Leslie Nielson has probably made me laugh out loud (literally) a hundred thousand times. The first time I saw him was in 1980, in the theater, watching Airplane! There was an earthquake that day, right here in Ohio, prompting my father – who is also pretty hilarious – to have tee shirts made which read “I Survived The 1980 Ohio Earthquake.”
The only reason we could feel the earthquake was that we were in a theater – I think it was about a 2.3 or something – but looking back, perhaps it was more than an earthquake. Perhaps it was a seismic shift in the foundation of Comedy Itself.
Few actors can be enshrined in the ranks of the Comedic Greats without ever being known for stand-up. Seinfeld, Martin, Pryor, Murphy, Carlin – all of them have nearly killed me laughing countless times, and it’s not a race. But what Leslie Nielson effortlessly pulled off onscreen in his prime is worthy of study. Hell, it’s worthy of statues – big ones, too.
Here are ten Leslie Nielson lines or scenes which put me on the floor the first dozen or so times they happened in front of me, not even necessarily my favorite ten, just the first ten to come to mind.
1 – “Don’t call me Shirley.” This line is as iconic as any of them out there, like “Go ahead, make my day.” and Vader’s “No, I am your father.” Hilarious to ten year-olds and adults alike, and a perfect example of Leslie Nielson’s deadpan genius.
2 – When Frank Drebin gets bitten on the hand by Vincent Ludwig’s priceless fish, and then accidentally stabs it with Vincent Ludwig’s priceless pen which is “Impervious to everything but water,” then drops them both back into the aquarium.
3 – When he assures the wife of Officer Nordberg (O.J. Simpson), that once he’s recovered from his injuries, he’ll have a position right here at Police Squad. “Unless he’s a drooling vegetable,” he adds. “But I think that goes without saying.”
4 – In the original series when he’s protecting a boxer from gangsters, and they show up and tell the boxer they’ve got his girl. They produce a purse, boxer says, “Mary’s purse!” But Drebin dismisses it – “There must be a million purses like this in the city.” Then her scarf, which he also dismisses. Then her toaster, and Drebin stares at it gravely. “Oh. My. God.” And then the toast pops up.
5 – “You take a risk when you get up in the morning, cross the street, or stick your face in a fan.” Got that right.
6 – “Well.” Not many actors could make a single word so funny, but Leslie Nielson did it frequently. For example, when he stunned Vincent Ludwig with his cufflink stun gun, and then assured the bystander that he hadn’t killed ludwig, explaining the cufflinks. Then Ludwig falls off the stadium and gets run over by several vehicles including a steamroller, and then stomped on by the marching band. That’s what he said – “Well.”
6a – “Well.” Also, again, when he’s leaving the force and cleaning out his desk and finds evidence from a previous case. “How ’bout that, he was innocent!” “Frank he went to the chair last year.” “Well.”
7 – “I just want you to know, good luck, we’re all counting on you.” This line is actually a gift to mankind – you can get a laugh with that in practically any situation involving a door.
8 – “When I see five guys in togas stabbing a sixth right out there in broad daylight, I shoot the bastards, that’s my policy.” Except it was apparently a Shakespeare at the Park presentation of Julius Caeser. He killed five actors – “good ones, too!”
9 – When he urinates for ninety seconds with a live microphone on him, at the Queen’s welcome ceremony. “No matter how silly the idea of having a Queen seems to us…”
10 – When he accidentally trashes and sets fire to the office he’s trying to be sneaky and search, culminating in “Sexual assault with a concrete dildo!” (It’s funny because he doesn’t really sexually assault anyone with it and it isn’t a dildo, it’s a concrete penis from a naked statue.)
What we need is the opposite of a moment of silence. We need a worldwide viewing of Airplane! and Airplane 2: The Sequel!, and all of the Naked Gun movies, and if you can find them, the six original Police Squad television episodes. Everyone on the planet should watch these movies on a recursive loop for about forty days and forty nights – that’s the scale of the loss that we’ve suffered, when Leslie Nielson moved on from our world.
Yes, gather together those rare friends of yours who don’t yet know of him, and those friends with whom you’ve grown up, giggling on living room floors in front of his ingenious antics. Draw near your children and your parents, your enemies and your friends, and celebrate the timeless works of the Deadpan King himself.
As the Vikings and the Klingons were prone to do upon the death of warriors, let us warn the afterlife that a comedic samurai approaches, weary from a life of cracking everyone up, his Hammer of Comedy slung over his shoulder, his mighty horn blasting forth at the sight of the gargantuan, dinosaur-bone gates.
Let the hysterical laughter of the entire human race ring across the Earth and the Heavens. Let us throw back our heads and cackle across the cosmos as a single, unified race, until Dr. Pepper comes out of our collective noses. For we are all equal are we not, when we are writhing on the floor, gasping for breath, laughing our very asses off?
Let us warn the gods and the spirits and the angels and the beasts, with our planet-spanning symphony of snorts and giggles. Beware, we’ll tell them, for quite possibly the funniest human being to ever walk the face of the Earth approaches your vaulted halls. On your feet, Carlin and Pryor and Candy and Foxx – Leslie Nielson is coming to crack you up for eternity, a befuddled look on his face, but he’s not befuddled, fellas. No, he’s not. He just knows what he’s doing, that’s all, and I know you’ve saved him a spot.
He’ll drive his squad car on a long and slapstick route across the afterlife, to whatever Comedic Valhalla awaits the truly hilarious, and when he pulls up out front, he’ll blast over the garbage cans and not even notice. Welcome him, with feasting and wine, with song and fireworks – but not with laugh tracks, for the Mighty Leslie Nielson needs them not.
Godspeed, Sir. May your soul come to roost where you can get a decent view of the world you’ve left behind, and the Category 5 hurricane of breathless laughter that has swept across it throughout your brilliant life and beyond. Thank you sincerely for the trillions of smiles that you’ve ever put on our faces – God knows we’ve needed them, here on Earth.
I hope you find some peace, wherever you’ve gone, and I hope your funeral is truly hilarious – I know that you wouldn’t have it any other way.