Jungian Psychology Looks at Leslie Nielsen
“Surely you can’t be serious!”
“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
On Sunday last, comic actor Leslie Nielsen died at age 84. Like many Canadians I felt a special tie to Nielsen, because he was “one of us”. I especially enjoyed him in his comedy roles in Airplane and Naked Gun. From the point of view of Jungian case studies, Nielsen’s characters played in some hilarious ways with what Jungians call persona and shadow.
Serious… but Absurd
It’s as the character of police Lt. Frank Drebin that most people will remember Nielsen. Drebin always presented with absolute deadpan seriousness, completely the stereotypical image of a serious policeman while surrounded by situation after situation of the most gobstopping absurdity. His good looks and serious, professional demeanour enabled him to pull this off, at least until we are caught right up in the situation — and then the clown comes out.
Roger Ebert called Nielsen “the Olivier of spoofs” and said of his deadpan antics, “You laugh, and then you laugh at yourself for laughing.” That was always my experience of Nielsen, too. I found myself laughing almost in spite of myself during his movies, but also, as in all great comedy, finding something in him that was familiar, something that made me feel “at home”.
The Inner Frank Drebin
I know Frank Drebin. Part of me feels that I know him very well. I know that there’s a Frank Drebin in me. It’s that part of me that stays invested in my outer social role, even when the whole situation is falling apart. That part of me that continues to desperately try to believe in fictions when everything shows me that my fiction is not the case. That part of each of us that wants to look oh-so-competent when there’s actually a 3 ring circus going on around us — and it turns out that we are in the spotlight at center ring! We all have that part in ourselves that so desperately wants to “believe our own propaganda” about being totally good and competent and in control– and somehow deep down, knows it’s not true, and is damned if it will admit it.
Surprised by the Shadow
There are all kinds of parts of us that go into making up our shadow, as Jungians call it. That’s the entire dimension of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge exists. Part of that is the morally unacceptable parts of ourselves and part of it is those weaker, inferior or just less socially desirable aspects of ourselves that cause us to feel vulnerable or ashamed or just plain clown-like. But they are all aspects of us, and we need to accept and acknowledge them.
That’s where the Leslie Nielsens — and the Charlie Chaplins, Laurel and Hardys, Roberto Benignis, Robin Williams, John Candys and Jack Blacks — all come in. They help us to accept and even be kind to those parts of ourselves that we have trouble acknowledging.
Poor Old Persona
Sometimes our poor old persona goes on bravely, day after day, waving its flag that tells everyone that we are doing fine, and that everything’s under control — even when that’s sometimes the very last thing we feel, if we are honest with ourselves. Rest in peace, Leslie Neilsen, and thank you for helping us to laugh at our pretensions and our obliviousness, and to be kinder to our struggling selves. Surely you can’t be serious, Mr. Nielsen — and we love you for being anything but.
Caught in Our Own Schtick?
Have you ever one of those “Frank Drebin” moments? When all your seriousness and self-importance just comes apart? I remember once having to give a talk at a hospital. I bent down to pick up my projector, and –with a big audible rip! — the entire seam in the middle of the back of my pants split, from top to bottom! Shadow time! If you’ve had a similar experience, I’d welcome hearing from you via a comment or through a confidential email.
Wishing you every good thing on your personal journey to wholeness,
Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst
TRAILER CREDIT: © 1988 Paramount Pictures . The Naked Gun series is the property of Paramount Pictures and is used here in the fair use context of critical discussion.