AIRPLANE! – Celebrating 40 Years of Parodic Genius

“Airplane!”, directed by the trio of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, was released forty years ago today, and remains the pre-eminent darling, the elect, the holy grail, of the spoof/parody genre. The plot of the movie (though, admittedly, any notion of legitimate narrative or story is clearly secondary to the jokes and gags) centers on a commercial jet in which the passengers and all of the pilots obtain horrific food poisoning from bad fish. It is up to Ted Striker (Robert Hays), a traumatized ex-Air Force fighter pilot, to cooperate with his ex-lover turned stewardess, Elaine (Julie Hagerty), and guide the plane safely to its landing.

The main target of the film’s satirical crosshairs is, of course, the string of disaster movies that plagued the seventies, in particular the “Airport” film series. Yet, many of the film’s most famous sequences—the opening credits, the dance scene in the bar—are ripped from other, more long-lasting cinema staples ranging from contemporary hits like “Jaws” and “Saturday Night Fever” to classics such as “From Here To Eternity.” Retrospectively, it is impressive to note how the writers chose what were at the time contemporaneous pop culture references (e.g., Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s extended cameo as a co-pilot) that ended up withstanding the test of time so as to be understood sans context even today.

In watching “Airplane!” today, its string of influence and inspiration is obvious. Almost every spoof film released since owes some debt, in one way or another, to their 1980 forebear. Without this film, in what is an unfortunate facet of its legacy, it is hard to imagine that the cinematic abominations by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer would have ever been made (remember how awful “Epic Movie” and “Disaster Movie” were?).

Additionally (as a caveat, this is pure conjecture), there seems to be a link between the world that “Airplane!” presents and the settings of Adam McKay’s movies (e.g., “Step Brothers”). Most comedy takes place in a fairly realistic setting, with humor stemming from the juxtaposition between the oddball antics of certain characters and the surrounding normalcy. Yet “Airplane!”, like McKay’s films, take place in a world where everybody is an utter moron, a population consisting of dunces; they are in parallel universes in which the average IQ is about 60 points lower. Thus, the absurdity of the gag is accentuated either by equally mad surrounding actions or by the totally nonchalant responses of the other people as if the absurd gag were totally normal. This practice had been used in other films before (“Bringing Up Baby” is almost unrelentingly screwball with the majority of its cast being completely bonkers) and was especially prevalent on late-night TV (e.g., “Saturday Night Live”), but “Airplane!” revived it and brought it to new heights (yes, that pun was intentional).

Yet, despite its undeniable influence on certain pockets of comedic cinema, the reason why the original “Airplane!” is still so popular and beloved today is how unlike it is from modern comedies. Most comedies released in the past few years try too hard to be clever or emotionally resonant, and in the obsessive quest for wit or heart, they simply forget to be funny. “Airplane!” understood that sometimes just being unabashedly silly can be the most hilarious thing there is. As a result, the film is juvenile and corny, yet is humorous precisely because it knows and chooses to double-down on its juvenility and corniness. It is crass and sophomoric and it is proud of that; rather than emulate the pretentious, wanna-be witty comedies, it gladly remains and revels in its own stupidity. That is not a slight on the craftsmanship of the movie, which is acute in its attention-to-detail; if you rewatch certain visual gags, you’ll be sure to notice things you missed the last time. Rather, that is just a description of the actual content of the jokes which, if it must be stressed again, is a good thing. Indeed, just consider how great this little piece of dialogue is: “Surely you can’t be serious.” “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” Or who could forget this famous exchange: “We have clearance, Clarence.” “Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?” And then there are the endless sight gags which perfectly complement and encapsulate the gleeful tomfoolish character of the dialogue.

What is also revelatory is, for lack of a better phrase, just how messed-up some of the jokes are. The gallows-suffused humor can especially be rough. In a running gag, the main character Ted tells the story of his past to a number of different passengers who literally kill themselves out of boredom: just to give you a taste, an elderly woman hangs herself and a Japanese commits seppuku. Another scene involves a stewardess playing a song with a nun’s guitar for an ill child: the stewardess accidentally knocks out the little girl’s intravenous tubes with the guitar, and the girl’s struggles go unnoticed by the rest of the plane who are singing inspirational lyrics in joyful harmony.

But that is not even the worst of it. Delving into territory that most films today dare not approach, almost every group of people (religion and race) will find themselves the butt of at least one joke. “Airplane!” is completely and totally untethered from any notion of decency, restraint, or political correctness. As such, there are definitely moments that will shock and elicit astonishment. Yet, in contradistinction to other 80s comedies that have since aged poorly due to questionable content (looking at you, “Revenge of the Nerds”), “Airplane!” ably maintains its humor by never venturing too far beyond the acceptably provocative. Unbeknownst to directors like Friedberg and Seltzer, there is a fine line separating jokes about stereotypes borne from wry observation or clever punning and low-brow, low-effort negative caricatures. “Airplane!” opts for the former, and thus is still funny today.

Therefore, forty years later, “Airplane!” still soars above as the pinnacle of its genre, leaving a lasting legacy of both good and bad, and remaining a fresh piece of comedy in its own right due to its at-times ballsy subject matter and self-recognition and subsequent exploitation of its sophomoric strengths.