Study Guide

Airplane!

Airplane! Introduction


Release Year: 1980

Genre: Comedy

Directors: Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker

Writers: Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker

Stars: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen


Airplane! is drama. Airplane! is suspense. Airplane! is action. Airplane! is romance.

Airplane! is… total and complete lunacy.

In the film, the crew of Flight 209, incapacitated by food poisoning, turns to a war veteran with PTSD to land the plane.

"Surely you can't be serious," You're probably saying to yourself right now but we are serious.

And don't call us Shirley.

Welcome to the wild and wacky world of Airplane!, one of the greatest comedy spoofs of all time. Created by comedic Triforce Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker—henceforth referred to as the acronym ZAZ—Airplane! is a high flying adventure bursting at the seams with a truly singular brand of absurdist humor. Released in 1980, to say that it still holds its own today would be an understatement.

The rewatch value on this sucker is off the charts.

Airplane! borrows much of its plot from an otherwise forgotten 1957 B movie, Zero Hour!, while drawing stylistically from the disaster film genre which had reached its peak commercial appeal (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno) in the mid-1970s. ZAZ recognized the potential for parody in the bombastic hyper-seriousness of these disaster flicks, most notably in the unavoidably popular Airport, which by the end of the decade had devolved into a slew of increasingly ridiculous sequels and spinoffs. Legendary film guy Roger Ebert described the movie as a "satirical anthology of classic movie clichés" (source). Plus, most of the cast (Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen) was made up of Hollywood veterans known for doing movies of this sort…straight, without the jokes.

But what's so remarkable about Airplane! is that it transcends the realm of mere parody, becoming something much more impressive: a brilliant comedy that works on its own, removed from its source material.

How exactly does it accomplish this feat? What makes the jokes stick? Why is Airplane! so successful where so many comedies fail, especially those seeking to imitate the movie's groundbreaking style? And now, looking back, more than 35 years later, why has Airplane! stood the test of time?

Fasten your seat belts and make sure your seatbacks and tray tables are in the full upright position as we fly full-throttle into one of the truly great comedic masterpieces.

Before we take off, we just want to say: "Good luck. We're all counting on you."

What is Airplane! About and Why Should I Care?

Airplane! is consistently featured in lists and listicles alike as one of the funniest movies of all time. Some have even called it the funniest movie of all time. And, hey, we're not about to disagree. Airplane! pretty much wrote the book on modern comedy; its legacy is felt everywhere from the unrelenting gags and deadpan of 30 Rock to the random, absurdist humor of Family Guy.

Long story short: if you don't find this movie funny, it's probably not everyone else who's wrong.

It's you. Sorry.

In many ways, Airplane! is the quintessential "spoof movie," ushering in a cultural obsession with parody (can anyone say Scary Movie franchise?). Of course, Airplane! set the bar pretty high, and most imitators have failed miserably trying to follow in its footsteps. But why exactly do ZAZ succeed with Airplane! while these other spoofs continually fall short?

Let us count the ways.

For starters, it probably makes sense that great comedies have great jokes. It just so happens that Airplane! has a lot of great jokes. The sheer volume of jokes in Airplane! is pretty staggering; the audience is bombarded by gag after gag from start to finish, and a remarkable chunk of these jokes actually stick. A panel of movie lovers actually did some research on "laughs per minute" of a number of comedy films, and Airplane! came out on top: 3 laughs per minute.

Not too shabby.

The overall effect is like getting beaten up: the punches keep coming, and if one doesn't get you, the next one will, until you're knocked off your chair and rolling on the floor with laughter.

Next, Airplane!'s unique style of humor is integral to its success. ZAZ's blend of punny literalism, and free-associative absurdism, coupled with an uncompromisingly deadpan delivery allow us to revel in the craziness of this universe.

Also unique to Airplane! as a parody film is the fact that it doesn't rely on its references to make it funny. Whereas modern parodies like Meet the Spartans are often overly dependent on the source material and rely on prior knowledge of the original to grab a laugh, Airplane! merely uses its inspiration—1957's Zero Hour! Series—as a launching point to propel its own jokes.

Which brings us to Airplane!'s secret weapon: the story. The movie works so well in large part due to its strong narrative, which it borrows from prominent author Arthur Hailey's screenplay for Zero Hour! This archetypal tale elevates Airplane! from a hodgepodge of gags that would otherwise be unable to withstand a haphazard narrative, to a fully developed story in three acts, and a sturdy backbone on which to rest its many jokes. (Source)

The importance of story is a notion that many comedic filmmakers today, especially in the spoof genre, seem to forget. Even ZAZ would admit to underestimating the importance of having a strong narrative in future filmmaking efforts. (Source)

Ultimately, it's an enlightening exercise to investigate the art of humor and to attempt to pinpoint the reasons why some comedies work while others don't. There's a reason why we find certain things funny. And there's a reason why filmmakers and film-viewers continually revisit Airplane! for inspiration and for entertainment as the very definition of a successful comedy.

(P.S. Because so much of the humor comes from visual gags and you-had-to-be-there dialogue, we've included tons of links to clips of the film throughout our Learning Guide. Just describing the action doesn't even begin to do it justice.)

Trivia

All of Stephen Stucker's lines as Air Traffic Controller Johnny were ad-libbed. (Source)

Lloyd Bridges, A.K.A. Steve McCroskey, was reluctant to appear in Airplane! because of his reputation as a serious actor. His sons, actors Jeff and Beau Bridges, talked him into taking the part. Cinema history thanks you, Jeff and Beau.
(Source)

"Jive Dudes" Norman Gibbs and Al White were the first and only actors to read for the part; they solidified a spot in the film by re-writing ZAZ's original dialogue, expanding it practically into its own language. (Source)

Airplane! made back its entire $3.5 million production budget within the first two days after it was released. (Source)

Airplane! Resources

Websites

Daily Script: Your Friendly Neighborhood Screenplay Database
Check out the shooting script for Airplane!, and any other movie you could possibly want, right here.

Articles and Inerviews

A Trio of Articles from the Dissolve
For some stellar analysis of what makes Airplane! tick, turn to The Dissolve

ZAZ Speak About Airplane!
The film's creators reflect on the epic journey that was the creation of Airplane!

David Zucker on Nielson
David Zucker discusses the impact and legacy of Airplane!, with special attention to Naked Gun star Leslie Nielsen.

ZAZ Soldier on with Top Secret!
Head here for a discussion of ZAZ's follow up, Top Secret!, by the creators themselves, which includes some key background info on Airplane!

Video

Interview with ZAZ
Take a listen to the filmmakers discuss Airplane! themselves.

Best of Airplane 2
In case you were curious about how the non-ZAZ sequel turned out, take a look at some of the highlights. Parts of this will likely look very familiar.

Zero Hour! Trailer
We'll be honest: it's pretty much just Airplane! without the jokes. Enjoy.

Audio

Elmer Bernstein's Score
Take a listen to some of the Airplane! score here for some light study music, from the Jaws inspired intro, to the Tchaikovsky-esque finale