My Comedy Hero: Phil Wang on Leslie Nielsen
Rising stand-up and member of acclaimed sketch group Daphne picks the Naked Gun and Airplane! comedy actor as his idol
Alongside The Simpsons, Jim Gaffigan and a misguided desire to impress girls, Leslie Nielsen is one of the top four reasons I started doing comedy. I first saw him in Spy Hard, I think, when I was eight years old, I think. These memories are quite blurred and I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending to recall exact dates and details. Suffice it to say: I was a young child and I thought Leslie Nielsen was the funniest man on earth.
That he never lost his charm, that he could make children and adults alike lose their minds laughing, that he somehow looked exactly the same for the final 30 years of his life, are all testament to what a special guy he was. One rarely comes across a comedian who covers the bases as well as Nielsen did. He was a slapstick genius (in Naked Gun he gets a pillow thrown at his face and his reaction is fine art), a master of deadpan (‘don’t call me Shirley’ is still said by comedians in Latin grace before meals), and he timed every line, look and smile to perfection: calmly stoic and then wildly frantic with equal commitment and beauty.
He looked funny. White-haired, distinguished and at all times well turned-out in a beautiful suit or trench coat, he always looked completely out of place; like he’d wandered in by accident off a film noir set and into something like Airplane!, mistaking it for something serious. The realization then that this suave older gentleman was in fact the silliest of the lot would consistently catch me in delightful surprise.
Leslie Nielsen epitomized the smart silliness that all great comedy is comprised of, and proved – even to a po-faced curmudgeon like me – that you’re never too old to act like a child.
As told to Brian Donaldson. Phil Wang: Philth is at Soho Theatre, London, Mon 25–Thu 28 Apr; Phil Wang is at Edinburgh Stand, Thu 12–Sat 14 May.