This post is part two in a series on ZAZ. Click here to read part one.
Unlike friend Jim Abrahams or brother Jerry, David Zucker never left comedy. He even wrote an article about his rules of comedy in the early 1990’s.
- Zucker’s films focus on the importance of being a man and often feature male leads that need to learn what it means to be a real man. In his most personal films, the story involves a loser succeeding by taking control of their destiny.
In Airplane! (1980), Police Squad! (1982), and Top Secret! (1984), the trio made movies making fun of the movies and TV shows they loved as kids.
They also got into hiring the famous stars they grew up watching on TV. Airplane! starred Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges. Of the four, Stack understood the film’s approach the best. Eager to do comedy, Nielsen acted with a more over the top comedy approach the first rehearsal. When ZAZ explained their approach, Nielsen quickly readjusted to them.
Unlike his two collaborators, Zucker probably took the most from their early movies and Police Squad!. Although Police Squad! only lasted one season, it got two Emmy nominations. The trio got a nomination for best writing and series star Nielsen got a nomination for best actor in a comedy series. It also would launch David Zucker’s directing career.
After David Zucker left the group, Nielsen became his embodiment of the lovable buffoon. In the Scary Movie series, Zucker brought in Leslie Nielsen to play a buffoonish yet lovable president of the United States. Nielsen would stand in for then president George W. Bush. In An American Carol (2008), Zucker brings back Leslie Nielsen as a lovable grandfather and narrator of the story.
Zucker’s films also launched a second career for Nielsen. Gene Siskel would describe Nielsen as “Hollywood’s Bozo de jour” in his review of Mr. Magoo (1997). Roger Ebert would call him “the Olivier of spoofs” in his review of Scary Movie 3 (2003).
Top Secret! was based on the world war II propaganda movies that the filmmakers loved watching on TV as kids.
In Top Secret!, the lead character goes up against a vague enemy to America. In this case, it is a mixture of the Nazis from World War II movies and the communist military from behind the iron curtain. Although not as clear as later villains, they seem directly related to Zucker’s later villains.
‘The Naked Gun’ Series
He began his solo career directing the first two Naked Gun movies. ZAZ based the film series on their short-lived Police Squad! television series (1982). The first two installments followed Police Squad Lieutenant Frank Drebin (frequent collaborator Nielsen). Proft would also collaborate with Zucker on all his parody films, along with producer Robert K. Weiss.
Naked Gun: Files from the Police Squad! (1988) introduces Zucker’s viewpoints in full force. In the opening scene, America’s enemies plan an attack on the United States. The group includes caricatures of Ayatollah Khomeini, Fidel Castro, Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Little do they know, Frank Drebin has infiltrated the room in disguise. He reveals himself and beats them all up. During the fight scene, each member of the group is revealed as freakish or strange in some way. For example, when Drebin punches Khomeini, his turban flies off, revealing an orange Mohawk.
According to David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and Pat Proft wrote thirty pages a piece. Zucker than took the script and rewrote it with his before writing six drafts by himself.
Zucker would also direct Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991). This film features actors impersonating then president George H. W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush. In this film, the main villain (Robert Goulet) is an oil executive. As an environmentalist, Zucker chose a villain to go against his beliefs.
Unlike the first film, Zucker co-wrote the film with just Proft this time. Zucker also got the film greenlit by making a teaser that parodied his brother Jerry’s commercially successful film Ghost (1990).
Zucker’s approach to parody
While the series made fun of police procedurals, Zucker would co-opt the films into romantic comedies. The films focused on Drebin’s on and off relationship with Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley, former wife of Elvis). Zucker would later use this approach with the Scary Movie franchise.
In the DVD commentary for the first film, Zucker also explains that he structured the films more like silent comedy. This came from Zucker realizing that the visual puns in those films did not work in foreign countries. Therefore, the comedy in The Naked Gun focuses more on easily understood gags than cleverness. The only visual pun in the first are the most obvious ones. When Frank says “nice beaver,” Jane Spencer hands him down a stuffed beaver. In another scene, Frank says “bingo” while looking in a drawer. He then pulls a bingo card out of the drawer.
Zucker would also fill the films with notable people. Most notably, O.J. Simpson appears in the series as Drebin’s friend Detective Nordberg. Other recurring cast members include Presley and George Kennedy (who starred in the disaster movies that Airplane! spoofed).
Frank Drebin is a character defined by his inability to fit into the super macho Detective role. Drebin is a lovable doofus who often absent-mindedly destroys property and people. He is also often a victim of circumstance. On multiple occasions, he gets stuck in situations where he is mistaken for a sexual predator. In the second film, he says he got “more action in the boy scouts” in a crowded restaurant. Thinking he’s a pedophile, the whole restaurant stares at him as he tries to awkwardly explain himself. These jokes bring into question Drebin’s status as an upstanding citizen.
‘High School High’
He next co-wrote and produced High School High (1993) with Naked Gun co-writers Robert LoCash and Proft. Directed by actor Hart Boechner (who most audiences probably remember as sleazy businessman Harry Ellis in Die Hard (1989)), it follows Jon Lovitz as a prep school teacher who agrees to teach at an inner-city school.
More importantly, it became the first movie that focuses on a lead that would become very defining to Zucker’s career. In the film, Lovitz plays a nice guy who has to become tough to face off against the mean principal and gang lifestyle.
BASEketball (1998) came out of a real game that Zucker created with some friends. Once again, the story begins with two losers (South Park Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone) floundering through life. After creating a game based on rules that favor them, they become international sports stars through a fluke.
In the film, Joe “Coop/Airman” Cooper (Parker) serves as the lead role. Although he starts out as a loser, he decides to change his ways after meeting and falling for Jenna Reed (Yasmine Bleeth), the beautiful head of a children’s charity. In order to win her heart and the game, Coop has to take control of the situation and save the day.
Zucker actually created the game because he wanted a sport that average guys could play. He played from 1982 to 1992 with the likes of various friends, including fellow comedy director Peter Farrelly.
‘My Boss’s Daughter’
Zucker’s most unique solo film to date remains My Boss’s Daughter (2003). In the film, Zucker tries a significantly different style of comedy: full on farce. The script came from David Dorfman, who had written another movie that came out that year: Anger Management (2003). Like My Boss’s Daughter, Anger Management focuses on a meek guy (Adam Sandler) dealing with an intimidating figure (Jack Nicholson) and a bunch of obnoxious supporting characters. However, My Boss’s Daughter contains its story within a few neighborhood blocks.
My Boss’s Daughter tells the story of a meek man (the film’s producer, Ashton Kutcher) having to housesit for his intimidating boss (Terence Stamp). Kutcher begins the film as a guy who gets walked on by his boss. The film ends with Ashton Kutcher’s once loser taking control of his life and telling the audience in voiceover to basically get over whatever problems they have.
Although Miramax released the film through Dimension Films in 2003, it was originally shot in 2000. Even with the delay, the film feels oddly dated. It probably has the sincerest use of the Barenaked Ladies song “If I had a $1000000,” a song released in 1992. The film also contains references to Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ears and former Zucker collaborator O.J. Simpson. Finally, Stamp’s Jack Taylor has an owl named O.J. This movie came out nine years after the trial. An early scene references John Hinkley Jr. trying to shoot Ronald Reagan to meet Jodie Foster. In a 2008 interview with The Heeb, Zucker admitted to being somewhat out of touch with the times. In that interview, he discussed hip younger writers making jokes about Amy Winehouse (this interview occurred three years before she died).
By the time the movie hit theaters in 2003, both star and director had entered new stages of their career. Kutcher had become a viable movie star. Zucker became part of another parody franchise.
The ‘Scary Movie’ Franchise
After making more personal films, Zucker helped make Scary Movie Miramax’s most profitable franchise. Dimension Films also released the series.
Originally written and directed by the Wayans brothers, the first two R rated Scary Movies pushed the boundaries of comedy and taste. Released in 2000, the first film targeted the horror movie Scream franchise and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1998). Everything implicit in those movies became explicit in Scary Movie. Scary Movie 2 (2001) focused more on haunted house movies. Half of the fun of both films came in the killers meeting the much more outrageous leading characters.
The original two films also had an ensemble nature to them. Every character’s major qualities came from their freakishness. Cindy Campbell might act as the protagonist, but the films always present her as an equal to the other anarchic characters. However, after the second film, the studio required some major changes.
Miramax brought in Zucker after Scary Movie 2 did not perform as well the previous film. Miramax also decided to make the sequels PG-13 instead of R. Zucker would helm Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4. Zucker also wrote Scary Movie 5 (2013) with Pat Proft and directed reshoots. The films would also reunite Zucker with Jim Abrahams, who helped co-write Scary Movie 4.
Aside from aesthetic changes (including replacing regular cast members Shawn and Marlon Wayans with Anthony Anderson and Kevin Hart), Zucker’s major contribution to the series involved creating more conventional narratives. In the two Zucker movies, Cindy’s boyfriends became more central to the story. Unlike the horny teenagers of the first two movies, the men of Zucker’s films had responsibilities. Their stories focused on how they acted as partners and fathers.
Scary Movie 3 has Tom and George Logan (Charlie Sheen and Simon Rex) serve this purpose. Sheen’s Tom is the lovable father trying to protect his kids. This includes him trying to defend his daughter from an Alien disguised as Michael Jackson. This plays on the infamous allegations about Jackson. Rex’s George represents a sort of awkward masculinity. He tries to do the right thing, but keeps screwing up. This includes babysitting for Cindy’s nephew and accidentally hurting him multiple times. The film ends with Cindy marrying George.
Scary Movie 4 combines the characteristics of Tom and George Logan into Tom Ryan (Craig Bierko). Like George, he often fails as a partner and father. This includes him neglecting his daughter multiple times and allowing her to get hurt. Like Tom Logan, Tom Ryan loves his kids. Much of the humor and story comes from him trying to protect them. The film brings back Michael Jackson for a brief scene, but the most prominent example comes at the end. Tom saves the day because the movie’s primary villain sees how much he cares about his children. As a father himself, the alien decides to call off his evil plan. The story ends with Tom announcing his love for Cindy on Oprah.
While these stories fit with Zucker’s narratives, the Scary Movie series also changed because the Horror movies that started them became less popular. Instead of popular American Horror films focusing on teenagers, they became stories about parents and children. Since Miramax also wanted a wider audience, domesticating the series became a step in the process.
Personal Work: ‘An American Carol’
(Disclaimer: the author of this article is not affiliated with the political beliefs of the filmmaker.)
One cannot discuss David Zucker without discussing politics. After 9/11, Zucker became a Republican on almost every issue (except for issues such as environmentalism).
In between films, Zucker made ads criticizing John Kerry and Barack Obama. He would also make one feature film for a conservative audience.
In 2008, Zucker made An American Carol for Vivendi Entertainment. A conservative version of A Christmas Carol, the film follows liberal documentary filmmaker Michael Malone (a parody of Michael Moore by way of Kevin Farley) as the ghosts of John F. Kennedy (Chriss Anglin), George S. Patton (Kelsey Grammer), George Washington (Jon Voight), and the Angel of Death (Trace Adkins as himself) teach him to support the war in Iraq and other conservative causes.
Malone’s main sin in the film seems to be that he does not measure up to Zucker’s ideal of manhood. To contrast him, Zucker introduces Malone’s nephew Josh (Travis Schudt) as a nice normal navy man. He also serves as the story’s version of Bob Cratchit. He loves his uncle, but finds his viewpoints disturbing. Everything Malone lacks, Josh has.
The film’s journey once again centers around Malone starting as a weak man. The opening of the film has Malone wanting to cancel the fourth of July (“Why did he want to cancel America’s birthday?” “Because he wasn’t invited.”). This creative decision makes Malone into an unreasonable character. Similarly, Malone became a liberal because his high school love interest left him for a military man. The character acts like a jilted lover rather than clearly thinking individual.
Although Zucker seems to have contempt for his lead character, the film actually represents the closest thing Zucker has ever made to an autobiographical film. Like Malone, Zucker began making films in college. He was also a liberal filmmaker who became more conservative after a traumatic experience.
At the end of the day, all of Zucker’s films focus on masculinity in America. This is probably best exemplified by Zucker’s dream project. Throughout his career, Zucker has always talked about making a Davy Crockett movie. He even co-wrote a script for it with Robert LoCash. Unlike his other projects, this film would be a drama. In interviews, Zucker describes Crockett as larger than life character who told the truth no matter who it offended. For Zucker, Crockett appears to be an ideal subject matter.
After BASEketball, Zucker planned to direct the Eddie Murphy vehicle Toddlers from a script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. For whatever reason, the project seems to have fallen through. When discussing the project with the AV Club, Zucker said “they just needed to cast somebody else” alongside Murphy.