Monday, March 30, 2020
March 30, 2020: 80s Comedies: Airplane
[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I decided to AmericanStudy a handful of classic 1980s comic films. Leading up to a special weekend post on one of the best comedies, and films, from 2019!]
On what makes a successful parody, and what makes a truly great one.
1980’s Airplane! wasn’t the first comedic parody film made by the brothers David and Jerry Zucker (that would be 1977’s Kentucky Fried Movie), and it certainly wasn’t the first prominent American parody (that honor might go to Washington Irving’s 1809 History of New York). But Airplane! was one of the most influential parodies and comic films of all time, in many ways launching both the Zucker Brothers and a decade of high-profile parodies including This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Spaceballs (1987), and many many others. It certainly achieved that level of influence first and foremost through doing what a good parody has to do: identifying and ever-so-slightly tweaking a large number of elements of its main target, disaster films (along with many late 1970s secondary targets along the way), until we see them for the true silliness they are. Perhaps the best single example of that is the airport manager played by Lloyd Bridges, a high-profile serious Hollywood action star whose role in the film (as that hyperlinked montage illustrates) starts with a classic disaster movie cliché (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking”) and gradually devolves until total comic chaos (until he’s sniffing glue and hanging upside-down from the ceiling, natch).
Yet Airplane! is more than a successful parody: it’s a truly funny and enduring film, one that stands alone even for audiences who are not particularly or even at all familiar with serious disaster films (which was the case for me when I first saw Airplane!, and likewise for my sons who enjoyed it a great deal as well). One big reason why is its introduction of an element that would remain key to all of the Zucker Brothers films: truly inspired comic wordplay. We’re all familiar with “Surely you can’t be serious!” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley!,” and I may well have used that line a couple or a couple thousand times in my life to date. But for my money, that’s neither the funniest individual moment of wordplay nor the best recurring wordplay joke: for the first I’d go with, “It’s an entirely different kind of flying. Altogether.” “[Everyone] It’s an entirely different kind of flying!”; and for the second I’d go with the film’s many variations of, “We have to get him to a hospital!” “A hospital? What is it?” “It’s a big building full of sick people, but that’s not important right now.” I suppose you could argue that these lines are still parodying clichés from disaster films, but I would say that they’re more representative of the comic genius of the Zucker Brothers and their collaborators, and add a vital layer to the film in any case.
That wonderfully witty wordplay helps individual lines and moments stick with an audience, but for a film as a whole to stick, even a comic parody film, I think it also needs memorable characters, and Airplane! has them in spades. Bridges’ airport employee and Leslie Nielsen’s doctor (he of the “Shirley” lines) are probably the most famous, and rightly so: both of them were well-known as serious actors and action stars, and Airplane! thus both cast them against type very successfully and launched their wonderful second acts as comedy legends. But the film is full of amazing supporting characters, including one (Stephen Stucker’s Johnny) who in the 21st century treads pretty close to offensive or even homophobic but who (thanks to a very effective performance and some really great one-liners) is also still just consistently funny. And as the straight-man hero and heroine (and romantic leads), Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty take what could be thankless roles and invest them with not only humor but genuine backstory and emotion as well. For all these reasons, Airplane! remains one of the great comic parodies and films of all time, and there’s no better movie to launch a decade of comic films (and a series on said decade!).
Next comedy tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 80s comedies (or other comic films) you’d highlight?