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‘Airplane!’ at 35: A Look Back at the Most Brilliant, Nonsensical, Movie Ever Made

Thirty five years? Surely you can’t be serious? We are serious. And don’t call us Shirley.

Airplane Movie Photo

Stuffed Pilot, Julie Hagerty, and Robert Hays in ‘Airplane!’

Airplane! was a dopey low-budget movie with no stars and a script ripped off from a dead serious 1950s drama, and it somehow started a revolution. Its legacy is still felt in spoof movies (which Scary Movie are they up to now? A hundred and six?) but to call Airplane! simply a spoof is to deny its well-rounded brilliance. 

This beloved masterpiece from 1980 has stayed a favorite for so long because it may have, pound for pound, more jokes in it than any other film. Moreover, it isn’t just the sheer number of the gags, but their diversity. What makes this movie work is that the team (Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker, collectively known as ZAZ) tried just every type of joke in the world plus a whole chicken. Let’s take a look back at what was best in each category.

Spoofs

Airplane! was born when the ZAZ team stumbled on the totally straight sky disaster pic Zero Hour! The character names, basic plot (yes, even the bad food) and whole chunks of dialogue are lifted directly from the 1957 film. Plus the 1970s were rife with disaster movies, like the Airport films. (Note: the first Airport, from 1970, is actually a good movie, and only partially deals with a terrorist on a plane. The sequels, and there were three of them, got increasingly more stupid – like the one about the passenger jet trapped at the bottom of the sea.)

But the best spoof moment comes out of left field – a flashback to when Ted Stryker (Robert Hays) met Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) at a bar during “the War,” which suddenly turns into the dance floor from Saturday Night Fever. Hays dramatically throws his white suit jacket out of frame, and strikes a pose – then someone flings it back, hitting him in the face.

Sight Gags

Airplane! opens with a sight gag that’s also a reference – the “fin” of the jet pokes through the clouds as the theme from Jaws plays. There’s also a great visual moment when Robert Stack dramatically yanks off his sunglasses to reveal … a smaller pair of sunglasses underneath.

But maybe a sight gag should just go all-in on being stupid, like a shot of a doctor calling from the Mayo Clinic, revealing his standing before a giant shelf of mayonnaise.

Wordplay

We already touched on “surely you can’t be serious,” one of the most famous (and repeated) zings. Plus the great bit when Stryker says “it’s an entirely different kind of flying, altogether.” And then everyone else in the room repeats “it’s an entirely different kind of flying.” But nothing tops the insanity of Captain Clarence Oveur, co-pilot Roger Murdock and the navigator named Victor all misunderstanding each other as they say “roger” and “over” and ask for “clearance, Clarence” and the “vector, Victor.”

Running Gags

Again, we’re not going with the “Shirley” joke, and we’re not going with the “A hospital/headquarters/cockpit, what is it?” “It’s a (fill in the blank) but that’s not important right now” joke either.

We’re not even going with Lloyd Bridges‘s escalating list of things he should have quit this week (smoking, drinking, sniffing glue.) No, the best running gag in Airplane! is when sad sack Ted Stryker starts telling his tales of woe to a stranger. We dissolve, flash on that story and, when we get back, whomever was listening is on the verge of committing suicide due to boredom. Anyone whose been stuck with a yappy airline passenger can relate.

Unexpected Cameos

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is in this movie, and kinda as himself. It’s weird. He claims to be the co-pilot, but the little boy who comes up to the cockpit (who may or may not like gladiator movies) susses him out. Later, when he’s dragged out when the food makes him sick, he’s wearing his playing uniform. None of it makes any sense.

Surrealism

There are a few things in Airplane! that simply can’t be explained with any logic. Stryker mumbles “boy the s*** is really going to hit the fan” and then we see excrement flying and hitting a fan. Should you ever see this movie in a theater, this gets one of the biggest laughs because there’s no possible way to predict it.

Then there’s the two African Americans who speak to one another in such heave 70s street patois it’s as if it is another language, with subtitles and everything. When the flight attendants need to communicate with them, it’s almost hopeless, until a smiling little old lady (Barbara Billingsley, best known from Leave It To Beaver) interjects. “Oh, Stewardess? I speak jive.”

But the best, weirdest thing about Airplane! has to be the flamboyant trickster Johnny played by Stephen Stucker. Why this Woody Woodpecker-esque lunatic is allowed to run around the air traffic tower causing a mess of things makes ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE. But may be the funniest thing in this movie.

We could go on and on, but the flight’s about to land. There are a thousand additional zings in Airplane! Please shout at us in the comments and tell us how stupid we are for leaving out your favorite.