“Don’t call me Shirley”: Remembering Leslie Nielsen

Originally published in the December 3, 2010 issue

The college-aged audience is no stranger to comedic relief. We have rifled through the classic one-liners, seen our fair share of drunken, alcohol-driven banter and witnessed a far too steady stream of fart and boob jokes.

Through this constant bombardment of movies and television shows trying to catch our attention, we have become connoisseurs of the laughing world. If there is one thing we have learned, it is that the end result is all in the delivery. Okay two things: Almost anything can turn into a “that’s what she said” joke on a dime. Or a dollar. See?

Let’s face it, any actor can drop a killer one-liner that a writer wrote for him or pretend to be a drunken idiot, but it takes a true comedic genius to master the delivery of said one-liner or drunken idiocy.

Leslie Nielsen was one such actor. Although he was most well-known for roles he played before many of us were born, I feel that every college student knows (or at least should) who he is.

His role as Dr. Rumak in the 1980 movie “Airplane!” was Nielsen’s breakout role as a comedic actor. It is completely worth a YouTube visit to check out the “Don’t call me Shirley” scene, which you will undoubtedly watch about 17 times, laughing at every one of them.

The delivery of his unique comedy form works because it is as if he has no idea he is funny and is surprised when others laugh at him. This kind of wet-your-pants hilarity is undeniably the best kind. Nobody likes a comedian who knows they are funny and laughs at their own jokes.

Nielsen’s other notable roles include “The Naked Gun” series in which he plays a deputy lieutenant. He has also had cameos in classics like “Murder She Wrote,” “Who’s the Boss?” and “The Golden Girls.” Younger audiences may be more familiar with him through his more recent lead role in “Mr. Magoo.”

Sadly, Nielsen died this past Sunday due to complications of pneumonia, and even at the age of 84, he had not given up on his career. With that Betty White sense of enthusiasm, he had done a voice-over for the animated film “The Waterman Movie,” but it is still in the production phase and might not ever be seen to fruition due to financial issues.

When an acting legend dies, the whole Hollywood community generally comes together to pay their respects. And sure enough, when others heard of Nielsen’s passing, everyone from Roger Ebert to Russell Brand to Ryan Seacrest lit up Twitter.

It truly does take a special kind of actor to transcendentally leap across the age gap and make college students laugh out loud with material from way before LOL was ever a term. So thank you, Mr. Nielsen, for bestowing your intrinsic gift of comedic prowess on our televisions, radios and YouTube screens. It Shirley has been a pleasure.