“And don’t call me Shirley”: “Airplane!” at 40

Four decades later, Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker’s pitch-perfect disaster spoof is the template for the absurdist movie parody.

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Of course, Airplane! was not the first film parody—from the earliest days of the cinema, people have been accentuating the inherent goofiness of film genres and situations for comedic effect. It certainly wasn’t the only film parody of its era; Mel Brooks achieved massive commercial success throughout the Seventies by spoofing Westerns (Blazing Saddles (1974)), the Universal horror movies of the Thirties (Young Frankenstein (1974)), silent movies (Silent Movie (1976)), the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock (High Anxiety (1977)) and historical epics (History of the World—Part I (1981)) and some of the early comedies of Woody Allen satirized generic conventions as well. 

What Airplane! did was take the idea of genre parody and do it faster, smarter, and sillier than anyone had ever attempted before. When viewers first sat down to watch it when it debuted in the summer of 1980, they were hit with a comedic blitzkrieg of a sort that they had never experienced before.

There is no question that Airplane! works as a comedy even to this day. It’s been endlessly quoted and referenced, and whenever a poll of the greatest film comedies is conducted, it’s invariably found right near the top. The real question is why it continues to work as well with viewers today as it did in 1980, even with those who may have never seen any of the films being spoofed. 

Airplane!

Comedy, as a rule, tends to have a notoriously brief shelf life, as ideas of what is and isn’t funny have a tendency to shift. Parodies of specific targets rarely turn out to be built to last. Instead of falling into the usual traps that have snagged other would-be screen parodists in the past, the Wisconsin-born trio of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker (who will be referred to from here on in as ZAZ) managed to deftly sidestep them with a markedly different approach that wound up influencing screen comedy in ways to can still be felt today. 

The film, as you probably know, is primarily a spoof of the disaster movie genre that had a successful revival during the Seventies, following the mammoth success of the 1970 epic Airport. Although Airport and its sequels would inspire a number of jokes in the film, the primary influence on Airplane! would be Zero Hour, a 1957 drama based on a novel by Arthur Hailey, who would go on to write Airport as well. 

In both films, a commercial flight is placed into jeopardy when both pilots and a number of the passengers are stricken with food poisoning. The only hope for getting the plane down safely is Ted Striker, a war pilot who is still suffering from the psychological damage resulting from a mission gone wrong that has kept him away from planes for years. Things are made even more complicated by the fact that Ted has loved ones on the plane—an estranged wife and son in the original and an estranged girlfriend who is also one of the flight attendants here. Further complications include bad weather and the arrival of Ted’s former superior officer to help talk him down, who mainly winds up inspiring traumatic flashbacks that Ted needs to overcome if he is to save the day.

If you’re a fan of Airplane! but have never seen Zero Hour, you owe it to yourself to look at it. The comparison points between the two are astounding—so much so that ZAZ actually went so far as to secure the remake rights to that film in order to cover themselves. Airplane! doesn’t merely follow the basic parameters of the story; it replicates many of the scenes and pieces of dialogue as well. It sticks so close to its predecessor that it even replicates one of its oddest casting quirks—where Zero Hour inexplicably cast former football player Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch in the role of the stricken co-pilot, “Airplane!” filled a similar role with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

Of course, when Airplane! came out in the pre-VCR era, most viewers didn’t quite click to the parallels with Zero Hour, other to note than there were some. In hindsight, the influence of Zero Hour is one of the keys as to why it has managed to stand the test of time when other films along the same line have justly forgotten. Although Zero Hour is undeniably contrived, the basic storyline is simple—the premise of a plane hit where many of those onboard are suddenly incapacitated through accidental means is one that many viewers, especially those already leery about air travel, can’t help but respond to on some fundamental level. 

Having that narrative structure as a base, ZAZ was able to generate an astonishing number of gags and deploy them in a manner unheard of in the history of Hollywood comedies. Until then, you could have lots of jokes in a movie but filmmakers seemed to go out of their way to prevent audiences from overdosing on them. Even the Marx Brothers, whose abundance of wild gags were a clear precursor to Airplane!, found their comedic assaults leavened by romantic subplots, musical numbers, and other devices presumably meant to give audiences a respite from all that pesky humor. American comedy also tended to favor long set pieces that build their way to the big punchline, almost as if they were designed to be performed before a live audience. 

If you’re a fan of Airplane! but have never seen Zero Hour, you owe it to yourself to look at it.

In Airplane!, however, these conventions have been cheerfully thrown out the window to the regret of no one. There are no long comedy set pieces, or extended scenes of any type, to be had: instead, ZAZ employs a rapid-fire approach that could not possibly work on stage but works perfectly fine on film. Airplane! can start a scene, drop a joke ten seconds later and then move on to the next without hesitation. 

The jokes themselves cover the waterfront in terms of humor, from inspired verbal byplay to groan-worthy puns to silly sight gags. ZAZ clearly amassed an enormous number of jokes, but instead of trying to whittle them down to the best of the bunch, they elected to inundate viewers with as many as they could cram into the 88-minute running time. The reasoning seemed to be that if only maybe half of the comedic deluge hit, viewers would be too busy laughing at them to notice the duds. 

As it turned out, a lot more than half worked, so many that fans of the film found themselves watching it several times to make sure that that caught all the jokes they might have missed before when they were laughing at other things. One of the reasons that many of the jokes work so well is because they are so silly that they become endearing; you can’t believe that people would have the nerve to make jokes this dumb. More importantly, the goofy spirit helps to make some of the potentially touchy material—including jokes about suicide, pedophilia, race, sex, and the possibility of people dying in a plane crash—skirt by without being too offensive. Even the most overtly scatological joke in the entire film—you know the one—is so silly that even those who normally loathe gross-out gags find themselves smiling. 

At the same time, ZAZ wisely elected to avoid too many jokes tied to specific moments in the Airport movies—the stuff involving the sick little girl cribbed from Airport 1975 being the key exception—or the then-contemporary cultural moment. As a result, the jokes have managed to stand the test of time. Even a flashback scene that evolves into a bizarre parody of Saturday Night Fever (1977) still works; they got lucky satirizing something with its own long-lasting cultural footprint.

Normally, a hard-core comedy like this would be made with actors possessing strong comedic personalities; one of the people that ZAZ imagined for the role of Ted was none other than up-and-coming comedian David Letterman, who they met when he auditioned for a role in Kentucky Fried Movie. Before long, however, they realized that the material itself was already so zany that having actors playing up the jokes would have simply been too much. 

Instead, they elected to hire a group of actors best known for playing dramatic roles in films and on television—people like Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack—and have them play the parts completely straight-faced. Some of these actors may have needed a bit of coaxing; Graves reportedly initially turned down the film because he felt that the script (and presumably his role, the stricken pilot with a somewhat unnatural interest in the young boy visiting the cockpit) was tasteless. Eventually, they all got what was being asked of them, and the sight of these salt-of-the-earth types delivering ridiculous gags with completely straight faces is one of the film’s best weapons in its comedic arsenal. 

It was an inspired move, not just for the movie but for their careers as well. After Airplane!, they all now found themselves being sought out for comedic roles that had once been out of their grasp. Nielsen would become so identified with comedy that on the rare occasions when he did get a straight role (like the sadistic john killed by Barbra Streisand in Nuts (1987)), audiences instinctively started laughing the moment he appeared. 

Airplane!

As for the key roles of Ted and Elaine, relative newcomers Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty were cast. Many of the smaller parts were filled with faces familiar from television at the time, including Barbara Billingsley, Jimmie Walker, Joyce Bulifant, Lorna Patterson and Jill Whelan—casting choices that added to the verisimilitude by aping how Universal used to fill the seats in the Airport films with familiar but largely inexpensive faces, newcomers and contract players who needed something to do.

The one downside to the incredible success of Airplane! is that it inspired lots of people to try their hand at parodies of familiar films and genres. The best, not surprisingly, were ZAZ’s own follow-up projects, which included the sadly short-lived cop show parody Police Squad! (1982) and the far more successful big-screen version The Naked Gun (1988). The best of all of them was Top Secret (1984), a screw-loose spoof of both WWII dramas and Elvis Presley musicals that was actually funnier than Airplane but failed in theaters.

And yet, though the rapid-fire movie parody is pretty much dead in the eyes of Hollywood, Airplane! continues to endure as a genuine piece of film history. Forty years later, it still manages to deliver more laughs despite its age than most contemporary comedies could ever dream of inspiring. It doesn’t seem likely that another film will challenge its position as one of the all-time comedy classics anytime soon. 

Well, we can give it another twenty minutes, but that’s it! 

Airplane! Trailer:

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