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.
Questions About Films and Filmmaking
Do you have to see Zero Hour! or the Airport series to find Airplane! funny? If not, why do you think this is?
How does the dramatic score enhance the film's humor?
Is poring over old films looking for jokes a viable strategy for writing a comedy? How does ZAZ use this technique successfully?
Chew on This
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.