Is It A Spoof? Is It A Parody? It’s Airplane!
How A film From 1980 Keeps Delivering Laughs
Image by L.E. Wilson from RedBubble based on work by OpenClipart on Pixabay
When I think of funny, I think of the movie Airplane! (1980). It’s so silly and fun! Oh, it’s not a perfect film by any means, but it is a unique movie, quite different from other comedies because it’s chock-full of puns, gags, slapstick, and absurdity, which are all bundled in an exciting, thrilling plot that even includes a bit of romance. It’s an amazing feat really, and why this movie remains embedded in the consciousness for years and years after watching it.
Airplane! (1980) is a comedy co-written and co-directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker about Ted Striker (Robert Hays), a pilot with a fear of flying who has difficulty maintaining a relationship with his stewardess girlfriend Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), but is tasked with landing a plane full of passengers.
For anyone who is interested in figuring out how they did it—yes “they” because it took three writer-directors working together to make it happen: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker—the following is a short breakdown of it all:
The laughs start with the opening credits. Over a sea of clouds set against the dramatic music from the thriller Jaws (1975), the tail of an airplane appears ominously. An airplane, rather than a shark, is the threatening menace in this abyss. There is real suspense from the beginning, and we don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into, or what we’re going to get. As noted in “The Funniest Movie Scene”:
Laughter is the reaction to being surprised in a safe environment. Laughter is the release of tension when it becomes clear that the reason for the tension is something harmless.
Airplane! captures the setup and the danger of airline disaster films, particularly Zero Hour! (1957), which it parodies the most. Some of the dialogue, scenes, character names, and costumes were taken taken straight out of other movies or novels. Then, absurdity is generously intermixed. The result is an unusual, exhilarating, fun ride.
Within the opening credits, and just moments after the spoof of Jaws, we hear bickering airport announcers arguing over the loading zone, see a traveler taking off his arm and metal leg after going through the metal detector, and watch as an airplane crashes into a gate, having been led astray by a distracted airfield worker.
It’s the density and variety of the gags that makes this movie so enduring and endearing. For example, a phone call to a pilot from the renowned Mayo Clinic has a doctor—with a beating human heart bouncing on his desk—talking in an office full of mayonnaise jars, which sets up this pun:
Phone operator: Excuse me this is the operator, Captain Oveur. I have an emergency on line 5 from a Mr. Hamm.
Captain Oveur: Alright give me Hamm on five, hold the Mayo.
Something else that’s interesting is that the directors had a screening process where they showed the movie at different universities, and every time people didn’t laugh at a joke it was taken out. This is probably one of the reasons the movie is so funny. There were, however, a few scenes—the painting at the hospital, the watermelon dropping from the ceiling—that the directors left in because they found them hilarious, even though those bits didn’t get the laughs from the audiences that they expected.
What’s instructive about this is both the idea that people who are good at creating humor 1) can fail to make something funny that connects with audiences, and 2) need to have the confidence or passion to stick to their guns. This reveals that creating comedy is both a difficult skill to achieve that even experts need to constantly refine, and that comedy requires a high level of conviction.
In other words, comedy is hard work, and past experience is no guarantee of future success, so you have to constantly keep trying. But if something you wrote makes you laugh, that is invaluable, and at the end of the day, perhaps the most important reward that you get for your dedication and skill.
There is no doubt that the three writer-directors had fun making Airplane!, which is also a movie that reliably makes audiences laugh even though it’s from a different generation set in an unfamiliar time period. In fact, some of the gags may not be understood because they are parodies of TV commercials, celebrities, cultural phenomenons, and movies that have not been seen in the last forty years. Yet, these gags still work at some level because they fit in with the rest of the absurdity in the movie.
Overall, Airplane! delivers hilarity because funny is funny, and that is everlasting. The most enjoyable and meme-like aspects of this movie, which allows it to endure through the generations, are the one-liners, comebacks, and wordplay:
Passenger in plane: Nervous?
Ted Striker: Yes.
Passenger: First time?
Ted Striker: No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.
And throughout all of this buffoonery, a real drama is playing out that includes multiple passengers getting sick, incapacitated pilots, and no one available to fly the plane but Otto, a smiling inflatable autopilot with a randy personality.
Dr. Rumack: Can you fly this plane and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can’t be serious.
Dr. Rumack: I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.
The fog is getting thicker. The airplane is miles off course. The camera pans endlessly across the airplane controls, ad absurdum. But, don’t worry, this is a comedy. There will be a happy ending. You’ve just got to watch the movie to find out how they do it.
Fun, fun, fun!