Monday, October 20, 2014

1980 Week: Airplane!



          Not too long ago, I attended a speaking engagement by former Seinfeld writer-producer Peter Mehlman, during which Mehlman spent a few moments discussing Airplane!, the iconic disaster-movie spoof created by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. Mehlman recalled buying a ticket for Airplane! during its original release and watching the movie from his usual cynical remove—until the scene when Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) stops at an airport newsstand. Noticing a sly throwaway sight gag—the newsstand’s adult-magazine section is labeled “whacking material”—Mehlman turned to a fellow moviegoer and said, “I’ve really gotta start paying attention here.”
         And that, in a nutshell, is the genius of Airplane! Some of the jokes are inspired, some are merely okay, and some are silly, but there are so damn many jokes that watching Airplane! is like huffing pure comedy. “Don’t call me Shirley.” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.” “Give me Hamm on five, hold the Mayo.” “Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?” “Oh, stewardess, I speak jive.” And, of course, “The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing—finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.” (Devoted Airplane! fans will recognize that last line as a straight lift from 1957’s Zero Hour!, the vintage potboiler that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker used as the template for Airplane!)
          Densely packed into 88 minutes of nostop insanity, Airplane! not only slaughters the disaster-movie genre but takes the mile-a-minute comedy style perfected by Mel Brooks in the ’70s to an entirely new level. Devoting the least possible screen time to an actual story, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker treat every single line of dialogue as either a set-up or a punchline. They also discard logic and reason, as well as most laws of aeronautics and physics, to reach for jokes wherever jokes can be found. Death, drugs, gender, race, sex—it’s all fair game. And it’s all in good fun, because even though countless Airplane! gags are in bad taste, there’s not a mean-spirited millisecond to be found. The most unique element of Airplane! is the brilliant casting of supporting roles. Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker rightly reasoned that hiring dramatic actors to play their scenes with deadly seriousness would maximize the absurdity of the situations. Thus, square-jawed Lloyd Bridges, Graves, Leslie Nielsen, and Robert Stack revived their careers by learning how to spoof their own images. (Nielsen ran the farthest with this opportunity, headlining the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker Naked Gun franchise throughout the ’80s.)
          Not everything in Airplane! has aged well, with the disco gags and the bit about the Peace Corps volunteers teaching basketball to Africans feeling especially creaky, but the best stuff in Airplane! still kills. Stack pummeling solicitors while racing through an airport. Passengers lining up, with various weapons, to quiet a hysterical woman. Otto the Autopilot getting the best manual inflation in screen history. A preteen passenger shooting down an age-appropriate suitor by saying she takes her coffee “black, like my men.” The list goes on. Even though Airplane! is about a plane in danger of crashing, the movie reaches cruising altitude immediately and then keeps climbing all the way to the goofy finale. Hell, even the credits are funny: Playing on the familiar “Best Boy” credit, Airplane! acknowledges “Worst Boy: Adolf Hitler.”

Airplane!: RIGHT ON

4 comments:

Alan Beauvais said...

"Okay, boys. Let's get some pictures!"

Xteve said...

We have clearance, Clarence. What's the vector, Victor?

Gerald Martin said...

Every time I watch this on cable a few more jokes have been edited out.

Griffin Calhoun said...

Are you serious?