The Reaper respects no holiday, and so it is that two film luminaries passed this past weekend. The first, Leslie Nielsen, needs no introduction. While he first came to notoriety as a dramatic actor, with the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet jumping immediately to mind, it
I suppose it’s fitting that the follow-up to my Jaws tribute is about a movie that begins with an airplane tail fin emerging from beneath clouds, accompanied by a certain instantly recognizable John Williams giant-shark theme. It’s a movie that reinvigorated the subgenre of comedy known as the spoof and also effectively ended the ’70s disaster genre as we knew it. It is of course Airplane!, which opened 30 years ago, on July 2, 1980.
In the early ’70s Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker were writing sketch comedy for their Kentucky Fried Theater group in Madison, Wisconsin. Searching for ideas, they accidentally taped a late-night showing of 1957’s Zero Hour! off of a local TV station. The film stars Dana Andrews as Lieutenant Ted Stryker, a WWII fighter pilot who attempts to land a commercial airliner after the pilot succumbs to food poisoning. Sound familiar? And so the inspiration to do an airplane-movie take-off (I swear that pun was not intended) was firmly planted in the trio’s minds. They wrote a screenplay, but were unable to sell it at the time.
(Interesting side note: the script for Zero Hour! was written by Arthur Hailey, who went on to write the 1968 novel Airport, which was made into a movie two years later and became the forerunner for ’70s disaster films, eventually spawning three sequels of its own.)
Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, as they’re collectively known, went on to write The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), a series of sketches, fake film trailers, and commercial parodies directed by John Landis. For their next project, which would turn out to be Airplane!, they fought for the opportunity to direct their own script.
Everybody can use a good chuckle now and then, but the feeling one gets from uncontrollable laughter is hard to beat. I’m talking about the kind of laughter that makes your face turn red, brings you to tears, and leaves you begging for it to stop, if only for a second. That’s the kind of comedy I’m talking about here. Every film on this admittedly slapstick-heavy list is all about one thing: that bubbling feeling of joy that comes from laughing until your sides hurt.
Airplane! (1980). Truth be told, in terms of sheer laughs, I consider this to be the funniest movie ever made. The jokes come so fast that you don’t even have time to process them all — I think it was around my 15th viewing of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker’s directorial debut that I noticed a vulture lurking in the background in one shot. Just about every single disaster-movie cliche is spoofed, plus a few other genres are thrown in for good measure. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, a woman is shown having an affair with a horse.