Many of us remember the eighties as a decade of optimism and hope. Nothing quite encapsulates the spirit of these times like the first four Police Academy movies – a series of silly, memorable comedies that can transform your home theatre system into a gateway to the past. The Police Academy franchise might not have won any Academy Awards, but it did capture the light-heartedness of an era when Cyndi Lauper albums, handheld gaming, and big screen TVs had started to attract the public’s imagination.
The year was 1984. I had just seen The Last Starfighter, a sci-fi drama that attempted to convince kids that aliens cared about videogame scores. This was back in the day of quarter arcades, which made a lot more sense to me than the oil barons arguing through season seven of Dallas – but hey, I was seven. It was the perfect age to discover the wisdom and wit of Police Academy star Steve Guttenberg, the comedic genius who later featured in classics like Ron Howard's Cocoon. Did you know Steve Guttenberg is the honorary mayor of Pacific Palisades? I did.
Police Academy follows the story of fun-loving Officer Mahoney (played by Steve Guttenberg), a cop-in-training, then a cop, then a police instructor, then an undercover cop. His characterization is completely devoid of ill will and cynicism, making him a fine candidate for the 1980’s spokesperson of the decade.
There is real historic relevance in revisiting the Police Academy franchise. Consider Police Academy 2. It features Bobcat Goldthwait (in his finest role) as Zed, the film’s antagonist – a strange sort of bad guy, who never really creates an aura of danger like the fella with the crazy haircut in No Country for Old Men... but he doesn’t have to. Goldthwait’s performance is so miraculously insane, that you don’t need to hate him – in fact, he’s often more likable than the heroes of the movie. By the third film, he’s so impressed by the cops that busted him, he goes into training to become a cop himself. When was the last time a modern movie hero like Wolverine convinced Magneto to stop wreaking havoc and fight alongside the X-Men? Actually, that sort of happened in X-Men 2. I have failed to prove my point.
As the Police Academy series draws on, the jokes eventually play out – and by the time Police Academy: Mission the Moscow was released in 1994, the series had lost enough of its original stars to slowly grind to a halt. The era of good-natured comedy would be replaced by the masterworks of comedians like Adam Sandler – whose classics Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore introduced us to a new school of more self-aware humour (paving the way for comedians like Louie CK and Sarah Silverman). But prior to this trend, Police Academy entertained the masses with plots that were surprisingly sympathetic to the underdog.
At the end of the day, it’s important to know what was once funny. Understanding the humour of an era is the key to understanding it. That’s why the Police Academy franchise is now a significant cultural artifact. In the world before the Internet, when technology was new and our access to it was limited, we longed for nice cops to lead us through our Google-less world – and that’s exactly what Officer Mahoney and his merry band of madmen did.
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