AIRPLANE! - My Foundations in Funny
“Airplane!” is a movie I love because it did more than any other to build my sense of humor.
Everyone has that film or collection of films that would be considered “foundations” in their lives. These are the movies that helped build and shape their personality, mentality, and outlook on the world. These are the films people grew up watching and never left behind. I have several in this category, and I’m thankful for every one of them. When it comes to the films that established my sense of humor, especially at a young age, one movie stands out, well, flies above the rest of the bunch. I’m talking about “Airplane!”, the 1980 comedy classic from Jim Abrahams and David & Jerry Zucker. To this day, I’ll contend there hasn’t been a funnier movie ever made.
I can’t remember the first time I watched “Airplane!”, but I know it came when I was very young. My childhood was blessed with the opportunities to watch movies like this one, “Spaceballs”, “Ghostbusters”, and a slew of other gem from' the ‘80s. The advent of cable television and the VCR made for a wonderful early film education. While the memory of when I first put eyes upon “Airplane!” has faded, I do know that I probably laughed from start to finish. The humor of this movie immediately registered with me, even if I didn’t get all the jokes quite yet. There was enough going on to let me know this film is funnier than everything else out there. I knew it at a young age, and I still know it at 37.
What makes “Airplane!” work is that there is no joke too small or broad to go after. The film is a masterclass in joke variety. You have some pretty high brow and high concept one liners and visual gags, but on the same hand, you literally have shit hitting a fan when things are going wrong or an arrow flying into a watermelon for no reason other than to get a laugh. “Airplane!” is a movie that believes in trying to get everyone to laugh. This is a movie that has jive subtitles with a payoff featuring Barba Billingsley, a sequence involving a wounded soldier thinking he’s Ethel Merman and actually being played by Ethel Merman, and the best “drinking problem” ever depicted on celluloid.
Johnny, the sneaky and hilarious air traffic controller, was my favorite character as a kid because he was so over the top. Now that I’m an adult, I still love every scene he has, but I can also appreciate the subtle humor on display. One of my favorite stories from the DVD commentary, which I have listened to HUNDREDS of times, is something Robert Stack told Lloyd Bridges. Bridges didn’t understand why they were cast in place of comedians. Stack straight up told him, “Lloyd, we are the joke”. I wouldn’t have understood that as a kid, but now I get a kick out how the casting in this film, from Stack and Bridges to Leslie Nielsen’s turn as a comedic straight man, might be the biggest joke of them all.
Maybe the most important reason why “Airplane” works is that nothing is scared in this film. The plot is a straight rip of a 1950’s movie called “Zero Hour” (Abrahams and Zucker bought the rights to “Zero Hour), but it’s also a brilliant spoof on the 1970’s disaster film genre. Where all those films were serious entries that contained a direct political message, “Airplane!” is a film that just roasts every ounce of seriousness with a childlike glee and delight. There is a political message at play in “Airplane!”, and it’s probably more important than the ones at play in the 1970’s disaster films. “Airplane!” shows nothing is above being made fun of or laughed at. Institutions can be flawed. People in authority can be clueless. Airline pilots can look at Turkish prisons with fondness. It was a wonderfully subversive message to receive at a young age, and it was continued in a great deal with the film’s spiritual sequel, “The Naked Gun”.
The writing of this post coincides with “Airplane!” being shown at The Alabama Theater as part of the venue’s summer film series. It will be the first time I’ve seen this movie in a theater setting, and I can’t wait to howl in laughter with the rest of the audience. I have a feeling there will lots of other people who had “Airplane!” build their sense of humor over the years. I also have a feeling there will be people just now discovering the movie. That’s a great thing to consider. “Airplane!” might have some dated material in it, but funny is funny. “Airplane!” is funny. It’s the funniest movie ever made. This is why “Airplane!” is a move that I love.