Written and directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker
Airplane! didn't mean to kill disaster cinema in 1980, and that'd be giving it too much credit anyway: disaster cinema was already dead. If it's easy to imagine Paramount president Michael Eisner chuckling while thinking about poking at the genre's corpse with Airplane!'s sharp stick, it's just as likely that the collapse of the movement gave him qualms about proceeding even with a parody of it, though happily its makers—brothers David Zucker and Jerry Zucker plus their associate Jim Abrahams, often identified under the more convenient collective name "ZAZ," though by now they've made more movies separately than together—must have persuaded him that the summer of 1980 was exactly the right time to strike. Perhaps they explained that the genre still loomed large enough in audiences' minds for a parody to land (Irwin Allen's own swan song for the genre, When Time Ran Out..., would've just been concluding its theatrical run in June 1980, and the previous year had seen the release of the last 70s disaster flick to make a profit, Airport '79), though those same audiences over the past three years had also proven themselves eager to laugh the genre out of town (so that the last disaster film to have made any profit in North America had been the then three-year-old Airport '77*). If ZAZ did indeed make this argument—this is production history fanfiction, I'm afraid—it turned out they were absolutely right, and their timing perfect: Airplane! went on to become the third-highest grossing film of 1980, in a year where the highest-grosser (Empire Strikes Back) was such a fait accompli it kind of doesn't even count. (No. 2 was The Gods Must Be Crazy—it was a very comedy-forward time.) Airplane!'s success wasn't just commercial: it's become one of the legendary comedies, frequently turning up on all-time best lists, and not just of comedies.
The danger with writing about comedies, especially great comedies, is that it can easily devolve into just a dull, pointless list of your favorite jokes. That danger might be more pronounced still with Airplane!, which is essentially a ceaseless procession of favorite jokes. I'll try to avoid it. (Okay, one right out the gate, because this is when I started laughing hysterically at Airplane! and couldn't stop till I'd paused it, to catch my breath: at the airport newsstand, Peter Graves's sexually degenerate pilot, Capt. Clarence Oveur, picks up the latest copy of Modern Sperm.) What I'll try to do instead is to explain why I think its comedy works so well mechanically, though it's worth reciting the mantra, "comedy is subjective." The fundamental reason it "works" is its whole "Wall of Jokes" approach, making you laugh, keeping you laughing, and finally overloading your ability not to laugh till eventually you reach, or exceed, your physical limits. If you don't think it's funny, well, I'll question your humanity, you weird Vulcan freak, but I don't know if you could appreciate the film as a mechanical object, either.
For me, it has a hit rate approaching something like 99.9%, most of its jokes arising from the same four or five basic joke engines, albeit with a great deal of variation within each type—for something that presents itself as so cartoon-anarchic, it's remarkably structural and logical in its basis, with most everything amenable to being categorized as "funny overly-literalist wordplay" ("and stop calling me Shirley"), "funny overly-literalist visual accompaniment to the dialogue, often in the form of a cutaway gag" ("they're on instruments"), "funny placid acceptance on the part of the characters of the overwhelming surreality of the world they live in" (the blow-up doll autopilot being treated with the same unexceptional normality as one might treat a seat-belt), "funny crass sexual innuendo" ("Joey, have you ever seen a grown man naked?"), and "funny running jokes that escalate to unsustainable, climactic levels" (basically everything winds up a runner, so let's choose both "looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue!," which also primes us for the film's single best shot, and "I guess that's when my drinking problem started," as representative examples). See, I've already fallen into the trap. But since it's easy and trivial, I'll just name the one joke I don't love. The only one that outright flops for me is "Air Israel"—a plane wearing a yamulke and payot—which is just so stupid, and in a different register of comic stupidity than the rest.
But maybe you noticed the two potential joke engines I didn't mention, "funny parody of a 70s disaster movie" and "funny jokes based on character dynamics," and I didn't mention them because, astoundingly, the former isn't that major a driver of this film's comedy, and the latter almost doesn't exist at all. The former isn't completely neglected: simply being a disaster movie that's hilarious means it does the work of parody even in the absence of specific references, but specific reference isn't totally absent. It gets Airport (the film's most obvious "target" and from where it draws the noun in its name) out of the way almost immediately, with its dueling airport announcers arguing over red zones, white zones, and abortions (text even being pulled from the original novel to drive it home). It occasionally takes on Airport 1975 quite directly, too; and of course there's the basic matter of the whole collection of wacky misfits on the plane who fill out our interstitial scenes and the backgrounds of wide-shots, few of whom would be all that out of place individually in an Airport movie's secondary cast, though each one is so heightened they could exist collectively only in Airplane! (The flashbacks the film gets up to, meanwhile, were never a big part of the storytelling toolkit of 70s disaster films, so I think must arise from one of the obscurer entries that did use them, Skyjacked, even as said flashbacks wind up meandering into parodies of completely different movies, like From Here to Eternity and Saturday Night Fever; which, if nothing else, let ZAZ stretch their legs.)
As for the latter, however—the characters, and the narrative that serves them—I think that gets us to the heart of it, not whether, but how Airplane! works. It means we have to circle back to the production history, but this time, no fanfic.
For all its apparent determination to spoof a genre then in its death-throes, Airplane!'s development actually spanned back to roughly 1971, and the screenplay had been completed in most of its essentials by 1975, when the disaster movie boom was still very much a going concern. Yet the boom itself was mostly incidental: the trace-it-all-the-way-back genesis of the project didn't really have that much to do with 70s disaster cinema at all, but the research ZAZ performed for their sketch comedy writing, which included recording late-night TV to scan it for potentially spoof-worthy material in the commercials and infomercials and perhaps broadcasts of kung fu movies. For how that research panned out, look no further than 1977s The Kentucky Fried Movie, ZAZ's first produced screenplay, which kickstarted their movie careers along with that of its director, John Landis, an anthology (or maybe a melange) that captures something of that "late-nite TV" feel—though I mention it mainly because one of its best segments, "That's Armageddon!", is a more pointedly topical parody of disaster cinema than Airplane! is.
As for what this has to do with Airplane! itself: in or around 1971, without any particular intention, ZAZ happened to record a late-night broadcast of the 1957 airplane thriller Zero Hour! (which is, yes, from where they draw the exclamation point in the name—though for whatever reason I find it irritating on the '57 film to pretty much the exact same degree I find it charming on Airplane!, perhaps because someone might shout "airplane!" but I cannot begin to imagine the situation where someone might exclaim the phrase "zero hour!", even in the most awkward of Elton John karaokes). So: impressed by the streamlined leanness of Zero Hour! as a screenplay, as well as by its abnormally high camp factor, they set out to do a parody of a movie then a decade and a half old and virtually forgotten, and older and more forgotten still by the time their parody of it was done, and while this is a very well-known aspect of Airplane!'s production, if you've never actually seen Zero Hour!, I simply can't convey to you how much Airplane! just is Zero Hour!, only now as a joke.
ZAZ worried that their joke version was too close even for the First Amendment's safe harbor for parody; preemptively, they negotiated the purchase of the screenplay rights for Zero Hour!—at the shockingly low price of just $2500—and I believe this is what actually did it for Airplane! Because once that was achieved, nothing stopped them from simply remaking Zero Hour! (not only "best comedy," then: Airplane! really deserves discussion in any "best remake" conversation, too**). About 40% of the dialogue in Airplane!'s script is verbatim the dialogue from Zero Hour! and that percentage creeps up even higher if you start counting the lines where an unstressed change has been wrought to make it silly or obscene. (Why, it's even where the most frequently-used dialogue couplet for the "overly-literal" jokes comes from: "What is it?"/"It's a ____, but that's not important right now.") Airplane! is to a huge degree something of an in-universe MST3K riff of its own source material, the benefit of doing it as an actual movie being that it can dig in with razor-sharp visual humor, too. It does make me feel bad for Zero Hour!: I'm not sure it's actually even a good airplane thriller, but Airplane! does enormous violence to it as an object capable of being taken remotely seriously. Yet given how often I watch movies that were on MST3K and manage to take them seriously, I don't know if that says bad things about Zero Hour! or says great things about Airplane!
I recognize that it's bad form to remind you of the plot of a movie towards the end of a review rather than at the beginning, but I trust you'll see why such an elongated preface was worthwhile. As an exercise, then, try to find the funny part in this story: traumatized military pilot and aerophobe Ted Stryker (Robert Hays) has been having a hard time of it since the war, unable to keep a job, or the respect of any of those around him, and it's led to the ruination of his relationship with stewardess Elaine Dickinson (Julie Haggerty), who's broken up with him with a "dear John" letter before departing on a transcontinental flight to Chicago. Ted finds the note sooner than she intended, and in a last-ditch effort to keep her, Ted buys a ticket for her flight so he can badger her until she relents; it doesn't work. But as destiny would have it, food poisoning knocks out the pilot, Capt. Oveur (Graves), co-pilot Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabar), and even the navigator Victor Basta (Frank Ashford). Making matters worse, as Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) explains, if they don't get the sick passengers and crew to a hospital soon, they'll die. They might all die anyway, of course; the ground controllers Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) and Capt. Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) can only be of so much help. Their one and only hope is that Ted can overcome his crippling fear of flying and land this plane.
Unless you picked up on the silly wordplay possibilities of a command crew named "Oveur," "Roger," and "Victor," I don't think you could describe that as a funny plot. All you'd have to do to call it a summary of Zero Hour! instead is replace some names. You wouldn't even have to uniformly do that: "Ted Stryker" is the name of both Hays's protagonist here and Dana Andrews's protagonist there. ZAZ are delighted to fill everything around that story with jokes, but the core plot is barely even fiddled with, and to the extent it is, it's to make it even more earnest. In almost every case, the actors were encouraged to play it absolutely solemn, and that frequently makes it funnier because a downright unquantifiable amount of the humor of Airplane! comes out of the impression that these people have no point of reference besides the cartoonishly goofy world they inhabit. Most comedies bank on some social abnormality; Ted gets a little of this (he yammers his "boring" backstory at people till they commit suicide), but that's almost it. In this comedy, almost literally every single character is the straight-man; the cosmos itself is the comedian, which is a pretty disaster movie thing for it to be. (The one true exception is Stephen Stucker's bouncing air traffic controller—he's the opposite, let's say, of the straight-man, which might be intentional—who's the only quipster, who probably knows he's in a movie, and who comes late enough in the story that the extremely different valence of his Bugs Bunny energy is an utter delight.)
Maybe just as importantly, it's a good story: the reality of the scenario ebbs and flows considerably (it's not dogmatic about it, but for the most part ZAZ treat the physical stakes here with gravity), but they somehow maintain a core of emotional reality, and that makes it rewarding for reasons that aren't as-such funny but bolster the comedy anyway. It's maybe worth mentioning that Hays and Hagerty, despite having so much straight-faced comic business to attend to, offer better and more sympathetic dramatic performances than Andrews and his female lead, Linda Darnell, did in the "real" movie. (Hays is better than just "better" implies, really: Andrews is terrible in Zero Hour!, just staring angrily at shit for the whole 82 minutes except when he's "sweating" and therefore staring through the glass of water a production assistant just threw in his face, which is where that joke here comes from. Hagerty, for her part, is more heartbreaking when she recites Darnell's line about memories and sunrises, even though the ZAZ screenplay adds an item regarding Elaine's fond memories of sitting on Ted's face.) Despite the loopy chronology-breaking surrealism of using World War II-era stock footage to depict our hero's experience in the "war," it handles Ted Stryker's "war record" far better than the allegedly-serious movie does, too, just as a matter of cinema: Airplane! not only dispenses with Zero Hour!'s unbearably-clunky narrator-driven prologue, it actually shows us a time when its romantic leads were happy, efficiently detailing how Ted's desire for isolation drove them apart. Frankly, without being the least bit flippant or smug about disaster cinema, Ted and Elaine honestly could represent the genre's best romance.
That ludicrous sense of incongruous sobriety attends so much here. For one thing, ZAZ benefit from a terrifically robust physical production, with a fair amount of location shooting that really helps sell jokes such as Robert Stock punching out pestering activists and evangelists at an airport, and despite a comedy not so burdened by a need to be believable, the modelwork is for the most part every bit equal—if not superior!—to any Airport. The Elmer Bernstein score is so cod-serious it's just serious, a very "Airport" score that, again, might be the best "Airport" score if it were in an Airport movie.
Above all, ZAZ turned out to be, quietly, incredibly adept visual storytellers: one of the things one of them said about Kentucky Fried Movie is that it taught them that if you wanted your screenplay done right, you had to direct, which I interpret as justified shade on Landis. But ZAZ put their money where their mouths were for Airplane!, perhaps never a flashy aesthetic showcase, but awfully close to flawless. They have a way of threading their repeated and elaborated jokes through their editing that works wonders, as well as using cutting to enforce a strict sense of timing—I'm not a "70s comedy" scholar, but they may have perfected the cutaway gag before anybody else, too—and there's their astonishingly intelligent use of the frame itself. Actual, animated cartoons have scarcely ever done it better: there are so many jokes in Airplane! that can only exist because of the frame, or the framing, and the way in which ZAZ use it to carefully and thoughtfully marshal information, revealing it when it would be funniest. Just off the top of my head: the sideways pan to reveal the line of folks waiting their turn to "calm down" a hysterical passenger or Kareem Abdul-Jabar's Lakers shorts (though my favorite example here doesn't even use the borders of the screen, but darkness, and involves a horse). There are maybe just as many jokes that use the essential non-reality of the exterior of the frame to inflict cartoonish nonsense upon the essential reality of the interior—or vice versa. Consider that shot pulled directly from Zero Hour!, of Ted baffled by the technology of the cockpit. ZAZ extend that instrument panel to something like thirty linear feet of gauges and switches and lights, which is hilarious (but, incidentally, also a legitimately effective dramatic beat).
Obviously, I could just keep going "and and and," and doing what I said I wouldn't do. Yet I kind of feel like I've barely scratched the surface of such a dense stack of comedy. That's always the problem: really superb comedy can be so intricate that an annotated screenplay or a commentary track won't fully explicate why something's funny, when "why is this funny?" might not even be that useful a question to answer anyway. Is Airplane! the best comedy of all time? I dunno, The Naked Gun's pretty good, too.
*For these limited rhetorical purposes, I'll accept that The China Syndrome is not a disaster movie.
**It wasn't even Zero Hour!'s first remake: the first, Terror In the Sky, a TV movie, came out in 1971.