When it first crash-landed in cinemas 40 years ago, the irreverent “Airplane!” wowed critics and audiences with its fast-and-loose brand of humor. It remains one of the most consistently uproarious laughfests ever filmed, and became an instant comedy classic when it hit screens in 1980. The 40th anniversary Blu-ray reissue arrives Tuesday.
The 'so wrong but so right' aspect of the film stems from its willingness to go out on a wing to broach taboo topics in a light-hearted vein.
In writing and directing “Airplane!,” the creative triumvirate of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker (later known as ZAZ) combined vaudevillian humor, oddball non sequiturs, dirty jokes and visual gags into a unique flurry of funny. One can rewatch the film and uncover new visual and verbal jokes because they packed in so many punchlines.
This was a topsy-turvy world where the roughest bar brawlers are feisty Girl Scouts, a military commander fights his way through religious recruiters at LAX, and a Boeing 747 sign features “no smoking” and “no screwing” light displays. And then there was the witty word play: "Surely you can't be serious?" “I am serious — and don’t call me Shirley.” And yes, coming at the beginning of the ’80s, it delved into gratuitous nudity and cursing, though it stopped short of totally overplaying its hand.
In his original three-star review of “Airplane!,” Roger Ebert found that the film “compensates for its lack of original comic invention by its utter willingness to steal, beg, borrow and rewrite from anywhere.” But the point is that it was original in how it created a unique mix of such elements with rapid-fire glee. It's now no secret that the ZAZ team lifted the basic plot and entire exchanges from “Zero Hour!,” the 1957 thriller they were satirizing (the ZAZ team bought the remake rights for “Zero Hour!” to be safe) and cribbed ideas from “Airport 1975.”
But however derivative any one frame of film footage was, ZAZ revolutionized movies by crafting a comedy that made you laugh because some aspects felt inappropriate, others broached edgy topics, and others still seemed illogical but somehow worked. The jokes piled up quickly and audiences had to ride the joke flow, expecting the unexpected.
Forty years later, “Airplane!” feels so wrong for its politically incorrect jokes and raunchy theatrics, but that’s actually what makes it so right: It reminds us of the importance of pushing boundaries at the same time that it gives us a playbook for doing so in a good-natured rather than vicious or belittling way.
The “Airplane!” plot, mainly a device to string various gags together, revolves around an emotionally scarred combat pilot, Ted Striker, who finds himself the unwilling pilot of a passenger jet with the flight attendant who just dumped him, Elaine Dickinson, after the crew and half the passengers fall victim to food poisoning. A concerned doctor on board addresses the medical distress and does some damage control while a ground team both helps and distracts them as they attempt to land at the nearest airport. The quips and retorts gradually grow more outrageous over the course of the story.
The ZAZ team cast newcomers Robert Hays and Julie Haggerty in the leads and bucked comedy convention by casting veteran dramatic actors — Leslie Nielsen (who plays the doctor), Peter Graves, Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges — to lampoon the types of serious roles they were known for by acting like they were still in a dramatic picture.
The “so wrong but so right” aspect of the film stems from its willingness to go out on a wing to broach taboo topics in a light-hearted vein. A key example: a male and a female airport announcer who are dating give directions to visitors that lead to their arguing over whether she should get an abortion, still a touchy subject for many only a few years after Roe v. Wade. Similarly, the two African American men speaking jive might seem outdated, but the scene was a send-up to the pop culture around that time, inspired as it was by 1971’s “Shaft,” and the actors themselves researched jive spoken by black jazz musicians circa the 1940s.
In these and other line-crossing scenes, including one that would never be filmed today because of its domestic violence connotations, there’s no hint of malice on the part of the filmmakers. They were subverting our expectations of traditional movie tropes, not offering intense social commentary on real-life situations.
Yet the production wasn’t a complete free-for-all. In one case, the ZAZ team excised a joke about Air Poland (its pilots were to be represented by blind singers Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Jose Feliciano) after the Anti-Defamation League raised concerns that Polish-American children suffered from self-esteem issues because of rampant ethnic jokes. The directors concurred and cut it out, and in retrospect they were happy they did so, noting later that it would have been “mean-spirited.”
Indeed, “Airplane!” still works so well because the openly Jewish trio shamelessly spoofs its wide range of targets, including Jews, without cruelty. When a passenger asks Elaine for some “light” reading material, she hands out a leaflet of famous Jewish sports legends. By the end, no character is left unscathed, even the ones we’re rooting for. But the movie doesn’t revel in its satire either. Had the ZAZ team chosen to focus on certain people or groups more than others, an argument could be made that it had an agenda.
Beyond “Airplane!,” ZAZ collectively made one TV show (the short-lived but brilliant “Police Squad!” that later begat the hit “Naked Gun” movies) and two more hilarious films, “Top Secret!” and “Ruthless People.” They captured lightning in a bottle for a time, then each went on to make their own successful films, including “Hot Shots!,” later “Scary Movie” sequels and “Ghost.”
In our current cultural climate, it would be easy to put “Airplane!” on a no-fly list of offensive films for its depiction of women, minorities and so much more. But that would be a mistake, not only because it would lessen our cultural heritage, but also because it demonstrates the value of pushing boundaries in the right way.
The ZAZ team created what can now be seen as a distinction between political incorrectness and the mean-spiritedness they eschewed. They embraced only the former, which is why “Airplane!” might feel a bit dated at four decades old, but remains a vital American comedy.