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)
Questions About Art and Culture
How would the movie be different if ZAZ had cast well-known comedic actors like Dom DeLuise, Chevy Chase, or Bill Murray, as the studio suggested? Would it be as funny?
Is the film still funny even if you don't recognize all the cameos? Why or why not?
Is there anything problematic about the "jive dude" scenes? Is this a racist portrayal of black culture? Why or why not?
Chew on This
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.