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“Who’s Jim Fell?”


 

I found this TV-related video last night, and while related to no particular anniversary – the 30th anniversary of Police Squad! is next year – I had to present it here. It’s well known that Airplane! is a comedy remake of the movie Zero Hour!, with the writers buying the script of the original movie, using the same plot and much of the same dialogue, but adding jokes. When the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team did their first project for TV, the pilot of Police Squad!, they did exactly the same thing. While the show parodied several different types of cop show (just as Airplane! parodied several kinds of disaster movie), they based the pilot directly on an episode of the Lee Marvin cop show M Squad, entitled “More Deadly.”

They took the script of the M Squad episode and added jokes, often riffing on serious lines from the original, exactly as they did with Airplane! The video starts with the first scenes from the Police Squad! pilot, followed by the same scenes in the M Squad episode. I don’t remember if the other five episodes of Police Squad! were also based on old TV episodes or if they had original stories – but if they were original, it might partially explain why the rest of the series wasn’t quite up to the level of the pilot, just as ZAZ’s first film with a semi-original story (Top Secret!) was a box office flop. They seemed to do best when they were riffing on a “serious” story with a strong, solid structure that they could borrow (though I do love Top Secret!).

For those who are already familiar with the Police Squad! episode, M Squad begins at the 6:27 mark.

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I wonder if you could do a parody this way today – instead of taking a movie or show from the ’50s, the way ZAZ did in the ’80s, someone could take a story from the ’80s or ’90s and use it as the basis for a general parody of cop shows, action movies, and so on. It might not be possible (ZAZ bought the rights to Zero Hour, but their modern equivalents might not be able to get the rights to do such a disrespectful remake), but it works. Airplane! does not seem like a ’50s period piece, even though it’s based scene for scene on a ’50s movie and even uses ’50s sound effects for the plane. And the pilot of Police Squad! doesn’t seem like a parody of cop shows from only one era, even though it literally is a cop show from the ’50s. The conventions of a genre change so slowly and so little over time that the parody feels timeless; the old stories feel like stories that could happen in any era. But because they are old stories, they do feel a little bit “off” or stilted, which means that even the serious lines become funny just by virtue of the fact that they sound old-fashioned. The result: a parody that is not too broad, but doesn’t have the dead spots that parodies usually have – and, above all, has a perfectly strong plot to back up the silliness.


 
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