Top Secret! – The Most Underappreciated Comedy of the ’80s

We rewatched the classic 1980s comedy, Top Secret! It took surgeons two weeks to wipe the smile off our face...

“Is this the potato farm?”

“Yes, I am Albert Potato”

If you’re laughing at the quote above, then it’s fair to say that you’re already a Top Secret! fan. But if you’re wondering what that actually means, then chances are you’ve missed out on one of the very best comedies that the 1980s had to offer.

Now the classic comedy Airplane!, rightfully, has been the beneficiary of some hugely forensic work, just to try and keep on top of its many, many background jokes. In fact, one DVD edition had a special feature just to point out all the things you may have missed on your first, tenth, or fiftieth time around. Turns out there were quite a few in my case.

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The Naked Gun, made just under a decade later, would build on the majesty of the Police Squad! TV series, and spawn two sequels. It too is a masterclass in mixing in several different strands of comedy, united in that instance by the late, great Leslie Nielsen.

Top Secret!, though, is arguably the biggest treasure in the Zucker Abrahams Zucker comedy goldmine. Is it a better film than Airplane!? It’s a moot point really. What’s the point in comparing two diamonds and picking your favourite? I would argue, though, that it’s an equal, and deserves equally as much exposure as Airplane! enjoys. Hence, this feature. Which contains spoilers for Top Secret.

“It seems you have become, how do you say, indispensable?”

“Indispensable”

The history of Top Secret! dates back to the aftermath of Airplane!‘s huge surprise success. At that stage, writer/directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (more commonly known as the ZAZ team, mainly because it’s quicker to write) had the option to make Airplane II, which they declined (unlike the cast of the first film). They instead made the aforementioned Police Squad!, which scandalously lasted just six episodes before having the plug pulled. It was only after that show met its demise that they ultimately decided on their next feature, which would spoof World War II films, as well as Elvis Presley pictures.

Top Secret! was born.

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As Jerry Zucker told Screen Crush back in 2014, “for us, Airplane 2 was just going back on an airplane and trying to come up with 500 more jokes about things on an airplane.”

“We figured the best thing to do was to put together a bunch of our favourite jokes – really good jokes – and string it together with what seemed like a story, and that’s what wound up being Top Secret,” Jim Abrahams added.

So that’s what happened. As with Airplane, Top Secret was made out of love and affection for a genre, or in this case, two genres. The ZAZ team were big fans of World War II movies that were made during the war itself. The hybrid of Elvis and war movies didn’t give Top Secret the same kind of succinct story that Airplane did, and as David Zucker conceded, “I’m sure most people don’t even realise what it’s a spoof on.” The Top Secret DVD commentary expands on this, with the directors admitting that the film features “jokes from movies nobody else has seen.” That, they conclude, isn’t necessary a bad thing. “If we’re going to send up a movie, the scene should be funny enough on its own,” they say. 

And they certainly deliver on this. Because if the idea behind Top Secret was to get as many funny jokes on screen, it’s hard to think of too many movies that could top it.

What’s particularly impressive, rewatching the film three decades after it first appeared, is that so many of the jokes still hold. There’s not much topical humor in Top Secret, and as such, there’s not too much comedy that’s susceptible to dating. One or two gags shoot and miss, and it could be argued that they wouldn’t at the time of the movie’s release. But there’s nothing on the level of having a picture of failed US 1988 Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis on the wall in Naked Gun 2 1/2 here.

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Furthermore, given that this is the last time that Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker would co-direct a spoof together, the lengths the trio will go to for a joke see them at their peak. Take the complexity of the underwater fight scene at the end, which means the movie takes a left turn when, in truth, it could have got away with a conventional bar brawl. Or what about the growingly intricate model, as ‘The Torch’ – that’d be Nigel – outlines his plan to break Dr Flammond out of prison? That’s where he started out etching into the dirt, before the camera reveals that, in the middle of pretty much nowhere, he’s built a scale replica of the castle he and his resistance chums are trying to break into.

It should be noted too that there’s some really good miniature work in the midst of the movie too, all contributing to make a gag work. Technically, the ZAZ team took the film in an assortment of directions, all in pursuit of a good, solid laugh. And, as already noted, if the mantra of the spoof is to fire lots of jokes at the proverbial wall and hope most of them stick, then few films can come close to Top Secret‘s hit rate.

Once again, too, the ZAZ team recruit unlikely, but welcome, cast members. They compact the late Omar Sharif into a crushed car, and have him picking up fake dog poo. They give Peter Cushing an enormous fake eye, and have him working in a bookshop where everything seems to go backwards. Michael Gough, Alfred in four Batman movies, is held captive, making a giant magnet and digging the best escape tunnel ever seen in such films. And there’s an early movie role too for Jim Carter as Deja Vu, some 25 years before he’d become Carson in Downton Abbey.

“He’s a little hoarse”

But let’s go back to the gag rate again for a minute. It was said in reviews of Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump that there were times in the film that he simply couldn’t resist a gag when the opportunity for one presented itself. Top Secret lives on that ethos.

Top Secret has very few examples of ‘real’ German. Keep checking the background for signs, and for helpful instructions such as ‘Das Fencen Switchen’

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Let’s zero in on the restaurant sequence early in the film for a clutch of examples.

After Nick Rivers has got himself a jacket and tie – courtesy of a blink and you miss it background gag – he sits down for dinner at the hotel restaurant. Here, he gets a note off his manager, Martin, apologizing for not being able to make the dinner. A simple, quick filmmaking convention is quickly turned around. For as Rivers reads the letter, we hear Martin’s voiceover playing like noises in Rivers’ head, that allows us to take in the words of the note. Only Top Secret then pans right, and there’s Martin with a megaphone. A simple gag, but one that never fails to hit.

That whole hotel restaurant sequence alone demonstrates the breadth of Top Secret‘s comedy commitment. There are killer one liners (“I know a little German. He’s sitting over there!”), there’s a blink and you miss it elaborate practical funny (when Rivers grabs the chandelier, one on the opposite side of the room goes in the opposite direction), there’s the dance between Rivers and Lucy Gutteridge’s Hillary Flammond (expert choreography), a special effects moment (the cheap wine, that melts the glass, courtesy of a jump cut) and some tasty flaming hog balls to top the whole lot off.

Oh, and a terrific song and dance number too. No wonder a limited LP of Top Secret!‘s musical numbers was released.

We should note too that Kilmer is excellent as Nick Rivers, especially as the writer/directors admit they didn’t give him much of a character to work with.

This was, as is widely known, Val Kilmer’s debut leading man role on film. He made a tape to pitch for the film, and as he told the Los Angeles Times back in 1984, for his audition “I showed up dressed like Elvis, my hair like James Dean, and acting like Marlon [Brando, natch]”.

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Interestingly, in the same interview, he talks about working with a trio of directors, and there’s a slight edge to his words. “Among the three of them, a lot of energy gets used up in the compromise process that could otherwise be used with an actor or cameraman,” he noted (one example: the trio disagreed over whether the giant pigeon should take a shit at the end of the scene in the park. The fact the film had gone three minutes without a joke at that stage swung the decision).

But still, digging deeper, it seems that Kilmer ultimately enjoyed making Top Secret, and even though there were difficulties, the directing team put that down to the trouble in fleshing out a character whose opening gambit is about sleeping with your 18-year old daughter. The team, on the DVD commentary, concede they might just regret that one.

“Let me know if there is any change in his condition…. He is dead.”

The ZAZ team have freely admitted ever since the release of the movie that they never really locked down a rounded story for Top Secret, and that the film as such doesn’t have much of a climax, albeit ending on a killer throwback to The Wizard Of Oz. But they’re a little harsh on themselves. There’s enough here to string together the sequences they hinge the film on, and so intense are the belly laughs that Top Secret still generates, that the story issues are easily overlooked.

The detail, after all, may not be in the narrative, but it’s certainly in the jokes, and that yearning to make you laugh. Let’s look at another example. Take the infamous ballet sequence, as the male dancers take to the stage with codpieces of, er, ‘generous proportions.’ Here, the costume department had to experiment with a variety of different sizes and shapes before the relevant underpant enhancers were selected, and the scene was shot a few ways too, to try and get it to work. It did. The dancers play it straight, the guffaws are generous.

Furthermore, if you’re looking for a key moment where the film has a choice to make between a joke and a plot point, how about when Nick Rivers is locked up by the Germans early in the film?

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This is where Martin visits Nick in his prison cell, and is supposed to be the moment where they work out how to get Rivers out of prison (where he’s been for a whole 20 minutes at that point, just another little nod at prison movie cliches). But instead, the ZAZ team switch the attention to Martin’s failure to orgasm. Sure, the story-prodding dialogue is still delivered, but nobody’s really paying attention. After all, work is being undertaken to set up arguably the best line in the entire film (I don’t say that lightly either).

For it’s in the cell where Martin gets his anal intruder kit, and come his demise a little later in film, General Streck explains “he was found in his hotel room impaled upon a large electrical device. Our surgeons did what they could but it took them two hours just to get the smile off his face.”

I’m still laughing, 31 years on.

But then I’m still laughing at so many of Top Secret‘s wonderful moments. The turning around of war movie cliches (the man jumping on the grenade, only for him to be the only person to survive), Rivers’ blurred painting on the train, the train platform moving away leaving the train itself stood where it was… so few of these moments don’t work.

And yet Top Secret never hit. Worse: it was regarded as a box office bomb on its original release.

Again, the ZAZ team have been candid that they were thinking they might have another Airplane-esque success on their hands, and yet when the film opened, it failed to catch on. It didn’t help that in the States, it was up against the likes of The Karate Kid, Rhinestone, Gremlins, and The Cannonball Run II. So whilst it came in under budget, at just over $7m, the film’s box office would give Paramount just a modest profit. It did a quarter of the business of Airplane, at around four or five times the cost. 

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“If they find out you’ve seen this, your life will be worth less than a truckload of dead rats in a tampon factory.”

Fortunately, though, those who did watch Top Secret at the time have been steadily beating the drum for it ever since (although it’s still crying out for an even more extensive DVD release: the original cut of the movie was two hours, so there’s far more than the four short extended scenes that have made it to the disc release thus far). Three decades on, it’s regarded as a cult comedy, one that’s gradually found an audience. And yet there are still so, so many people who don’t know it exists. Who don’t know about the phoney dog poo. Who haven’t heard Kilmer’s superb vocal performances, or who don’t know what Skeet Surfin’ is all about (the opening video for which was filmed in Cornwall, fact fans!)

To those people, I have but envy. That they get to see Top Secret for the first time, and appreciate in 90 minutes flat why the team behind the likes of Epic Movie and Date Movie should have their cameras taken away from them for all time. Because quality comedy is hard, hard work. It involves arguments, debate, a commitment to trying ambitious things to work. And it involves taking a two hours original cut down to a lean 90 minutes, and cherishing every joke.

Top Secret does that, and – as you can see here – keeps going right through the end credits (that Paramount questioned in an internal memo!)…

If you have seen the film before? Well, there’s always time for a bit of Deja Vu. It might not be the first story about a guy who fell in love with a woman that he met at a restaurant who turned out to be the daughter of a kidnapped scientist, only to lose her to her childhood lover who she last saw on a deserted island, who then turned out to be the leader of the French underground. But it’s certainly our favorite…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.