Surely the funniest film of all time?
SAYING “LIKE MY men” after explaining how you take your coffee. Making a ‘drinking problem’ joke if you accidentally send a G&T down your chin. Clamping hard on your lip when you hear a sentence beginning with “surely”. These are all symptoms of Airplane!. It is the starting place for dozens of reference points ingrained in us. Mainly, though, it’s a funny film. Possibly the funniest film, actually.
It was born, however, of that most po-faced and self-unaware genre: the disaster movie. In the ’70s you couldn’t throw a stone in Hollywood without it hitting a troupe of jobbing character actors trying to make it out in one piece while battling an overturned cruise ship, or burning tower block, or an earthquake. Or planes flying into mortal danger, as seen in the increasingly unsuccessful Airport series. Formulaic, cheesy, yet somehow always watchable, they were three funny guys called Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and his brother Jerry Zucker, ripe for parody.
Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker — best known as ‘ZAZ’ and described by Robert Hays, who plays the film’s hero Ted Striker, as “three bodies with one brain” — would scour recordings of late-night television, seeking inspiration for their live La-based live skit show, Kentucky Fried Theater. One day they came across Zero Hour!, a 1957 film written by British former World War II pilot Arthur Hailey.
If you’ve seen Airplane!, then you’ve effectively seen Zero Hour!. The plot is lifted nearly wholesale: the war-damaged pilot battling his demons as he tries to save not only a passenger plane struck by a dodgy fish dinner that poisons passengers and crew, but also his crumbling relationship. There are even lines copied verbatim, including the immortal: “Our survival hinges on one thing — finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner.” ZAZ simply added jokes — like buying a sensible suit and accessorising it with clown shoes and a squirty buttonhole.
So close were the two scripts that, having researched the legal limits of parody, ZAZ had to buy the rights to Zero Hour!, albeit for a modest $2,500. It was a smart move. They were joke-writers, not screenwriters, their only previous cinematic venture being The Kentucky Fried Movie, a parodic feature-length sketch show. Hanging their gags on the well-structured Zero Hour! gave the film substance. There’s a story to follow, characters to invest in and context for the jokes. For example, if it weren’t for the plot’s jeopardy, when Leslie Nielsen’s stone-faced Dr Rumack says, “This woman has to be gotten to a hospital,” and Julie Hagerty’s Elaine (flight attendant and Ted’s disappointed love interest) asks, “A hospital? What is it?” it wouldn’t be nearly as funny — nor as quoted — when Rumack
replies, “It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.” Zero Hour! was the perfect vehicle for ZAZ.
Paramount wanted to make it, assigning the experienced producer Howard W. Koch, whose CV included The Odd Couple and The Manchurian Candidate. At first, this brought ageist resentment from the thirtysomething writers, who worried about Koch getting his gnarly sixtysomething paws on their zesty creation. But Koch knew how to make a film and how to deal with three cocky upstarts — gently reminding them, when they tried to put their artistic feet down, that they could always try their luck at another studio.
One argument the writers managed to win was made possible by Koch’s contacts. Inspired by the sincerity with which Zero Hour!’s cast pronounced faintly ridiculous lines, they insisted on hiring serious actors to deliver their script, rejecting comics like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and David Letterman.
This stroke of genius meant they had the previously ‘straight’ Nielsen as Rumack, Lloyd Bridges as the put-upon airport chief Steve Mccroskey, Peter Graves as the plane’s paedophilic captain Clarence Oveur, and Robert Stack as Rex Kramer, Ted’s nemesis and former commanding officer. Stack, an Emmywinner in 1960 for TV series The Untouchables (produced by Koch) and a 1957 Oscar-nominee for Written On The Wind, was top of ZAZ’S list. Bridges had been a leading man in war films and Westerns and had over 100 titles to his name. Graves was a hugely familiar face on US television, not least for his role as Jim Phelps in Mission: Impossible. Nielsen, at that point, was best known for the humour-free Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure. He was a Shakespearean actor of some renown. He had goddamn gravitas.
Airplane! changed all that. Nielsen, a closet clown, never looked back, hooking up with ZAZ again for Police Squad! and The Naked Gun trilogy, as well as an array of lesser parodies. Bridges is forever associated with having “picked the wrong week to quit” things, while Graves is now best remembered not for Mission: Impossible, but for asking a small boy if he’s ever seen a grown man naked.
Of course, the heart of the film, the reason that repeated viewing is both a joy and a must, is the sheer number of gags: visual, sexual, referential, slapstick, and the finest wordplay in town. Each time you go back, you spot something new. When Elmer Bernstein watched the film to score it, according to Jerry Zucker, he was still chortling at the tenth viewing.
The funnies are fired at an almost unethical rate, the joke-writers playing to their strengths, but this is no cluster bomb of comedy: it’s targeted, with most shots hitting home. Granted, some are (and always were) extremely dicey, but they are so free of malice and so swiftly lost in the deluge of timeless zingers, that before you have time to say ‘problematic’, you’re laughing at a woman sleeping with a horse.
But that’s not important right now. What’s important is that this film is still important. Not because of its cinematography or some deeper message; not just because of a legacy that runs from ZAZ’S own Naked Gun series, through brothers Farrelly and Coen, to those cultural references and beyond; but because Airplane! shows no signs of ageing. It’s still the funniest comedy you can watch today: a big, silly grin of a film that exists only to make us laugh.
Surely, they can’t be serious.
AIRPLANE! IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWNLOAD
Otto the autopilot (get it?) and Ptsd-suffering wingman Ted Striker (Robert Hays) are joined in the cockpit by Dr Rumack (Leslie Nielsen).
Top: Julie Hagerty is flight attendant Elaine. Above: An unexpected guest at the gate.