Don’t call him Shirley: An evening with David Zucker in Jerusalem

David Zucker, one of the comic geniuses behind Airplane!, turned up at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on September 14.

DIRECTOR DAVID ZUCKER arrives at the premiere of ‘Scary Movie 5’ in Hollywood. (photo credit: FRED PROUSER/REUTERS)
DIRECTOR DAVID ZUCKER arrives at the premiere of ‘Scary Movie 5’ in Hollywood.
(photo credit: FRED PROUSER/REUTERS)
Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop going to see classic comedies followed by talks with their brilliant directors, so when David Zucker, one of the comic geniuses behind Airplane!, turned up at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on September 14, I just had to go.
If that first sentence puzzles you, you need a refresher course on Airplane!, the 1980 farce Zucker directed with his brother, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams. It’s a spoof of all those cliched airplane disaster movies, but what could have been a throwaway parody has turned into an enduring classic. It was recently named to the No. 7 spot on the BBC Culture film critics’ poll of the greatest comedies of all time (I was one of the 253 critics who voted very enthusiastically for it).
It should come as no surprise that Zucker, who also made appearances last week at the cinematheques in Herzliya and Tel Aviv, is a very funny guy, but he did take one moment to be serious when he spoke about how these screenings were fundraisers for One Family, a non-profit group that provides support for thousands of terrorism victims and their families in Israel.
“I couldn’t be more pleased to support a cause like this,” he said, accepting a certificate from Chantal Belzberg, a co-founder of One Family.
For the rest of his time on the cinematheque stage, in a conversation with Israeli screenwriter Alon Gur Arye (who brought his personal stack of Zucker DVDs to prove what a fan he is), in front of an audience that was mostly American and mostly of an age to have seen Airplane! when it first came out, Zucker wisecracked and deadpanned in a kind of seated stand-up routine. But as outrageous as some of his humor was, there was always an undertone of playfulness and joy, as if he still couldn’t believe his luck at making a living out of cracking just the kinds of jokes he most enjoys.
The Milwaukee-born Zucker talked about how he and his brother knew Jim Abrahams growing up. The trio formed a college theater group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kentucky Fried Theater, which led to their making the 1977 comedy sketch film Kentucky Fried Movie.
Airplane! came out of their love for “old black and white movies... great, serious, unintentionally funny movies,” which they thought were hilarious. For fun, they dubbed these old movies for comic effect, then decided to “remake” a 1957 thriller called Zero Hour!, which became Airplane!
But finding a studio to get behind this “comedy with no comedians... by three first-time directors” was no easy task.Eventually, Paramount decided to take a chance on them, but getting mainstream dramatic actors to sign on was also difficult.
“The one we knew we wanted was Robert Stack. I think Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves were next... Bridges, I think his kids convinced him to do it. Graves, of Mission Impossible fame, was tougher to sign. “Peter Graves read the script and he said it was [the most] disgusting piece of crap he’d ever read.”
A meeting with Graves was arranged, and the directors with their “aw shucks” Midwestern manners charmed him enough “to play a pedophile,” Zucker recalled of Graves’ pilot, whose most memorable lines are the inappropriate remarks he makes to a wide-eyed little boy visiting the cockpit.
But the actor most identified with the movie, and with Zucker’s subsequent career, is undoubtedly Leslie Nielsen, who plays the grim-faced doctor aboard the plane who keeps asking people not to call him Shirley (and if you don’t remember why that is funny, you really need to see the movie again). “Leslie told his agent, ‘Don’t tell them but I would pay them to do this.’” Although Nielsen had been a dramatic actor up till then, he flourished in comedy. “He was a clown. He knew where the joke was,” Zucker said.
Talking about his father, Zucker said, “My dad didn’t know any jokes but he would say the most hilarious things with a straight face,” and Nielsen was able to deliver this kind of performance, starting with Airplane! and then with the Police Squad TV series and, of course, The Naked Gun movies.
O.J. Simpson was Nielsen’s co-star in The Naked Gun, and Zucker said he gets asked about O.J. a lot. “He improved with every movie,” said the director. “At the wrap party for Naked Gun 3, I sold him my knife collection.”
The audience Q&A was full of jokes like this, with Zucker effortlessly getting big laughs. He admitted that he and his co-directors, when doing a publicity tour for the movie, got bored being asked the same old questions again and again, so they amused themselves by having a competition to see “who could get the biggest lie in print.” They made up a whopper about a new hobby of theirs, “skeet-surfing,” in which participants supposedly did skeet shooting while skiing.
“We thought people would say, ‘Come on!,’ but they said, ‘How do you keep the gun dry?’” he said. Skeet-shooting found its way into the opening of Top Secret, a movie beloved by Jewish audiences because whenever the date of the planned attack on the NATO submarine fleet is mentioned, a character always says, “But that’s Simhat Torah!”
Zucker, who has recently directed the last three films in the Scary Movie series, said he was now working on a spoof of the Bourne, Bond and Mission Impossible movies that would be called The Naked Gun 444 1/4: Nordberg Did it. Nordberg was the name of Simpson’s character.
Airplane! has not dated, said Zucker, because “spoofs will always be relevant... I don’t need to know anything about popular culture, and I don’t.” He said his favorite joke in the film was the moment when one of the stewardesses breaks down and cries to Leslie Nielsen about how she is going to die without ever having been married, just as another woman comes up and says she is also afraid to die, “But at least I have a husband.”
“That was funny 40 years ago and it will be funny 40 years from now.”