Of ZAZ and Pizzazz (The Comedy of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker)

This year, the landmark 1980 comedy Airplane! turned 40; having referenced that film and its influential creators many a time on this blog, this seems an appropriate time to shine a spotlight on their collective oeuvre.

“They” of course is the team of Jim Abrahams (b. 1944), David Zucker (b. 1947), and his brother Jerry Zucker (b. 1950), often shortened to “ZAZ” (for Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker). Abrahams met the brothers Zucker at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and formed a local improv company they called Kentucky Fried Theatre, their brand in the pre-Airplane! years. (For whatever reason, Madison has developed a thriving comedy scene, including numerous improv groups and comedy clubs. Chris Farley and his brothers are from the area, and The Onion was born at UW-Madison in 1988). If I may presume to categorize a lot of the comedy of the region — it has a tone not unlike that of their neighbors slightly to the north. Like Canadian comedy, it is often dry, and prone to satirical spoofing delivered with a straight face. The Kentucky Fried guys mastered this approach, and occupied their own niche. For some context: related things that were going in when they formed in the early ’70s included National Lampoon, Second City, Ace Trucking Company, and the Mel Brooks universe. Against this backdrop, Kentucky Fried Theatre got a little exposure on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (1972) and The Midnight Special (1974). Ken Shapiro and Chevy Chase’s The Groove Tube came out in 1974. Saturday Night Live launched in 1975.

In 1977 came the trio’s first breakthrough, although far lesser known than much that came afterwards. Kentucky Fried Movie was a stepping stone not only for the Zuckers and Abrahams, but for John Landis, who was hired to direct the film based on his helming of the previous comedy Schlock (1973). Kentucky Fried Movie was a parody of movies, tv shows, and advertisements, performed and staged in the deadpan manner and avalanche of outrageous jokes the team would soon become known for. It also pioneered their signature of hiring actual celebrities either to play themselves or the sort of roles they might play in a serious version of what was being parodied. Zuckers and Abrahams are in the cast themselves, as well as Stephen Stucker (that hilarious gay guy who runs around uttering non sequiturs in Airplane!) and several up-and-comers from Second City and The Groundlings, as well as much bigger names like Donald Sutherland, Bill Bixby, George Lazenby, Henry Gibson, Tony Dow (as Wally Cleaver!), all of whom were no doubt affordable and accessible to the team in this early effort because they’re each in the film for only about a minute.

While to this day the film is not well known, Kentucky Fried Movie is every bit as funny as ZAZ’s later work (I’d argue that it’s funnier than most of it), and led to big things for the key players. Landis immediately was hired to direct National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). And ZAZ got the wherewithal to make Airplane! (1980).

Airplane! is arguably ZAZ’s crowning achievement. Audiences were well accustomed to spoofs by 1980 — it had arguably been the previous decade’s dominant comic genre. What was new was the lengths these creators would go to make the sale. Co-directed as well as co-written by the trio, the movie mines a mother lode of humor by juxtaposing every joke they can think of with production values that cleave as closely to the original genre (art design, acting styles, music, even title design). As I’ve written here, I was a huge fan of 70s disaster movies (Travalanche has a whole section devoted to them, including this recent post devoted exclusively to airline disaster movies). Airplane! was so devastating that it simultaneously buried the disaster movie genre, which wouldn’t make a comeback for decades, and spoofs, at least those made under the old rules. The difference between a ZAZ movie and the similar parodies that had come before was roughly the same as that between a revolver and an automatic weapon. This was a BARRAGE of sight gags and verbal jokes, easily ten times the number in most comedies. It’s not that they were inventing a new genre (it was as old as Aristophanes) — it’s that they had raised the bar to a level not seen in American comedy films since the 1930s. As just one example. There is a dance sequence between the two main characters set to the Bee Gee’s “Staying Alive” which very much echoes the “I Love the Night Life” disco sequence in Stan Dragoti’s Love at First Bite (1979) but it ups the ante. In the latter film the disco music is the entire joke; here it is punctuated throughout by countless visual gags.

Legendarily, the supporting ensemble is made up largely of actors you would expect to see in an actual disaster movie (because they were), such as Leslie Nielsen from The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Night The Bridge Fell Down (1980); Robert Stack from Murder on Flight 502 (1975); Peter Graves from SST: Death Flight (1977); and Lloyd Bridges of Lost Flight (1969) and Disaster on the Coastliner (1979). Jimmy “J.J.” Walker of The Concorde…Airport ’79, has a cameo. Maureen McGovern (who sang “The Morning After” in The Poseidon Adventure) plays a nun, sending up Helen Reddy’s character in Airport 1975. The presence of basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabar in the cast echoes the presence of many other pro athletes from real disaster films, like O.J. Simpson in Towering Inferno (1974); Rosey Grier in Skyjacked (1972); and Don Meredith in Mayday at 40,000 Feet (1976). In addition there were delightful walk-ons by the likes of Barbara Billingsley (a.k.a. June Cleaver, echoing the Leave it to Beaver gag in Kentucky Fried Movie) and Ethel Merman. The leads were played by the goofier newcomers Robert Hedges (whom I recognized at the time from the sitcom Angie) and Julie Hagerty (who would go on to much future greatness).

Airplane! remains on many people’s short lists of best comedies ever. It earned a whopping 50 times its budget at the box office, making it one of the most successful Hollywood comedies ever made. Many of the cast returned for Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), in which ZAZ took no part.

The team then went on to create one of the most perfect parody TV shows of all time, in a league with Get Smart, When Things Were Rotten, and Quark. Police Squad (1982) poked fun of police procedurals of the Quinn Martin and Jack Webb variety. Leslie Nielsen played detective Frank Drebin as straight as if this were a show like Dragnet or The FBI. It was way too smart for audiences and was consequently cancelled after a half dozen episodes. It was then rebooted for the big screen in a much dumber incarnation, which we’ll return to shortly.

This is where the team’s spoofing begins to decline artistically. Top Secret (1984) has lots of laughs, but lacks focus, to put it midly. It attempts to combine Elvis musicals with World War Two films and to transplant those genres to present day East Germany (which still existed at the time). This was neither a thing nor a thing anyone was interested in. People laughed but they also scratched their heads. Somehow with Airplane! ZAZ had known just what the audience wanted. No one was asking for Top Secret. On the other hand, this was the first starring film for Val Kilmer.

At this point the team made a suprising but smart choice. They co-directed Ruthless People (1986) their first non-spoof; and the first film not written by the team. It was a dark farce penned by newcomer Dale Launer (who later wrote Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and My Cousin Vinnie), starring Danny De Vito, Bette Midler, Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater. It got great reviews and proved they could do something besides parody (which paved the way for future success for all three of them in other genres). This was also the last film on which all three shared co-directing credit.

Next, the team slalomed back to the tried and true by blowing Police Squad up for the big screen. At this stage they acquired a fourth collaborator, Pat Proft, who had worked with Kentucky Fried Theatre in the ’70s, written for The Smothers Brothers and on When Things Were Rotten and had co-written the screenplays for Police Academy (1984), Bachelor Party (1984), and Real Genius (1985). The three Police Squad films were The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988, written by all three plus Proft, and directed by David Zucker); The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (1991, directed by David Zucker, written by him and Proft); and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994, cowritten and produced by the team; directed by Peter Segal, who went on to direct comedies starring Chris Farley and Adam Sandler.) I am not a fan of these movies, which are several IQ points dumber than anything the team had done before. They sacrifice writing for slapstick of a not-very-clever order. These are the films on which Leslie Nielsen became self-aware, and decided to start performing as though he were a comedian, spoiling the entire concept. Apparently this was a lifelong ambition for him, but to my mind the results were unfortunate. Another regular in the films was George Kennedy, whom ZAZ had originally tried to get for Airplane! as he had been in every single Airport movie. Kennedy passed on the Airplane! role (probably thinking he would be ruining the good thing he had going in disaster movies; but by now doing ZAZ movies was the smart career move). The cop he plays in the Naked Gun films reminds us of the ones he had played in Earthquake and The Blue Knight. Kennedy’s no comedian either. And you know who REALLY isn’t a comedian? Knife murderer O.J. Simpson. Seeing him ever at ALL now puts butterflies in my stomach. Seeing him thinking he’s a comedy performer covers the butterflies in napalm.

Much more enjoyable to my mind were the Top Gun parodies Hot Shots (1991) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993), co-produced by Abrahams and Proft, produced by Proft, directed by Abrahams. This was rapid response parody — Top Gun had come out in 1986. It made for much more timely and relevant comedy, verging on satire (if not quite getting there). This had become quite a hawkish nation since 1980; military heroes like jet fighter pilots could stand to be taken down a peg or two. Charlie Sheen was inspired casting as the Tom Cruise equivalent (accustomed to playing handsome heroes, but also good at comedy, at least prior to his meth meltdown). Hot Shots also benefited from the presence of Lloyd Bridges, Efrem Zimablist Jr, Cary Elwes and the great clown Bill Irwin. This is also one of the first places I ever saw Kevin Dunn (later of Veep).

In 1992 ZAZ produced the classic comedy tribute Brain Donors, scripted by Proft, directed by Dennis Dugan and starring John Torturro, Bob Nelson, Mel Smith and Nancy Marchand. A purported Marx Brothers homage, it is much more reminiscent of The Three Stooges or the Ritz Brothers.

In the years since: In 1996, Proft collaborated with David Zucker on High School High, a Blackboard Jungle riff starring Jon Lovitz. Proft then went on to script Mr. Magoo (1997) and Wrongfully Accused (1998), both starring Leslie Nielson. Abrahams scripted and directed Mafia! (1998), a Godfather parody starring Jay Mohr, Lloyd Bridges, Christina Applegate, Olympia Dukakis, Tony Lo Bianco, Gregory Sierra, et al. The same year David Zucker collaborated with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone on BASEketball (1998), a sports movie spoof. He later also become involved with the Wayans Brothers’ Scary Movie franchise, directing Scary Movie 3 (2003) and Scary Movie 4 (2006), cowritten by Proft. In 2008 he produced The Onion Movie and directed An American Carol, a right wing parody of Michael Moore documentaries. Yes — you heard right. It stars Chris Farley’s brother Kevin in the Moore role, and features the Republican likes of Kelsey Grammer, Jon Voigt, James Woods, and Bill O’Reilly. It’s also got David Alan Grier and Gary Coleman as “slaves” and several guys playing Arab terrorists. Oh, yes, and Fred Travalena as Jimmy Carter. It cost $20 million to make and brought in $7 million at the box office. Zucker has not directed another movie since. Gee, I wonder why.

We haven’t even mentioned the biggest hit of all. In 1990, Jerry Zucker directed the smash hit paranormal romance Ghost, which was several times more successful than even Airplane! at the box office. By contrast with his partners, he appeared much more interested in mainstreaming. His other two films as director are the Arthurian romance First Knight (1995) , which sounds like a parody, but isn’t one; and an It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World homage called Rat Race (2001) with a sort of “B list” cast of all-stars. He also produced a half dozen movies including the rom-coms My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) and Friends With Benefits (2011). His partners only got their toes wet in such conventional fare. Abrahams directed the dramedy Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990) with Winona Ryder and Jeff Daniels, as well as 1997 TV movie about epilepsy. David Zucker produced the Hitchcockian thriller Phone Booth (2002) and directed the 2003 rom-com My Boss’s Daughter (2003).

For more on classic comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.