November 29, 2010
Surely Leslie Nielsen was one of the great ones
Leslie Nielsen is the inventor of contemporary deadpan. Without Leslie Nielsen and his straight man shtick, we would have no Bill Murray or any of Jason Bateman's or Michael Cera's good lines in "Arrested Development". I might be over-stepping here, but without Leslie Nielsen, I'm not sure we would have William Shatner as we know him today.
Both Shatner and Nielsen are Canadians who transitioned from the sci-fi and disaster genre into the kind of parody/self-parody that is so perfectly transparent, it's hard to tell if they're actually doing anything at all. Nielsen is more of a minimalist, but so good at his particular style of straight-faced slapstick that he's basically done exactly the same thing in every movie post-Airplane! and it is always hilarious.
Like everyone, I saw Airplane! at age 10 or so, and it's still the funniest movie I've ever seen (apart from a brief period around 1990 when I decided The Naked Gun was funnier.) Only recently did I happen to catch the 1957 movie that Airplane! is based on, Zero Hour!, which is so close to Airplane! than a lot of the dialogue was lifted directly from the original, including the "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking" line.
There's also this one from Zero Hour!:
"The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner."
I have no idea how you make a line like that as funny as Leslie Nielsen did in Airplane!. It's not funny in the original. It's not even a joke. He's a genius.
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