AIRPLANE!: Surely It Can’t Be That Funny

A disaster movie that will leave you crying…with laughter. Strap in, pay attention to the pre-flight briefing, and examine what makes Airplane! a definite addition to The Rotation. 

So…what’s it all about?

Did you ever have a film that you would watch over and over again when you were a child? It probably won’t surprise you, given the premise behind The Rotation, that the film that fit this criteria for me was the Disney Robin Hood, an animated version of the classic story with a couple of sexy foxes. I knew the dialogue inside-out, and I could probably quote or act out the entire film for you, and I probably did repeatedly for my exasperated parents. Parents in particular will probably relate to this frustrating stage that their kids go through the most as they’re forced to endure ‘Frozen’ or ‘Moana’ on a constant loop that, at best, leads to them embarrassingly humming the songs aloud in their office or, at worst, is considered a form of slow torture that slowly erodes the love that they have for their children. Full disclosure, I’m not a parent…I assume this is correct.

Airplane! offers the adult me the closest I’ve ever come to this feeling that I had when I was a child. It’s a film that I will watch whenever I come across it on TV, I’ll watch it on streaming services, and even throw the DVD on if I’m feeling in the mood for an old-fashioned approach. When it’s on I’ll find myself reciting punchlines out loud (to the chagrin of whoever is in my immediate area) and even start chuckling at the thought of the next sight gag or joke that’s due to appear onscreen. People will undoubtedly hate watching this film with me as I sit there practically living the entire film on my sofa.

The plot of Airplane! is, on the face of it, a simple story that follows the troubled flight of passenger plane flying from Los Angeles to Chicago. The pilot, co-pilot, and many of the passengers are incapacitated by food poisoning, and it’s up to ex-fighter pilot Ted Striker to take control of the plane and land it safely in Chicago. Ted is unfortunately a traumatised pilot who hasn’t flown since the war since being involved in doomed air mission, and he was only on the plane to try and win back his ex-girlfriend, flight Attendant Elaine Dickinson, after they broke due to his obsession over this mission. At first glance the film seems to be a fairly ordinary story typical of the disaster movie genre of the early and mid-20th century, with writers and directors David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, noting that they are times parodying exact scenes from the 1957 film Zero Hour! The film, however, is elevated from its substandard origins by the introduction of jokes…and I mean a bucketload of jokes!

Comedy is an often a subjective medium that will divide friends and family. I usually have to remind myself of this fact when I launch into a rant at my mum and grandparents insisting that we turn over to Mrs Brown’s Boys when I return home to visit. Comedy TV, films, and comedians will divide families and friends across political divides (right wing comedians are generally a rare breed) and across age differences. Airplane! is the exception to this comedy rule. I’ve yet to come across anyone who says that they hate this film. You can introduce this film to anybody, of any age and background, and they will find a joke, visual gag, pun, or actor that will elicit a groan, chuckle, guffaw, or belly laugh.

The main stars of the film, Robert Hays (Ted Striker) and Julie Hagerty (Elaine Dickinson), are relative newcomers, but they are supported by genuine acting stars who must have taken some convincing to appear in a film that appears to lampoon their carefully crafted onscreen personas. Peter Graves (Captain Oveur), Lloyd Bridges (Steve McCroskey), and Robert Stack (Captain Kramer) all play their roles straight whilst the comedic chaos happens around them or even comes out of their mouths.

Dr Rumack

However, it’s Leslie Nielsen as Dr Rumack who steals the show, appearing midway through the film as the calm doctor dealing with the sick passengers and delivering the film’s most quoted line.

Ted Striker: “Surely you can’t be serious.”

Dr. Rumack: “I am serious. And don’t  call me Shirley.” 

The entire cast of pilots, aircrew, passengers, air-traffic control staff, hospital patients, and African villagers – including a notable appearance of Basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a pilot trying to escape the pressures of the NBA – make the apparent ludicrous tick along and all are given a chance to shine in the story, and inevitably amongst all of the jokes.


What’s good about it?

You’ve often heard the adage ‘quality over quantity’ in all walks of life, and the same is often said about comedy. Airplane! appears to take that notion and laugh in its face. The jokes individually on their own in this film are genuinely funny, but it’s greatest strength is the sheer machine-gun rate of jokes that simply bombard you over its hour and a half running time. Empire Magazine, and also Movie Muse, once did a feature where they recorded every joke featured in the film and the sheer amount make you wonder how they fit them all in whilst making the story flow naturally. Movie Muse claims that there are 223 jokes in an 86-minute film, which equates to a joke every 2.6 jokes per minute. You simply haven’t got time to get your breath back from laughing at one joke before another comes along, and it’s this that makes me come back for more.

“Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”


What’s not so good about it?

You can probably tell that Airplane! is amongst my favourite films ever and, if I’m honest, I’m struggling to find a fault with it. You could argue that the success of Airplane! inevitably led to the introduction of other parody TV and film shows that could never reach the mark of the original and best. Its own follow-up, Airplane II: The Sequel, feels at time like a parody of a parody, and never quite moves beyond feeling like a cheap copy of the original. If it feels that I’m being overly harsh on the sequel then you’d be correct…I genuinely love watching it. It has some one-off gags that could legitimately fit into the original and has a brilliant, but brief, appearance from William Shatner. It’s most notable critics would appear to be the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams who were not involved in the film at all, and state that they have no desire to ever watch it. They eventually went on to make the less successful, but similarly hilarious Top Secret!, as well as bringing Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin to life in Police Squad! and the Naked Gun films. Depending on how you feel about these films, and many of the parody comedy genre that proceeded them, you can argue that Airplane! may have set the bar too high and introduced a genre of film that occasionally attracts lazy studios and filmmakers aiming, but ultimately always failing, to copy the success of Airplane!

That’s impossible! They’re on instruments.


Favourite Scenes/Lines

  • Autopilot Blow Job – pretty self explanatory
  • Drinking Problem – innocent me never got this joke the first time I saw this film
  • Roger, Oveur, Vector – wordplay of the finest quality
  • Captain Kramer’s Mirror – one of the finest sight gags ever committed to film (possibly only equalled by the sequel’s Shatner door gag)
  • “Johnny, how ’bout some coffee?” – “No thanks
  • Speaking Jive – “Jive-ass dude don’t got no brains, anyhow.”


Finally….why is it in The Rotation?

It’s quite simply the funniest and most quoted comedy film ever made…I will never tire of insisting that people watch it. Surely this must be the reason I’m still single…

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