P.A. SYSTEM (MALE VOICE): The red zone is for the immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the white zone.
P.A. SYSTEM (FEMALE VOICE): No, the white zone is for loading and unloading, and there is no stopping in the red zone.
This banter, which only gets more ridiculous as it continues, is one of the first gags we get in the movie. It's possible that the audience might not even notice this conversation as it develops in the background, but in typical straight-faced Airplane! fashion, it doesn't draw attention to itself. It just is, and it is hilarious.
TED: What a pisser.
This is one of the film's most classic one-liners, Ted breaking the fourth wall as well as the tension of a dramatic scene with some terrific ZAZ absurdity. Elaine has just poured her heart out to Ted, and this is all he can say. We can see why she left him.
AIRLINE CHECK-IN LADY: Smoking or non-smoking?
TED: Smoking, please.
The ticket agent hands Ted a ticket with smoke pouring out of it. Here's a prime example of ZAZ's terrific use of overly literal, surrealist humor, using both wordplay and visual cues to make a joke.
TED: But enough about me. I hope this hasn't been boring for you.
Ted's story sets off a totally absurd running gag of suicidal seatmates, from seppuku-committing WWII-era Japanese generals, to self-immolating South Asians. They couldn't bear to hear one more second of Ted's war stories.
CAPTAIN OVEUR: Have you ever seen a grown man naked?
One of the movie's more suggestive gags, actor Peter Graves executes this running joke in perfect deadpan, highlighting the absurdity of the situation—a boy visiting the cockpit. It's sure not the friendly banter you expect when you take your son to see the pilot in person.
TED: And that, as much as anything else, led to my drinking problem.
Another of Airplane!'s best visual gags, and most quotable lines, reframing the concept of the "drinking problem" quite literally in absurdist fashion. He can't get the drink to his mouth or even anywhere near it.
TED: Surely you can't be serious.
DR. RUMACK: I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.
If we had to choose a single line that best represents Airplane!, this would be the one. Dr. Rumack's deadpan response epitomizes ZAZ's penchant for puns, where everyone is in on the joke except the characters. What would make him think Ted is calling him Shirley?
MCCROSKEY: Two more minutes! They could be miles off course.
KRAMER: That's impossible. They're on instruments.
When we cut to Ted, Dr. Rumack, Elaine, and Randy on the flight deck busting out some old timey swing, we're rewarded with a totally corny pun on the term "instruments."
DR. RUMACK: I just want to tell you good luck. We're all counting on you.
By the time a stone-faced Leslie Nielsen drops this line for the third time, we have already landed safely. An absurd finale to the end of the…
From the ostentatious opening titles coupled with Elmer Bernstein's dramatic score, the beginning of Airplane! screams hyper-dramatic disaster movie.
TED STRIKER: I came home early and found your note. I guess you meant for me to read it later. Elaine, I've got to talk to you.
ELAINE: I just don't want to go over it anymore.
These lines, like many others through the film (as you'll soon see), are lifted word for word from Zero Hour!. Without the ZAZ punch lines added on, however, it's just bad dialogue.
TED: My orders came through. My squadron ships out tomorrow. We're bombing the storage depots at Daiquiri at 1800 hours. We're coming in from the north, below their radar.
ELAINE: When will you be back?
TED: I can't tell you that. It's classified.
This scene, a parody of From Here to Eternity, complete with soaring strings and crashing waves, references the classic war movie cliché of the soldier leaving his lover to depart on a secret mission. Of course with Ted's last line, ZAZ throw in a bit of their own absurdist flavor.
RANDY sings "River of Jordan" to the sick young girl, LISA, and accidentally knocks out her IV with the guitar.
A direct parody of a scene from Airport '75, here's another example of ZAZ using established material as launching points for their own gags—gags which still hold up whether or not you're familiar with the origins.
DR. RUMACK: This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
ELAINE: What do you think it is?
DR. RUMACK: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.
The first two lines are poached explicitly from Zero Hour!, but Rumack's response is classic ZAZ. Here, the filmmakers utilize an otherwise unfunny bit of unoriginal dialogue as setup for a very funny, original joke—a common theme throughout Airplane!.
TED: I flew single engine fighters in the Air Force, but this plane has four engines. It's an entirely different kind of flying. Altogether.
DR. RUMACK & RANDY: It's an entirely different kind of flying.
Guess what movie Ted's line comes from? Yep, it's another tidbit of Zero Hour! dialogue. But once again, ZAZ are able to recognize the potential for humor and add their own punny punch line for another joke.
STEVE MCCROSKEY: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.
ZAZ saw the comedic potential in this cliché one-liner from Zero Hour!, expanding it into a four-part snowballing punch line concerning substances of escalating hazard.
REX KRAMER: Ted, that was probably the lousiest landing in the history of this airport. But there are some of us here, particularly me, who'd like to buy you a drink and shake your hand.
One final totally cliché line from where else but Zero Hour!.Soon Kramer's words of encouragement devolve into an aimless rambling about his own personal problems to which nobody is really listening, a hilariously ironic spin on the grizzled tough guy motif so common in the disaster movie realm.
TED STRIKER: You know I haven't been able to get near an airplane since the war. And even if I could, they wouldn't hire me because of my war record.
This line from Ted, concerning his uncomfortable military past, is straight outta Zero Hour!. It was a serious commentary about how a person's war record could affect his civilian life later on, especially if there were bad outcomes.
ELAINE: What's hurt you the most is your record since the war. Different cities, different jobs, and not one of them shows you can accept any real responsibility.
In 1980, when Airplane! was released, the memory of the Vietnam War was still fresh. Ted's reality is similar to that of many veterans coming home, trying to reintegrate as functioning members of society. Elaine seems to be blaming Ted for being a slacker, but the poor guy is tormented by flashbacks and panic attacks. Isn't it more than a failure to accept responsibility?
FLASHBACK VOICEOVER: The decision to proceed is yours.
Through grainy black and white flashbacks of war footage, we catch glimpses throughout the film into Ted's psyche. These memories still haunt him. The flashback tells him that he was the one who made the decision to proceed with the disastrous mission.
TED: That's the way I've always wanted it to be, Elaine.
ELAINE: But it won't be. Not as long as you insist on living in the past!
It's clear that Elaine doesn't understand the extent of Ted's trauma. It's probably significant for Ted that his loved ones don't acknowledge the pain he feels as legitimate. Flashbacks aren't really "living in the past."
ELAINE: They've cleared you of any blame for what happened on that raid. Isn't that good news?
TED: Is it? Because of my mistake six men didn't return from that raid.
ELAINE: Seven. Lieutenant Zipp died this morning.
Though the character Zipp is introduced flippantly as part of a throwaway joke by Elaine, and really only exists for the sake of Dr. Rumack's speech at the end of the film, Ted still feels tremendous guilt over Zipp's fate.
ELAINE: What's his problem?
TED: That's Lieutenant Hurwitz. Severe shell shock. He thinks he's Ethel Merman.
Despite the fact that this is one of the funnier scenes in the movie (with the real Ethel Merman), it's actually a very clever way to comment on the absurdity of war—in this case, PTSD as it affects the patients in the military psychiatric hospital. "War is hell," Ted concludes.
FLASHBACK VOICEOVER: Stay in formation. Target's just ahead. Target should be clear if you go in low enough. You'll have to decide. You'll have to decide. You'll have to decide.
This voiceover appears hilariously over grainy footage of ridiculous flying contraptions crashing, but speaks to the demons that continue to haunt Ted. But it's time now for him to take control—which he does. It's a stretch and a huge simplification to believe that one corrective experience like landing the aircraft successfully will cure Ted of his PTSD. But, hey, it's a movie, so we'll let that one slide.
FIRST SCENE: An AIRPLANE lurks under cloud cover like a shark
This intro scene is a parody of Jaws a film that remains a huge part of the American cultural consciousness today. That classic theme music is just as distinctive now as it ever was, telling us one thing: nothing good is about to happen. Right off the bat, ZAZ uses pop cultural references for comic purposes.
CAPTAIN OVEUR: Alright, give me Hamm on 5. Hold the Mayo.
This line is exactly the type of absurdist wordplay that defines the humor of Airplane!. But the fact that it is delivered in perfect deadpan by well-known serious actor Peter Graves plays on the expectations of the audience, accentuating the hilarity of the scene. We're thinking "Mission Impossible" and he's making ridiculous puns.
JOEY: Wait a minute. I know you. You're Kareem Abdul-Jabbar! You play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers!
ROGER MURDOCH: I'm sorry son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdoch. I'm the copilot.
Perhaps the most memorable cameo in Airplane! is basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as co-pilot Roger Murdoch. In classic ZAZ self-aware fashion, Joey "mistakes" Murdoch for the legendary hoopster, a joke the audience is in on the whole way. At the time the movie was made, Kareem was a huge NBA megastar. Everyone recognized him. And he did get criticized for not playing defense, just like Joey said.
ELAINE: Also, Supperware products are ideal for storing leftovers to help stretch your food dollar.
This scene from Elaine and Ted's time in the Peace Corps may seem like something of a throwaway, but speaks to the strange cultural phenomenon of the "Tupperware party," people (mostly women) meeting at each other's homes to buy plastic storage containers. It's also a commentary on the frequent obliviousness of westerners when it comes to helping "civilize" the non-western world. You couldn't name something less relevant to the lives of the women Elaine's talking to than Tupperware. We doubt that leftovers are anything they have to worry about.
DR. RUMACK: Captain, how soon can we land?
CAPTAIN OVEUR: I can't tell.
RUMACK: You can tell me. I'm a doctor.
OVEUR: No. I mean I'm just not sure.
RUMACK: Can't you take a guess?
OVEUR: Well…not for another two hours.
RUMACK: You can't take a guess for another two hours?
Here's another case of a couple serious actors bringing clever dialogue to life with some deadpan hilarity. It's a jab at the cultural stereotype of the family doctor, who you can tell all your secrets to. Because doctor knows best.
JIVE DUDE 1: Sha' mofo butta layin' me to the bone. Jackin' me up. Tightly.
RANDY: I'm sorry, I don't understand.
JIVE DUDE 2: Cutty say he can't hang.
OLD LADY: Oh stewardess, I speak jive.
Inspired by the Blaxploitation classic Shaft, ZAZ's original Jive Dude dialogue sounds nothing like it's final form; fortunately, the actors rewrote their lines themselves. Also, one doesn't need to know that the Old Lady was played by Barbara Billingsley—a.k.ae. Beaver Cleaver's 1950s mom from Leave it to Beaver—to find this scene funny. Lots of people who saw this film in 1980 had watched "Leave it to Beaver" as kids and would have recognized her right away. Mrs. Cleaver was the last person in the world who you'd expect to know anything outside her own conventional little suburban world.
DR. RUMACK: Sometime when the crew is up against it and breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Zipper.
Dr. Rumack's inspiring pep talk is a play on a young Ronald Reagan's speech in his classic film Knute Rockne, All American. It just so happened that "the Gipper," as Reagan was often called, would become President of the United States a few months after Airplane!'s release.