Written & Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, & Jerry Zucker
This is one of those films that had a profound influence on me as a kid, though I only knew it by the edited for television version I recorded on the family VCR. Airplane! is the origins of the modern spoof or parody film where a genre is taken and skewered with a non-stop barrage of jokes. Mel Brooks definitely helped pave the way with pictures like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, but even those movies still had a coherent plot arc. Airplane! doesn’t care about the plot and sees it only as a delivery device for hilarious comedy. This movie still holds up today because it doesn’t couch its jokes in the contemporary pop culture of its time.
Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is a war veteran who has a “drinking problem” and can’t hold down a job which has led to his flight attendant girlfriend, Elaine (Julie Hagerty), to leave him. She’s on the crew of a flight out of Los Angeles to Chicago with plans to relocate to the destination. Ted follows her to the airport and books a ticket on the plane in a last-ditch attempt to win her back. During the flight, a food poisoning incident renders the pilot and the cockpit crew unable to fly. Striker has to take control of the plane, get control of his fears and land her in Chicago during a thunderstorm. He’s going to need the help of Elaine, Dr. Rumack (Leslie Neilsen), air traffic controller Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges), and ex-pilot Captain Rex Kramer (Robert Stack).
The humor of Airplane! is never trying to be sophisticated or overly intelligent. There are some sex jokes and slapstick, but my personal favorite is all the language play throughout the picture. There’s the famous “Don’t call me Shirley” line from Leslie Neilsen. I really enjoy the cockpit crew’s names of Over, Roger, and Victor, which become the centerpiece of a brief Who’s On First style bit. There’s also the decision to emphasize that Roger is played by NBA all-star, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, when a young boy visits the cockpit and keeps pointing out this fact.
Airplane! was a direct parody of the over the top, overly-cast disaster films of the 1970s. Even so, the filmmakers don’t get hung up on making jokes about obscure details in those movies and play the humor as broad as possible. There’s a brief reference to Saturday Night Fever that still works because it is still lampooned in popular media. Other than the clothing and some minor references, the jokes here are timeless. The passenger list serves as a catch-all of character types, which behave outside of our expectations. I love the succession of seatmates Striker has who kill themselves when forced to suffer through his flashbacks on what led to this moment.
The best part of the jokes in Airplane! is that they do not overstay their welcome. The writers know that they need to keep a rapid-fire pace while maintaining good comedic timing. The variety of joke types also helps keep things feeling lively. There are silly bits mixed with dark humor that gives the picture a bit of an edge. You will definitely groan at some dumb sight gags, but they are in the movie for that very reason. This humor wouldn’t land as well if it wasn’t for the delivery of the actors. Leslie Neilsen is by far the star of the show in this regard, playing every scene so straight that it becomes comical. My favorite exchanges are the “What is it?” jokes, which I find to be a perfect mix of stupid and gut bustlingly funny. There’s also the succession of Lloyd Bridge’s “I picked the wrong week…” lines that keep escalating in the intensity of the substance being abused.
Airplane! is a comedic masterpiece that does exactly what a comedy should do, make you laugh. It tempers its humor by touching on some contemporary cultural touchstones but keeping things timeless in its language play. There would be many imitators in the years to follow, with only The Naked Gun being a film that lived up to the standard set. The 2000s brought us the Epic Movie series, which only served to show how an over-reliance on film & television references isn’t inherently funny when there’s no joke there. Airplane! remains a picture worth watching and rewatching.