Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Film Festival will pay tribute to the legendary Shorewood-sired filmmaking triad of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams with a 30th anniversary screening of Top Secret! The trio—who will be present for the screening—is undoubtedly deserving of the accolade. In addition to the 1984 Val Kilmer vehicle, ZAZ is responsible for such incomparable contributions to the comedy canon as Airplane!, Police Squad!, The Naked Gun, and the underrated BASEketball. Not only are the three writer/director/producers a huge source of local pride in metro Milwaukee, they remain inarguable sources of influence for laughs in cinema to this day.
Even with a collective résumé brimming with blockbuster successes and critically acclaimed work, the ZAZ boys aren’t immune from the occasional stinker. And we’re not even talking about those Travel Wisconsin commercials. As the city prepares to celebrate one of the group’s many outstanding films, Milwaukee Record acknowledges the few ZAZ missteps over the course of their lengthy and tremendous careers, in hopes of stressing how great their umpteen other projects are by comparison.
Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993)
ZAZ’s collective love of sequels is only matched by their love of giving those sequels ridiculous names (see below). Unfortunately, those wacky fractions and French numbers are sometimes funnier than the films themselves. Take the sequel to the enjoyable-enough Hot Shots!, directed once again by Jim Abrahams. Part Deux marked the moment when lazy pop-culture references became ZAZ’s default comedy style (a style that has unfortunately inspired so many “satirists” of today), and when Airplane!-level inspiration took a back seat to simply dressing Charlie Sheen up like Rambo, making some his-dad-was-in-it callbacks to Apocalypse Now, and calling it a day. But what do we know: the film grossed $130 million worldwide, nearly matching the original.
Naked Gun 33 1/3 (1994)
The first Naked Gun film (a feature-length version of the tragically short-lived Police Squad! series) is second only to Airplane! in the ZAZ filmography. Go-to star Leslie Nielsen is brilliant as Detective Frank Drebin, Ricardo Montalbán is in it, and the final baseball scene is a thing of Randy-Newman-scored cinematic beauty. (“Hey Look! It’s Enrico Pallazzo!”) The first sequel, 2 ½, is okay, but the third installment (co-produced and co-written by David Zucker), while not awful, feels a bit tired. Maybe it’s the way Nielsen seems to be in on the joke, or maybe it’s the way the film relies on the acting talents of Anna Nicole Smith, but something is a bit amiss in 33 1/3. Still, the climactic scene at the Academy Awards is funny (Mary Lou Retton is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Fatal Affair, a film about “One woman’s ordeal to overcome the death of her cat, set against the background of the Hindenburg disaster,”) and “Weird Al” Yankovic shows up (again).
High School High (1996)
The Abrahams-directed spoof (co-written by David Zucker) made no secret of its intention to parody 1995 smash Dangerous Minds—even going as far as using the tagline “A Dangerous Mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Despite a deceivingly strong opening weekend, the Jon Lovitz “comedy” relied on lazy racial and socioeconomic stereotypes to try to lampoon public education. Currently owning a mere 13 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer,” High School High—with its weak cast and shoddy premise—only needed one Lovitz to inspire thousands upon thousands of “Hate it”s.
Though this film’s full title is Jane Austen’s Mafia!, it was actually Jim Abrahams’ dud. Directed and co-written by the non-sibling component of the comedy trio, this 84-minute wreck could have used a touch more influence from past ZAZ works. Even the incorporation of trusted thespian Lloyd Bridges couldn’t balance out the utter unlikeability of Jay Mohr in a rare leading role opposite the ever-capable Christina Applegate. Somehow, the flick cleared $30M at the box office. In all, there was no reason for Abrahams to make a terrible parody of The Godfather, when The Godfather: Part III had already done so to perfection eight years prior.
Phone Booth (2002)
Sometimes producer credits are thrown around willy-nilly. An established name is rewarded with a potentially huge pay day to be attached to a project that, well, needs a big name attached as producer to get made. Let’s hope that’s what happened with David Zucker’s production credit on unrealistic Colin Farrell thriller Phone Booth, because if that’s not the case, that means Zucker was actually involved in making this turd. The sheer concept of a phone booth existing in this century—let alone an entire feature-length film taking place within one—manages to be (unintentionally) funnier than High School High.
Scary Movie 3-5 (2003-2013)
What’s more irritating than a long-running series that parodies the moldy tropes of horror movies? How about a series that parodies those parodies? Yes, the very foundation of the Scary Movie franchise is questionable, all the way down to the fact that the working title for Scream was, well, Scary Movie. Kicked off by the Wayans family in parts one and two, and picked up by David Zucker and Jim Abrahams in parts three through five, the series is a collection of pat-yourself-on-the-back-for-getting-this-incredibly-obvious-reference references, and the breeding grounds for the noxious team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, who would go on to create “films” (Date Movie, Epic Movie, The Starving Games) that make anything on this list look like the goddamn missing scenes of The Magnificent Ambersons.
An American Carol (2008)
There’s nothing wrong with inserting your personal politics into a supposedly mass-market comedy, as David Zucker did with this far-right-wing-leaning spoof. There’s also nothing wrong with taking shots at self-important celebrities like Michael Moore—because, let’s face it, dude is insufferable. What is unforgivable, however, is making said comedy and pot shots almost unbearably unfunny. Yes, even the conservative crowd Zucker was courting with his piss-take on those darn liberals found An American Carol to be a laugh-free bore (its 11-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes is anything but fair and balanced). What’s worse: the awful casting of Chris Farley’s brother as a Moore clone, or a cameo by noted comedic thespian Bill O’Reilly? American Carol lets you decide.
The Onion Movie (2008)
It doesn’t bode well for a film when it sits on the shelf for nearly half a decade, or when the organization in the film’s title disowns it. But that’s just what happened to the dreadful Onion Movie, which was hatched in 2003 and barely released to DVD five years later. Produced by David Zucker, The Onion’s lone foray into film includes an embarrassed (!) Steven Segal as a character named “Cock Puncher,” and a streak of aggressive un-funniness totally at odds with the company’s usual spot-on satire. About the only thing truly Onion-y about the film is the way in which it was unceremoniously dumped.