“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
Though often overlooked, disaster movies are big business. The airplane subgenre alone currently has 77 entries—and the movie Airplane! lampoons all of them. It was written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, who were known mostly for sketch comedy at the time (Kentucky Fried Movie), but went on to write other parodies like the Hot Shots and Naked Gun series. It was also the first comedic performance of traditionally serious actors like Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges, who went on to be comedy legends. Whether you get the parody references or not, the movie is a serious contender for best comedy of all time and still holds up very well today.
The plot of Airplane! isn’t fundamental to the movie and serves to tie a bunch of gags together. Basically, there’s an airplane in the air when they discover that one of the on-flight meals has made half of the plane—and all of the pilots—very sick. It’s chaos in the air and on the ground as they try to figure out who can land this plane. There are a few subplots involving a man’s memories from the war and a romance, but none are particularly memorable. It’s the jokes that carry the film.
Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.
The humor in Airplane! definitely focuses more on quantity than quality—there’s scarcely a minute that goes by without a joke of some sort. But with so many jokes, even small chuckles add up to a lot of laughs. Admittedly, some of the jokes are a miss. (The spear gag flew right over my head.) But there are still plenty of memorable jokes, such as the arguing announcers in the airport, the inflatable autopilot, Ted’s drinking problem, and everything Dr. Rumack does. There are also some serious non-sequiturs (including some very unexpected nudity) which are played intentionally for laughs.
The movie shows its age not so much in dated language and technical aspects, but in humor that would today be considered tasteless. Suicide, pedophelia, and racism are all used casually as jokes. It’s nothing too bad, but those scenes definitely stand out today.
Watching the movie, it’s immediately apparent that there’s nothing serious about it. Every scene is a raging inferno of satire and irreverence, and that’s part of what makes it so great. And yet, it’s not just a series of unrelated sketches—it’s a real feature-length movie. Today, we have a long history of parody films, but a parody of this magnitude was a pretty novel concept in 1980.
Airplane! is rightly considered one of the greatest comedies of all time. Even today, there are few movies that can match its level of irreverence, silliness, and hilarity. It also opened up a new sub-genre of parody films like The Naked Gun and Hot Shots. It’s a must-see comedy that’s just as funny and biting today as it was in 1980.
Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Rating: PG (should be PG-13)