Airplane!: “Don’t Call Me Shirley!” Edition
February 17, 2006
Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker,
Starring: Robert Hays, Leslie Nielsen, Julie Hagerty, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Stephen Stucker, David Leisure, Lorna Patterson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Frank Ashmore, Barbara Billingsley,
Airplane! (1980) was originally conceived of as a remake/parody of Zero Hour! (1957), a black and white airplane disaster movie, while also skewering popular movies of the mid to late ‘70s (like Jaws, Saturday Night Fever and the Airport movies). The dynamite team of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker set out to offend everyone with this insane farce done in the style of Mad magazine’s “Scenes We’d Like to See” about an airplane that goes out of control in mid-flight, only to be saved by an ex-fighter pilot with a “drinking” problem by the name of Ted Striker (Hays), his ex-girlfriend stewardess, Elaine Dickinson (Hagerty), and a dim-witted, but well-meaning Dr. Rumack (Nielsen). Along the way, the film pays homage to and lampoons every disaster movie cliché in the book.
This movie perfected the rapid-fire machine gun style of comedy pioneered by comedians like the Marx brothers. The logic was that if one joke failed, you were too busy laughing at another joke that came along immediately afterwards to notice. This approach works beautifully because the number of jokes that work far outnumber the ones that don’t. The ZAZ team created a dense structure of gags that fell into two different categories: ones that were visual in nature (Ted orders a plane ticket for the smoking section and he’s handed a ticket that is literally smoking) or verbal (The doctor asks, “What was it we had for dinner tonight?” to which Elaine responds, “We had a choice, steak or fish.” He replies, “Yes, I remember. I had lasagna.”).
Airplane! features so many memorable characters: the two jive talking black men, the perverted pilot, Capt. Clarence Oveur (“Have you ever seen a grown man naked?”), Otto the auto-pilot and Johnny Hinshaw (Stucker), the flamboyantly gay traffic controller (“There’s a sale at Penny’s!”). It also has many classic bits, like Robert Stack beating the crap out of all the religious panhandlers asking for donations as he rushes through the airport or Ted’s on-going “drinking” problem. There are the little asides that are quite funny, like when a stewardess asks if Leslie Nielsen is a doctor and the film cuts to a shot of him wearing a stethoscope. In a flashback, Ted meets Elaine in a seedy bar that is so rough that two girl guides break out into a vicious fist fight that rages all over the place.
The gags work so well because everyone plays it straight as if they were in a serious movie – especially Nielsen who mastered his famous deadpan delivery in the short-lived Police Squad T.V. show (also created by the ZAZ team) and would go on to even greater fame in the Naked Gun movies. Airplane! is a fantastic send-up of B-movies complete with flashbacks, last minute heroics, inspirational speeches and star-crossed lovers – all made fun of mercilessly. The film also works well because of the casting against type. Most people forget that prior to Airplane!, Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Stack were all known for their serious roles in movies and so for them to play their characters as they would normally do but juxtaposed with this funny dialogue and silly visual gags was a big deal back then.
Airplane! is a landmark comedy in that it spawned countless imitators – some by the original ZAZ team – and many more by other filmmakers. However, this film is the best of the bunch, followed closely by other ZAZ gems like Top Secret! (1984) and the first Naked Gun (1988) film. This comic team eventually split up to do their own films but none have come close to the low-brow brilliance of their initial collaborations.
There is an audio commentary by producer Jon Davison and writer/directors Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker. They take us through the genesis of the project and joke around like the old friends that they are. They also point out numerous goofs and generally have fun revisiting their movie. Among the highlights is a funny story they recount about how they got a three director credit past the Director’s Guild of America. This is an amusing, informative track that fans of this movie will enjoy.
The “Long Haul Version” allows you to watch deleted scenes and new interviews with cast and crew as you’re watching the movie. In a bafflingly inept move, you cannot watch this stuff on its own. Some memorable cast members appear, including Hays, Graves and Nielsen, along with Davison and the ZAZ team. Everyone recounts anecdotes about key scenes and classic bits. Even the two “Jive Dudes” are interviewed! It’s great to hear everyone reminisce about what it was like to make the movie and how they feel about it now.
If you are looking for even more factoids, than you can enable the “Trivia Track” feature that runs steady supply of information on the screen that pertains to the movie and the cast and crew.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.