While trying to save his troubled relationship with his girlfriend, a traumatized fighter pilot must land a passenger airplane when the flight staff is stricken with food poisoning.
The light from a full moon glows over an ocean of clouds in the night sky. Suddenly, John Williams’ haunting theme from “Jaws” is played as a lone tail wing slices through the atmosphere like a predatory dorsal fin cutting through waves in the water. As the music’s pace quickens, so does the speed of the tail wing until the bulk of the meandering airplane bursts out of the clouds into the audience.
And from there, the film manhandles your funny bone until the end credits have rolled and the final shot has played. Premiere Magazine named “Airplane!” one of the “50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time” in 2006. It ranked tenth in the American Film Institute’s “100 Funniest American Films”. In addition to collectively co-writing the script, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker also shared the director’s chair when making this movie. As a result, they each received an award from the Writer’s Guild of America for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. And if that isn’t enough, it ruined the name of Shirley for countless generations.
But all of those awards and categorical ratings are meaningless to anyone who has actually seen the film. For the past thirty years, fans of “Airplane!” can be overheard quoting the movie’s ridiculous dialogue and one-liners in schools, workplaces, airports, and playgrounds around the world. And the incredible thing is that the jokes never seem to get old.
In Germany, the movie’s title translates to “The Incredible Trip in a Crazy Airplane.” In Poland, it is known as “Is the Pilot Flying With Us?” In Brazil, the title translates as “Tighten Your Seat Belts . . . The Pilot Is Gone!”
While some critics consider the movie’s sense of humor as juvenile and sophomoric, it must be acknowledged that this anarchistic parody of late-twentieth century disaster movies achieved something amazing for a screwball comedy: universal laughs that roared across the entire globe. It does not matter how old you are, where you were born, or the social class of your upbringing. This is a movie that remembers one key aspect that so many intelligent and seemingly superior comedic screenplays failed to deliver: The most important thing in the world is to make the people laugh.
Though it takes square aim at the aforementioned disaster flicks of the 1970’s, there are several cinematic genres being mocked in this parody. In addition to “Jaws”, Team Abrahams and the Zucker brothers (a.k.a. The Kentucky Fried Theater) ridicule specific films such as “Saturday Night Fever”, “From Here to Eternity”, and “Knute Rockne, All American”. But the two that are covered the most extensively are meant-to-be-taken-serious airplane disaster movies: “Airport 1975” and a low-budget film from 1957 called “Zero Hour!”
“Airport 1975” involves many features that are reconstructed with hilarious effect in “Airplane!” For starters, “Airport” starred Karen Black as a stewardess who is forced to commandeer an injured Boeing 747 until the Air Force can send a replacement pilot. Among the members of the panicked passengers are a guitar-playing nun (played by Helen Reddy) and a hospital bound, critically ill young girl (played by former demon child Linda Blair). Anyone who has seen “Airplane!” is familiar with the ensuing parody of this set-up, but they may not know that the actress portraying the nun is Maureen McGovern, who performed “We May Never Love Like This Again” in “The Towering Inferno”.
Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers drafted the script for “Airplane!” when they were planning a sequel to their uproarious “Kentucky Fried Movie”, which is a simple collection of parodies spoofing 1970’s commercials and television. While researching material for their sequel, the team accidentally recorded a late-night broadcast of “Zero Hour!” and planned to satirize the film as a movie-within-a-movie for their upcoming project. It was not long before they scrapped the commercials and concentrated solely on the humor that would become “Airplane!”
The plot of “Zero Hour!” follows the same pattern as “Airplane!” Ted Striker is a former fighter pilot terrified of flying because of his war record. He also has a drinking problem. Splash! To make matters worse, his stewardess girlfriend Elaine is leaving him on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. In order to regain her love, Ted faces his fear and boards the same plane. All of his problems regarding his past and his present deteriorating relationship become minor details when the entire flight staff is stricken with food poisoning.
One of the most fascinating differences between these two movies is that “Zero Hour!” is actually trying to be serious. No joke, there actually is the following line in the movie: “Our survival hinges on one thing – finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner.” For those who may not remember, Leslie Nielsen, in his first-ever comedic role as Dr. Rumack, delivers the same line verbatim with stone-faced irony.
One of the aspects that make this vehicle work so well as a comedy is the casting decision to hire no-nonsense actors who would have probably felt more comfortable in the same movies “Airplane!” ridicules. Lloyd Bridges parodies his own airport manager Jim Conrad from the short-lived show “San Francisco International Airport”. Robert Stack was encouraged to channel his depiction of Eliot Ness from “The Untouchables” while portraying the hard-nosed military commander Rex Kramer. And Peter Graves, who was actually offended when he initially read the script, had a similar role in the made-for-T.V. “SST: Death Flight”. The deadpan expressions on each of these actors’ faces are priceless elements of comic gold that typical comedians would have likely fumbled.
A surprising casting call was the decision to place basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabber in the co-pilot’s chair. This was clearly another reference to “Zero Hour!”, which featured Pro-Football Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch as Captain Bill Wilson. However, Abdul-Jabber was not the filmmakers’ first choice. Instead, they wanted Pete Rose to play the part of co-pilot Roger Murdock, but had to reconsider because of the ongoing baseball season.
Even though most of the humor in this movie relies on childish charm and slapstick buffoonery, there are some jokes that exist on purely intelligent standards. One is the fact that a propeller engine is heard throughout the entire soundtrack. But what kind of plane is it? It is a jet airliner. Because Paramount Pictures refused to film a propeller plane for their movie, the filmmakers included the propeller sound to create the longest on-going gag in the movie.
Much more subtle is the identity of Ted Striker’s taxi occupant. Before he rushes on board the airplane, Striker crashes a taxicab onto a curb at the airport in L.A. He tells the passenger he will be right back and activates the fare. Another long-running gag is the fact that the passenger remains in the cab as Striker pilots the plane on its harrowing journey. The man playing the passenger is Howard Jarvis, an American lobbyist and anti-tax activist responsible for passing California’s Proposition 13 in 1978. This was an inside joke primarily for Californians who understood that Jarvis was a champion of fiscal responsibility. After the credits finish rolling, there is a final cut of Jarvis sitting in the cab with the fare reaching $113. He looks at his watch and says, “Well, I’ll give him another twenty minutes, but that’s it!”