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David Zucker: Don't Call Him Shirley
By Sean Axmaker
August 15, 2006 - 5:33 AM PDT

"They don't let on that they're in on the joke."

You could argue that David Zucker is one of the most influential movie comedy directors of the past few decades. In collaboration with his brother, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams, he turned a low-budget movie parody into a comedy sensation: Airplane!, a film where no joke was too absurd and the stone-faced delivery of ridiculous non-sequitors by the likes of Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielson made them even more mind-bendingly hilarious.

The "Z-A-Z" trio began their comedy collaboration with the improvisational comedy troupe Kentucky Fried Theater, which they brought to the screen with Kentucky Fried Movie, directed by an up and coming John Landis. After finally taking the directorial reigns with Airplane!, they continued their unique three-way writing-directing collaboration on two subsequent films, Top Secret! and Ruthless People, and the funniest sitcom ever to get a showing (however brief) on network TV. Police Squad! (what is it with all these exclamation marks?!!!) only lasted six episodes, but it spawned a movie franchise and transformed Leslie Nielson from a stiff dramatic has-been into a comedy star. A DVD is finally in the works for the cult series.

The three collaborators have gone their own ways since and Zucker has been the busiest, at least when it comes to directing: The first two Naked Gun features, BASEketball, starring South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the only film they have starred in apart from their own productions), and Scary Movie 3, an anemic comedy franchise which received a creative transfusion from Zucker. I spoke with him immediately following the theatrical premiere of Scary Movie 4.

Is anything off limits in a David Zucker comedy?

We have to stay within PG-13 (for the Scary Movies), so obviously there is a lot of stuff that's off limits as far as that goes. I think that, as far as taste, you try to go right up to the borderline, you try to push the envelope as much as you can and still get the laugh. But, you know, I think doing a 9/11 joke like the President getting the word in a classroom is okay. And we test these things out and people laugh, and it means it's okay. I think it helps to have Leslie Neilson to pull some of this stuff off.

You've been working with Leslie Neilson ever since Airplane! and, of course, the Police Squad! TV series. Have you guys developed a kind of a rapport through all those years?

Yeah, it is kind of a shorthand, mostly with my producer, Bob Weiss, who I did all the Naked Guns with and Kentucky Fried Movie and the last Scary Movie I did with him, so we have a regular way of working. And I had the good fortune of being able to work with Jim Abrahams again on this one, on Scary 4. He wasn't available on 3, so we finally did hook up again and that was a lot fun, as if no time had passed. I was pretty comfortable with that. And then Craig Mazin, our main writer, and I have developed a pretty good rapport over the years and we're planning to do more movies together.

This is the first time you've worked with Jim Abrahams in years. How were you able to lure him back into collaborating on a screenplay?

He was available. He's not really directing anymore, so he was available to write, and it was pretty easy. I wanted to co-direct with him on The Naked Gun, but he was working on another movie at the time. But we've always wanted to work together.

After Police Squad and Ruthless People, you and Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker have all gone off on your own directorial projects.

That happened right after Ruthless People. We just found it to be a little constricting, being three guys all trying to direct the same movie. There's a certain amount of growth that happens and you start getting into your own stuff. Everybody wanted to be right and get their way all the time, and that's understandable. Jerry, Jim and I all wanted to do different types of movies, so that's pretty much what we did. We went off and had our own careers, but remained friends.

After all these years, is there any talk of you three getting back together for a project?

You know, the only projects we get together on, we get back and do commentaries on the DVDs. We're all going to meet at some place in Burbank and we're going to do the Police Squad DVD. They're putting it out. In fact, they've been waiting for Bob Weiss and I to get back. We've been in Vancouver for the last six months, where we shot Scary Movie 4.

Your name is not on the script for Scary Movie 4 or Scary Movie 3, but surely you were involved in the screenwriting process and the collaboration in some form, weren't you?

Are you looking for me to say "Don't call me Shirley?" I'm not going to bite at that one. I do a lot of writing when I direct, and I do a lot of writing in the pre-production and during the screenwriting period, but there are already enough writers [in the credits]. We have Craig Mazin, who really does 80 percent of it, and then Jim Abrahams and Pat Proft who make their wonderful contributions. I don't usually like long lists of writers, so my directing credit is enough.

Pat Proft is almost like the fourth member of the old "Z-A-Z" team, he's worked on so many films with you. The writers change from film to film, but you keep coming back to the same people in different combinations. Do you like to shake up the chemistry from film to film?

The talent pool of writers who can do this kind of humor is limited. I can count them on one hand. Jim Abrahams, Pat Proft, Craig Mazin. And there's another guy, Scott Tomlinson, who puts in additional gags, but isn't credited. It's limited, how many people can do this stuff. It's different than television writing or the writers you'd find on The Simpsons, which are good shows, but it's a different skill than this stuff.

Is acting in one of these kinds of films like that? Is it also a hard skill to find?

I think there's a large pool of actors that can do this, because all we want is good dramatic actors. The really big stars of this kind of thing, like Leslie Neilson and Anna Faris, are a little rarer because there's something they bring to it and they don't let on that they're in on the joke, and that's the important thing.

I think that Charlie Sheen is one of the best comic actors for deadpan and obliviousness.

Charlie Sheen is the gold standard.

I was so sorry to see you kill him off so soon in Scary Movie 4.

Right, but you know, we're not averse to bringing people back and just ignoring logic. Charlie can very easily come back if he were available. But he's got this hit show, so it's hard. We were able to just get him for one day for Scary 4 and we appreciated that.

next >>>

"They don't let on that they're in on the joke."
"Airplane!, of course."

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Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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