One of Airplane!'s great running jokes is Ted's war flashbacks. Manifesting hilariously as grainy, black and white WWII-era dogfight footage, Ted often lapses into these memories when the going gets rough. Of course there's a particularly strong absurdist element to these old-timey images, seeing as our young protagonist likely wasn't even born at the time of WWII, and certainly never flew those kinds of planes. (Source) Before long, the footage of WWII dogfights devolves into something much more odd, a memorable taste of ZAZ weirdness.
There's no elaborate allegory or metaphor involved in this running motif; just some good old fashioned visual humor. ZAZ plays on the stereotype of the demon-plagued war veteran, using images that seem to do a sincere job of capturing his trauma, right up until you realize, "Oh, wait, those are WWII propeller planes and this movie takes place in 1980."
In this sense, like much of the humor in Airplane!, these flashbacks don't draw attention to themselves; instead, they're just there for those who pay attention and surrender to the strangeness.
P.S. Did the flashback to Ted and Elaine meeting feel familiar? That's because it's an overt parody of Saturday Night Fever.
Anyone who's ever seen any movie ever should recognize the dramatic camera zoom and close-up. Once, these techniques were creative ways to set the stage for a dramatic reveal, or to highlight emotion on a character's face. These days, the overly dramatic zoom and close-up are tried and true camera techniques to be employed for comedic effect, given their now cliché, melodramatic quality. Parodying the liberal usage of such cinematographic techniques in the popular disaster films of the '70s and '80s, ZAZ use well-timed zooms and close-ups masterfully throughout Airplane!.
Within the first five minutes of the film, Ted and Elaine's inaugural exchange ends with a dramatic zoom on our intrepid hero, who hilariously punctures the building tension by looking directly into the camera, and remarking solemnly, "what a pisser." Later in the movie, ZAZ use a dramatic zoom to put an absurdist twist on a cliché action movie moment from Rex Kramer. Finally, a close up on Dr. Rumack coupled with an ostentatious lighting cue add some absurdist melodrama to an otherwise uninteresting line about the pilots' dinner orders.
These moments, ultimately, are made by a good old cliché zoom, ZAZ subverting old fashioned melodramatic cinematographic techniques for the sake of silliness.
One of Airplane!'s classic recurring gags is story time with Ted, in which our not-so-charismatic protagonist literally bores his seatmates to death.
These hapless passengers, an elderly lady, an Indian man, and for some reason, a WWII-era Japanese general (who, BTW, was played by James Hong, a famous character actor who played David Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China), never utter a single line. Instead, ZAZ expertly use visual humor to illustrate Ted's cluelessness in driving his seatmates to suicide rather having to listen to any more of his war stories.
Maybe try to snag a window seat next time so you can pretend to sleep.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Ted Striker is a retired fighter pilot who hasn't been able to get his life back on track after experiencing trauma during the war. His romantic interest, Elaine, has fallen out of love with him due in part to his inability to adjust back to normal life and take responsibility for his own well-being.
When Elaine, a flight attendant, boards a plane to Chicago, Ted must find enough courage to purchase a ticket and follow her on board in an attempt to win her back despite his terror of flying.
After the plane's pilots fall ill, Ted becomes the only healthy person left who could potentially land the plane. But due to his anxiety, he's paralyzed by fear and reluctant to help.
Dr. Rumack is called into duty first to look after the sick passengers. A seasoned veteran of crises far and wide, he's the only person on board who can remain cool under fire. He offers his calm, unwavering assistance to Ted.
With the pilots unconscious, and no other options remaining, Ted finally agrees to step up and land the plane. From here on out, it's literally do or die.
We meet Steve McCroskey and Rex Kramer, who provide their flight expertise in the hopes of helping Ted get the plane down. Dr. Rumack, too, offers his assistance and moral support.
With Elaine by his side in the cockpit and Kramer in his ear, Ted now has the support he needs to do whatever it takes to land the plane.
As the weather outside gets worse and the situation deteriorates, Ted's able to disengage the autopilot and start the manual descent.
Ted, winning back Elaine's love and respect, has the confidence he needs to tackle this seemingly impossible mission.
The plane's descent is tumultuous; everyone's lives depend on Ted's ability to perform in this one moment.
Against all odds, Ted gets the plane safely on the ground, successful in crossing the final threshold back to home.
Upon landing the plane safely and saving the day, Ted of course gets the girl; presumably they live happily ever after.
There's a tried and true tip in the screenwriting world: if you want to create drama, just throw your characters into a confined space.
An airplane at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet fits that bill perfectly. Of course, there's a fine line between drama and melodrama, a distinction Airplane! masterfully exploits. ZAZ use this unique setting to create not just drama, but humor based on the absurdity of the drama.
The year is important, too. Airplane! brims with pop culture references that date the film squarely to the time of its release: 1980. Sure, it definitely helps to know who Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Gipp are to get the most out of certain jokes. But what's so remarkable about Airplane! is that for the most part, these many references don't bury the film in the past. In fact, because the visual humor is so strong, and because the humor doesn't depend just on dialogue, most of these jokes remain hilarious, even if you have no idea specifically who or what the filmmakers are making fun of.
You don't need to know who Ethel Merman is to find the scene in the military hospital funny, or have watched Saturday Night Fever to get a kick out of Ted and Elaine's epic dance moves. These are hysterical moments that merely use the pop culture references as a springboard, allowing ZAZ's gag-filled, pun-soaked, humor to soar.
The narrative structure of Airplane! is tight, clear, and clean, consisting of a steady chronological plot with the occasional flashback to develop character. The story is lifted straight from Zero Hour!, a film ZAZ found as a result of their usual material-generating strategy—taping movies on late-night T.V. and then fishing through them for material. It "was like seining for fish," creator Jim Abrahams remembers. "We'd throw our net out at night and just record stuff—whatever was on TV, it didn't matter—so we'd have grist to make fun of." (Source)
As they later realized, ZAZ struck gold in Zero Hour!, not just for the joke potential, but for the narrative itself. "It's a perfectly classically structured film," Jerry Zucker notes, with complex characters and a gripping story in three acts.
(Source) ZAZ have acknowledged that they haven't had a better plot since, realizing the genius of Airplane! doesn't exist solely in its humor, but from its use of such a tried and true narrative, a strong spine on which the gags could hang. (Source)
Zero Hour! is based on a teleplay by prolific writer Arthur Hailey, who actually served in the Royal Air Force as a pilot. It's an archetypal, three-act story with a troubled hero who overcomes his demons in order to get back the one he loves, saving the day while he's at it. The feature film adaptation was a little on the melodramatic side, but the story itself is strong: a fact ZAZ benefited from without even knowing it.
"We weren't screenwriters at all," Abrahams once said. "We were joke writers." (Source)
So between the strength of Hailey's narrative, and ZAZ's knack for jokesmanship, Airplane! succeeds in blending archetypal storytelling with gag after gag of surrealist hilarity, proving that comedic filmmaking is about more than just the punch line.
Airplane! is first and foremost a comedy, a movie that makes us laugh at a remarkable rate of three laughs per minute. It is also one of the all-time great parody films, using the disaster genre as its launching point into its own special world of lunacy. Ultimately, Airplane! is a quintessential spoof film that masterfully subverts the hyper-dramatic ostentation of the popular disaster films of the era, creating instead a universe that's anything but.
Airplane! is a very direct parody of Zero Hour!, down to the plot points, dialogue, character names, and completely unnecessary exclamation point in the title.
And though Zero Hour! holds up pretty well as an unintentional comedy given its melodrama, ZAZ really ramped things up in their own interpretation. Thus the title pays homage to the film's humble origins: a terrible 1950s B-movie that otherwise never would have been remembered.
The ending of Airplane! is about as storybook as it gets. Ted overcomes his fear, lands the plane, saves the day, and of course, gets the girl. Just like in Zero Hour! the movie ties things up in a neat bow. We guess it would be pretty weird to end such a goofy comedy with something tragic.
Although we're sure it would've made us laugh anyway.
The MPAA awarded Airplane! a PG rating upon its release in 1980. A PG rating? Really? That seems generous for a movie with suggestive language, brief nudity (if you were paying attention), and, uh, some minor drug use.
At the time, however, the MPAA didn't even have a PG-13 rating; it jumped straight from PG to R. So we guess it makes sense.
All things considered, Airplane! does a pretty remarkable thing, especially compared with the comedies of today: it manages to be funny without being massively crass or offensive. Still, we think Airplane! deserves a PG-13 rating by today's standards, given its penchant for the "s-bomb," as well as the nudity and drug use.