Monday, November 25, 2013


AIRPLANE! (1980)

Directors/Screenplay: David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker

Ted Stryker:  Surely, you can’t be serious!
Dr. Rumack: I am serious,… and don’t call me Shirley

That’s the most famous line amongst dozens of famous lines and jokes and gags that pepper every scene of this “Airplane!”, arguably the most influential comedy of the last forty years. The directing team of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker did the films ‘The Kentucky Fried Movie,” “Top Secret,” and the failed-TV show “Police Squad,” which in turn led to their most famous movie franchise, the “Naked Gun,” movies, but unquestionably their best film is “Airplane!,” a spoof on the airplane disaster films like “Airport”, “Airport 1975,” “The High and the Mighty,” and in fact, the movie is a direct remake of the 1957 film “Zero Hour.”  

The ZAZ team had seen the original film which was such a bad drama, that it was funny, which is the inspiration for “Airplane!,” a purposefully bad movie about bad movies, or in Hollywood terms, a spoof, which in 1980, was not exactly done too often. Now, it’s done so often and by the biggest hacks among hacks in Hollywood, we probably should be blaming “Airplane!” more, but the movie’s so laugh-out-loud funny, we just can’t admonish it too much. The movie is not only filled with references to those old movies, (It basically destroy the disaster movie for awhile actually) it also spoofs other films, (most notably, “Saturday Night Fever”) as well as old commercials, and then adds comedy involving sex, race, drugs, nudity, religion, the elderly, gays… their pretty much isn’t a topic it doesn’t at least skim through. 

Some of them have probably not aged terribly well, but the jokes in the movie, as well as most all of ZAZ films are dumb. They’re not even smart dumb, they’re just dumb. Classically dumb, old-fashioned and quick-witted like vaudeville, but they’re dumb. The genius aspect of the film is not the depth of the humor but the volume of it. There’s so many jokes in the movie, in almost every scene, that the movie forces us to pay particular attention between laughs, just to make sure we catch everything. They basically wrote down all those little insignificant thoughts we have that most of the time we get a small quick chuckle at, and then move on. 
The ZAZ troupe are basically like Beavis and Butt-Head, only smarter. 

This layering of humor is very influential; Will Ferrell always talks about how his films get funnier on second and their viewings because of he and Adam McKay like to lay-in and add extra jokes at the peripheries, that only become apparent, once you’ve already watched the movie. The first time you watch it, you’re watching the film, and trying to get wrapped up in a story, and then laugh along the way, but it’s the later viewings where you get the jokes. There’s so many jokes in “Airplane!” though, that’s barely a level of an actual story. I’ve seen the movie about eight times, on my most recent viewing, I noticed at least ten more jokes than I didn’t catch before, or simply didn’t remember, like a scene involving a little boy asking a little girl to share coffee with him. She accepts, and the boy asks how she likes her coffee, and she goes, “Tall and black, just like my men.” And that scene is just a filler joke that added nothing to the story or plot, not that the story is that particularly important; it wasn’t even a new joke then, but the fact that it came from a nine-year-old makes it funnier. 

The story involves a one-time war pilot Ted Stryker (Robert Hays) having to try and land a plane after the pilots and the crew and most of the passengers got sick after eating the fish for dinner. “We had the option of steak or fish.” “That’s right, I remember, I had the lasagna.” 

There’s a backstory with his ex-girlfriend/stewardess (Julie Hagerty) that’s so boring that every time he divulges into a flashback about him, the passengers next to kills themselves. Leslie Nielsen as a doctor on the plane had the biggest success from the film. He was an accomplished dramatic actor before the film, who had feared he’d be stuck playing old dying grandpas, when this film gave him a more successful second career. Eventually the dumb jokes, by virtue of being done so well, and with so many of them, all intellectual armor is lifted, and you just start laughing, and you don’t stop, until the end. Even when jokes fail, which isn’t often in “Airplane!”, the attempts are funny, a true sign of a great comedy. 

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