Movies That Everyone Should See: “Airplane!”

Male announcer: The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone.
Female announcer: The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone.
Male announcer: The red zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the white zone.
Female announcer: No, the white zone is for loading of passengers and there is no stopping in a RED zone.
Male announcer: The red zone has always been for loading and unloading of passengers. There’s never stopping in a white zone.
Female announcer: Don’t you tell me which zone is for loading, and which zone is for stopping!
Male announcer: Listen Betty, don’t start up with your white zone shit again.

In 1970, Universal Pictures released “Airport”. Based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Hailey, it featured an enormous ensemble cast, including many big name stars, notably, Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, and George Kennedy. In it, a suicidal passenger smuggles a suitcase bomb onto a passenger airplane and sets it off, hoping to leave his family with the life insurance proceeds. The crew is then forced to turn around and attempt to land the damaged plane during a fierce snow storm.

The movie was a huge success. It grossed over $100 million dollars… in 1970. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $500 million in today’s dollars. But it wasn’t just a financial success, it was also nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won one (Best Supporting Actress, Helen Hayes).

With that type of success, a sequel was sure to follow. A little over three years later, in 1974, “Airport ’75″ was released. Again it featured a large ensemble cast, but this time they also secured the services of Charlton Heston. In it, a mid-air collision with a small passenger plane threatens the safety of a jumbo airliner. In order to add excitement (at the expense of realism), a substitute pilot is airlifted onto the damaged 747 mid-flight.

“Airport ’75″ grossed half of its predecessor, and no awards were in the offing. Still, the return on investment it made for Universal triggered another “Airport” movie, “Airport ’77″. In their continuing effort to up the ante, this time a hijacker plot causes the airliner to crashes in the ocean, and the plane winds up sinking. Yet it remains water tight… the eventual rescue is an undersea effort. As ridiculous as that is, the film still brought in $30 million on a $6 million dollar budget, so the series continued with “The Concord… Airport ’79″. In this installment, a trafficker in illegal nukes wants to assassinate a passenger on the Concorde, and attempts to do so by blowing the entire plane out of the air via fighter jets and guided missiles. International air forces respond, but the damaged airplane eventually has to crash-land anyways.

The film was the first in the “Airport” series to fail to recoup its budget ($13m gross on a budget of $14m).

Audiences had had enough.

Enter “Airplane!”

The Zucker brothers (David and Jerry), along with co-writer and co-director Jim Abrahams, had been hoping to do an airplane disaster movie spoof for years. While trying to research late night tv commercials to parody in the script for “The Kentucky Fried Movie”, they had accidentally recorded “Zero Hour!”

“Zero Hour!” is, literally, “Airplane!” played straight. Released in 1957, “Zero Hour!” is a predecessor to the “Airport” series of the seventies. In it, the flight crew of a passenger plane succumb to food poisoning. Their only hope rests on the shoulders of former military pilot Ted Stryker. Years earlier, Stryker’s squadron was killed due to one of his command decisions. Stryker’s Captain from the war is called in to talk him through the landing.

Sound familiar? Because it is. The producers purchased the rights to “Zero Hour!” outright in order to retain the plot. The unintentionally laughable film was now being played intentionally for laughs. Check out some of the similarities in these “Zero Hour!” quotes to those from “Airplane!”

Capt. Bill Wilson, Pilot: Come on, move up here, you can see better. [Takes out a toy DC-4] Joey, here’s something we give our special visitors. Would you like to have it?
Joey Stryker: Thank you! Thanks a lot!
Capt. Bill Wilson, Pilot: You ever been in a cockpit before?
Joey Stryker: No, sir! I’ve never been up in a plane before!

Dr. Baird: Our survival hinges on one thing – finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner.

Treleaven: Ted, that was probably the lousiest landing in the history of this airport. But there are some of us here, particularly me, who would like to buy you a drink and shake your hand. We’re coming over.

So with the comedic framework in place, the writers/directors began to fill in the film with jokes.

Everywhere they could.

Literally, in every moment and way they could. There isn’t a minute that goes by that the film isn’t currently trying to get you to laugh. Honestly, there may not even be a thirty-second stretch without a joke.

There’s the spoofs, of course. The film obviously spoofs the “Airport” series, such as a sick girl needing an organ transplant (a role played by Linda Blair in “Airport ’75″) being entertained by someone singing and playing guitar. But it also spoofs other classic films as well. In seemingly haphazard fashion, “Airport!” throws around spoofs of and/or references to “Saturday Night Fever”, “From Here to Eternity”, “Jaws”, and “Knute Rockne, All American”, just to name a few.

But it’s not just a spoof movie. “Airplane!” uses every trick in the book to get laughs. There is practically no comedy strategy that the movie doesn’t attempt to use to some degree or another. Take the casting, for example.

Leslie Nielson, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, and Robert Stack were all known as dramatic actors prior to their roles prior to this film. Their collective filmographies are all nearly completely devoid of comedic roles pre-”Airplane!”. Additionally, Bridges, Stack and Graves had each done serious roles in Airport related movies or tv shows. Here, their established dramatic reputations work to add humor by flipping audiences expectations on their head. Previously, each of these men exclusively played no-nonsense, straight arrow characters. Here, the gravitas the audience was conditioned to expect from them turns out to be levity instead. They all use their dramatic talents to their benefit, as well, delivering completely ridiculous material with straight faces.

The audience is left thinking, “Surely, they can’t be serious”.

Speaking of “they can’t be serious”, how ridiculous is casting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as co-pilot Roger Murdoch? Completely random, right? At the time, Kareem was right at the beginning of his Lakers career. The Lakers had just drafted “Magic” Johnson, and the “Showtime” dynasty was about to take off. In the year “Airplane!” was released, he would collect the last of his six NBA MVP Awards. “Airplane!” wasn’t his first acting role, he had a role in the Bruce Lee film, “Game of Death”, and his appearance actually spoofs the role of Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch as a pilot in “Zero Hour!”. But to the viewer, Abdul-Jabbar’s presence in the cockpit is a ridiculous non-sequitur, especially when Billy, the young cockpit guest starts calling him out in meta fashion.

There are other cameos, as well. Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver from “Leave It to Beaver”) “speaks jive” Ethel Merman plays a shell-shocked soldier who’s convinced he’s… Ethel Merman. Jimmie Walker – at the height of his “Good Times”, “Dyn-o-mite!” popularity – checks the plane’s oil before takeoff.

The movie has no downtime. If there’s an open moment, it’s filled with a one liner, or a sight gag, oftentimes just some random, odd, offhanded interjection.

Some examples… The bouncing heart during the Mayo Clinic call, Captain Oveur getting his credit card swiped during pre-flight, the smoking ticket which literally emits smoke. The seatbelt sign with pig English. The nun reading “Boys life” while the boy reads “Nun’s Life”, girl scouts who get into a bar brawl. The painting of the contortionist soldier rescuing a baby that Stryker is making in the hospital. Siamese twins  show up to take orders from McCroskey. The line of people, some armed, who form to beat the hysterical female passenger. A spear lands in a wall map, followed by a watermelon that drops on the desk from above. The washing machine in the radar room.

They get a lot of mileage out of literal interpretation of phrases, such as the shit hitting the fan, getting every light they can on the runway, the oil light reading “a little low”, checking the radar range, and of course, people getting in “Crash Position”.

But not all the jokes are quick and disposable, “Airplane!” makes use of “running gags” like no other movie. In order, tower supervisor Steve McCroskey “picked the wrong week to quit”: smoking, drinking, amphetamines, and sniffing glue. Striker has a drinking problem. Three people commit suicide while listening to him talk about Elaine. Ominous thunder and lightning sounds on multiple occasions, whenever something particularly negative is said in the cockpit. There are three “What is it?” jokes in the film.

  • “Headquarters? What is it?” “Well, it’s a big building where Generals meet, but that’s not important right now.”
  • “A hospital? What is it?” “It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now”
  • “The Cockpit? What is it?” “It’s a little room up in the front of the plane where the pilots sit, but that’s not important right now”

Leslie Nielsen asks Robert Hays not to call him Shirley… twice.

“I just wanted to say good luck, we’re all counting on you”

It’s an avalanche of comedy.

There isn’t a single avenue that “Airplane!” doesn’t attempt in order to score a laugh. The jokes come in rapid fire succession, giving the film an absurd, madcap, zany feel. It’s full of spoofs, puns, character humor and visual humor. There are racist jokes, religious jokes, sexual jokes, pedophile jokes, bestiality jokes, and drug jokes. Johnny bounces around flamboyantly. Robert Hays breaks the fourth wall to say, “What a pisser”. They give characters names that are jokes themselves, such as Randy, the Stewardess, or names which will set up a joke somewhere down the line. “We have clearance, Clarence”, “Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?”

They feature an inflatable pilot who enjoys getting blown up.

The humor comes so fast and furious that you’re bound to connect to something, and shortly thereafter, you buy into everything. The writing, direction and performances are all phenomenal. This was the first role for Julie Hagerty, but she’s perfect as the spacey Elaine. Robert Hays had been bouncing around TV guest spots and projects prior to “Airplane!”, but he gives a great turn as the confidence shaken, nervous Striker. Nielsen, Graves, Stack and Bridges give fantastic, career changing turns in their first notable comedic roles. Bridges and Nielsen would primarily be known for comedy from this point forward in their careers.

“Airplane!” was a huge financial success when it was released, grossing over $83 million (in 1980) in North America alone, against a budget of merely $3.5 million.

It is universally regarded now as one of the funniest movies of all time. It’s #10 on AFI’s “100 Years…100 Laughs” Total Film readers voted it the second greatest comedy of all time. Empire magazine selected it the funniest comedy of all time. In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

“Airplane!” certainly wasn’t the first spoof movie in history, but it is undeniably the most influential. It’s spawned a slew of lesser imitators in the decades following. It was given a direct sequel “Airplane II: The Sequel” and spiritual successors in the “Naked Gun” movies. It is undeniably the great grandaddy of the “Scary Movies”, “Not Another” Movies, “Vampires Suck”, “Meet the Spartans”, “Disaster Movie”, etc, etc. But none of them have ever risen to the level of the original, which is an incomparable piece of comedy.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See.”

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53 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Airplane!”

  1. An out-in-out comedy classic!!! An so damn influential, at that. We’re still reverberating to the laughter and gags this one pulled 32 years ago. Wonderful write-up, Dan. Well done.

    • I love it… it’s influence though, eesh. So many films wind up horrible trying to walk this road. Even the Zucker brothers cant replicate its success (Although the Naked Gun movies were great)

      That said, you’re 100% correct. 30 + years old, and still feels as alive as a current release. Any number of quotes can be pulled out from this movie and everyone will know EXACTLY what you’re saying :D

      • Yeah, those who’ve tried to recapture its humor is a decidedly mixed bag. Naked Gun movies worked for the most part, and I thought Jim Abrahams’ ‘Hot Shots! Part Deux’ did, as well. That Charlie and Martin Sheen reference and cameo to ‘Apocalypse Now’ was a particularly deft one (but, that could only be me ;-)). Thanks.

  2. One of the two funniest films ever, the other being “Animal House”. Didn’t know about “Zero Hour”. I can hear the Zuckers now as they play back the tape. Here a gag, there a gag, everywhere a total gag. Reminds me of what Woody Allen did with “What’s Up Tiger Lilly?” insert comic dialogue over a grade B Japanese detective movie and madness ensues!
    Well researched, well written MTESS. Again. Damn you’re good!

    • :D Thank you sir, just… don’t call me Shirley.

      I had heard of Zero Hour! I just didnt know until I looked up some quotes exactly HOW closely this movie tracked with it. Up til this I had thought it was just sort of a…. loose inspiration. Apparently it was much more of a road map than I had thought!

      Now I want to see it pretty badly actually. Cause Im a big fan of this movie.

  3. Great choice Fogs, great choice. Its funny that the spoof has become far more recognized than the movies it spoofs. (Also, re: the airport movies, its nice to know that running movie franchises into the ground isn’t a recent phenomenon). But the reason its transcended those movies is because as you said its more than a spoof. They really do throw everything at us!
    Actually, some research was just released that showed Airplane as being the funniest movie of all time based on # of laughs a minute.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/9525372/Airplane-funniest-film-ever-research-finds.html

    • NICE addition via comment, Ian! :D

      I swear, that was all I could think as I started to speak to this movie. I was like, god damn, the laughs are so dense! I’m actually surprised they only score three laughs per minute, that would mean a joke every 20 seconds. Honestly, it seems less than that. Probably because the laugh lasts a little while, which cuts into that 19 second downtime before the next one. :D

      Nice share man, thank you!

  4. One hilarious MTESS. :-)
    I knew of “Airport” 1970s movies but had never heard of Zero Hour and the road map effect; so surprising but very effective humour. A solid hallmark of comedy with this post Fogs.

    Randy[the stewardess ;-) ]: Can I get you something?
    Second Jive Dude: ‘S’mofo butter layin’ me to da’ BONE! Jackin’ me up… tight me!
    Randy: I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
    First Jive Dude: Cutty say ‘e can’t HANG!
    Jive Lady(Barbara Billingsley, TV’s Mrs. Cleaver): Oh stewardess! I speak jive.
    Randy: Oh, good.
    Jive Lady: He said that he’s in great pain and he wants to know if you can help him.
    Randy: All right. Would you tell him to just relax and I’ll be back as soon as I can with some medicine?
    Jive Lady: [to the Second Jive Dude] Jus’ hang loose, blood. She gonna catch ya up on da’ rebound on da’ med side.
    Second Jive Dude: What it is, big mama? My mama no raise no dummies. I dug her rap!
    Jive Lady: Cut me some slack, Jack! Chump don’ want no help, chump don’t GET da’ help!
    First Jive Dude: Say ‘e can’t hang, say seven up!
    Jive Lady: Jive ass dude don’t got no brains anyhow! Sheeeee…
    - Airplane, 1980

    • Ok. I just want to ask, did you have trouble deciding WHICH quote to go with? Cause I had thought as I was posting this, this is one that’s gonna Hurt S’ brain. :D

      *Hanging Lady* : Nervous? *Ted Striker *: Yes. *Hanging Lady *: First time? *Ted Striker *: No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.

      • Oh yeah; this whole movie is quote filled.
        Just to give context I brain burped and regurgitated a whole scene;
        though Billingsley would’ve sufficed.

        Rumack: I just want to tell you both good luck. We’re all counting on you.

  5. It wasn’t just the film industry. I remember that while I was in gradeschool, in the second half of the 70′s, there were a slew of made-for-T.V. airplane disaster movies. We seem to be stuck on comic book hero’s now, but back then, it was all about air travel disaster.

    • Its true. Obviously the “Airport” series were the most prominent, but you’re right. TV had ‘em all over the place too. Hijackings and suicide bombers and plane malfunctions. :D Seriously, Stack, Bridges AND Graves all did either feature films or tv projects that were straightfaced Airport disaster films prior to this. It’s part of the reason they got chosen for the roles :)

  6. My all time favorite comedy. Little blooper you might not know about. In the disco scene when Julie flips Robert off camera, it’s a stunt double. As he flies off, look at the lower right of the screen. You’ll see Robert Hayes crouched down, ready to spring onto the set. I remember the first time I saw “Airplane”. Laughed so hard I was crying. You had to see it multiple times to finally get all the jokes. (I also managed to record “Zero Hour” from Turner Classics one night.)

    • You’re right, it’s absolutely bursting at the seems with gags. There’s no way someone catches them all the first time through. And then, even after that, I think this is one of those that everytime you see it, something new hits you. I mean, I’ve seen all the jokes a hundred times now, its just that everytime you watch it, something new strikes you as hysterically funny that never did before.

      This time it was Rex Kramer’s ramble on the mike after the plane lands. He was slaying me. “Municipal Bonds, Ted, I’m talking AA Rating… the best investment in America!” I was rolling. Just insanely funny to me yesterday.

  7. Great choice and great wite up! I never knew about Zero Hour. Were you able to find it and screen it? Is it worth checking out, just for the comparison?

    So many great lines and gags its almost impossible to single some out for notice over others, but being a child of the 70s those probably stand out more for me than others. The tower scenes with Johnny are probably some of my favorites as well.

    • I have not been able to find it. Had I known it was so significant, I might have looked into it in advance. Thats the type of thing they should just include on the bonus features of the “Ultimate Version” DVDs… kind of like Scarface did with the orginal Scarface (33).

      It’s on my agenda now though, so I’ll circle back about it if I ever do get a chance to catch it, because I’m such a fan of THIS one, I feel like I need to know the “origin story” all the way through, you know?

      Meanwhile, I think this one is still going strong. I dont think its started to fade that much. The reputation of this movie is rock solid. Word is out and the youngsters are picking up the ball and moving it forward here, man.

  8. Often imitated. Never equaled. Still funny today. I don’t know how much more I can add to the discussion beyond that. I like Airplane. It’s good. This column is 100% spot-on.

  9. It’s one of those movies where you can’t stop laughing. It’s sad to see the state of most parodies these days as they rip off Airplane’s success. Nice review.

    • I know, modern parody movies are so subpar. I think it’s just because they know there’s guaranteed money involved, so they crank them out. This film was so above and beyond any of that that it shouldnt even be mentioned in the same breath…

      Thanks Ck, thank you for checking it out!

  10. Absolutely brilliant comedy. I watched this for the first time when I was around 20 years old, at a friend’s house. There were several of us there, and it came out that a few of us hadn’t seen Airplane!, so we all gathered around to watch. There were chairs, but they wound up being hardly used; we couldn’t stay in them. First time viewers, guys who had seen it twenty times, didn’t matter; we were all rolling.

    • It is brilliant. Its so funny, cause I dont know if they set out to be brilliant or classic or anything, I just think they tried to cram as many jokes as they possibly could into the movie. :D And it worked like crazy.

      One of the funniest movies of all time. :D

  11. Christmas, Ted… what does that mean to you? It was a living hell.

    I reflexively used the “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley” line so much in college, when my band section leader presented everyone with t-shirts with individual nicknames on them, mine was Shirley.

    • Do you know what it’s like to fall in the mud and get kicked… in the head… with an iron boot? Of course you don’t, no one does. It never happens. Sorry, Ted, that’s a dumb question… skip that.

      :D

      He was slaying me this weekened, I think Rex Kramer is the underrated star of that movie. Nielsen, Graves, and Bridges all have their quoted catchphrases… Kramer gets sold short.

      Anyways, that’s good to know, Shirley. I’ll keep that in mind! If you were in Band, did you use the “That’s impossible. They’re on instruments!” line a lot too? :D

  12. Hi, Fogs and company:

    Excellent choice for a cold, rainy, miserable Monday!

    “Give me a vector, Victor!”
    “Don’t call me Shirley.”
    “I guess I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”

    Who knew that Lloyd Bridges could do comedy?

    Superb lines delivered in fine deadpan. Backed up by great visual comedy. Still love the scene where Robert Stack takes off his pilot style Foster Grants and there’s a pair of round Blind Guy glasses behind them. Also the excrement hitting the fan and Otto Pilot!

    • LOTS to love here. Your comment finally broke me down. I needed to change my gravatar anyways, I hope the image doesnt come out too small.

      As I was just saying to K2 above, I love Rex Kramer, he SLAYS me.

      When I was researching this, I hadnt realized how NONE of those four had done comedy. Seriously, looking at their filmographies for a comedy pre-airplane is a losing battle. They all kicked ass though, thats for sure.

      • Hi, Fogs:

        Great looking Avatar!

        I think that may have been part of the hook for the Zucker brothers. Take a gaggle of proven dramatic, never breaks a sweat television and film actors. Stick them in the ultimate ‘Throw it against the wall and see what sticks’ comedy. Then have them deliver their lines as though in a suspenseful tragedy. Well, except for Barbara Billingsley, who was inspired!

        What actor worth his scenery chewing abilities would turn down that
        challenge?

  13. Loved reading about the history of how this film came to be! Thanks for that, Dan!

    Whatever happened to the spoof genre? It’s turned into one of the most hated and cheap ass film genre that most people avoid. Airplane! is a terrific spoof film done so amazingly correct.

    • You know? I dont know what happened. In the 70s, Blazing Saddles and Airplane! were two of the funniest comedies of all time. In the 80s Naked Gun was some fun stuff, too. But after Scary Movie, all of them have really really stank. I think we get too many of them too quickly, and too easily. Cheap knockoffs. Never a recipe for success.

      Anyways, thanks, I was happy to learn about it myself!! :D

  14. Like everyone else says, this film is just a timeless masterpiece of comedy. I really loved this movie, but what I want to know is, “is this the most quoted movie of all time?”. Doesn’t matter where I am there always seems to be a quote from that movie that often comes up in conversation and everyone knows where it came from. And that could be any number of lines from the movie. It must be number 1?

    • Ohhhhhhh.

      Hmmmmm.

      Yeah, thats a good question. I might say…. Caddyshack… just because that has the people who use the quotes all the time for whatever purpose… for example, I like to use “It’s good luck, in Haiti” and “Be the ball”, but it also has the guaranteed golf quotes. People playing golf are contractually obliged.

      But wow, yeah, that is a good question…. lets put it this way, its a LOCK to be in the top five. No doubt. No doubt.

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