Back in the eighties, I was more comedy geek than TV fan. With a few exceptions — Soap and Taxi — sitcoms didn’t seem like a place to look for anything cool, so I focused my nerditude on the great sketch shows: Monty Python, SCTV, and SNL.
Then Police Squad! debuted in 1982 and was promptly canceled, after only six episodes. Still, those half-dozen episodes made a huge impact on me. The show seemed surreal, sophisticated, with none of the cornball elements that dominated TV (I’d been watching a lot of Happy Days). It parodied cop shows I’d never seen, so I didn’t get all the references, but that didn’t matter: I liked its deadpan, spaghetti-against-the-wall sensibility, the rat-a-tat of random gags. (It also taught me that any TV shows I got attached to would probably be canceled.)
The country has been mourning Leslie Nielsen, the wonderful silly-serious actor who played Sergeant Frank Drebin in the show. His sad departure is a great opportunity to revisit Police Squad!, which still holds up very well. If you’ve watched Airplane! or the Naked Gun series, you’ve got the idea: It’s an endless series of “bits” (sight gags, wordplay, and Abbott-and-Costello-type dialogues), presented with stylized ultraseriousness, wedged into the cracks of the police-procedural format. I guess you could call Police Squad! a critique of those shows, but not in any deep or angry way; mainly, it was weird fun. The show moves more slowly than a lot of modern comedy — sitcoms in general have sped up so much they basically require a DVR to catch all the jokes — but at the time it aired, I remember it seemed as coked-up as something like 30 Rock.
Below is the opening segment of a typical Police Squad! episode. I love Drebin’s extended, deranged riff on his gay past, at 9:18 (“They ran him out of town like a common pygmy … Sure, he was a physical education major, but he had a mind, he could think. He wasn’t all muscle, all body, all sinewy limbs!”), but I’m also fond of the extremely silly early sequence (at 2:57), in which the bank clerk desperately continues stamping and filing documents even after he is shot.
(By the way, does anyone know who the actress is who plays the Widow Twice? She looks familiar and her weeping is so heartfelt that it throws the scene off a bit.)
Luckily, there’s a show out there now that’s squarely in the tradition of Police Squad!: Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital, which I’d wrongly dismissed after watching a webisode version I wasn’t wild about. Luckily, Vulture editor Josh forced me to revisit it by bombarding me with e-mailed links, letting me see the error of my ways. Just as Police Squad! took the piss out of every police procedural, Children’s Hospital is the perfect antidote to/critique of Grey’s Anatomy, although really, it’s just weird fun. It’s got an excellent cast: Lake Bell, Rob Corrdry, Megan Mullally. If only Leslie Nielsen were still around, he could throw on some scrubs and fit right in as a hospital administrator.
Check out one of its best episodes, “The Coffee Machine Paid for Itself” (featuring guest nemesis Rabbi Jewy McJewJew), right here.