Keith: Over at ScreenCrush, writer Mike Ryan recently published an extensive, terrific oral history of Top Secret!, the film with which David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams followed Airplane! In the piece, the filmmakers lament not realizing how important the story was to the success of Airplane!, and wish they’d had a similarly strong story for Top Secret! To my eyes, that film turned out fine as it is. But I see where they’re coming from: Though Airplane! was inspired by the disaster films of the 1970s, particularly the Airport series, it takes its story (and its exclamation point) from the 1957 movie Zero Hour!, an adaptation of an Arthur Hailey short story. It’s all there, from the post-traumatic stress to the food poisoning. And it provides a wonderfully stiff spine on which Airplane! can hang its jokes, pushing the movie forward despite all the digressions that threaten to derail it. It has to go up, and it has to land, and the inspired madness goes along for the ride.
Nathan: Re-watching Airplane!, I was impressed by the economy of storytelling involved in spoofing a series like the Airport franchise, which seemed to employ the totality of not only Hollywood, but international film over the course of its run. Airplane! introduces a dizzying array of characters, each with subplots that need to be resolved over the course of a lean 87 minutes. Though generally not considered an ingeniously made film, Airplane! accomplishes an awful lot, storytelling-wise, in less than 90 minutes, while delivering at least a laugh a minute. No mean feat, and one that has been replicated by very few filmmakers outside the ZAZ line-up.
Scott: Having a sound narrative structure strikes me as key to a good spoof, because even if in a comedy full of silly digressions, there has to be something to digress from. Post Airplane!—and this is true of other ZAZ productions, and Jim Abrahams movies, too—there seemed to be more of an interest in cramming as many jokes as possible within an 80- or 90-minute frame, and hoping the sum of those gags will add up to a good movie. But the audience needs to feel as if it’s going somewhere, however inconsequential, or else even a consistently funny movie will feel like its spinning its wheels. What I appreciated about Airplane! this time around is how varied the jokes are: There are quick visual and verbal puns, throwaway references, and vaudevillian wordplay, but also plenty of other scenes that require more development, like the red-zone/white-zone conflict, or the running gag about Ted’s seatmates becoming suicidal after sitting through unsolicited stories about his love life.
Scott: There’s a lot of sophistication in the silliness of Airplane!, and many of the best gags are not throwaways, but small laughs that become bigger laughs as more twists are added. The flashback sequence where Ted meets Elaine in a roughneck bar has always been a favorite—Elaine dancing with the sailor with a knife in his back, the Girl Scouts’ epic fistfight, etc.—but the biggest laugh the film got from me this time around was Ted’s Saturday Night Fever routine. It’s funny enough to see Ted sporting John Travolta’s white vest under his jacket, but the way his dance moves grow from improbable to physically impossible (with both legs kicking out from his body like a puppet with an invisible puppeteer) is hilarious enough before the juggling balls make it truly transcendent.
Keith: There are jokes in this film that have burned themselves into the way I think, like “Surely you can’t be serious.” (You can finish that one yourself.) The other day, my wife forwarded me a link from The Mayo Clinic. And of course I imagined it looking like this:
In some ways, it’s less the big laughs that make the film a classic than the infectious quality of its lunatic way of looking at how movies, and the world at large, work.
Nathan: With this, I can limit myself to jokes I regularly throw into everyday conversation, to the groaning, eye-rolling delight of my friends and co-workers, most notably the running gag involving Lloyd Bridges repeatedly ruing that he picked the wrong week to try to break his habit of using an escalating series of dangerous substances (smoking, sniffing glue, doing amphetamines). This film is burned indelibly into my memory and vernacular too, Keith.
Scott: Keith, it’s also fun to think about the time, energy, and money that went into filling a set with jars of mayo (or fake mayo, anyway), just for the purpose of a single visual pun. I’m sure by the time the cameras rolled, it had to feel like the most labored joke ever told, but ZAZ wisely trust their instincts.
Matt: Speaking of the Mayo Clinic, that joke gets another laugh when Captain Oveur’s call is interrupted by “an emergency call on line five from Mr. Hamm,” and Oveur naturally responds with “All right, give me Hamm on five, hold the Mayo.” It doesn’t get much sillier or better than that.
I also love the repeated gag where someone asks a question and gets an incredibly obvious wrong answer. So when Leslie Nielsen says “You’d better tell the captain we’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has got to be gotten to a hospital.” Julie Hagerty replies “A hospital? What is it?” Nielsen says “It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.” The last five words become a great runner throughout the film.
Matt: The very first joke in Airplane! is a movie reference: The tail of a jetliner zig-zags through the clouds, to the sounds of John Williams’ menacing strings from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. I probably saw Airplane! and Jaws for the first time around the same time, but there are other references in the movie that went way over my head as a kid. For one thing, I didn’t find out about the Zero Hour! connection until years later. Even more fundamentally, the entire film sends up a decade of accumulated disaster-movie cliches and stereotypical characters, particularly from the Airport series, movies I didn’t see until I was well into my 20s. But that never stopped me from laughing at Airplane!
Tomorrow’s secondary essay about Airplane! will explore this topic in detail, but I wanted your takes first. How important is getting the reference to laughing at Airplane!’s jokes? And how do you think the film is aging, now that many of its movie (and TV and commercial) references are so dated that most younger viewers will have almost no hope of understanding them? Will the shit eventually hit the fan and render Airplane! unfunny?
Keith: There are so many gags in this movie, and of so many different kinds, that it’s probably possible not to get any of the references and still laugh a lot. When I first saw this movie, much of it went over my head. I hadn’t seen any of the Airport films, or even seen enough old movies, to recognize the clichés being sent up, or the well-known, non-comedic actors doing much of the sending up. But the phrase “shit hits the fan,” followed by an image of shit hitting a fan: That always works. Beyond that, I think the references help make Airplane! a movie worth returning to every few years. I can see what I missed before, and find jokes hidden in the movie that I’d never noticed.
Scott: Many of the references in Airplane! are broad enough that they’re still pop-culture basics, now and for eternity, like Saturday Night Fever, Jaws, and attitudes about professional basketball players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Though Airport and Airport 1975 are nowhere near as familiar to viewers today as they would have been in 1980, ZAZ doesn’t lean on reference points to carry the comedy, and it’s often possible to appreciate them without knowing what’s being referenced. Among my favorite touches are the titles and the score, which have a disaster-movie pomposity that’s really funny, even if you can’t identity the source.
Nathan: One big difference between Airplane! and its lesser imitators is that the film trusts its audience enough to assume they’ll get various gags and references, without needing them spoon-fed. It trusts that audiences will be hip enough to recognize the real Ethel Merman in order for the gag involving the traumatized veteran who thinks he’s Ethel Merman to work. Or, to extend the gag, they should recognize that part of Merman’s persona was a masculine air that might not seem entirely out of place in a military hospital. The film similarly trusts that audiences will get that when one of the passengers begins an internal monologue about her husband’s coffee-drinking habits, it’s a reference to a popular coffee commercial of the time. But as you say, the jokes work even if you don’t get the references.
Keith: Before we move on entirely, any love for Airplane II: The Sequel? I haven’t seen it in years—and I don’t think the ZAZ team is happy it exists, having had nothing to do with it—but it sent me into titters as a kid. Maybe that’s because, if I recall correctly, Canadian filmmaker Ken Finkelman essentially rehashed all the jokes that made the first one funny, he just moved the action to space. A quick trip to YouTube seems to confirm this memory:
Matt: Airplane II isn’t up to the standards of the best ZAZ movies, but it has its moments (most provided by William Shatner as one of the requisite “serious” actors going goofy), and it’s certainly a lot better than the vast majority of modern spoofs. At least Airplane II still has jokes; so many recent parodies are just references, as if the sheer fact that a Michael Jackson or Paris Hilton imitator might show up in a scene from 300 is the height of comic genius. That’s why Airplane! is still funny today even if you miss the references; more often than not, they’re the setup, not the punchline. In a lot of modern spoofs (*coughanythingbyFriedbergandSeltzerandyesthisisaverylongandverbosecough*), the reference is the setup and the punchline, which is why many of those films already feel way more dated than Airplane! And before you ask, here’s my favorite gag from Airplane II:
Keith: I raise the question of Airplane!’s legacy with some trepidation. I still have a lot of fondness for the spoofs ZAZ made after Airplane!: Top Secret!, The Naked Gun, and Police Squad!, the short-lived series that inspired Naked Gun. Beyond that, it gets grim and grimmer: I don’t love the Naked Gun sequels, or Abrahams’ Hot Shots! movies. Ditto the ZAZ-inspired Scary Movie movies, which David Zucker took over after a certain point. And I’ve largely stayed away from Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg’s films (Date Movie, etc.), but I still feel scarred from the 10 minutes of Meet The Spartans I caught on cable. My conclusion based on this evidence: David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams make peerless spoofs when working together, and any variation on that team, or any attempt to imitate what they do, falls short. Together, they own movie spoofery. No one else comes close, not even themselves when they stray from the team.
Scott: Then again, the later ZAZ (or just David Z.) productions also drop steeply, in part because they (and Leslie Nielsen) don’t seem to remember what made their comedies great in the first place. The references and gags are cheaper and less inspired, and in the Naked Gun sequels and beyond, Nielsen becomes too self-aware. I recall finding the first Hot Shots! funny at the time, but again, it’s not as well-structured, and it basically serves as a hit-or-miss repository of jokes. And those Friedberg/Seltzer spoofs are about as bad as movies get. But I’d argue that many of the spoofs inspired or loosely inspired by ZAZ have been quite inspired, starting with David Wain’s idiosyncratic comedies Wet Hot American Summer and They Came Together, which play off 1980s summer-camp movies and rom-coms, respectively, with a distinctly self-conscious absurdism. I also like the specificity of Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies and OSS 117: Lost In Rio, which unpack the glamorous excesses of 1950s and 1960s spy movies. No one is trying to replicate the ZAZ productions, exactly, but the influence is there.
Nathan: I would argue that ZAZ’s legacy extends beyond spoofs; the gentlemen also helped popularize a style of comedy that delights in a wide variety of humor, from smart verbal wit to proudly dumb visual gags, as well as an emphasis on quantity over quality. ZAZ threw as many gags against the wall as possible, and since they were brilliant gagsmiths in the prime of their career, an awful lot stuck. The Friedberg-Seltzer school also subscribes to the quantity-over-quality philosophy, the key difference being that there is no actual quality in their films, just an endless success of stand-alone gags that don’t work. When considering ZAZ’s legacy, let’s not forget the first film they wrote, Kentucky Fried Movie, which contains the definitive martial-arts parody, as well as ingenious spoofs of blaxploitation that paved the way for later spoofs like Keenen Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood.
Nathan: Airplane! was fairly low-budget by studio standards, but the filmmakers nevertheless cast a murderer’s row of distinguished character actors of a certain age who looked the part because they had played it over and over again, generally in serious movies. It’s hard to over-praise Leslie Nielsen’s bone-dry, gloriously glowering work in the film, but let’s share some love for the great Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges, who for my money rivals Nielsen for the film’s funniest performance. ZAZ got these distinguished-looking men to do crazy shit with completely straight faces, no mean feat. I’d also like to single out Robert Hays—who got the film’s starring role role over a young David Letterman, and who hits the perfect note of oblivious, purposefully white-bread heroism—and Julie Hagerty, who proves herself a wonderful comedian (she went on to do stellar work in movies like Lost In America and What About Bob?) even while playing everything straight, up to and including awkwardly mimicking the unique dance moves of a hunchback with a knife stuck in its back.
Scott: More proof that “items may shift during flight” as far as our experience with a film over time: When I was a kid, I loved Airplane!, and I especially loved all the scenes with the late Stephen Stucker as Johnny, the silly side character working Air Traffic Control. I’m sure at the time, his “flamboyance” was what got all the laughs from me, and I’m certain I was too young and naïve to recognize him as gay. Johnny hasn’t aged well, and as reluctant as I am to apply the cultural progressiveness of 2014 to a movie from 34 years ago, I question whether it was ever clever or sophisticated. Making a 10-year-old laugh is not a reliable bellwether of quality.
Keith: Yeah, I think that’s one of the few elements that hasn’t aged that well, since the joke is basically, “Get it? He’s gay.” Otherwise, even the weaker gags, like the “foreign language” no-smoking signs, get swept up in the infectious spirit of the film. It’s a long-lasting spirit. I was out walking yesterday when I passed this sign:
Airplane! is everywhere, and the world’s a better, sillier place for it.
Yesterday, Keith Phipps kicked off our Airplane! conversation with a Keynote discussing how the film’s deadpan approach makes the comedy work. And tomorrow, Mike D’Angelo wraps up with the promised thoughts on why missing the reference doesn’t mean missing the joke.