engine that is their minds, and pumped out Police Squad!
Alright, the plot of this episode is pretty boring and generic, because the point of the show is the sight-gags, puns, and weird situations. So, first, I’m going to encourage you to watch the episode, and second, I’m just going to point out some of my favorite gags from the episode.
“A Bird in the Hand (The Butler Did It!)” gets its title because in every episode of the show, they would put a graphic of the episode name on screen, but, at the same time, the narrator would read a completely different title. This was a joke on the fact that in police procedurals at the time, the words would both be on the screen, and the narrator would nar-read out the title… something that’s mercifully no longer a practice, except when a show is either mocking it or paying tribute to it.
Right off the bat, in the title sequence, they have two gags of both replacing the third lead with an unrelated actor playing a character who isn’t in the episode (it’s Abe Lincoln shooting back at Booth) and the “special guest star” Robert Goulet being executed by firing squad (which was a running gag on the show: the special guest star getting killed).
The cold open takes place at a debutante’s birthday party, where she is kidnapped from her family’s “Japanese garden,” which is literally a bunch of Japanese people standing in pots. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), who humorously gets his own rank wrong in the opening monologue, shows up to investigate. He joins Captain Ed Hocken (Alan North, George Kennedy in the movies), finding that the kidnapper has demanded $1 Million by a note which was attached to a window that was thrown into a rock. Frank asks to see the scene of the kidnapping, and Ed plays him back the filming of the earlier scene.
The kidnappers call the house and Frank tries to help keep them on the line, while Officer Nordberg (Peter Lupus, O.J. Simpson in the movies) tries to tap the phone (like a keg). Frank goes to interview the victim’s boyfriend, who is playing a pick-up basketball game. Drebin joins in the game as he interrogates the suspect, and makes a sweet three pointer and a nice steal leading to a stylish lay-up. Frank returns to the mansion, where the kidnappers have sent a tape of the victim’s voice to prove she’s alive. They then throw a mime through the window, attached to a rock. The mime proceeds to tell them, through charades, that the ransom drop will be Thursday at 10 at the Bus Depot.
This leads into the second half, called “Act II: Ball III.” Frank goes to the police lab run by Ted Olson (Ed Williams, same as the movies). Ted, who is also running an experiment where he proves gravitation by dropping a bowling ball and a person at the same time, isolates the sounds from the tape to find that the victim is near a large body of water based on a foghorn and a bell. Frank tells this to Ed while on an elevator that also goes to an opera stage. Ed orders Al (Ron “Tiny Ron” Taylor, same as the movies), a comically tall officer never shown above the shoulders, to set up a dragnet near the lakes, and to take off that sombrero.
Attempts to interview locals, who are in a bikini exercise class, prove fruitless. The victim’s father shows up with the ransom money, scared for his daughter’s life. Ed and Frank assure him that they’re working around the clock to find her. He can check for himself, because the clock is right there in the station. Frank and Ed then drive around for hours for no particular reason (that’s a quote), before finding out that the bell was from a gas station, and the foghorn was from a tuba. They realize they need to find a tuba place that’s near a gas station… which is complicated by the fact that the city is the tuba capital of the world. Frank finds out from Johnny the snitch (William Duell) that there’s a new tuba club, the El Tubadera Club, which is next to a gas station. Frank leaves as Baseball Legend Tommy Lasorda arrives to ask Johnny about pitching. Johnny gives him a list of recommendations for pitchers and makes a joke about letting Tommy John go, which is even more devastating in retrospect for baseball fans.
Frank drives to the club, and immediately sees the masked kidnapper and the victim on the street, which initiates a shootout that multiple people decide to run through instead of around. Frank gives Ed cover (by putting a blanket on him), allowing Ed to blindly stumble around to the kidnapper’s side of the street while Frank decides to take a hostage of his own (a random bystander) to even the score. The kidnapper tries to flee and trips over Ed. The kidnapper is then unmasked to be the Butler… which the title already told us. The butler is then taken away in a Black-and-White, revealed to be a zebra wearing a police light on its head.
The epilogue shows Frank and Ed talking at the station, with a chimp from another case in the background. Frank and Ed banter until they freeze-frame… which is literally just them standing still while everyone else keeps moving, including the chimp, who throws papers all over the place.
Alright, so, if you love Airplane! or Naked Gun or almost any surreal comedy, this show was perfect. Airplane! made $83 Million in the US on a $3.5 Million budget, and Naked Gun later made $78 Million on $12 Million, so it’s not like this format wasn’t without an audience. Why did it fail, then? Well, the president of ABC Entertainment explained that
it was a show that demanded too much attention from the viewer. People really had to watch it and pay attention to the words, the sight-gags, the running gags, etc. in order to appreciate how great the show was. This is, of course, both stupid and sad. Stupid, in that cancelling a TV show for taking too much effort is akin to shutting down a gym because people don’t want to sweat, and sad, because, it turns out, people actually don’t like putting effort into their viewings. Nowadays, things are a little different, because shows with faster-paced jokes and random gags can at least survive for a while (Arrested Development, anyone?), but, back in 1982, the networks didn’t have faith in the viewers to actually turn up to watch it.
Honestly, if the show had been made in the time of home video, it would have done better, because the episodes have to be re-watched many, many times to get all of the jokes. Sometimes, there is a sight-gag happening at the same time as a funny line, and you can’t really focus on either one, meaning you’d probably have to re-watch the show in order to get them. It’s a lot of comedy packed in 30 minutes. And a lot of the jokes are derived from police procedurals, especially The New Breed, which had starred Leslie Nielsen, which meant that sometimes things in the show weren’t as funny until you managed to watch the source material. But, for the most part, the jokes are pretty easy to get.
It’s sad that we only got 6 episodes of this show, even if we got 3 movies later, but we just have to be happy with that. Plus, you can re-watch them pretty often. I just re-watched this one for the 3rd time in a week, and I only just now noticed that part of the Crime Lab is a liquor cabinet hidden among the chemicals.
All of these episodes are works of art, so I recommend you watch them at some point. And then watch the Naked Gun movies. And then watch Arrested Development, which provided a slightly more realistic surreal show which contained rapid-fire jokes that range from the simple to the ludicrously complex and was clearly based on this show.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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