While there are those that make comedy look so easy, it is anything but. Delivering a one-two punchline to get that gut-busting response from audiences requires, at the very least, pinpoint timing and a general sense of what people respond and relate to best. What’s even harder again, however, is achieving the same response with deadpan delivery; to be funny through the very act of being seemingly unfunny, and all the while audiences need to know that you are in on the joke. There are few, if any, who did this better than the late and great Leslie Nielsen, who passed away seven years ago this month.
What is surprising about the Saskatchewan native is that he did not find his true calling in comedy until reaching his mid-50s. Known prior for his classic dramatic roles in films like Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure, Nielsen’s career, and for that matter, comedy, was forever changed following his role in 1980’s Airplane!, which was written and directed by the maestros of modern slapstick, Jim Abrahams, and brothers David and Jerry Zucker.
While at the time Nielsen was cast against his usual type of role, the actor nonetheless embraced the character with his own distinctive style of deadpan delivery, which “surely” made for some of the film’s most immortalised moments…“I am serious,” and have no idea what Shirley had to do with it.
Yet I had not seen Airplane! until after Nielsen’s death, which only added to my longstanding respect and admiration for the comic actor (a term he himself deconstructed in a wonderfully delivered Saturday Night Live monologue). While the comedy roles began flooding in for Nielsen after Airplane!, who was undoubtedly the greatest revelation in the film’s impressive cast, it was his reteaming with Abrahams and the brothers Zucker on the short-lived TV spoof Police Squad! which later led to The Naked Gun series and, for me, his most iconic role as Detective Frank Drebin.
The Naked Gun series, along with films such as Spy Hard, Mr. Magoo, and Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It, are the Nielsen films I grew up with and loved. While the latter films are not nearly as well revered as Airplane! or The Naked Gun (and I can understand why), Nielsen was never at the receiving end of the criticism, due to his natural ability for delivering even the worst-written lines with a dry sense of irony that was hard not to smile at.
The key to Nielsen’s style of comedy is that he never truly acknowledged the ridiculousness of whatever slapstick scenario was taking place before him. The man was simultaneously in and out of the joke, while barely ever cracking more than a smirk in the process. He remained completely committed to his own brand of comedy until the day he died, and while this would normally be perceived as a lack of range, Nielsen had more than proven his range before ever entering the realm of comedy acting, and what he did worked without ever going stale.
Leslie Nielsen loved comedy, not just because he was unnaturally good at it, but because audiences loved him back for what he did best, and I am sure many who use deadpan style comedy acting today, such as Nick Offerman, Kristen Wiig, and Zach Galifianakis, owe a great deal to him. So go ahead and watch any one of his classics. If you don’t owe it to yourself, we certainly owe it to Nielsen for his contributions to the world of comedy.
Image Courtesy of Alan Light