Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Screenplay: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Producer: Jon Davison, Howard W. Koch
Starring: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 87 mins
Friday night. I’d had a hard week at work and all I wanted was to unwind with a fun film I didn’t have to think about much. Scanning the TV guide, I stumbled upon what I thought was the perfect answer: the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker 80s classic Airplane! Now regarded as a landmark of the comedy genre, Airplane! was a film I remembered loving as a kid but which I’d not seen for absolutely years. I wondered whether I’d still find it as hilarious as I had then. Fortunately, for the most part, the answer was yes, although I found I wasn’t able to switch off my brain quite as easily as I had expected.
The comedy writing and directing team of Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker made a series of extremely popular comedies in the 80s which were heavily based around genre parody, visual gags, wordplay and a winning mixture of cornball family-friendly punchlines and frat-boy T&A tastelessness. Although these films were a lot of fun to start with, with the likes of Top Secret! and The Naked Gun providing giggles aplenty, as the formula crystalised the films got more predictable and tired, particularly as lesser copycat efforts such as Loaded Weapon 1 and Fatal Instinct began to appear. Ultimately, the lamentable legacy of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker’s (aka ZAZ) brilliant early work was the series of truly awful Scary Movie (two of which David Zucker directed) and Not Another (Blank) Movie films that for a time seemed to come out on an almost weekly basis and emphasised the crass and offensive elements over anything else.
It was probably this latter day tarnishing of the ZAZ style that bred the element of doubt in my mind when I finally returned to Airplane! after so many years. But ultimately I found Airplane! was better than I remembered. Although some of the more on-the-nose sex gags that I may have tittered at as a youngster now fell flat (particularly the shot of a wobbling jelly next to a big pair of anonymous jiggling breasts, the laziest and least funny gag in the film), some of the other off-colour jokes that made me slightly uncomfortable as a kid were far funnier now I had the ability to contextualise them in their era and understand their satirical value as pot-shots at the film genre clichés the younger me had not yet encountered.
Although it has appeal for anyone with a certain sense of humour (and with such a barrage of jokes, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could get through the whole film without at least one snigger), Airplane! is very much a film-buff’s movie. ZAZ reportedly used to leave video tapes recording TV overnight in order to find examples of advertisements to parody (perfect fodder for the sketch-comedy style of their first film as writers together, the extremely hit and miss Kentucky Fried Movie) but one night they inadvertently recorded the 1957 action adventure film Zero Hour!, an early forerunner of the disaster movie subgenre that had become so popular in the 70s. ZAZ were able to utilise the plot and a good deal of the dialogue (as well as that corny exclamation mark) from this little known film to give Airplane!, their first film as directors, a structure and narrative thrust that was conspicuously lacking in the episodic Kentucky Fried Movie.
By its very nature, Airplane! is bound to be a little hit and miss too, but there is such an abundance of jokes that the audience gets caught up in the continual stream of laughter, making the hits, varying in quality as they admittedly do, seem to outnumber the misses by a significant percentage. It also has the benefit, in its broad parodying of a whole subgenre, of being less specific in its reference points so that, while it may make it funnier, a familiarity with the disaster movie is not necessary as Airplane! can simply be enjoyed as a big bucket of jokes hung on a hoary plot. For this reason, Airplane! is probably at its weakest when it wheels out the specific movie parodies. These tend to come in the form of flashbacks to fill in the backstory of the romance between romantic leads Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty, by way of extended riffs on Saturday Night Fever and From Here to Eternity. These reference points feel jarring in the often well-observed disaster movie context and break up the flow of the inherited plot rather awkwardly. Likewise, a prominent spoof of a now forgotten US coffee commercial (‘Jim never vomits at home’), probably one of the film’s biggest laughs in its original run, is all but meaningless to modern audiences.
Thankfully these small pockets of weakness are few and far between and Airplane! keeps the laughs coming throughout its 87 minutes. I laughed out loud repeatedly on that Friday night when I needed the laughs so badly. However, as I stated earlier in this review, I was not able to turn my brain off to the extent I had hoped because Airplane! moves so fast. If you let your attention drift for a second you’ll end up watching a baffling punchline with no set-up. Although my brain may not have been completely ready for the comedic pummelling it received that evening, this avalanche of detail is very much what makes Airplane! such a great and important film. It is absolutely stuffed to bursting with little verbal and visual flourishes which pass you by on first and even subsequent viewings. Diehard fans of the film can frequently be heard discussing how they ‘never noticed that’ even on their twentieth or thirtieth viewings.
Much is often made of how none of the jokes in Airplane! could be called clever but I’d contest this. Although ZAZ are very much aiming for dumb chuckles over anything else, the extremely accurate spoofing of certain movie conventions and the deft verbal backflips of the dialogue are frequently unexpected and exquisite. Early on in the film, pilot Peter Graves receives a telephone call from the Mayo clinic but this call is interrupted by an emergency call on line five from a Mr. Hamm. ‘Alright’, says Graves, ‘Give me Hamm on five, hold the Mayo’. The writers know they are overreaching for this joke, which is why the setup requires so much ludicrous detail, and yet it’s not telegraphed and the punchline hits the funny bone like a ton of bricks, especially when delivered so deadpan by Graves.
The Graves routine is a prime example of a ZAZ golden rule, that parody should be played completely straight. To ensure this rule is followed to the letter, the actors cast in Airplane! were largely known for serious roles. With this skilful casting technique, ZAZ uncovered a comedy legend in Leslie Nielsen, whose poker-faced turn as Doctor Rumack rejuvenated his career and saw him become primarily known as a comedy actor in a string of parts similar to his role in Airplane!, most famously as Lt. Frank Drebin in the ZAZ TV series Police Squad and its subsequent big screen spin-offs, The Naked Gun films. Although the shock of seeing Nielsen play the clown has been erased in retrospect for generations of viewers who know him only for comedy roles, there are other treasurable performances by largely straight actors, including the aforementioned Peter Graves as the sexually inappropriate Captain Oveur (his overtures to the pre-teen Joey are some of Airplane!’s most notorious lines), Lloyd Bridges as the every-addiction-under-the-sun tower supervisor Steve McCroskey and, best of all, Robert Stack as Captain Rex Kramer, the hot-shot brought in to help bring the doomed plane in safely. Although Stack had appeared in Steven Spielberg’s notoriously disastrous wartime comedy 1941 the previous year, he remained best known for playing Eliot Ness in The Untouchables TV series and for his melodramatic, Oscar nominated turn in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind. These dramatic roles provide the perfect contrast to Stack’s wonderful comedy performance here, which for me is probably the film’s highlight.
ZAZ took a greater risk with one piece of casting. While most of their work sticks rigidly to the rule of playing the comedy completely straight, the latter half of the film introduces the minor character of Air Traffic Controller Johnny, a flamboyant, wise-cracking oddball who generally hinders the tower staff’s attempts to bring the plane in but is rarely acknowledged by any of them, even when behaving like a complete lunatic. As played by the brilliant Stephen Stucker, Johnny seems to exist in another world, his prominent self-awareness and sense of the absurd contrasting beautifully and uniquely with the other characters’ complete humourlessness and single-minded determination. Stucker was apparently allowed to ad-lib, bringing a liberatingly loose atmosphere to the tower scenes which prevents Airplane! becoming stale before its climax. Stucker’s character and performance still divide fans of Airplane!, many of whom find him jarring and irritating. As a kid I remember being utterly baffled by Johnny but now I appreciate both his value to the film and his incongruous hilarity.
Airplane!, then, is not only still funny but funnier than I ever remembered and deserving of its reputation as a classic. While some would attribute its reputation over the other ZAZ films as being down to nothing more than better jokes, I disagree wholeheartedly. There are great jokes in all the early ZAZ films but none of them share quite the same focused parodic accuracy or invigorating sense of experimentation as this debut effort. ZAZ were trying out what would become their trademark style for the first time here and the unhoned, see-what-sticks approach is what makes Airplane! so lively and consistently interesting. Other elements, such as the comedic counterpoint of Johnny, worked a treat once but were audacious enough that they wisely never tried them again. Ultimately, Airplane! is a very funny film in which the endless jokes are the selling point but there’s also more going on than meets the eye. There’s just so much to meet the eye in it that it’s taken me thirty years to recognise that fact.