By Jon Caroulis
Twenty-five years ago this week, I had hit a low point. I had broken up with the great love of my life, my career was not moving forward, and I had recently passed a milestone age that made me realize I wasn't where I thought I should be. I was convinced things would never get better.
A friend from college invited me to join him for a sneak preview of a new movie. With not much else to do, I went to the long-gone Eric Twin Rittenhouse cinema off 19th Street.
About 90 minutes later, I exited the theater believing life was worth living, all thanks to The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
It was - and still is - one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, and many people (almost all of them men) agree with me.
A pre-credits sequence had star Leslie Nielsen beating up a group of dictators - led by Ayatollah Khomeini, Idi Amin, and Moammar Gadhafi. Nielsen wallops them and begins his exit by jumping onto a ledge. One of the beaten dictators asks, "Who are you?" Nielsen replies:
"I'm Lt. Frank Drebin, Police Squad! And don't ever let me catch you guys in America!" He then trips and falls. The credits begin over footage of a police siren blaring - and the movie was filled with sight gags that kept me laughing.
And the jokes, good and bad, never stopped.
It's a miracle the film was ever made. It was based on a short-lived 1982 TV series, Police Squad!, starring Nielsen and created by filmmakers Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, the comic geniuses behind the hit 1980 movie Airplane! Only six episodes of Police Squad! were broadcast, but the trio persuaded a studio to make a film version.
Nielsen, who had always been a serious actor, played a comedic role in Airplane! ("Don't call me Shirley") and followed up as the deadpan Drebin in both the TV series and movie. He played his character straight, even when he was saying and doing dumb things. Although it was released in December 1988, The Naked Gun's jokes and sight gags still hold up. (Two sequels were made, but they aren't as funny as the original, probably because the three filmmakers didn't collaborate on the follow-up films.)
Naked Gun has a thread of a plot: Khomeini and his gang, determined to embarrass the United States, hire a corrupt businessman played by Ricardo Montalban to kill Queen Elizabeth II while she visits America. Only Drebin knows what's going on. The film climaxes with a baseball game at Dodger Stadium in which every baseball cliché, from players spitting tobacco juice and grabbing their crotches to coaches flashing signs, is satirized.
There's also something eerie today about watching the film, because O.J. Simpson has a small but important part, and his character has a devoted wife.
Years later, I realized, The Naked Gun taught me an essential truth: People need to laugh.
My parents had grown up during the Depression, which, oddly, was the same period as the Golden Age of Hollywood. I had always thought that many of those so-called classic musicals and Westerns were flimsy and lacked depth. However, my folks explained that people then needed to forget their troubles. They went to the movies for something light, not a heavy story line that tried to explain the human condition. They were right.
Arguably, we're in a much more complicated society than the one that existed in the 1930s - or even the late 1980s, when The Naked Gun was released - and that's why we need to laugh even more.
To be honest, though, The Naked Gun can only help some of us: It's a guy movie. Women, I regret to say, will have to find something else to take their troubles away. How much of a guy movie is it? About 15 years ago, when a friend really needed to unwind, I went to his house with a cold six-pack and a copy of The Naked Gun. About 15 minutes into it, his wife, who was then in law school, asked what we were watching. I told her, and warned, "It's a guy movie." Ten minutes later, she stood up, said, "You're right, it's a guy movie," and walked out.
We will always have to face troubles and heartaches we think will never end. But I have an advantage. I know The Naked Gun is always there, ready and able to help pull me through even the darkest of times.
As Frank Drebin would say, "It's a topsy-turvy world, and maybe the problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans. But this is our hill. And these are our beans!"