The universe of Airplane! is just…strange. And that's putting it mildly.
From smoking tickets to suicidal seatmates, ZAZ's absurdist masterpiece is chock-full of surreal humor and self-referential gags that pay no mind to rationality, creating a space where madness reigns supreme.
Contributing to the absurdity of this universe, and thus the movie's special brand of humor, are the deadpan performances of the actors. While the world goes haywire around them, the characters of Airplane! can never seem to shake their chronic case of earnest obliviousness (source).
They accept the madness without question, trapped in this crazy world while the rest of us are just aboard for the ride.
In Airplane!, everything is either a joke or the setup to one. Not a single moment is spared.
The movie's distinct brand of absurdist humor depends on the characters not being in on the joke.
Inspired by the 1957 melodramatic thriller, Zero Hour! as well as the popular disaster films of the 1970s including the Airport series, Airplane! borrows heavily from the narratives and dialogue of these popular films. In fact, Airplane! was born from ZAZ's strategy of mining these films for material. (Source) Fortunately for everyone, the disaster genre proved to lend itself perfectly to parody.
The truly remarkable thing about the movie, though, is that it doesn't depend on the audience to have seen Zero Hour! or Airport or any other specific disaster movie to find the jokes funny; these gags hold up on their own just fine. But for ZAZ, the melodramatic plot and dialogue typical of the genre proved to be a fantastic starting point.
Airplane! really isn't about Ted and Elaine and the crisis at all—it's really about those old disaster films and how absurd they could be.
The homage to the old films that Airplane! is spoofing comes from the dead seriousness of the way the characters play their roles.
War is hell, even in a ZAZ disaster movie spoof.
Though it's handled rather flippantly throughout the film, there's an important, actually quite serious undercurrent running through Airplane!: an examination of PTSD, and how it affects war veterans in their attempt to adjust to normal life after returning from combat.
This theme is more prevalent in Airplane!'s forerunner Zero Hour! The 1957 film is based on a teleplay by British/Canadian novelist Arthur Hailey, who was a war veteran himself, having served in the Royal Air Force during WWII. So humor us for a moment as we analyze an incredibly un-serious comedy in terms of a few very serious issues: war, trauma, and PTSD.
Given, ZAZ's reliance on the narrative of Zero Hour! for crafting their own in Airplane!, Ted's PTSD as a plot point is more a product of Arthur Hailey's writing than it was a deliberate inclusion by ZAZ. This means that it was an afterthought in the ZAZ interpretation.
Airplane! is actually a very clever commentary on warfare and PTSD, using absurdity and humor to point out the absurdity of war itself. So meta.
Airplane! is totally self-aware. It has to be, right? From contemporary disaster films, to professional athletes, to household food storage containers and coffee commercials, it seems that no cultural reference was off limits for the filmmakers. Some of the references are obvious (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and others not so much ("Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home.")
Plus, the decision to utilize well-known dramatic actors in decidedly non-dramatic roles separated Airplane! from the other comedies of the day. (Source) The film's success depends on the actors playing it straight, heightening the self-referential absurdity of the situations by subverting the audience's expectations. All the actors were in a sense spoofing themselves and the roles they were known for. This was a bold move that had the studio execs sweating bullets. (Source)
The decision to cast familiar and popular dramatic actors turns Airplane! from a good movie into a great movie.
ZAZ took a risk in casting cameos for people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Barbara Billingsley, or referencing 70s disaster films, Hare Krishnas, disco, etc., because people seeing the film 35 years later might not get the joke.