I spent a few minutes looking for a good “Best Of” compilation on YouTube, but there were flaws in the first 3 I checked. I settled for the preview for Naked Gun, which is pretty good:
Also, I was about to go ballistic on this NPR obit because of the title: “Remembering Leslie Nielsen, A Master Of The Art Of Not Being Funny.” But it’s actually complimentary:
When Nielsen hosted [Saturday Night Live] way back in 1989, he was given a magnificent opening monologue where he explained exactly what he did and his bafflement therein. He didn’t understand why he had been asked to host a comedy show, because he was neither a comedian nor a comic. A comedian, he explained, was someone who says funny things. A comic was someone who says things in a funny way.
Nielsen, on the other hand, was someone who said unfunny things in an unfunny way, and for some reason, people laughed. To demonstrate this, he delivered an innocuous line – something along the lines of “Mr. Jones, sit down, I’d like to talk to you about your son” – twice. The first time, he said it as though he were in a drama, and the response was muted.
Then he told us that he was going to say the exact same unfunny line as Lt. Frank Drebin, in an unfunny way, and he did exactly that, and the audience exploded. It wasn’t just indulging him as prompted, either. Without actually tilting his delivery in that direction, Nielsen made it genuinely funny. To underscore his point, he then broke character with a look of happy exasperation and basically said, “See?”
It was one of my favorite SNL monologues ever, because it explicitly dissected the host’s entire schtick in a way that invited appreciation, rather than making it instantly tired and formulaic. Instead of mocking his persona in one way or the other, in the manner of most monologues, it was a tiny little master class in how it’s done.
And when I watch Airplane! or the Naked Gun movies or – seriously, you won’t believe how dumb and brilliant it is – Police Squad!, I understand just a little bit more how he’s doing what he’s doing, and it makes me sit in awed appreciation a little bit. Look, “And don’t call me Shirley” is, perhaps indisputably, the dumbest joke in the history of anything. Leslie Nielsen was able to turn it into comic gold. Saying unfunny things in an unfunny manner and magically having the result be funny is an incredibly hard trick. And nobody ever did it better.
I think my favorite line–in the sense that I quote it often, to the chagrin of whoever is standing next to me–is when Drebin is walking around town, trying to sort things out. He ends with a bunch of questions (regarding the case), then he looks at his surroundings and says, “And where the hell was I?”