35,000 Feet Up in the Air: The Year 1980
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.