They allowed Val Kilmer to take his first steps on the big screen, revealed the comic talent of Leslie Nielsen and signed some of the funniest comedies of all time, which gave them the status of kings of parody. They are the ZAZ, an acronym that designates the trio formed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, dads with a humor that mixes up diversion, gags, schoolboys, a sense of detail that kills and stupid retorts pronounced with the utmost seriousness. by the actors. From disaster film to espionage, to film noir or war film, many genres have passed into the hands of directors and scriptwriters, capable of referring to works such as The Wizard of Oz, Beauty and the tramp or As long as there are men around a scene. While a good part of their filmography is available on OCS, what could be better than (re) diving into it, to laugh out loud during this confinement?
If the beginning of the 80s marks their real founding act, with Is there a pilot on the plane?, The birth of humor ZAZ actually dates back to 1977 when they participate, as writers, in sketch film Hamburger Film Sandwich by John Landis. An uneven feature film but in which the majority of the ingredients of their cinema are already found, starting with this taste for parody with which they will take off, literally and figuratively, a few years later by paying themselves for disaster films, very in vogue at the time, Airport type or At hour zero, from which they resume the overall plot, the name of a character (Ted Stryker, here played by Robert Hays) and this improbable reply: “We have to find a person who is not only capable of flying this plane, but who especially did not eat fish at dinner.”
Because if the whole works by segments, a common thread links everything and this will be the case in their following feature films: in the emergency, here, to find a pilot capable of landing a plane in distress following food poisoning Major indeed follow the investigations of Frank Drebin or the missions of Topper Harley or Nick Rivers, the hero of Top Secret!, pretexts to a chain of disasters often funnier than the others and which still work after several viewings. Because we notice a detail hidden in the background that had escaped us until now, that they handle the absurd and the burlesque with a universality which makes their films accessible to all, and have the good taste to make their parodies effective with everyone, including those who have not seen the works diverted. Knowing about Saturday Night Fever can of course help and increase the comic effect of the scene during which the ZAZs attack it. But it knows how to stand on its own, something that some of the heirs of the trio (the authors of Big Movie and others) will have only too little in mind.
From this first feature film written and staged by their care, the formula of their cinema seems clear with a humor that takes various forms: visual, with purely burleque and physical gags (a fall, a door crushed on the nose of Barbara Bush …); verbal, at the whim of completely improbable aftershocks; by playing on the spectator’s expectations and the logic of things (the heroes of Hot Shots! 2 who join the helicopter which must take them out of Iraq aboard a taxi… New Yorker). There are also misunderstandings, diversions of films and / or cinematographic genres… In short, humor ZAZ is expressed in different ways, which makes it rich and allows it to support several viewings allowing to discover new elements and better appreciate the precision mechanics that is theirs.
At first glance, the ZAZ cinema seems crazy, what is there a pilot on the plane? and its low budget which gives it a broke appearance tends to confirm, as does their way of staging all the ideas that have crossed their heads around a given situation. But it is a mistake and Top Secret! (1984), their second feature film and the last one where they will all be credited as directors, proves it. Parody mixing espionage and war in which an American rock singer is immersed in a history of resistance against nostalgic Nazis of the Second World War, and where the influence of Mel Brooks, their claimed model, is most visible, the film does not is not the most cited of those of their authors but it deserves to be reviewed. Its effectiveness remains formidable and it offers us some pieces of bravery, like this scene mounted upside down (which the Dummies, fans of the trio, will take up for a sketch of their show), or the hilarious credits which combine surfing … And clay pigeon shooting.
Even more than in Is there a pilot on the plane? (whose sequel, despite the casting, was made behind the backs of the ZAZs without their participation), Top Secret! makes editing an essential component of their humor, as well as writing and directing. Convening a few well-known faces (Omar Sharif or Peter Cushing, who replay and divert a passage from Frankenstein escaped), it contains gags that have influenced many comedies, like the one where the station is move and not the train, and will stay like the one who revealed Val Kilmer. The actor was making his debut on the big screen there and he did not do things by halves since it is also he who sings the songs of his character. It will however be his only experience with the trio even if he returns in their filmography in a more unexpected way: through Cary Elwes, who parodies his character of Top Gun in Hot Shots!
Before that, the ZAZ create a showcase for the one who will remain the figurehead of their cinema: Leslie Nielsen. Like Val Kilmer, directors and screenwriters revealed it, but differently. Thanks to roles like the one he held in Forbidden Planet, the actor intended for a more serious register and even had his period “young first”. Thanks to the trio, he discovers an incredible comic timing which allows him to explode with the general public, even if it means remaining an unstoppable gaffer until the end of his career. After the test run in Is there a pilot on the plane?, Jim Abrahams and the Zuckers make him the hero of Police Squad! (1982), series in six episodes which will serve as the basis for the saga of Y-il-il-cop …? Let the adventures and investigations of Frank Drebin, lieutenant of police more apt to create disasters than to prevent them.
Flirting regularly with the diplomatic incident, he nevertheless manages to save the Queen of England, the President of the United States and even Hollywood (but not Humanity alongside Ophélie Winter, because the feature film is not part of the franchise, and that’s fine) while the ZAZs, after the disaster film and espionage, prove their ease in the police genre with film noir accents (pensive voice-over included), while integrating a long-term romance between Drebin and Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley), which will act as a common thread between the three opus and will allow to dig the hero and make him more endearing, without removing anything from his humor. Directed by the only David Zucker (with the exception of the third, signed Peter Segal), they bear the mark of the trio which extends its field of action with its muse and, as in the series, each episode of which ended on a false image stopped, plays with some cinema codes. Not without slipping a few references, or picking us with a cult credits that translates well their way of playing the card of gradation around an idea.
Released in 1991, Is there a cop to save the President? is the last film in which David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker are all involved in the script and / or the production. It is however difficult not to consider the two Hot Shots, whose first episode dates from the same year, as ZAZ opus. See their masterpiece. Because their imprint is everywhere in the adventures of Topper Harley, ex-pilot star of the American army brought to save his country twice while managing his complicated relationship with Ramada Thompson (Valeria Golino), psychologist become spy. Directed by Abrahams, the diptych highlights one who can be considered as the fourth member of the trio: the scriptwriter Pat Proft, who has also worked on the Police Academy saga, and has worked with them since the Police Squad series!
If the Hot Shots! are ZAZ films, it is also thanks to him, because never feature films swear within the filmography of the trio of which they constitute one of the summits by attacking American patriotism thanks to parodies of Top Gun and Rambo III in which Charlie Sheen wreaks havoc in ersatz Tom Cruise then Sylvester Stallone seriously imperturbable when it comes to making declarations of love as improbable as “My heart tugs on my ankles like an old sweaty panty”. At his side, Valeria Golino is not to be outdone, but the real scene thief is Lloyd Bridges. Like Leslie Nielsen, Is there a pilot on the plane? revealed Jeff’s father’s comedic talent, but it took a decade to find him in this universe. First Admiral in the first opus, he took up the ranks in the suite and became President of the United States, thus parodying the tenant of the White House at the time, George H. W. Bush.
With more resources than before, the humor of ZAZ then reached its peak … before declining, quickly. Less successful than the previous two, Is there a cop to save Hollywood? shows signs of breathlessness that the funny but forgettable The Detonator (written and directed by Pat Proft) then The Prince of Sicily (last role of Lloyd Bridges, under the direction of Jim Abrahams) only confirm. Brought together by the Deauville American Film Festival, which paid tribute to it in 2009, the trio never worked together again and their cinema seems to belong to a bygone era. David Zucker tried to take the Scary Movie saga in hand, with the help of Leslie Nielsen, but if episode 3 is at best sympathetic, the 4 is missed, while it was co-written by Jim Abrahams . A failure that suggests that their style belongs to the past, and is no longer in tune with comedy and current audiences, which is not entirely correct.
Whether they persist in comedy or try another registe, like Jerry Zucker with Ghost or Lancelot, the ZAZ have failed to find the mojo that was theirs for almost fifteen years. However, time has worked in their favor. Because if we can find that a film like Is there a pilot on the plane? has aged a bit, their filmography has not aged as its effectiveness remains formidable, each review showing how much they have built a unique work, playing on several tables in a register that does not forgive the slightest drop of rhythm. In the line of Mel Brooks, they knew how to appropriate the parody, and it is clear that nobody managed to succeed them really.
There was The City of Fear. Or the OSS 117s by Michel Hazanavicius, which play on another, more subtle form of discrepancy, taking up the codes of the films of the era in which the story takes place. Or the Wayans brothers who, from Spoof Movie to Fifty Shades of Black via the first two Scary Movies, tried to follow in their footsteps by injecting into their films a good dose of trash which too quickly turned into solution of ease at the expense of quality. Without forgetting the duo Jason Friedberg – Aaron Seltzer, co-writers of the first Scary Movie, who is content to align the pastiches without worrying about telling a story or staging their gags in the feature films they direct from Sexy Movie and Big Movie. More recently, and unexpectedly, Angie Tribeca has established herself as the daughter of Police Squad!
At a time when the American comedy is based more on the improvisations of its stars, the series carried by Rashida Jones caused a breath of freshness and absurdity, and brought back fond memories to ZAZ fans. Canceled at the end of its fourth season, the show did not meet the expected success but the quality and the parodic humor were there, and the co-creator of this nugget is none other than Steve Carell, whose performance in Max the threat reminded Leslie Nielsen of Is there a cop …? An actor whose Ty Burrell seems to follow the trajectory, since this second regular role of American cinema went unnoticed before revealing all his comic talent thanks to Modern Family. What if the next Frank Drebin was there?
Rather than playing the reboot card, it would obviously be better if someone managed to draw inspiration from the humor of the ZAZs to transform it as effectively as they did in their time, but the lucky winner has not yet arrived, even if the Very Bad Jokes of the Palmashow constitute a beautiful tribute to the trio from which they take one of the hallmarks: the multiple variations around an idea, with a gradation in the absurd and a game on the assembly. Episodes that you can watch online as well as a good part of the common filmography of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, since Is there a cop …? are visible on OCS, as well as Top Secret! and Is there a pilot on the plane ?, ranked among the ten funniest films of all time according to the American Film Institute, which is also available on Amazon Prime Video. It is hardly funnier to change your ideas in this period of confinement.