Study Guide

Airplane! Art and Culture

Art and Culture

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.