When Airplane! appeared on the scene, people acted as if they had never seen anything like it before, but of course they had. What the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams created was a two-hour cinematic vaudeville act. Set-up, punchline. Set-up, punchline. Bah-dum boom. All that was missing was a drummer in every theater to deliver the rimshots.
This is a good thing, too. Movies hadn’t been this funny since the Marx Brothers were making Duck Soup, and haven’t really been this funny since. The only thing to come close to this level of shameless wall-to-wall laughs was Jim Abraham’s and the Zucker Brothers’ short-lived TV classic, Police Squad, which inspired the Naked Gun movies.
As if you need to be told, Airplane! is a send up of the Airport disaster movies of the 1970s. The set-up is simple. Most of the passengers and the entire flight crew are laid low by an outbreak of food poisoning. The plane must land soon and the only pilot on board is Ted Striker (Robert Hays), a washed-up war veteran with a drinking problem (but not the kind you think) and the ability to literally bore people to death. Complicating matters is the fact that his ex-girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) is the head stewardess. Leslie Nielsen is a doctor on board with punchlines better than his bedside manner.
On the ground, the flight controllers in the tower try vainly to keep order. Leading the charge are Steve McCrosky (Lloyd Bridges) and Rex Kramer (Robert Stack), Striker’s old commanding officer, who has good reason to doubt his ability to land the plane. McCroskey, on the other hand, picked the wrong week to quit… well, just about every vice under the stars.
On the plane and on the ground, the one-liners and visual puns fly like shrapnel. A young kidney patient is nearly killed by a singing nun. Two jive-talking black guys are on the plane and the only person who can understand them is played by Barbara Billingsley. Yep, that’s right. June Cleaver gets down. You also have a horny auto-pilot and to make matter’s worse, people can’t stop calling each other “Shirley.”
No movie since Blazing Saddles has a movie been so gleefully willing to cross the lines of what we today call political correctness, all in the name of a joke. In addition to the jive-talking housewife, you have one employee in the flight tower (Stephen Stucker) who’s a mile-a-minute parade of over-the-top gay stereotypes. The original pilot on the plane, Captain Oveur (Peter Graves), likes to ask very inappropriate questions of young boys (“Ever been in a Turkish prison?”). Like Blazing Saddles, we forgive Airplane! its many tresspasses and bad manners because, quite simply, it makes us laugh harder than we have in a long time.
That’s all we ask, right?