Network executives who see the new movie "The Naked Gun" might wonder if it would make a good TV series. Well they can stop wondering, because it did. "Naked Gun" is based on the short-lived 1982 comedy classic "Police Squad!," which ABC canceled after just six episodes.
The film, a hilarious farce about a hapless cop who stops Reggie Jackson from assassinating Queen Elizabeth II (don't ask how), is mopping up at the box office. Over the Christmas weekend, it took in $6 million, thus bringing its total gross to more than $34 million, with a long and rollicking run likely.Audiences are rolling in the aisles. And what about the network executives who canceled "Police Squad!" in 1982? Some of them have been rolled out the door. One of them, Anthony D. Thomopoulos, was a big name in TV for a while, but he has since returned to obscurity. Richly deserved.
It was Thomopoulos who declared at the time that the reason "Police Squad!" didn't work was that viewers had to "pay too much attention" in order to get the jokes. One such joke: Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), in the series and the movie, says his investigation has taken him to the part of town known as Little Italy. Through the back window of his police car one can see the Coliseum receding in the distance.
When Drebin gets to his destination, the home of a murder victim's hysterical widow, he apologizes for interrupting her at such a time. "We would have come earlier," he explains tactfully, "but your husband wasn't dead then."
Brilliant jokes? Witty jokes? Maybe not, but the point is, they were not intellectually demanding. You didn't have to be glued to the screen to understand them. It wasn't like threading a needle or reading the Iliad. Thomopoulos also complained about the lack of a laugh track on the show, but subsequent hits have proven TV shows can indeed succeed without one.
Thomopoulos was but a symptom - the overpaid network executive who thinks the public is stupider than he is and much less sophisticated. Many executives and program producers actually brag about how little they watch television, as if it were something for the masses and beneath their refined sensibilities.
This is one thing about network television that seems, mercifully, to be changing, partly because networks are eating humble pie now that their shares of the audience have plummeted. They may not be so quick as they once were to refer sneeringly to the television audience as "the people we fly over" while winging to meetings in Los Angeles or New York.
Well before the "Naked Gun" movie came out, the six episodes of "Police Squad!" were released on tape (three to a cassette) by Paramount Home Video. A spokeswoman says the shows have done "very well" and are still in circulation. The episodes were also shown as part of the "cult comedy" anthology series on cable's Arts & Entertainment Network.
"Police Squad!" was an irreverent and wonderfully absurd satire of old-time cop shows - especially the kind once produced by Quinn Martin - from the creative team that made the hit movie parody "Airplane!" For Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker, the huge success of the movie is sweet, and sweet revenge. They can not only laugh but jeer all the way to the bank.
Will there be a sequel? Sources at Paramount suggest it is highly likely. "I wouldn't drop my teeth if it happened," one says. And so, "Police Squad!" may become a series after all - a series of movies, like "Star Trek," another canceled show that came back from the hereafter.
The television audience is not dumb, people can often figure out when to laugh without being prodded, and not all viewers watch television in a groggy state of benumbed passivity. With the increase in available channels on cable has come greater selectivity and a demand for precisely the kind of programming Thomopoulos ridiculed: programming worth paying attention to.
Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings - so it is said in "It's A Wonderful Life." And guess what? Every time an audience roars with laughter at "The Naked Gun," a network executive gets another ulcer. Richly deserved.