There are no hard and fast rules to comedy, only guidelines, frameworks, theories, and patterns that emerge upon close inspection and repeat viewing—and even then, those mostly exist to be absorbed, bent, and broken by comedic performers, writers, and directors. Simple truths about what makes us laugh (and why that’s so) emerge from these comedy-guiding concepts; breaking down a joke to its component parts is one of the most humorless things a person can do, but the process can also be revelatory. Take, for example, the concept that, through sheer repetition, a solid joke can start out funny, become funnier, take a precipitous nose dive into un-funniness, and eventually recover its initial appeal. Call it the “Everest wave,” based on Mr. Show’s classic roller coaster of funny/not funny, “The Story Of Everest,” in which the repeated sight of Jay Johnston tumbling into a wall-mounted thimble collection (and the circumstances leading to those falls) gleefully toys with the audience’s tolerance for physical humor and hyperbolic emotions.
By the time of Police Squad!’s sixth and final episode, “Testimony Of Evil (Dead Men Don’t Laugh),” several aspects of the series reach an uptick in their individual Everest waves—but we know from experience that they would be bound to find another trench at some point. Disappointing though the series’ premature end might be, it’s heartening that it ended on such a high note, one that provides exclamation points for the Police Squad!’s many recurring gags, rediscovers the joy in tweaking filmmaking techniques, and provides standalone laughs that are among the most inspired and surprising of the series.
“Testimony Of Evil” also provides the series’ non-union Mexican equivalent to David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker—i.e. director Joe Dante and writers Tino Insana and Robert Wuhl—with a winning second act. The trio’s first episode, “Ring Of Fear (A Dangerous Assignment)” is the one flat bottle in the Police Squad! six pack, but the finale bubbles with energy, expertly working in some longer sequences and tricks of the filmmaking trade. Frank’s first night as a stand-up comedian at Mr. V’s occupies a lot of the run time (enough to establish its own Everest wave), but it’s presented as a montage that avoids the pitfalls of “Ring Of Fear”’s slower passages. It also, unknowingly, establishes the prototype for Frank’s turn as an impressively convincing Major League Baseball umpire in The Naked Gun. Give the lieutenant something at which he’s bound to fail, and it’s all the more fun to watch him succeed wildly.
Without any outward indicators of finality, this last episode nonetheless gives the sense that the Police Squad! crew knew ABC was coming to pull the plug. “Testimony Of Evil” contains some terrifically weird, non sequitur-type humor, such as Veronica’s habit of cracking walnuts with her bare hands (there’s subtext there, but the text of the gag is fantastic on its own) or the episode’s unwavering commitment to its “docks”/“doc’s” pun. It’s a half-hour that’s endlessly comfortable in the surreal universe established in the previous five episodes, an ease portrayed most effectively in the quick, confident appearance of the tangle of arms that light the villain of the week’s cigarette (and, later, her pipe).
The writing must have been on the network wall well before ABC preempted the last two episodes of Police Squad!, as “Testimony Of Evil” also waves a huge budgetary middle finger at the network, tasking Frank and crew with the dismantling of a Lincoln Continental. In his audio commentary on the episode (which is punctuated by far too many variations on “I don’t remember this” to merit a recommendation), Wuhl states the scene was written as a parody of The French Connection, but its destructiveness and presumable costliness also recalls the time Conan O’Brien thumbed his nose at his NBC bosses by pairing the debut of a new Tonight Show character, the Bugatti Veyron Mouse, with a master recording of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Time was short, network funding was fleeting, and the chance to destroy a luxury automobile for comedic purposes doesn’t come along everyday.
There’s a degree of “fuck you” to be read into this episode, but there’s also a bittersweet tinge in saying farewell to regular visits with Johnny and Olson. At least the latter would be kept on for the Naked Gun franchise—this is the last we’ll ever see of William Duell’s streetwise snitch, a character whose one-note schtick belies the depth of his knowledge and the extent of his influence. This is an appropriate last appearance for the character: Just as the car-wrecking trip to the lab heightens Olson’s activities to a point of no return, so the revelation of Johnny’s arrangement with Dick Clark does for the shoe shiner. By showing the character as the source of Clark’s eternally youthful looks, the writers hit a comic ceiling. His expertise has crossed the line from worldly know-how to magic (unless the cream is a scam Johnny’s running on America’s Oldest Teenager—but such an interpretation undermines the character’s past appearances), so it’s for the best that this is his final bow.
As previously noted, “Testimony Of Evil” would not be the final bow for Lieutenant Frank Drebin, the men who created him, or the man who portrayed him. In the grand scheme of things, the finale catches ZAZ and Leslie Nielsen as their personal Everest waves are on the rise—though the Everest wave is a measure of creative, not commercial success. Their shared affinity for slapstick and word play eventually lead all four parties into some deeply unfunny valleys—2001: A Space Travesty, An American Carol, Jane Austen’s Mafia!, and Rat Race, to name a few—but in Police Squad!, they made an uncompromising, unmatched, ahead-of-its-time television masterpiece. They’d be rewarded for their work with The Naked Gun’s box-office triumph, and those who knew Police Squad! knew that victory was a long time coming. Not every episode of the series sings like Frank doing Judy Garland, but you can cherry-pick a number of sequences from the series’ six installments and compose one of television’s funniest highlight reels. (In fact, that’s how the show lives on in some corners of YouTube.) To paraphrase one of the series that laid the groundwork for Police Squad!, there are 8 million stories in the Naked City—that ZAZ and company were able to end six of those stories with fake freeze frames is a fact worth celebrating.
- The menacing ventriloquist act that auditions for Frank and Veronica at gunpoint predates Batman’s Ventriloquist and Scarface by a good six years. All that’s required to take that setup from funny to terrifying is a silent puppeteer. Who knew?
- Peter Lupus’ portrayal of Norberg hits a high and a low in quick succession during that French Connection homage. He’s a crackup as an eager spectator in the portion where Frank, Ed, and Olson take sledge hammers to the Continental (an homage-within-the-homage to Take The Money And Run, according to Wuhl), yet painful to watch in coked-up, “Glow-Worm”-loving form a few seconds later.
- Police Squad!’s finest: I love the lighter gag more than anything in this episode, but I’d also like to highlight Frank’s choking scene, a great play on suspenseful act breaks that digs into the TV-trope barrel to find anticlimactic laughs.
- Internal affairs: Sticking Joey’s tuxedo jacket to the wall with a switchblade is the type of move a heavy would pull in a non-comedic cop show. Then again, maybe that’s not intended to be a joke—even at the end of the series, these things can be difficult to suss out.