Roger Roger, Victor Vector


When it comes to any list of the greatest comedies of the 1980s, for certain near the top of the list would stand Airplane!. It might not be considered the greatest by some, but it certainly would sit near the top for just about everyone. It's the film that launched the careers of writer / director team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, aka Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (or ZAZ for short). It created a parody film that manages to stand abreast of the best parodies to come out, such as the works of Mel BrooksConsidered one of the true legends of comedy, Brooks is a writer and director who created many of the most famous, and most hilarious, parody comedies everyone constantly quotes.. It was, in short, a very funny film.


The story of how the film got made is an interesting one. The three guys of ZAZ were watching the 1957 movie Zero Hour! (itself a remake of a Canadian television drama, Flight into Danger) and thought the film was so silly, so melodramatic, that it was practically a parody of itself. What the guys did was take that film -- its general story, its characters, most of the script -- and reworked it to be the comedy is was really meant to be. Along with heightening the silliness of the main story, they threw in a ton of off-the-wall jokes, silly asides, deadpan humor, and even more parody references to other films (Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and the many Airport films). The result was a parody of whole disaster movie genre that felt like it came in a brand new film (even if it very much did not).

There's brilliance in the basic concept of Airplane!. What the ZAZ guys realized was just how dumb and overblown the whole disaster movie genre had become. The disaster genre had been around for a long time, ever since the early 1900s with films like Fire! and Atlantis. It reached is absolute peak, though, in the 1970s, not only with the four official Airport ensemble films, but also the likes of The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and more. Hell, Roger Corman, ever the sly quick-buck director, put out his own disaster film with Avalanche. The whole genre had become well-worn and well trod by the time 1980's Airplane! came out, a film that knew the whole genre needed to get taken down a peg.

To do this, Airplane! had to be a spot on parody of the genre. The starts with the script for Zero Hero!, with the guys stealing so much of the story from that film that the guys licensed the rights to the movie from Warner Bros. and Paramount (just to stay on the right side of copyright law, despite it being a parody film). Ironically, the film eventually ended up at Paramount anyway (after the boys sold their first film, the sketch comedy ensemble production Kentucky Fried Movie). With that story as the framework, the guys set about hanging jokes everywhere they could on it, while still maintaining that overblown, heightened reality set by the original film.

Airplane! works on many levels, but the key ingredient is that, for all it's joking around, it's deadpan asides and cornball humor, it plays the plot straight. It's still a disaster film and it goes through all the main beats of its three act structure. If you look at some of the parodies that came out much later, such as the (horrible, unwatchable) films from Friedberg and Seltzer in the late 2000s, you'll find that those movies don't really have much story to work off it. They're little more than pop-culture references in sketch form, strung along to movie length. They don't provide the basic thing all films really need: a story.

ZAZ knew, when they were making Airplane!, that they needed the story. They said as much, noting they didn't know enough about the basics of film to be able to completely ditch Zero Hour! and its structure. Intentionally or not, that was the right choice because Airplane! works so much better with a real plot that lets its characters actually go through their arcs. Yes, the story does feel incidental at times to all the jokes going on throughout the film, but without the story you'd just have a bunch of loose jokes with no direction. A story to string things on helps the film maintain momentum and direction. Parody is better when it works within the genre and not against it.

Of course, what also helps is that the film is full of jokes. Every scene of the film does act like a small sketch, a focus on a couple of characters so the film can setup a punchline. Whether it's a fight between leads Stryker (Robert Hays) and Elaine (Julie Hagerty), that leads to Stryker turning to the camera after and breaking the fourth wall, or a woman freaking out on the plane so that we can get a cut-away to all the people wanting to slap her around (in context it's very funny), to the many oft-repeated jokes of Leslie Nielsen, the film knows how to layer in the jokes and use every one of its scenes, every aside, to setup a strong punchline.

Of course, the actor that steals the show is Nielsen. The actor had a long and prolific career before featuring in Airplane!, but he'd never shown off comedy chops before this film. He was the dramatic heavy, the action tough guy. The brilliance of his performance, which ZAZ clearly saw, was that by taking this dramatic actor and having him deadpan his way through the hoariest jokes, it made every delivery funnier. Nielsen never mugs for the camera, never lets his character drop, always keeping up his dramatic actor performance in the face of all the silliness. That's why it works, and that's why Nielsen went on from here to become of the biggest comedic stars of the next couple of decades. Hell, ZAZ immediately set to work creating a project just for him, the short-lived but much beloved Police Squad!

There is no denying that the film is incredibly silly. It is, in fact, pretty vaudevillian in places. There's a grand, "let's put on a show," vibe to the whole production, with no joke to dumb, no line too silly to be delivered. Not all the jokes land, as a matter of fact, but the ZAZ team throws everything against the wall they can just to see what stuck. Most of it does, and even the jokes that don't land at least make you groan in a friendly kind of way. This is an endearingly juvenile film, and that absolutely works in its favor.

What's most surprising, though, is just how well the film works all these decades later, divorced from the genre it was parodying. The Airport films don't really come up in film discussion much anymore (except when referencing Airplane!), and even the disaster genre as a whole has seen enough ebbs and flows for the whole lot of those movies to feel even hoarier and more over-done than Airplane! itself. This film rides above, able to carry on because it just a very fun, very silly movie. You don't need to know the disaster movies of the era to enjoy what this film does. Hell, if it isn't pointed out that this film is a parody of other, specific disaster films, you might not even realize it's a direct parody at all; you could just accept it as a generally funny comedy, and that works as well.

And, let's give the film a fair bit of credit: it basically killed the disaster movie genre. While a few films trickled out during the 1980s (Raise the Titanic, Virus, among others), their numbers were nowhere near as prolific as in the 1970s. Airplane! had shown them all up, proving it was dumb to go on doing the same old stories when this film was there, thumbing its nose at the lot of them. How do you take the genre seriously when you have Airplane! sitting there, with its deadpan doctor, it's "I am series, and don't call me Shirley," and it's elaborate Auto-pilot blowjob joke. You just can't.

ZAZ knew this. They knew they were better off going in another direction for anything they did after. They'd go on to make not only Police Squad! but also Top Secret! soon after, both of which are great comedy guilt pleasures. Paramount, meanwhile, tried to continue their franchise with Airplane II: The Sequel, but without ZAZ (who wanted nothing to do with the film). Without the comedic geniuses at the center of ti all, the sequel barely made back its budget and quickly faded away, not nearly as well loved as the first film.

That's the smart legacy of this silly, dumb film: it knew what it wanted to be and it does such a good job of it that it stands the test of time. Airplane! works now as well as it did back in 1980 because it's just a good, funny parody. It's hard to go wrong with solid jokes told well and at a constant, fast pace.