Thirty years af­ter un­leash­ing de­fec­tive de­tec­tive Frank Dre­bin onto the streets of LA, the com­edy ge­niuses be­hind The NAKED GUN talk us through its most iconic mo­ments


“It’s that same old story: boy finds girl, boy loses girl, men make movie about clue­less cop, movie be­comes time­less clas­sic, men talk to Em­pire about it, girl dies in blimp ac­ci­dent over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.” “Good year?” “No, the worst.”

So spoke Lieu­tenant Frank Dre­bin in the clos­ing mo­ments of The Naked Gun, ro­manc­ing his girl­friend mere se­conds af­ter his would-be as­sas­sin is tram­pled to death by a march­ing band. It’s been 30 years since Les­lie Nielsen’s Dre­bin crashed into cine­mas, get­ting ev­ery­thing wrong yet some­how still solv­ing the case. To­day, Dre­bin’s co-creators David Zucker, Jim Abra­hams and Jerry Zucker, brought to­gether by Em­pire for an an­niver­sary chin­wag, are in fine fet­tle — there’s no mis­tak­ing Dre­bin’s her­itage. “Tell me if I’m wrong,” says Em­pire, about to pose a ques­tion. “You’re wrong!” shouts David Zucker. And so it goes.

As stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin in 1971,

ZAZ cre­ated a live show, Ken­tucky Fried Theater, an end­less on­slaught of skits. “None of us by train­ing is in any way an ac­tor,” says Abra­hams now. “We didn’t feel com­fort­able on stage to be­gin with, so if a joke would bomb, we would get rid of it. We were only com­fort­able when the laughs kept flow­ing.” This wildly suc­cess­ful joke-af­ter-joke-af­ter joke for­mula hit big with 1980’s Air­plane!, which took the plot from 1957 drama

Zero Hour! and turned it on its head, ZAZ stick­ing straight, dra­matic ac­tors, in­clud­ing Nielsen (as Dr ‘Don’t call me Shirley’ Ru­mack), into ab­surd, quickfire sit­u­a­tions.

They then cast Nielsen as Frank in 1982 TV se­ries Po­lice Squad!, a spoof of late-1950s Lee Marvin po­lice pro­ce­dural

M Squad, even­tu­ally ex­pand­ing it to fea­ture-length for 1988’s

The Naked Gun, in which Dre­bin foils a plot by das­tardly busi­ness­man Vin­cent Lud­wig (Ri­cardo Mon­tal­ban) to as­sas­si­nate The Queen. Three decades on, it is as won­der­fully ridicu­lous as it ever was. With ZAZ to­gether, Em­pire picked ten of the film’s great­est hits, sat back and en­joyed the show.


The film opens with Idi Amin chair­ing a meet­ing in Beirut, plot­ting against Amer­ica along­side a menagerie of das­tardly dic­ta­tors. Their waiter is then re­vealed as our hero, who pum­mels them all be­fore an­nounc­ing at the win­dow: “I’m Lieu­tenant Frank Dre­bin, Po­lice Squad. And don’t ever let me catch you guys in Amer­ica!” The lou­vre doors then slap him in the face.

Jerry Zucker: At some point some­one said, “Why don’t we get ev­ery evil dic­ta­tor in one room and have him dis­patch them off?” And that seemed like a funny idea.

David Zucker: We had to in­tro­duce Les­lie. We needed to make a big splash.

Jim Abra­hams: HBO just did some movie about those times and they had an ac­tor por­tray­ing Gor­bachev and they didn’t have the birth­mark on his fore­head. Why wouldn’t you do that?

Jerry Zucker: Maybe it was one of those hid­den things: “Can you find what’s wrong with the ac­tor play­ing Gor­bachev’s head?”

Abra­hams: It wasn’t an is­sue with us, was it?

David Zucker: We would have done it any­way, but we also wrote that joke later about wip­ing it off.

Abra­hams: It turns out his birth­mark was a good thing for us.

"I've fi­nally found some­one I can love. A good clean love, with­out uten­sils."


The film’s iconic open­ing-cred­its se­quence fea­tures Frank’s cop car roam­ing the city, cam­era mounted just be­hind the wail­ing siren. It hits the pave­ment, to the hor­ror of scram­bling pedes­tri­ans, then goes through a car wash, into a house, a girls’ locker room and along a roller­coaster. David Zucker: That came from M Squad — that’s the ex­act way it started, the [siren] go­ing through the city. And we just sat around think­ing what could hap­pen, where it could go. So it be­came the roller coaster, and the girls in the shower, be­cause we were younger and we wanted to cast naked women. And the other gags just kind of came into play.

Abra­hams: That’s typ­i­cal of the way we wrote. We would say, “Here’s a straight sit­u­a­tion… now how many things can we do to be goofy?”

Jerry Zucker: We wanted to call the film Po­lice Squad, but Paramount said it was too close to Po­lice Academy. And they were right. They have ti­tle thinker-up­pers — that’s ac­tu­ally a job — and they gave us a list of 100 ti­tles. They were pretty dread­ful, but The Naked Gun made us laugh. We all thought that was al­right.


At the Port of Los An­ge­les, Nordberg (O.J. Simp­son) lis­tens in on a heroin deal. He kicks through a boat door and a gang shoot him, pre­cip­i­tat­ing a slap­stick ob­sta­cle course be­fore he fi­nally falls into the wa­ter.

David Zucker: O.J. got bet­ter with ev­ery movie. He im­proved as an ac­tor. But that was be­fore he mur­dered peo­ple. So we try to com­part­men­talise the whole thing. Is that how you re­mem­bered it, Jim?

Abra­hams: You know… um… I’m just sorry I sold the au­to­graphed foot­ball he gave me.

Jerry Zucker: We watch lots of old movies when we’re writ­ing. And in a lot of movies when some­one gets in­jured or shot or what­ever, they hang on longer than they would. So it was based on that idea.

David Zucker: It hap­pened in The God­fa­ther. It looked like they shot Brando eight times. And he still sur­vived.

Jerry Zucker: Yeah. So it was the idea of that. And then it just be­came one in­dig­nity af­ter an­other.

Abra­hams: We said, “Then he can have his hand caught in the win­dow and fall into a birth­day cake and get paint on him and burn his hand on a stove.”


Dur­ing a press con­fer­ence, Frank goes to the toi­let, un­aware that he is still mic’d up. His sub­se­quent toi­let re­lease and ac­com­pa­ny­ing groans of re­lief are broad­cast to the crowd.

David Zucker: That ac­tu­ally hap­pened in our syn­a­gogue back in Mil­wau­kee — half­way through the service the rabbi went to the bath­room and it came through the PA sys­tem. But that’s not where we got the idea— that hap­pened af­ter­wards.

Abra­hams: The rabbi was copy­ing the movie?

David Zucker: Well, it’s called life im­i­tates art, I guess.

Jerry Zucker: This sort of thing, it was from our ar­rested de­vel­op­ment, our 13-year-old minds. Later in the film when he grabs the naked stat­ues… we’ve all seen naked stat­ues, and it just seemed, “Okay, he’s out of the win­dow, what does he grab hold of?” A lot of times it was all of us sit­ting in a room drink­ing cof­fee, go­ing, “How about this? How about that? No, wait, that, but do it this way. No, no, do it this way but then he’ll do this.” One thing builds af­ter an­other.


Frank meets Vin­cent Lud­wig’s as­sis­tant Jane Spencer (Priscilla Pres­ley), who sashays down a stair­case, then falls over and walks into a wall. Fetch­ing Frank some doc­u­ments, she climbs a lad­der as he peers up from be­low. “Nice beaver,” he says — as she hands him a taxi­der­mied, semi-aquatic ro­dent.

David Zucker: That was from Farewell, My Lovely with Robert Mitchum. That scene, where Priscilla ap­pears at the top of the stairs, in the orig­i­nal it was Char­lotte Ram­pling and Robert Mitchum nar­rated how she came down the stairs. So we fig­ured she could fall down the stairs. And maybe that in­cluded a scene where she went up a lad­der to get some things.

Jerry Zucker: I don’t re­mem­ber that. But we did at the time have a sec­re­tary that didn’t wear un­der­wear. [Laughs] That might have been it.

David Zucker: We had many in­spi­ra­tions.

Abra­hams: That joke, it’s a great laugh and ev­ery­thing, but Priscilla’s re­ply — she says, “Thanks, I just had it stuffed” — that al­ways makes me laugh too.

David Zucker: I re­mem­ber that line be­cause no-one ever heard it in the the­atre. Peo­ple were laugh­ing so hard at, “Nice beaver.”


Re­turn­ing to the po­lice sta­tion, Frank crashes his car into some dust­bins. He leaves the car, obliv­i­ous, as the hand­brake is dis­lodged and the car rolls down­hill to­wards him. He shoots at it and it ex­plodes, be­fore crashing into a fire hy­drant. “Any­body get a look at the driver?” he quizzes on­look­ers.

David Zucker: I like that be­cause it’s one of those things where we al­low the au­di­ence to kind of meet us half­way. The au­di­ence comes to un­der­stand what Les­lie is think­ing. In Naked Gun 2 ½ he says, “Give me the strong­est thing you’ve got,” and the waiter brings in a mus­cled guy, and then he says, “No, give me a Black Rus­sian,” and the waiter just looks into the cam­era and shakes his head, like, “What­ever you were think­ing, we’re not gonna do that joke.” Those are some of my favourite things.

Jerry Zucker: We’d seen Les­lie in thou­sands of shows be­fore we cast him in Air­plane!. His name to our gen­er­a­tion was not that widely known, but he was still an icon — once you looked at his pic­ture you’d say, “Oh, that guy.”

David Zucker: No­body knew the name Les­lie Nielsen; he was that guy who was in The Po­sei­don Ad­ven­ture, or what­ever B movies he was in.

Jerry Zucker: I think that’s what I just said.

David Zucker: I wanted to say it not quite as goofy.

Jerry Zucker: You said it bet­ter, yeah.


Pur­su­ing an as­sailant, Frank jumps into a car and asks the driver to fol­low the ve­hi­cle in front — but finds him­self in the midst of a driv­ing les­son with a droll in­struc­tor, played by Os­car-win­ning dra­matic ac­tor John Houseman. “Noth­ing to see here,” Frank tells the crowd as the hit­man’s car then col­lides with and ex­plodes a fire­works fac­tory.

David Zucker: John Houseman was very com­fort­able do­ing it. What we wanted was John Houseman. It was just an­other bit of cast­ing judo, where he was not known for this kind of com­edy at all, but like Les­lie…

Jerry Zucker: …was just able to do it so well. Ac­tu­ally that woman who plays the driver [Winifred Freed­man] is ter­rific, I thought.

David Zucker: She was ap­pro­pri­ately nerdy.

Jerry Zucker: She looks like she might be a co­me­dian but she was not. She feels kind of in­no­cent. Which is ac­tu­ally what a lot

of it is about: play­ing in­no­cent, not let­ting on that you know you’re in a com­edy. As for Frank’s line, “Noth­ing to see here” — I have seen the ex­pres­sion used a lot since, in memes but also when peo­ple are writ­ing about politics or what­ever, and I never can quite be­lieve it; is that re­ally from The Naked Gun?


Ar­riv­ing back at his apart­ment one evening, Frank is sur­prised to find Jane, in full se­duc­tion mode. “I want you to know — I prac­tise safe sex,” she tells him. “So do I,” he says, and they both reap­pear wear­ing hu­man-sized pro­phy­lac­tics. David Zucker: I don’t re­mem­ber how we came up with that, but I do re­mem­ber think­ing, “I don’t know why we used the ac­tual ac­tors, be­cause we could have used stunt peo­ple.” Be­cause Priscilla was re­ally claus­tro­pho­bic about it. But she was a trouper, and did it. And it was just so need­less. It was gen­uinely hard for her. Les­lie en­joyed be­ing in a gi­ant con­dom. Jerry Zucker: He ac­tu­ally had his own that he brought.


Frank stuns Lud­wig with a dart. The vil­lain then top­ples off the roof and hur­tles to the ground, where he is run over by a lorry, a steamroller and a march­ing band. David Zucker: Ri­cardo Mon­tal­ban was very good, he loved do­ing the film. I had a good time do­ing it with him. He played a scene with our mom — she played his sec­re­tary.

Jerry Zucker: For the end­ing, a lot of times in movies we think vil­lains are killed, but then they get up. You wanna kill your vil­lain in a sat­is­fy­ing way. They al­ways try to in ac­tion movies, so we just did the ridicu­lous ver­sion of it.

David Zucker: And we were prob­a­bly think­ing that just a death isn’t nec­es­sar­ily funny. It was funny that Les­lie hit him with that dart and said, “It isn’t fa­tal”, and then he falls off and is killed. And then we just kept dou­bling down on it to make the death of the vil­lain funny rather than, “Ewww.” That would be spelled E-W-W-W.


With the vil­lain dis­patched, Nordberg ar­rives in a wheel­chair. Frank gives a hearty slap to the back of his chair, and Nordberg rolls down sev­eral steps be­fore be­ing sprung onto the base­ball pitch be­low. A mu­si­cal se­quence was filmed, to fol­low Nordberg’s un­planned pitch in­va­sion, but was cut.

David Zucker: There was some kind of thing we were go­ing to do dur­ing the end cred­its. They were walk­ing down the field and we had fans in the stand and ev­ery­one was singing ‘Take Me Out To The Ball­game’. But the gag with O.J. go­ing over the rail got such a huge laugh, it was ob­vi­ously the end of the pic­ture. You live and learn. Some­one thought we needed a lit­tle thing at the end, but that’s why we go through a pre­view process — the au­di­ence tells us when the end­ing hap­pens.

Abra­hams: Part of why the film holds up is be­cause it’s a good story with a good end­ing, as well as funny jokes. It re­ally took eight years for us to learn the mo­ral of Air­plane!, which is you need a com­plete story with a char­ac­ter arc where boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl back… All the nuts and bolts of sto­ry­telling are re­ally re­flected in Naked Gun. We spent as much time work­ing on the story as we did on the jokes.

Jerry Zucker: So lit­tle of it is typ­i­cal — it’s a satire on movie and TV con­ven­tions.

David Zucker: The last time I saw the film was at Sketch­fest in San Fran­cisco, five years ago. In front of an au­di­ence it’s amaz­ing: it still works. Peo­ple re­ally laugh. That’s the nice thing about it.

Top: Safe sex, Naked Gun style. Mid­dle: The demise of Vin­cent Lud­wig (Ri­cardo Mon­tal­ban). Be­low: O.J. goes off the rails.

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