Even in the anarchic heyday of the Marx brothers at Paramount Pictures, when they turned out vaudevillian free-for-alls such as Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, or Mel Brooks parodies like Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, audiences had never encountered the sheer volume of gags that hit them in Airplane!, which are so relentless that the bad ones don’t have time to develop an odor. There are puns, pratfalls, provocations, foreground/background dynamics, double entendres, references to film and TV and popular commercials, random acts of silliness and absurdity, and every possible strain of what would later be categorized as a “dad joke”. Even at 40, when a handful of the references and bits have grown whiskers, Airplane! still absolutely kills. Rarely has a film so eager to please been so successful in doing so.
And yet, as easy as it might be to tally up 87 minutes of laughs or marvel at the high batting average of its creative team – David and Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams, better known as Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (ZAZ) – the non-jokes are a key part of what makes it work. That may sound like asking jazz aficionados to listen between the notes, but the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team understood (at the time, anyway) that a good comedy needs a straight man, and they found one in Zero Hour!, a largely forgotten 1957 drama that served as a primary source of inspiration. And not a source like Top Gun would be to the Abrahams solo projects Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux, but the entire foundation on which the comedy would rest.
Though Airplane! riffs on the Airport series (particularly Airport 1975) and Irwin Allen disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, it’s a straight-up remake of Zero Hour!, with just a little spin on the ball. Key elements are exactly the same: a hero named Ted Stryker, a former second world war fighter pilot still haunted by the six comrades killed because of a decision he made in combat. A flight he catches at the last minute to win back a woman who’s left him a “Dear John” note. An illness that sweeps through the airplane cabin, debilitating all the passengers who ordered fish instead of meat, including the pilot and the co-pilot. Stryker getting called up to steer the plane to safety, guided on the ground by the no-nonsense captain who was his superior during the war.
Not only are some of lines repeated verbatim, but tiny details survive, too, like Stryker’s refusal to stay in the air another two hours until the stormy weather clears, or the ridiculous geysers of sweat that pour down his face as he approaches the landing. Much of the fun of Airplane! comes from Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker’s instinct that just the tone of an average 1957 melodrama would sound funny in 1980, when a more naturalistic style of acting and screenwriting had fully taken over the industry. When the Stryker in Airplane!, stewing bitterly about the pilots who died under his command, says a line like, “A lot of people had plans before the war. Like George Zipp,” it’s hilarious in 1980 (and 2020) in a way it might not have been in 1957. The film goes off on crazier tangents, but often it doesn’t need to depart from Zero Hour! much at all.
There’s no better example of the ZAZ approach to the spoof than the casting of Leslie Nielsen as Dr Rumack, the onboard physician who tends to the sick passengers while giving Stryker the occasional pep talk. Though Nielsen had appeared briefly in Kentucky Fried Movie, the anthology comedy ZAZ wrote before Airplane!, he spent the first 25 years of his career as a character actor for film and television, with appearances in Forbidden Planet and the Poseidon Adventure, but nothing that made him a name. His gravitas is all that Airplane! needs in that role, as if he were a time traveler ported in from another cinematic era and not told he was in a comedy. As Nielsen became more self-aware in future ZAZ productions and other spoofs, the effect was diminished.
Robert Hays and the wonderful Julie Hagerty play it straight, too, as Stryker and his stewardess girlfriend Elaine, whose love story is dreamily recalled in flashbacks that nod to Saturday Night Fever and From Here to Eternity. Watching Airplane! multiple times, the jokes that stand out tend to be the ones where ZAZ have an idea that’s so outrageously labored, it’s funny just to think about how much they were straining for a laugh. There’s the names, for one, like the “Who’s On First?” confusion of populating the cockpit with men named Oveur, Roger, and Victor (“Over, Oveur. Roger, Roger. What’s your vector, Victor?”), or having Oveur carry on separate phone conversations with someone from the Mayo Clinic and another gentlemen with the surname Ham (“Give me Ham on five, hold the Mayo”). But there’s effort beyond all sorts of other bits, too: the escalation of the fight between parking zone announcers (“You want me to have an abortion!”), the stunt-casting of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Ethel Merman, the willfully idiotic wordplay (“Surely you can’t be serious?” “I am serious, and don’t call me ‘Shirley’”).
Not all of Airplane! is timeless, but the “dated” aspects of the film can cut both ways. From the vantage of 2020, we might cringe at the racial comedy of two black men speaking in subtitled “jive”, or Stryker teaching “the Malombo tribe” to play basketball, but it doesn’t matter that Airplane! parodies airplane disaster movies that few have ever seen or references a coffee commercial from the early 70s or Elaine throwing an era-specific Tupperware party for the Malombo women (“This two-quart Seals-M-Rite container keeps hot dog buns fresh for days”). The same goes for future ZAZ classics like Top Secret! and The Naked Gun: rooting a spoof in genre obscurities from Hollywood past turns the absence of timeliness into a secret virtue.
That’s the lesson that later spoof series like Scary Movie or other execrable Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer team-ups like Date Movie or Meet the Spartans never learned. Airplane! does have a few riffs on hits like Jaws and Saturday Night Fever, but it doesn’t give itself over to lazy business of re-staging scenes from the latest blockbusters with the slightest (and often grossest) of twists.
It’s weird. It’s unexpected. It’s absurd. And it never pauses for a laugh, because there’s always another one coming.