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April 4, 2008 | Comments ()


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Hangover Theater

Who Made Steve Guttenberg a Star?

Police Academy / Brian Prisco

Hangover Theater | April 4, 2008 | Comments ()


“When I first heard that Marge was joining the police academy, I thought it would be fun and zany, like that movie, ‘Spaceballs’. But instead it was dark and disturbing like that movie, ‘Police Academy’.” - Homer Simpson, BBBQ ESQ.

Lest you think I merely rifle TV Guide and hamfist at random, let me assure you, a lot of thoughtful thought goes into Hangover Theater selections. I equate it to delving into flea-market bins full of VHS discards and headless Barbie dolls. I would sooner play a round of chip and putt with Heather Mills’ wooden pegleg than watch a stripped-of-gore Resident Evil marathon. No Milla Jovovich’s compatriots getting julienned via lasergrid, no dice. The same with most of the “comedies” popping up on TBS and Comedy Central. An edited for television Waiting? Plucking out the gratuitous genital shots and profanity, the movie runs a tight twelve minutes. It’s an Office Space spin-off featuring Jennifer Aniston’s waitress, and just as fucking interesting. Edited content can [redacted] my [censored] [censored] with a three-toed [insert lame joke here].

Which is why it was with great trepidation I undertook this week’s viewing, Police Academy, boiled for public consumption and served up steaming on Comedy Central both Saturday and Sunday. But instead of feeling like a cheeseburger cheeseburger no coke Pepsi filleted to oblivion by a coked-up samurai Belushi, I was embraced by the soft blanket of nostalgia that envelopes me whenever me and my compadres gather over a beer or twelve to compare scars and heartily feast Odin. It was like paging through my high school yearbook, in which we were allotted a scant 25-word blurb — the honorary equivalent of having your obituary end up as hamster-cage lining. Our missives became schizophrenic haiku, letting one or two words act as proxy to four years of ridiculous mischief. But how can BLUEDEVILS truly represent the drunken ribaldry of the Duke University Scholastic Scrimmage Tournament fiasco, or DORNEYTAG stand in for hurling a Koosh at 85 MPH as we sped to our local amusement park after finals? I won’t even get into NUNBOMB. Good times, kids.

It would be far easier to sell a ketchup popsicle to a white-gloved Eskimo than to describe Police Academy as a movie that defined a generation. But when the smoke cleared, there were SEVEN Police Academy movies in total. And they never once had to fight Jason Vorhees in Hell. Or the Leprechaun in Da Hood. However, they did have to tagteam with Saruman and Hellboy in Russia. From 1984, when the very first movie hurled itself into our collective unconscious with the velocity of a spandex-clad aerobic-warrior demolishing an iPhone with a well-thrown sledgehammer, until the somber dawn of the 1990s, there was a new Police Academy released every year. They even had their own motherfucking animated series, for the love of Sweet Baby Willem Dafoe.

While it might not have gently kissed the brow of all the hoi polloi, Police Academy definitely had a major impact on my own glorious maturation. I fondly remember watching the grainy VHS copy my father had dubbed from PRISM. I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 at the time. My father had allowed us to watch certain R-rated movies from very early on — mostly Stallone vehicles or early Mel Brooks. Ah yes, drink deep from the wellspring of my parents’ awesomeness. We’d always fast forward through sex scenes or go all Monkey See No Evil, and frankly we didn’t know any better, as at that tender age my brother and myself were several balldrops from having scrubbrush around the ol’ dingly-dangly and most of the more lurid jokes went sailing merrily over our young ragamuffin tops. Yet the nudity in Police Academy (the first one — the later ones were all a family-friendly PG-13) is not just gratuitous but utterfuckingly random, so it passed my father’s fickle fastforwarding finger. It was my first cinematic hooter, an important milestone in any boy’s life.

Police Academy was also the first movie that made me cry. No, it was not Bambi’s mother taking a Marisa Tomei monologue to the back of the dome. It was the mere thought of Officer Tackleberry blowing a kitten out of a tree. I say mere thought, because all the violence happens entirely off screen. But that canned yowl was enough to turn me into a sobbing sniveling mess. So the very movie that made me a man would moments later reduce me to a whimpering wuss. This would act as a foreshadowing of every relationship I would endure well through my diploma-procuring years.

The plot to Police Academy is asinine and paper thin. In some sort of bizarre public relations move to foster community spirit, the Metropolitan Police Department decides to open the doors of the academy to any and all takers who stagger off the street. And so we are introduced to the rag-tag bunch of misfits who will endure humiliation, raucous hijinks, and a little bit of procedural training, inevitably culminating in some sort of “inadvertent race riot” that threatens to destroy the city, only to have it neatly foiled. Then everyone gets medals. This is the basic story for every Police Academy movie, only the premises get progressively more ridonkulous until the insane tragedy climaxes in a skullfuckworthy crescendo beyond comprehension. It’s like a bus full of kindergarteners crashing headlong into a truck full of underprivileged poets/scholarship winners, which is then hit by a Cadillac driven by WWII vets, careening it into the path of a train full of Darfur refugees transporting the cure for AIDS. Then a hurricane that swept through a quilting bee devastates the mess, setting everything ablaze until a tsunami wave of redundancy decimates the remains. Then everyone inexplicably travels to Moscow for the apocalyptic finale.

Police Academy was its own self-contained universe, a speck on the flower of the 80s, populated by a veritable cornucopia of Whodats? The casts were constantly shifting; actors who had small cameos in one film would be cadets and eventually officers in the next, defying logic or any sort of reasonability. For fuck’s sake, Bobcat Goldthwait was Zed, the Down Syndromatic punk overlord of the second movie, who became a fucking cadet in the third, and then a goddamn instructor by the later films. Characters I swore were in all of the movies only came on later in the series. Lieutenant Harris (G.W. Bailey) leaves after the first film to be replaced by Mauser (Art Metrano) in the second and third, only to return shamefacedly for that sweet, sweet paycheck for films four and seven.

It is a movie that defies remake, because these actors not only embodied everything about their characters, they literally have gone to virtual anonymity once leaving the orbit of the series. Mostly they’re doing voiceover animation work, or popping up on the occasional television roles designed to have people shout, “Hey! It’s that fucking funny voices guy from Police Academy!” In some instances, it’s even managed to completely erase any semblance of former fame. Do you remember G.W. Bailey from his roles on “M.A.S.H.” or “St. Elsewhere”? No, you remember him as Lieutenant Harris, riding a motorcycle headfirst up a horse’s ass. Even now you’re going “Neeeeeeeigh! Pffft.” Did you remember that Commandant Lassard (George Gaynes) was Punky Brewster’s step-father Henry? No, you just remember him as the old guy with the fish who got blown by the bubble-gum chewing hooker under the lectern.

The names of the regulars are practically meaningless to you, like the non-actors in the death montages during the Academy Awards ceremony. Michael Winslow, David Graf, Leslie Easterbrook, G.W. Bailey, Bubba Smith, Marion Ramsey, Lance Kinsey, George Gaynes, Bruce Mahler. Nothing, right? But if were to identify them as Jones, Tackleberry, Callahan, Harris, Hightower, Hooks, Proctor, Lassard, and Fackler? It’s like the members of KISS without makeup. Many famous cadets have graduated from these hallowed halls: David Spade, Sharon Stone, a couple of Ridgemont High alumni, Colleen Camp (before her spec-rackular performance in Clue). Even Kim Catrall, back when she was Manniq-cute and not when she was peddling her desiccated beef-jerky curtains to anyone with a camcorder.

All except one man. A star crashed to earth from the heavens to call a decade his own. He was with us every footstep along the beach, except when he carried us. A man who defies my hackneyed convention of placing a swear word between first and last names: Steve Guttenberg. Can you even conceive of how big he was during the 1980s? If Diner was what launched his career, then Police Academy and the role of Carey Mahoney (a role pursued by Judge Reinhold, Tom Hanks, and Michael Keaton — all who went on to pursue lesser smartass law enforcement officials — particularly Batman) was the gasoline fight that fueled his fire. Guttenberg made the first four PA films. In between, he took his time off to star in Cocoon, Short Circuit, Three Men and a Baby, and High Spirits. You’re fucking welcome. Then he decided that he was too good for sequels, so he took off his badge and gun and rode off into the sunset in a hot-air balloon, where he promptly made Cocoon: The Return and Three Men and a Little Lady. Motherfucker would have made Three Men and Wilford Brimley Covered In Oatmeal at this point. But he never returned to the uniform of the Metropolitan Police Department, or so the legend goes. And his star softly imploded into a black hole the likes from which (save for a brief stint on “Veronica Mars” and a few sad dance steps on “Dancing With The Stars”) he was never able to recapture to his former glory.

Sure, the original movie was bizarrely racial, culminating in a mob rampage that’s quelled when they beat up Frankenstein the Indian. But it’s strangely quaint racism, like your grandfather watching a basketball game and admiring the athleticism of the coloreds. It hearkens back to a simpler time, when a star could be made from someone who didn’t fuck on nightvision with an emerging producer or rap-star, or drink a scorpion and colostomy milkshake to win a couple grand and a chance to climb an Erector set that’s on fire. So crack open the ol’ yearbook, this weekend, call up some old friends, get a little tipsy, and share memories while you watch Police Academy. Because it may not get any better than this.

Especially if you were part of the cast.

Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.



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