Jerry Zucker

Active - 1977 - 2014  |   Born - Mar 11, 1950   |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Milwaukee-born filmmaker Jerry Zucker attended Shorewood High School with his older brother, David. It was there, in student variety shows, that the Zuckers began displaying the lampoonish Mad Magazine-style humor that would distinguish their later work. While attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the Zuckers' longtime family friend Jim Abrahams founded the Kentucky Fried Theater comedy troupe, which by 1978 had gained enough industry prestige to bankroll the zany sketch film Kentucky Fried Movie (1978), directed by John Landis. The film set the future Zucker standard: wild parodies of movie genres played out by an utterly straight-faced cast, looney non-sequitur jokes and running gags filling each frame, hilarious celebrity cameos, and outrageous (and endearingly childish) visual puns. On the strength of Kentucky Fried Movie's 20-million-dollar take, the Zucker/Abrahams team put together their first mainstream feature for Paramount, 1980's Airplane!, a scattershot satire of the 1957 airline meller Zero Hour. The Zucker boys and Abrahams agreed to this project only on the provision that the three men be allowed to co-direct the film themselves, a triumvirate that held strong throughout the rest of the '80s. The Zucker/Abrahams style would always be hit and miss, but adherents preferred to cherish those hits. The success of Airplane! enabled Zucker/Abrahams to produce a limited 1982 summer replacement series, Police Squad, starring Airplane! cast member Leslie Nielsen as diligent but supremely incompetent police lieutenant Frank Dreben (the casting of heretofore "serious" actors like Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack as pompous buffoons was another Zucker/Abrahams trademark). Fans of Police Squad consider the series the best ever, but the ABC network was nervous with the project, complaining that it didn't have a laughtrack to let the audience know what was funny and that the joke-a-minute style required the audience to actually have an attention span. Zucker/Abrahams' next project, Top Secret (1984), though a box-office disappointment, hilariously maintained the Airplane/Police Squad trend of "inside" jokes referring to the writer/directors' hometown of Milwaukee. (The East German national anthem was sung to the tune of the anthem for Shorewood High School). The Zucker/Abrahams team was back on target with its Naked Gun and Hot Shots theatrical films, though there was a marked attrition rate in the inevitable sequels. In 1990, Zucker astounded his fans (and non-fans) with his sensitive solo direction of Ghost, a romantic fantasy that became one of the top-grossing films of the year and won an Oscar for supporting actress Whoopi Goldberg. Jerry Zucker has since fluctuated between his satirical films and more serious works; the only "consistent" aspect of these films is the supporting-cast presence of Jerry and David's mom, Charlotte Zucker.

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