When it first crash-landed in cinemas 40 years ago, the movie “Airplane!” wowed critics and audiences with its fast-and-loose brand of humor and still remains as one of the most consistently uproarious laugh fests ever filmed, and has since then become a comedy classic.
“Airplane!” (1980) is a comedy in the great tradition of high school skits. Somewhat similar to movies by Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein), but audiences had probably never before encountered such a sheer volume of gags that hit them, they are so relentless that the bad ones don’t have time to develop an odor. There are puns, pratfalls, provocations, foreground/background dynamics, double entendres, references to film and TV and popular commercials, random acts of silliness and absurdity, and every possible strain of what would later be categorized as a “dad joke”.
In writing and directing “Airplane!,” the creative triumvirate of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker (later known as ZAZ) combined vaudevillian humor, oddball non-sequiturs, dirty jokes, and visual gags into a unique flurry of funny.
The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team understood that a good comedy needs a straight man, and they found one in ‘Zero Hour!’, a largely forgotten 1957 drama that served as a primary source of inspiration. And not a source like Top Gun that would later serve as the inspiration for the Abrahams solo projects Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux.
This was a topsy-turvy world where the roughest bar brawlers are feisty Girl Scouts, a military commander fights his way through religious recruiters at LAX, and a Boeing 747 sign features “no smoking” and “no screwing” light displays. And then there was the witty wordplay: “Surely you can’t be serious?” “I am serious — and don’t call me Shirley.”
The ZAZ team cast newcomers Robert Hays and Julie Haggerty in the leads and bucked comedy convention by casting veteran dramatic actors — Leslie Nielsen (who plays the doctor), Peter Graves, Robert Stack, and Lloyd Bridges (of Hot Shots! and Police Academy fame) — to lampoon the types of serious roles they were known for by acting like they were still in a dramatic picture.
The casting of Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack is perfect, he is the onboard physician who tends to the sick passengers while giving Stryker the occasional pep talk. Though Nielsen had appeared briefly in Kentucky Fried Movie, the anthology comedy ZAZ wrote before Airplane!, he spent the first 25 years of his career as a character actor for film and television, with appearances in Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure, but nothing that made him a name.
Two years later there was a sequel called “Airplane II: The Sequel”, but this time in space! The sequel features almost the same cast except for Leslie Nielsen, although adding William Shatner.