There have been so many movie parodies by now that the genre is probably ripe for a parody of its own, yet nobody's done it better than the granddaddy of them all, Airplane!. A Marx Brothers farce wrapped around an Arthur Hailey melodrama and given a couple of whirls in the blender, Airplane! celebrated its 30th birthday last night with a showing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which was followed by a Q&A with the gracefully aging ZAZ boyz (Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams) who cooked it up.
The first hour or so of Airplane! is so crowded with laughs that it had me crying, though there may be a little too much dead air in the last third or so, when traumatized pilot Ted Striker and his sweet stewardess girlfriend Elaine are landing the plane. (The directors acknowledged as much when someone asked if they'd been approached to do the sequel. Yes, Abrahams said, but they'd run out of airplane jokes by then. "Ran out of them by the second half of the movie, actually," said David Zucker.)
The jokes about Gerald Ford and disco and Hare Krishna panhandlers may be dated too, and I suppose some people won't get the references to other movies or to '70s ads. But none of that matters much, since what makes Airplane! soar are the evergreen bits that make it so gleefully silly. Like the misunderstandings over names, some of which ("We have clearance, Clarence." "Roger, Roger. What's our vector, Victor?") are as good as "Who's on First?" or the "Why a Duck?" sequence in The Cocoanuts. Or the plays on words—all those puns ("Don't call me Shirley!") and subtitled jive talk, and the pidgin translations below the plane's lit-up instructions to passengers that flash things like "Putanna da seatbeltz." Like the drinking problem that plagues Ted after he gets PTSD in the war (it's not that he drinks too much alcohol; he just keeps missing his mouth). Like McCroskey's escalating "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit…" bit, which starts with cigarettes and ends with methamphetamines, or one-man dada factory Stephen Stucker, who subverts the plot and steals the scene every time he comes on as Johnny the airheaded air traffic controller.
Knitting together all that barely controlled mayhem is the straight-faced storyline the ZAZ team stole from Arthur Hailey's Zero Hour. They play the humorless '50s melodrama totally straight, from Ted and Elaine's generic dialogue to the doctor's stern directive ("The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing—finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner!"), which was lifted word for word from the original. That brilliant choice—their insistence on making what David Zucker decribed as "a comedy without comedians," lets them play it both ways: making us laugh at the corniness of the drama while making us care about the characters.
Elmer Bernstein's perfect B-movie score, which is just what the directors ordered, does the same thing. As David Zucker put it: "Elmer did pretty much what we asked the actors to do: not wink."
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.