Loss of a comedic giant


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One of the most famous miscommunications in film was delivered perfectly: "Surely you can't be serious!" a flight attendant says to a doctor. "I am serious," he replies with a straight face, "and don't call me Shirley."

Leslie Nielson, one of films great comic actors, died on Monday at the age of 84. Nielson was known for his deadpan delivery in roles such as Doctor Rumack in Airplane! He was a member of a generation of male comic actors that seem very different from the film comedians of today. Nielson, Steve Martin, and Chevy Chase have been replaced by Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and Owen Wilson.

So what was it about Nielson that made him unique? How have American comic actors changed? And what does that change say about the audience?

Corey Creekmur, an associate professor in the University of Iowa's cinema/comparative literature department, told me that since the 1980s, styles of comedy have remained fairly consistent; mostly, the targets have changed.

But there have been changes in popular culture's preferences for actors. One change seems to be our culture's perception of masculinity. Another is our changing preference for humor. There has also been a shift toward actors who the audience can relate to, whereas Nielson's style was meant to induce exactly the opposite.

Our perception of masculinity affects our media in many ways, said William Liu, a professor in the UI psychology and quantitative foundations department in the College of Education. Liu told me that themes in American masculinity are constantly changing. In the mid-20th century, masculinity meant being tough and macho. Now, we're moving away from that version of masculinity and toward a more sensitive conception, an idea that it is OK to be immature at times.

This trend is exhibited perfectly by the recent success of "bromances," such as the films made by Judd Apatow. Films such Superbad, I Love You Man, and Knocked Up portray male protagonists confronted with situations that have not been seen as traditionally masculine, such as a man who needs a best friend.

Comedy is based on incongruity. The juxtaposition of our expectations about behavior, situations, or social norms with what is playing onscreen makes us chuckle. That means that male comic actors need to effectively parody the actors that are viewed as the archetype of a male. Parodies of the immature, sensitive version of masculinity often take it to the extreme, using shock value or comical over-emotion.

That archetype is seen in the success of such actors as Tom Selleck. Selleck was muscular and hairy-chested, and he chased down criminals in sunglasses in the series "Magnum, P.I." The calm and competence of actors such as Selleck provided the perfect material for Nielson.

In The Naked Gun, a parody of the cop genre, Nielson plays a police detective named Frank Drebin. In contrast to Selleck's effectiveness and toughness, Drebin is a bumbling fool who creates more problems than he solves. Selleck's character on "Magnum" is someone the audience looks up to; Frank Drebin is an unfortunate dunce whom the audience is meant to feel superior to.

Creekmur said that comedy since the 1980s has been fairly consistent. The way the audience is meant to identify with the characters is the biggest difference. Creekmur said that when watching a film such as Knocked Up or Funny People, the audience can relate to Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler to a certain degree. The viewer may have been in a similar situation or have friends who have similar behavior.

The point of Nielson's Doctor Rumack, who misunderstands people's statements, or his Frank Drebin, oblivious to his own incompetence, is that we look down on the character. Yet somehow when watching Nielson on screen, we still like him.

That's what made us laugh, and that was the source of Leslie Nielson's unique magic.

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