‘Don’t Call Me Shirley’: A tribute to the comic genius of Leslie NielsenWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“Surely, you can’t be serious.”
“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
— Robert Hays and Leslie Nielsen, “Airplane,” 1980
In the time since news broke of Leslie Nielsen’s passing on Sunday at the age of 84, fans have taken to the web to pay their respects to the actor, frequently citing moments and quoting lines from his work. The exchange above, however, has proven far and away the most oft repeated of them all.
Small wonder. That simple, two-line piece of comic dialogue has long since gained its place in the pantheon of classic film moments. Long in the future, fans of movie comedy will still speak of Buster Keaton on the train, Harold Lloyd on the clock, Charlie Chaplin boxing, Woody Allen and the spider as big as a Buick, Christopher Guest and his amp that goes to 11, and Leslie Nielsen’s protest to not be called Shirley.
Looking at the exchange in print doesn’t do it justice. Indeed, the line in lesser hands would be hokey and weak. It would produce a bad laugh, if it got a laugh at all. The fact that it will stand the test of time is a tribute to the comedic talents of the actors delivering it — Nielsen in particular.
I’ve watched that moment countless times in the years since I was first exposed to “Airplane” at the tender age of seven. Exposure to the broad-yet-hilarious comedy helped shape my sense of humor. And as I grew, I found that while most of the movies I laughed at and loved as a child aged poorly, this one still holds up as a rare comedic gem — as have most of the films by its makers, Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers.
The ZAZ team, as they were called, had many techniques that distinguished their work from the run-of-the-mill satirists that dominated Hollywood then and still dominate now. ZAZ movies weren’t just content to put one joke on screen at one time — they filled their frame with visual and background gags, so the audience would always have to pay attention. They increased the pace, so the audience was never sure when the next joke might hit. They were fearless, and didn’t care how obvious or silly a gag might be.
And they were smart enough to fill their movies with good, dramatic actors, instead of well-known comedians. Under someone else’s supervision, one of the old guard of show biz comics could easily have been given Nielsen’s role in “Airplane.” Henny Youngman, perhaps, or maybe Buddy Hackett. But this would have been fatal to the role, the film, and that line.
When you watch the movie, you never see a moment where someone is straining for comic effect. No one looks at the audience for a wink, or pauses to build up the joke. Nothing is delivered with traditional “timing.” Indeed, Hays and Nielsen say their lines completely straight, never even hinting that they might be funny. This, of course, makes them funnier still.
“Surely, you can’t be serious,” Hays intones dramatically, after the doctor has asked him if he can fly and land the plane. “I am serious,” a grave-faced Nielsen says in a somber tone. After all, they have a plane full of passengers dying of food poisoning. “And don’t call me Shirley,” he adds, with the same grave-face and tone. Because, after all, he called him Shirley.
Nielsen’s early career as a straight-laced and handsome actor made him wildly unlikely to become a buffoonish comedy legend, but then again, it also made him perfect for the role. He was willing to laugh at himself, but still acted as though every line had been penned by Tennessee Williams himself. Like Peter Graves, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and others, his ability to see the humor without seeming to see the humor, honed through years as a basic “dramatic” actor, reintroduced Nielsen to a whole new generation of fans who had never even heard of his earlier work.
And now, an entire generation of actors — comedic and dramatic alike – could stand to learn from Nielsen’s example. So many people in entertainment today take themselves way too seriously, and could stand to take a few jabs at their public image once in a while. And so many comic actors feel the need to overplay every line to excess, mugging at the camera and generally acting like they just downed forty shots of pure caffeine just before the camera rolled. Their work may be popular short-term, but nine times out of ten, it will be forgotten as soon as the movie ends. The straightforward, understated yet still incredibly goofy “Don’t call me Shirley” will live forever.
Raise a glass and tip a hat to the man who made that moment work, and work brilliantly. You will be missed, Mr. Nielsen.