40 years later, 'Airplane!' remains an incredibly clever staple of spoof comedies
If you're not familiar with the names Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker (collectively known as ZAZ), you're probably familiar with at least some of their work. Between Jerry's work on 'Ghost' and 'Rat Race,' Jim's 'Hot Shots' films, and David's contributions to the 'Scary Movie' franchise, you've probably encountered something of theirs once before.
However, the trio is probably most notable for their stretch of incredibly influential parody films in the 1980s/early 90s; 'The Naked Gun' series (and its television counterpart, 'Police Squad'), 'Top Secret,' and their debut as a trio, 'Airplane!'
I had always been familiar with the film, but aside from a few scenes I remember watching when I was younger, I don't think I ever saw it all the way through. That in itself is weird for me to admit because as a massive Mel Brooks fan growing up, I figured any kind of classic film parody would have grabbed my attention fairly easily.
With all that being said, I decided to give 'Airplane!' its fair shot in honor of its recent 40th anniversary and could not believe how much of it holds up. Comedy, especially in films, can feel incredibly dated if the filmmakers aren't careful and even 'Airplane!' can succumb to a few jokes that either don't click or I just don't have the background to understand.
But ZAZ embraces that subjectivity, really attempting to give their screenplay legitimate humor, clever setups and twisted sight gags. Add to that a team of performers playing up the awkwardness entirely straight and the result is a buffet of laughs that makes its quality stands above the quantity.
Ted Stryker (played by Robert Hays) makes his way through Los Angeles International Airport to convince his girlfriend Elaine (played by Julie Hagerty) to give their relationship another shot. However, convinced that he can't get over his past as a wartime pilot, she refuses and returns to her job as a flight attendant, boarding a flight to Chicago which Ted buys a ticket to.
As Ted recalls his past to the unwilling passengers, several of them begin to get sick, including the pilot, Captain Clarence Oveur (played by Peter Graves), and his navigators, Roger (played by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Victor (played by Frank Ashmore).
With help from Dr. Rumack (played by Leslie Nielsen), Julie determines that the in-flight fish dinner is the cause of the illness. But now, Ted is the only hope remaining to land the plane of sick and panicked passengers, all while being aided from Chicago air traffic control, led by Steve McCrosky (played by Lloyd Bridges) and Ted's old military partner, Captain Rex Kramer (played by Robert Stack).
The story and characters in 'Airplane!' are remarkably secondary. Sure, Ted and Julie's relationship is one of the central story points (and to be fair both Robert Hays and Julie Haggerty have great chemistry), but the film always takes great care to never frame its narrative above its humor.
You're here for the jokes, you're going to get a lot of them, and there's only so much I can even attempt putting into words or analysis; you just kind of have to experience them for yourself. What I will say is that a lot of the jokes can boil down to two key elements: the cast and playing with expectations.
All of the cast have some excellent moments to play with, between Ted's "drinking problem," Elaine's hospital bit, pretty much every scene with Stephen Strucker's Johnny (whose approach can feel like an early precursor to meme humor) and of course Leslie Nielsen's legendary take as Dr. Rumack. Those performances - tied together by a "gripping story of lost love and high stakes" and Elmer Bernstein's elevated, but very catchy score - give the film that air of gravitas that ZAZ are more than welcome to poke fun of every chance they can.
On top of that, there's plenty of other laughs that just come so out of left field you just kind of have to sit there with bewilderment, like a soldier who thinks he's Ethel Merman or a "death of disco" reference in the climax. ZAZ also have a really clear grip on audience expectations, both then and now, and are more than willing to drop a twist on a phrase or double meaning that is both simple and effective.
("We have to get this woman to a hospital." "A hospital, what is it?" "It's a big building with patients in it, but that's not important.")
The only issue I can really elaborate on is one I already kind of foreshadowed; it's been 40 years since "Airplane!" and a lot of modern comedy has kind of shifted its focus. Now, I could argue that the quick pace, flood of jokes, and great pacing combine into a timeless enough formula, but that sense of dramatic and straight-faced comedy might be a bit of an acquired taste for some people. In addition, while the climax of the film is good and still has laughs to it, there's also this creeping feeling of the plot having to wrap itself up that took me out of it once in a while.
Regardless, I've said more than I really have to about "Airplane!" It's had 40 years of analysis behind it (by actual comedic scholars who know the art of comedy more than I ever will), it's considered a classic for a reason. For me, it essentially boils down to how much fun I had with the jokes.
Sure it's not the most detailed comedy ever made, but it knows what it is and wholeheartedly embraces all kinds of humor in the hopes of getting as many laughs as possible, and with writing as sharp as it is, I have to respect it for that kind of longevity and effort. If you've never seen it, give it a watch on Netflix and have yourself a good laugh; there's plenty to go around.
Overall, I give 'Airplane!' 9/10.
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