Tuesday, September 11, 2018

AIRPLANE AT THE AERO, by Judith Resell

“We said we want to make a comedy with no comedians, so we got turned down a lot,” writer-director David Zucker said of his movie Airplane! (1980) after an August 3, 2018 screening at the Aero Theater. When the film was finally picked up, it was with industry titans Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, so it went well from that point forward.

Photo by Sasha Lebedeva
The unusual casting approach Zucker and his colleague Joel Stein insisted upon was to cast major dramatic actors in parts that parodied their own work, and also allowed them to play the character straight. If the characters in the script were played purely for comedy, it simply wouldn’t work.

At the time the film was made, Robert Stack was famous for playing Eliot Ness in TV’s The Untouchables, Lloyd Bridges for Sea Hunt, Peter Graves for Mission Impossible, and Leslie Nielsen for The Poseidon Adventure (1972), among others. So the basic concept of famous dramatic actors in comic roles was well-accomplished in that cast. Even Ethel Merman has a hilarious cameo and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar played a co-pilot.

The film combines a lot of visual humor, for which movies are the perfect medium, with tongue-in-cheek performances by major actors and a wide-eyed lead played purely for laughs by Robert Hays, who appeared with Zucker and fellow writer-director Jim Abrahams for a Q & A following the screening.

Abrahams described the humor in the film as “MAD Magazine style.” MAD would have a series of panels that were serious, with seemingly straightforward characters, and then the last panel would be the joke and pull the rug out from under the reader. "Then we cut out everything that didn’t work," Abrahams added.

Photo by Sasha Lebedeva
Hays recounts a story where he waited to board an airplane and was recognized by another passenger. “I’m not getting on an airplane with him!” exclaimed the waiting passenger, recalling the trials and tribulations of the passengers in the movie.

The original concept took five years to sell and was turned down by every major studio. Confirming Eisner and Katzenberg’s judgment, the laugh-out-loud funny satire on the disaster movie genre was a critical and financial success, making $83 million on a budget of $3.5 million. It was so successful that Zucker and Abrahams (as well Jerry Zucker, the third part of their trio) kept making films in this signature style, including Top Secret! (1984), Naked Gun (1988) and Naked Gun 2 1/2 (1991).

Like most current comedy stars, Zucker and Abrahams began their careers in live comedy. Zucker recalls the “Kentucky Fried Theater” on Pico Boulevard - a live comedy venue he created with Zucker and Abrahams in the 1970s - with fondness. It was there that they began writing the script for Airplane!.

Abrahams’ favorite line in Airplane! is delivered by Nielsen to Graves in the cockpit. The comment is punctuated with a loud fart. “And he had to keep a straight face through all that,” says Abrahams, with sincere admiration for Nielsen. After Airplane! Nielsen starred in the Naked Gun movies for Zucker and Abrahams and became what critic Roger Ebert described as “the Laurence Olivier of spoofs.”

Judith Resell is a volunteer for the American Cinematheque.