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The Seriously Funny ‘Airplane!’ Remains a Foundational Comedy

Forty years later, the movie’s revolutionary mix of density and dexterity is still a sight to behold

Daniel Zalkus

When was the last time that something in the background of a movie made you laugh out loud?

One of the byproducts of Judd Apatow’s reign as Hollywood’s millennial king of comedy is that his casually full-frontal directorial approach—i.e., holding the camera on a group of gifted improvisers and letting them riff—has birthed an entire cycle of flat, predictably rhythmed movies and prestige television shows in which it’s always easy to tell what’s supposed to be funny.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Early on in Airplane!, we’re shown the curbside passenger drop-off area of a major international airport, where a distinctly multiethnic group of characters are coming and going. The roving, almost documentary-style camerawork imparts a sense of pace and realism, as does the sound design, which blends ambient noise with the pulsing, dramatic score by Oscar winner Elmer Bernstein. It’s a perfectly convincing and conventional sequence until you start paying attention to the droning pronouncements on the airport’s public address system, where a pair of male and female voices are engaged in a war of words that gradually escalates from Orwellian procedural disagreement to full-on domestic psychodrama:

Male PA Announcer: The red zone has always been for loading.

Female PA Announcer: Don’t you tell me which zone is for loading and which zone is for unloading.

Male PA Announcer: Look, Betty, don’t start up with your white zone shit again. There’s just no stopping in a white zone.

Female PA Announcer: Oh really, Vernon? Why pretend, we both know perfectly well what this is about. You want me to have an abortion.

Male PA Announcer: It’s really the only sensible thing to do. If it’s done safely, therapeutically, there’s no danger involved.

One way to describe Airplane!, which celebrates its 40th anniversary on Thursday, is a movie made without zones. Instead of drawing distinctions between traditional binaries like serious and funny—or, more crucially, smart and stupid—the filmmakers just unload everything at once and trust the viewer to sort it out. “I want every light you can get poured onto that field,” snarls one character in a moment of crisis. Cut to a bunch of desk lamps being dumped onto an empty patch of grass.

By now, the line “Surely you can’t be serious,” is widely recognized as Airplane!’s all-purpose mantra: a self-reflexive comment on the film’s faux intensity, and a set-up for somebody to punningly reply, “Don’t call me Shirley.” On one level, Airplane! is a movie that tries to lower the bar for cinematic dumbness; on another, it’s an ambitiously multifaceted work, one that stages a collision between standard-issue Hollywood tropes and a poker-faced yet utterly unhinged absurdism. Gradually, the absurdity overtakes the normalcy, like a lion stalking and mauling a helpless gazelle. The film’s sense of humor is distinctly predatory, sizing up every possible element in the frame—the actors, the sets, the music, even the subtitles—and treating their basic integrity as either momentarily or wholly expendable in the service of a joke. You could call the result illogic or moronic—or you could call it surrealist. The joy is that Airplane! doesn’t ask you to choose.

By 1980, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker—the filmmaking collective subsequently and affectionately known as “ZAZ”—had staked out their patch of satirical territory with the script for 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, an anthology of short sketches spoofing a variety of contemporary movie genres, from kung-fu and spaghetti Westerns to blaxpolitation and softcore porn. Decades before Mystery Science Theater would codify and commoditize the mockery of bad movies into an efficiently postmodern format—putting the peanut gallery onscreen, where their one-liners could compete with the dialogue in real time—ZAZ was attempting something similar: a Mad Magazine parody in three dimensions. The thing was that they weren’t doing it all that well. Released in theaters one year after the prime-time debut of Saturday Night Live, The Kentucky Fried Movie played like an attempt to mimic SNL’s anarchic style minus the energy and edge imbued by live television (or onstage improvisation, where the ZAZ trio had their roots). Directed by a pre-fame John Landis, The Kentucky Fried Movie was clever but hollow, reflecting its writers’ knowing ambivalence toward popular culture without necessarily scoring any valuable satirical points. By suggesting that movies had become as mediocre and disposable as fast food while completely limiting its frame of reference to the cinema of the period, it became collateral damage in its own cynical argument.

Among its other shortcomings, The Kentucky Fried Movie lacked discipline, the elusive and paradoxical quality that puts Airplane! over the top. Even Mel Brooks, who parlayed an epic fart scene into box office gold with Blazing Saddles, was a purveyor of vaudevillian precision, adapting and updating archaic routines that had long stood the test of time. Brooks may have cultivated absurdity, but in a calculated way; like Woody Allen, he was a wit whose onscreen appearance was central to his work’s particular gestalt. The same went for Richard Pryor, or Steve Martin, or Cheech and Chong, or Lily Tomlin, or most of the late-’70s comedy icons tooling around Hollywood in custom-made star vehicles; their movies were funny in the same way their stars already were.

What the ZAZ team had in mind for their directorial debut was radically different, if still deeply indebted on some level to Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, a feature-length parody that got mileage out of faithfulness and accuracy. Recognizing that the funniest sketch in The Kentucky Fried Movie was “That’s Armageddon,” a ruthless spoof of star-studded action films like The Towering Inferno that sold audiences on the spectacle of seeing famous actors die in gory ways, the group resolved to mock the Oscar-winning 1970 ensemble drama Airport, fusing its moldy disaster-movie tropes with the plot of a little-seen ’50s B movie called Zero Hour, in which a jittery ex-pilot is forced by circumstance to land a damaged plane in a lightning storm. In Airplane!, that figure is Ted Striker (Robert Hays), whose shame over a botched raid has kept him grounded—the exact same backstory as in Zero Hour.

The set-up was to play the desperately earnest situation for comedy; the twist was to cast said comedy entirely without comedians. “Nobody understood the idea of serious actors playing it straight,” the Zuckers told The Guardian. “But for us, that was everything.” Their decision is evidence of Airplane!’s discipline.

That one of the all-time-great comedies contains a minimum of overtly comic performances is a bit of a contradiction, but ZAZ knew what they were doing. It’s not that the actors in Airplane! aren’t funny; it’s that their funniness, which verges at times on transcendence, is predicated on their embodying the punch line to some larger, conceptual joke. While Hays and Julie Hagerty were cast for their youth and attractiveness to suit the script’s (ludicrous) central love story, most of the cast were holdovers from stolid 1950s television dramas—not only the prematurely grizzled Lloyd Bridges, but also Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen (who also had disaster-movie cred after playing the captain in The Poseidon Adventure).

This group’s stoic, old-fashioned acting styles—all stiff upper lips and steely-eyed glares—made them relics of a more earnest era. What ZAZ managed was to put these creased, shirt-sleeved emblems of masculinity in roles that emphasized their collective anachronism. The two-fisted heroes who had thrived in a moment of top-down, father-knows-best conservatism were now just grist for the satirical mill, divested of their authority and at the mercy of more ’70s-inflected reference points: How to reconcile the sight of Graves—the original star of Mission: Impossible—sitting side by side in the cockpit, inexplicably, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

Crucially, the old pros were smart enough to play the film’s white-knuckle suspense plot and the script’s deliberately stilted dialogue straight. Nielsen, who would go on to become ZAZ’s greatest in-house star as Frank Drebin in Police Squad! and The Naked Gun, was the most obviously adept, serving as a straight man to the lunacy around him and wielding his baritone voice like a shiv (“Ah yes, I had the lasagna,” he declares after being asked whether he had ordered chicken or fish for his in-flight meal). But for a microcosm of the cast’s samurai-like restraint, the scene where Stack’s hard-boiled Air Force Captain Rex Kramer punctuates a point by removing one pair of sunglasses only to reveal an auxiliary pair underneath can’t be beat. It’s an entire comic philosophy distilled into a single, split-second gesture.

The same idea of a movement containing multitudes applies to Hays’s timeless evocation of Ted Striker’s “drinking problem,” splashing liquid against his face instead of in his mouth. The laughter provoked by this literalization of trauma is the best kind: helpless, involuntary, and above all tasteless, taste being the closest thing that the ZAZ contingent has to any sort of taboo. For a PG-rated studio movie, Airplane! is dirty verging on filthy, one-upping Airport’s putative liberal humanism—the way that its sprawling cast of characters are all concealing some private problem as they file on to a doomed airliner—by saddling its protagonists (and supporting players) with a litany of psychoses, fetishes, and dysfunctions, all of which are treated with pitiless, caricatured cruelty. Child molestation, gay panic, and suicide are recurring motifs; racial difference is emphasized; a bit where a woman having a panic attack is subject to a series of increasingly violent “calming” techniques by the other passengers probably wouldn’t pass muster on SNL today.

It’s not enough to say that Airplane! is a “product of its time,” because in its desire to elicit a very modest, essentially adolescent sort of offense, it’s timeless. Last year, in his Decider series “The Probematics,” Glenn Kenny examined how ZAZ’s deliberate political incorrectness is a byproduct of the same pop-surrealist mandate that provides Airplane!’s reason for being: a bug that’s also a gesture. Referring to the white zone/red zone exchange, Kenny writes that “if you’re a person who believes one ought not to make light of abortion under any circusmstances [the scene] is going to rub you the wrong way … but what makes it funny, if you do find it funny, is the incongruity of the topic coming up in this context.” It’s impossible to say definitively that any comedy is funny, but Airplane!’s canonization in both cult and institutional precincts (the AFI chose it as the 10th greatest comedy ever made, and it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry) suggests that the case is tougher for the persecution than for the defense.

And its influence is considerable, not only in the form of the Scary Movies made in its image (and, later, farmed out to the Zuckers) but also the entire cycle of films and television stories emulating its mix of density and dexterity; obvious follow-ups like UHF or Loaded Weapon One, but also auteur pieces like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (a millennial variation on disaster-movie formulas) or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, whose controlled bursts of wackiness were intended as homages to ZAZ. The relentless sight gags and carnivalesque sensibility of The Simpsons probably wouldn’t have been possible without Airplane!’s model, and that goes double for Family Guy. Few American comedies cast a longer shadow, and the irony of a movie that’s stitched together almost entirely out of other movies holding up as something singular and even foundational is precisely the sort of paradox you want in a work of art. And yes, surely, I’m being serious.