A trio of comedy theater pals with no directing experience scraped together $3.5 million and poured it into a zany little film with modest expectations. The result was an $83 million gross; WGA, Golden Globe, and BAFTA nominations; and a place as the tenth funniest American movie of all time on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list. Though it wasn’t the genesis of spoof comedy (the genre was run by Abbot and Costello in the 50s, the Carry On films in the 60s, and Mel Brooks in the 70s), 1980’s Airplane! was certainly the zenith of it.
It would be sufficient if this analysis simply limited itself to rattling off a page worth of quotes, because it’s the classic exchanges between characters and ear-to-ear-grin-inducing one liners that makes Airplane! so intoxicatingly hilarious. From “We have clearance, Clarence. Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?” to “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” every minute of this movie has an ear-tickling zinger that is a sure bet to make anyone howl.
There exists a plot—former military pilot hops onboard a commercial flight to revive an old relationship, has to save said commercial flight from crashing—but it’s not the reason we watch this film. We watch it because it’s a patchwork of corny gags and clever puns and off-the-wall jokes that the directors somehow managed to string together into a coherent whole. The movie feels like an old-school Family Guy at times—letting the ridiculousness of a scene play out a touch longer than necessary, serving up jokes that you can sometimes see coming yet can’t help but laugh anyway.
What works best in Airplane! is the utter seriousness of its actors’ deliveries of their lines, despite the absurdity of what they’re actually saying. The directors cast guys like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges, all of whom were dramatic actors up to that point. Their deadpan and dour deliveries greatly enhance the humor of the entire film. It’s not just that Peter Graves asks a little boy if he’s seen a grown man naked, it’s that he’s so damn serious when he does. It’s not just that there’s a blow up doll acting as the plane’s autopilot, it’s that none of the characters are phased by it. Have you ever seen Leslie Nielsen smile? No. That’s because he’s too funny not smiling. The charm of Airplane! is that, while its filmmakers are completely aware of how ultra-goofy the world they created is, its inhabitants take it all as normalcy.
It seemed as though the momentum that was gained through the efforts of Brooks and Allen were going to be smoothly bridged into the 80s by way of Airplane!, but that was hardly the case. While a few formidable spoofs have been spawned since, the unjustifiable amount of worthless attempts that have cluttered theaters for the past three decades leads me to believe that Airplane! may very well have been the last great entry to spoofdom.
I’m not on board with the Scary Movies, Dewey Coxes, or Meet The Spartans. They exist only because they prey on thirteen-year-old boys who think the trailers look funny or think they’ll get to see some boobs if they convince their mom to buy them a ticket. Rather than featuring something clever or intelligent, these films simply reenact scenes from other films we recognize and throw in a dumb pop-culture reference. Brittney Spears shaving her head in front of a guy who looks like the guy from 300? That’s not comedy. And what is most upsetting is that the next spoof that hits theaters will still, somehow, manage to open with $15 million.
Where Airplane! succeeds, and the current spoofs fail, is that the comedy has to be intergenerational, it has to stand the test of time. An attestation to Airplane!’s awesomeness: whenever I, the guy who grew up on Jim Carrey and Judd Apatow, watch it with my dad, the guy who grew up on the Marx Brothers and Johnny Carson, we both laugh hysterically at the same jokes. There’s nothing that can be found in Epic Movie or Dance Flick that will be able make us laugh with our children. The spoofs of today are cheaply made, not just in dollars, but in brains.