The stridently horny frat-house slapstick that defined the Kentucky Fried Theater’s aesthetic resulted in what could be considered the comedic equivalent of repeated premature ejaculations. The punchlines come quick and thick, with little foreplay or consideration for anything other than getting a physical reaction from the audience. Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker’s initial foray into film was the thoroughly disjointed, sporadically hysterical Kentucky Fried Movie, a raunchy, shapeless collection of movie- and TV-spoofing skits. Though the centerpiece Bruce Lee riff “A Fistful of Yen” demonstrated a reasonable level of “to-to concentwaysun” (as the kung fu master would lisp), the rest was content to show little girls frying cats in Wesson oil or bigger girls introducing each others’ bare titties by name (“Nancy, this is Susan. Susan, this is Nancy”). So it must’ve been something of a shock when their hit 1980 follow-up Airplane! sustained a single premise—spoofing the Airport disaster films—for its entire running time, and did so without lagging or going limp.
The reason for this is because the ZAZ team framed their zaniest conceits (having Barbara Billingsley trade jive with two unreceptive African-Americans, sparking a ferocious, furniture-smashing barroom brawl between two Girl Scouts, undercutting a scene of plane cabin panic by having a big-breasted woman run in front of the action for a single jiggly second) with an uncredited, scene-for-scene fabrication of a forgotten ’50s airplane actioneer called Zero Hour (based on a novel by Airport author Arthur Hailey). And they restaged the film with straight faces, hiring a phalanx of mandarin B-list square-jaws like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, and Peter Graves to deliver the corny action lingo as though they didn’t notice the watermelons dropping or arrows zinging around behind them. The tossed salad of sight gags, incidental vulgarity, fourth-wall obliteration, strident stupidity, intentional chintziness, Stephen “There’s a sale at Penneys” Stucker’s late-emerging faggotry and freeze-dried camp felt, at the time, like a new genre.
It wasn’t. The films of Frank Tashlin, Jerry Lewis, and Hope and Crosby all worked the same territory, ZAZ just took it as far as it would go without snapping (i.e. the old lady who disapproves of a man sipping from his whiskey flask only to turn around and sniff a few lines of blow). But ZAZ’s contribution to the blackout piss-take genre, and the main reason that none of their follow-up films seemed even remotely as “novel” as Airplane!, is that they assessed the humorlessness of antiquated thrillers and deemed it camp, across the board. Because their key ingredient is that all of Airplane!’s characters are unflappably ignorant to the fact that they’re surrounded by a comedy, the ZAZ formula has unfortunately provided the template for a lot of unnecessary revisionism. So even though the blockbuster is one of the most relentlessly inventive American comedies altogether (“one of the most relentlessly inventive American comedies”), it has impugned the ability for a lot of taut, professional but now outmoded dramatic filmmaking to take any serious response from some modern audiences, a trend for which the equally ingenious MST3K would pound the final coffin nail. For the benefit of a truly limitless comedy where no reference point would ever be too beyond the pale and the only faux pas is taking any film at face value, ZAZ, Joel, and his bots have unwittingly sculpted an army of cultural demolition monkeys, ready to pounce on and mock practically any half-assed but harmless film that has the bad fortune to have been produced before Brando’s second Oscar.