Director, producer and screenwriter David Zucker credits his early life in Milwaukee with helping prepare him for success in the film industry with hits like “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun” series.
“I think in Milwaukee, you know you’re not hot stuff because LA is cool and New York and even Chicago [are cool],” Zucker joked. “We knew we weren’t the coolest guys on the planet. Nothing came from Milwaukee … Everything came to Milwaukee. And so, I think we wanted to throw it back because everything was overly serious. And due to our upbringing in Milwaukee, we didn’t take ourselves seriously.”
Zucker made these remarks on June 24 in a virtual event with the Jewish Museum Milwaukee where he promoted his new book, “Before the Invention of Smiling.”
Family and Judaism
The book, which was released on Feb. 2, tells the history of Zucker’s family, from his grandmother’s upbringing in Austria-Hungary to his own life and children. He used a combination of stories told by his family members — especially his grandmother — and historical research to piece the book together.
“It helped to give me a perspective of where I came from,” said Zucker, who moved to Los Angeles in 1972.
Judaism runs deep in Zucker’s family. He told the story of how his grandmother convinced her mother to allow her to immigrate to the United States.
“She said, ‘if I stay here in Hinkovitz, I’ll just marry one of the local boys.’ She’s going to marry a gentile. And I think that was enough for her mother to relent,” Zucker said.
When asked about the good and bad aspects of growing up in Milwaukee, Zucker said he could only remember positives. He recalled giant family gatherings for Passover and Hannukah, events that he said are much more difficult to make happen today.
“I couldn’t have had a better time,” Zucker said. “And not only because of the Milwaukee Braves and the Green Bay Packers.”
Humor, like Judaism, was a constant presence in Zucker’s youth. He described a picture of himself as a four-year-old with his father and grandfather in which he and his father wore bowties, and his grandfather — straight faced — had his traditional necktie folded into a bow tie.
“That was early Leslie Nielsen right there,” he said.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1970, Zucker created a sketch show called the Kentucky Fried Theater with his brother Jerry Zucker and friends Jim Abrahams and Dick Chudnow.
The group took the show, which had become a hit, out to Los Angeles after a year. There, it would inspire Lorne Michaels to create “Saturday Night Live” and act as a springboard for Zucker’s career in the film industry. But Zucker never forgot his roots.
“I think a lot of our success in Hollywood was because we were totally different from anything that was in LA,” he said. “We kind of brought Milwaukee with us.”