Airplane! crash lands the disaster film with irresistible farce
Airplane!, the directorial debut of the writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams (who apprenticed on the screenplay of Kentucky Fried Movie), has my vote for the funniest film ever made.
Ostensibly a spoof of the barely remembered 1957 aviation thriller Zero Hour! by way of the Airport disaster franchise, it’s a lively collision of old school vaudeville and anything-goes comic absurdity delivered with crackpot creativity and the juvenile glee of Mad magazine on speed. They lob gags at everyone in the audience from 7 to 70 and don’t bother waiting for anyone to catch up.
The plot — with shell-shocked fighter pilot (Robert Hays) plucked from his passenger seat to fly an airliner when food poisoning lays the crew low — is the cinematic equivalent of a bull’s-eye mark. The writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams unleashes madcap sight gags and demented dialogue with a machine-gun delivery — fast and sloppy and unrelenting — and sees what hits the target. Nothing is too much or too absurd (“When Kramer hears about this, the shit is really going to hit the fan!”).
But it’s the deadpan delivery of ridiculous non sequiturs by the likes of Peter Graves (“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”), Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen and Leave It to Beaver mom Barbara Billingsley (who, luckily for us, speaks jive) and the stone-faced intensity of Robert Stack, who delivers his lines like he’s chewing rocks and spitting out gravel, that sends the comedy into bizarro nirvana. It’s as if the Looney Tunes gang broke into the drama unit sometime in the ’50s and doodled over the studio’s latest humorless thriller.
Stephen Stucker almost steals the film as the dotty air-control prankster whose goofball antics and arbitrary outbursts (“And Leon is getting laaaaarrrrrger!”) seem to boomerang in from the Twilight Zone, but no one else mugs for a laugh here (take note, Leslie Nielsen; you’ve apparently forgotten that it’s funnier when you keep a straight face). Even the score by Elmer Bernstein plays it straight, pounding out a state of high tension that the directors deflate with every giggle.
Is it the best comedy ever made? I don’t know, but it surely is the funniest. I stand by that. And don’t call me Shirley.
Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.