The 30th Anniversary of Airplane!

On July 2nd, 1980, AIRPLANE! was released in the United States. For its 30th anniversary, the Film Society at Lincoln Center held a screening and a Q&A last night with directors and writers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (hereafter known as ZAZ). Ever since I stumbled out of THE NAKED GUN (1988) as a giddy seven-year-old, the ZAZ initials have been emblazoned in my consciousness, their screenplays replacing large chunks of my grey matter. I am not an impartial observer. But it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that ZAZ’s peak equaled those of the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks in the density of quality jokes-per-minute. Their approach was unique in that these comedies didn’t use comedians. Their laughs came from the cognitive dissonance of watching handsome leading men spout intricate absurdities. All of the performers play the straight man, while the writing is the star.

As Zucker put it, it was “as if we were taking real movies and re-dubbing them.”  (From my main source,  Robert J. Emery’s The Directors: Take One, Vol. 1) It is a constricted style, with little room for characterization or pathos. We are always laughing at these characters, rather than with the complicit guffaws of a Duck Soup. If the jokes fail, there is nothing left. But the ZAZ team was so relentlessly creative within these limitations that the strain never showed until Naked Gun 33 1/3 (1994), which I still treasure anyway.

Jerry and David Zucker grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where their mother, David said, would “talk back to the TV and criticize what was going on. That’s kind of where the satire comes from.  She was an actress from the time she was five.” When they went to college, they started making jokey Super-8 movies, including one “about Jerry running around campus trying to find a place to leak.” (I urge Paramount to spend large amounts of money restoring this). After graduation, they hooked up with childhood friend Jim Abrahams, and in 1971 started up the Kentucky Fried Theater in the back of a Madison, Wisconsin bookstore.  Their blend of live improvisation with film and video skits landed in Los Angeles a year later, and became a cult hit.

Airplane! was the first screenplay ZAZ wrote, but they couldn’t sell it, so they adapted their stage show to the screen, and the Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), directed by John Landis, became a considerable success. Airplane! was next, the result of a fortuitous night of television:

We used to leave the video tape recorder on overnight just to catch the late movies and to get the commericals so we could re-dub later and spoof them in some way. One night we recorded a movie called Zero Hour. It’s a 1957 movie starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell and Sterling Hayden. It was one of those “airliner in trouble” movies.

With the series of Airport films topping the box office, ZAZ took Zero Hour as their template for a parody, making a remarkably faithful adaptation. At the Q&A ZAZ said they even mimicked the camera setups, needing all the shortcuts they could get as first-time directors.  An industrious editor named “flipflomas” put together a comparison, and some of the dialogue is taken word for word:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BjU-e01zQ4&hl=en_US&fs=1?rel=0]

Originally the structure was going to be the same as Kentucky Fried Movie, with spoof commercials breaking up the main feature, an airline disaster film. But the feature was getting such a positive reaction, they cut everything else out. Intent on making a film with the same feel as Zero Hour and other late night flicks they were watching, they hired Joseph Biroc as their DP (Robert Aldrich’s long time lensman, he would shoot All the Marbles the following year), and Elmer Bernstein to do the score. When they told Bernstein that they wanted a B movie score, he deadpanned, “so you think I’m the right one for it?” After he guffawed throughout the test screening, David remembered, they knew they had the right man.

Next came the casting. David Zucker:

We were watching these Airport movies and thinking, “Charlton Heston is just too funny.” The trick was to cast serious actors like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielson, Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges. These were people who up to that time had never done comedy. We thought they were much funnier than the comedians of the time were.

Paramount originally pushed Barry Manilow for the Ted Striker role, but then reluctantly agreed to ZAZ’s plan for the leads. As a compromise, Paramount insisted on casting name comedians (Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Robin Williams) in supporting roles.  During the Q&A at Lincoln Center, Jerry Zucker talked about how they kept this from happening. Their producer, Howard Koch, supported their decision to go with dramatic actors, so he would intentionally bomb the pitch, telling the comics that the script was “shit”. Jimmie Walker was the only star to sneak through their defenses: he cleans the plane’s windows before bouncing off the fuselage.

The actor most closely associated with ZAZ is Leslie Nielson, but his part was originally offered to Vince Edwards, who turned them down, irrevocably changing the course of Nielson’s career and my childhood (Jerry Zucker said they also pursued Charlton Heston and Jack Webb for different roles, to no avail). At that time, Nielson was taking anodyne TV roles, and the studio told Zucker that he’s “the guy you hire the night before.” But Nielson was eager to sign, telling his agent, “I don’t care if you have to pay them. I want to do this movie.”

Graves was the most reluctant, unsure of why he was being cast in a comedy. Here was Zucker’s pitch:

We told him it was going to be a new kind of comedy that didn’t rely on comedians but relied on the jokes and the seriousness of the characters and the absurdity of the situations. And the straighter he could play it the better it would be.

While this group of old professionals may have been wary, they got the job done, as usual. Of all of the straight men, Lloyd Bridges’ work still stands out. His air traffic controller, McCroskey, spoke with the speed and bravado of Lee Tracy from a 30s newspaper film like Blessed Event. It’s a performance of controlled mania that ZAZ gifts with some of their greatest riffs, including the “I guess I picked the wrong week to stop drinking” routine that Bridges snaps off with a growling panache. He’s also superb in the ZAZ spinoff Hot Shots as the absent-minded President, whose endearing idiocy now looks like a model of Will Ferrell’s buffoonish take on George W. Bush.

One of the greatest unsung performances in the spoof pantheon is Stephen Stucker’s Johnny, Bridges’  flamboyant assistant who is always ready with a sarcastic retort. In deference to his wit, ZAZ let Stucker, a Kentucky Fried Theater alum, write all of his own lines  - which still generate some of the biggest laughs in the movie. A whirligig of transgressive jollity, he could turn a weather map into a pterodactyl and impishly unplug the runway lights before an emergency landing. He’s a force of nature, the only actor ZAZ allows to be a comedian, mocking the proceedings from the inside. A legendary character, he was a classically trained pianist who showed up to his Kentucky Fried Theater interview in two-toned leather hot pants. Tragically, he was one of the first actors to announce he was suffering from HIV. He died in 1986 at the age of 38.

The other sublime work here is by Leslie Nielson, as Dr. Rumack. He is perhaps the straightest man in film history. He paralyzes his facial muscles as much as his immovable silver hair – there is not even a hint of a smile or a glint of emotion. His eyes are glazed and serious, and rarely looks at anyone in the face. He prefers to tip his head up to gaze dramatically off camera. It is a turn of extraodinary woodenness, a solid oak of uninflected speech and metronomic movement. It is the Platonic ideal of ZAZ performances. Nielson’s commitment to looking oblivious is unshakable, and that kind of perfection is beautiful, and forever funny. He would be nominated for an Emmy for a similarly flawless routine in Police Squad! (1982), ZAZ’s short lived cop show spoof that was canceled by ABC after six episodes. They were able to revive the concept for The Naked Gun six years later, which taught me how to boil a roast: “Very hot. And awfully wet.”

At the end of his late 90s interview with Robert Emery, David Zucker says, “I guess the test is if the movie still works twenty years later. We’ll see in a couple of years if it’s still funny.” Now it’s been over 30 years, and it’s still cracking me up.

Postscript: Top Secret (1984) is incredible too.

TCM will run Airplane! on August 17th at 1:15AM.

38 Responses The 30th Anniversary of Airplane!
Posted By Chris Fitzpatrick : August 10, 2010 2:25 pm

I guess I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.

Posted By Chris Fitzpatrick : August 10, 2010 2:25 pm

I guess I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.

Posted By smallerdemon : August 10, 2010 2:50 pm

One of the great movies that if you’re flipping channels and it’s on you stop, thrown the remote to the floor and then finishing watching it with childish glee.

Posted By smallerdemon : August 10, 2010 2:50 pm

One of the great movies that if you’re flipping channels and it’s on you stop, thrown the remote to the floor and then finishing watching it with childish glee.

Posted By Thomas Krul : August 10, 2010 3:11 pm

Definitely one of my Top 10 movies of all time. ZAZ has alternately improved my life as well as shortened it: the laughing fit I had when Nordberg (OJ Simpson) went cascading down the steps of the stadium in Naked Gun in his wheelchair capped off a life-threatening lack of oxygen.

“Bingo”
“drinking problem” and
“…and don’t call me ‘Shirley’” make me stifle laughter to this day.

Posted By Thomas Krul : August 10, 2010 3:11 pm

Definitely one of my Top 10 movies of all time. ZAZ has alternately improved my life as well as shortened it: the laughing fit I had when Nordberg (OJ Simpson) went cascading down the steps of the stadium in Naked Gun in his wheelchair capped off a life-threatening lack of oxygen.

“Bingo”
“drinking problem” and
“…and don’t call me ‘Shirley’” make me stifle laughter to this day.

Posted By Oscar : August 10, 2010 4:18 pm

Thanks for the background info on Airplane. The funniest parts for me were the Saturday Night Fever segment and when Bridges says, “I picked a fine time to give up glue sniffing.” And then we see him upside down! With so many similarities to Zero Hour, were there any copyright issues?

Posted By Oscar : August 10, 2010 4:18 pm

Thanks for the background info on Airplane. The funniest parts for me were the Saturday Night Fever segment and when Bridges says, “I picked a fine time to give up glue sniffing.” And then we see him upside down! With so many similarities to Zero Hour, were there any copyright issues?

Posted By dukeroberts : August 10, 2010 11:18 pm

I read somewhere that they actually bought the rights to Zero Hour to avoid any copyright issues.

“Say Joey, have you ever seen a grown man naked?”

“Do you like movies about gladiators?”

Posted By dukeroberts : August 10, 2010 11:18 pm

I read somewhere that they actually bought the rights to Zero Hour to avoid any copyright issues.

“Say Joey, have you ever seen a grown man naked?”

“Do you like movies about gladiators?”

Posted By Jeff H. : August 11, 2010 4:34 am

I just wonder if the rumor is true that they actually shot a scene with Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder at the controls of a plane. Ray asks Stevie if they have taken off yet, and Stevie replies that he doesn’t think so-they haven’t hit anything.

I’ve loved these guys ever since I saw some of their stuff on the Dean Martin comedy hour then seeing KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE in a theater back in ’78. Loved it so much I stuck around for another show (when you could still do that) and I thank them for introducing me to Jonathan & Darlene Edwards (“The Carioca” on KFMs credits) and the greatness of Samuel L. Bronowitz’ great productions.

“Cream?”
“No, I take it black-like my men.”

Posted By Jeff H. : August 11, 2010 4:34 am

I just wonder if the rumor is true that they actually shot a scene with Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder at the controls of a plane. Ray asks Stevie if they have taken off yet, and Stevie replies that he doesn’t think so-they haven’t hit anything.

I’ve loved these guys ever since I saw some of their stuff on the Dean Martin comedy hour then seeing KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE in a theater back in ’78. Loved it so much I stuck around for another show (when you could still do that) and I thank them for introducing me to Jonathan & Darlene Edwards (“The Carioca” on KFMs credits) and the greatness of Samuel L. Bronowitz’ great productions.

“Cream?”
“No, I take it black-like my men.”

Posted By medusamorlock : August 11, 2010 12:24 pm

Great appreciation! I haven’t watched it in a while so I’m going to have to check it out again! They sure knew how to tap into the comic sensibility of a generation, or did they actually create it?

Wonderful to read this! Thirty years! Yikes! It’s a genuine classic now!

Posted By medusamorlock : August 11, 2010 12:24 pm

Great appreciation! I haven’t watched it in a while so I’m going to have to check it out again! They sure knew how to tap into the comic sensibility of a generation, or did they actually create it?

Wonderful to read this! Thirty years! Yikes! It’s a genuine classic now!

Posted By Thomas Krul : August 11, 2010 12:36 pm

“Stewardess? I speak Jive.”

I just watched it again last night… holy crap it’s even funnier as an adult than as a kid (there is so much you miss).

“Don’t start up with your white zone shit again, Betty.”

Funny that this movie isn’t as quoted as “Monty Python’s Holy Grail”…

Posted By Thomas Krul : August 11, 2010 12:36 pm

“Stewardess? I speak Jive.”

I just watched it again last night… holy crap it’s even funnier as an adult than as a kid (there is so much you miss).

“Don’t start up with your white zone shit again, Betty.”

Funny that this movie isn’t as quoted as “Monty Python’s Holy Grail”…

Posted By Jenni : August 11, 2010 2:58 pm

Thanks for this great post! Love Airplane, and yes, the laughs still hold up 30 years later. Our 3 oldest sons, 18, 14, and 12 all love it as much as my husband and I do. Very interesting to me how they got the idea from a late, late show movie. I use the drinking problem line on my kids whenever they spill a drink. :)

Posted By Jenni : August 11, 2010 2:58 pm

Thanks for this great post! Love Airplane, and yes, the laughs still hold up 30 years later. Our 3 oldest sons, 18, 14, and 12 all love it as much as my husband and I do. Very interesting to me how they got the idea from a late, late show movie. I use the drinking problem line on my kids whenever they spill a drink. :)

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 12, 2010 12:52 am

Sooo-many great bits & all are aware “Naked: Gun from Files of Police Squad!” was a take-off on it all & almost as funny too.

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 12, 2010 12:52 am

Sooo-many great bits & all are aware “Naked: Gun from Files of Police Squad!” was a take-off on it all & almost as funny too.

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 12, 2010 12:53 am

I personally thought the late: Lloyd Bridges bits were the best!

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 12, 2010 12:53 am

I personally thought the late: Lloyd Bridges bits were the best!

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : August 12, 2010 1:23 pm

Thanks for all the great comments (and quotes). As for the rights, I believe dukeroberts is correct. On the AIRPLANE! audio commentary ZAZ say they bought the rights to ZERO HOUR.

And Tom, I think it’s right up there with HOLY GRAIL in terms of volume of quotations. And ANCHORMAN is elbowing it’s way to the top as well…

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : August 12, 2010 1:23 pm

Thanks for all the great comments (and quotes). As for the rights, I believe dukeroberts is correct. On the AIRPLANE! audio commentary ZAZ say they bought the rights to ZERO HOUR.

And Tom, I think it’s right up there with HOLY GRAIL in terms of volume of quotations. And ANCHORMAN is elbowing it’s way to the top as well…

Posted By dukeroberts : August 12, 2010 7:08 pm

I find myself quoting Airplane! quite often, but also quoting from Blazing Saddles, Holy Grail and, even though it’s not a comedy, Casablanca. Claude Rains might have been great in Airplane!

Posted By dukeroberts : August 12, 2010 7:08 pm

I find myself quoting Airplane! quite often, but also quoting from Blazing Saddles, Holy Grail and, even though it’s not a comedy, Casablanca. Claude Rains might have been great in Airplane!

Posted By Thomas Krul : August 12, 2010 9:41 pm

I was going to compare the quotability of Airplane! vs. Holy Grail to try to figure out why the latter is more popular for quotes. I thought maybe Airplane! was targeted at a more mature audience, but realized that was an oxymoron (or at least sounded like one).

“Do we have Clearance, Clarence?”
“What’s our Vector, Victor?”
“Roger, Roger”

Posted By Thomas Krul : August 12, 2010 9:41 pm

I was going to compare the quotability of Airplane! vs. Holy Grail to try to figure out why the latter is more popular for quotes. I thought maybe Airplane! was targeted at a more mature audience, but realized that was an oxymoron (or at least sounded like one).

“Do we have Clearance, Clarence?”
“What’s our Vector, Victor?”
“Roger, Roger”

Posted By medusamorlock : August 13, 2010 9:54 am

This post was certainly timely, as the comment and link from David Ehrenstein above shows. “The Hollywood Reporter” did a piece on the actor Stephen Stucker/outraged flight attendant Steven Slater resemblance earlier this week —

http://riskybusiness.hollywoodreporter.com/2010/08/11/airplane-actor-could-have-played-jetblue-flight-attendant-perfectly/

“Airplane!” is everywhere!

Posted By medusamorlock : August 13, 2010 9:54 am

This post was certainly timely, as the comment and link from David Ehrenstein above shows. “The Hollywood Reporter” did a piece on the actor Stephen Stucker/outraged flight attendant Steven Slater resemblance earlier this week —

http://riskybusiness.hollywoodreporter.com/2010/08/11/airplane-actor-could-have-played-jetblue-flight-attendant-perfectly/

“Airplane!” is everywhere!

Posted By Richard : August 13, 2010 9:27 pm

I took my, then, girlfriend to see this movie when it came out.
She didn’t understand “that kind of humor.”

We broke up the next week.

Posted By Richard : August 13, 2010 9:27 pm

I took my, then, girlfriend to see this movie when it came out.
She didn’t understand “that kind of humor.”

We broke up the next week.

Posted By movie1895 : August 14, 2010 3:40 pm

I think the only movie I quote from more than “Airplane!” is “The Blues Brothers”. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they were released the same year. I think this country was more than ready for some silliness and sharp writing at the time.

Unfortunately, post-9/11, I have trouble laughing at some of the jokes in “Airplane!” now. I think it’s time for another really silly movie with great dialogue. I think the Farrelly Brothers should be up to the task, right???

Posted By movie1895 : August 14, 2010 3:40 pm

I think the only movie I quote from more than “Airplane!” is “The Blues Brothers”. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they were released the same year. I think this country was more than ready for some silliness and sharp writing at the time.

Unfortunately, post-9/11, I have trouble laughing at some of the jokes in “Airplane!” now. I think it’s time for another really silly movie with great dialogue. I think the Farrelly Brothers should be up to the task, right???

Posted By sweensryche : August 20, 2010 9:00 am

R. –

As the giddy 10-year-old that was stumbling out of that NAKED GUN screening next to you (it was in an underground theater in Boston, remember?), I’ve got to applaud you for giving ZAZ the critical insight and heartfelt praise they so richly deserve. Your take on Nielsen is especially inspired. Thanks to him, 33 1/3 is more than worth it – Drebin as Donahue, ’nuff said.

The obligatory list of AIRPLANE quotes:
“I don’t know where I’ll be then, but I won’t smell too good, that’s for sure.”
“I haven’t felt this awful since we saw that Ronald Reagan film.”
“There’s a sale at Penney’s!”
“Jim never vomits at home.”

Posted By sweensryche : August 20, 2010 9:00 am

R. –

As the giddy 10-year-old that was stumbling out of that NAKED GUN screening next to you (it was in an underground theater in Boston, remember?), I’ve got to applaud you for giving ZAZ the critical insight and heartfelt praise they so richly deserve. Your take on Nielsen is especially inspired. Thanks to him, 33 1/3 is more than worth it – Drebin as Donahue, ’nuff said.

The obligatory list of AIRPLANE quotes:
“I don’t know where I’ll be then, but I won’t smell too good, that’s for sure.”
“I haven’t felt this awful since we saw that Ronald Reagan film.”
“There’s a sale at Penney’s!”
“Jim never vomits at home.”

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