Reeling in the Classics: “Airplane!” takes off as the leading parody movie


Photo credit/ Jennifer Flynn

Staff Writer Brianna Kohut discusses if the movie “Airplane!” can be made today.

After last month’s very serious and violent movie, I thought we might shift gears and talk about a silly comedy this month. Comedy is a very hard genre to review and analyze, as any given joke could have any number of meanings or people being offended by the jokes they see. Luckily, this movie has enough jokes for everybody, specifically, about 2.6 jokes a minute throughout its 86 minute runtime.

“Airplane!” was the directorial debut of David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, also known as the comedy team ZAZ. Following the mild success of their low-budget and dirty “Kentucky Fried Movie”, the trio resurrected an old script they wrote that parodied a cheesy movie “Zero Hour”. Now directing, the trio shopped the story around and the script eventually was picked up by Paramount. Though saying ‘no’ to their desire to film in black and white and with propeller planes in order to accurately make fun of “Zero Hour”, they did say yes to both lifting lines outright from the original and the choice to cast serious actors in the main roles.

Both “Airplane!” and “Zero Hour” follow a war pilot named Ted Stryker (Robert Hayes) who must land a plane safely after its entire crew is incapacitated by poisoned food while simultaneously trying to win back the heart of sweetheart Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), who communicates with air traffic control. But that’s where the similarities end.

Since “Airplane!” is a comedy, we are quickly met with many jokes about many different subject matters. The majority are puns, sight gags, and people taking things far too literally. But, as mentioned before, the sight of dramatic actors like Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and-in the first of many comedic roles-Leslie Nielson, delivering these lines and jokes with their usual gravitas is worth a good chuckle alone. In the end, the plane is safely landed, but the average viewer is probably too busy crying with laughter to care.

I say “average” because it’s difficult to talk about just how wide of a scope this film has reached. Made on a budget of $3.5 million, it made back $171 million and was one of the highest earning movies of 1980. Though it only manages a 7.7 out of 10 on IMDB, it has a far greater 97% according to critics on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s also pretty easy to say that it overshadowed the disaster movie genre which was hugely popular in the 1970s due to how well it was spoofed, for about 17 years, until “Titanic” and its smash success revived it in 1997.

The comedic influence of this movie is enormous. If you have ever watched or laughed at “The Naked Gun”, which features the Zucker Brothers as directors, just about anything by Jim Abrahams, or any project featuring Seth MacFarlane, you are watching work influenced by “Airplane!” and its rapid-fire and somewhat dirty brand of comedy. Not to mention that its jokes are endlessly quotable and still referenced by the boatloads today.

But could it be made today? As the years go on and more topics that were fodder for one-off jokes become hotly debated issues, the answer seems to be “absolutely not”.

Even the idea of a disaster movie set on board an airplane, let alone a parody of them, would be a hard-sell in a post-9/11 world, for obvious reasons. But some of the individual jokes would definitely cause some controversy and/or dissonance if it was released today. A background gag occurring throughout the opening credits involves the PA announcers at the airport eventually getting into an argument about abortion, culminating in the woman shooting the man and continuing the announcements as scheduled by herself. In a spectacular set piece, an airplane crashes through the glass window of a terminal after being misdirected by some workers on the runway, which also suffers from the same post-9/11 effect as the majority of the movie.

Things get even dicier once we’re up in the air. Before getting knocked out by the poisoned food, Peter Graves’ character says something with very sexual undertones to the little boy, Joey (Ross Harris). Two black characters talk entirely in “jive”, with subtitles whenever they speak. Passengers that Ted ends up talking to about his past end up killing themselves before or as he is finishing speaking from how boring they seemingly are. Lastly, a stewardess repeatedly knocks out the IV of a deathly sick passenger while singing with a guitar to cheer everybody up.

But in an age of shows and movies like “Family Guy” and “Scary Movie”, which as previously mentioned have all utilized this movie’s humor, or flat out recreated jokes, it’s hard to tell if it truly could not be made today. I believe that it could, but it would not be nearly as good or funny as the version we got. The setting of the movie, and therefore the whole plot, would have to change, as well as some of the dicier jokes mentioned above. An idea of a 2022 version of “Airplane!” already exists but it was not reviewed favorably at all. So despite its occasional dirtiness and the audacity of some of its jokes, perhaps it’s best if we stick with the version that we got in 1980. There’s a difference between cutting, witty parody and edgy, shallow spoofs, after all.

In my opinion, this movie holds up pretty well despite all of the things I just mentioned. It’s hard to not roll your eyes going in, expecting something cut and paste and not well done, but it’s exceedingly well acted and written. The literal-minded and pun driven humor is juxtaposed hilariously with how no one seems to be aware that they’re in a comedy, delivering their lines with the gravity of any serious drama. The movie is just completely ridiculous the whole way through, never taking itself seriously and basking in the opportunity to be silly for 86 minutes.

It’s a prime example of how parody and long-form comedy should be done, and it definitely gets a recommendation from me. Just be aware of your own sensibilities before going in.

Contact the Writer: [email protected]