directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Well, I went and did it finally. I got myself a Roku box and have entered the “streaming” age almost five years after it took off. Frankly, Airplane! wasn’t one of the films that drove the choice, but since the kids were over, I thought I’d pick a film that we’d been thinking about watching, something light and potentially amusing.
It is, after all, oft-cited as one of the “funniest movies of all time”.
I didn’t see it when it came out. I don’t know exactly when I saw it, but back in the day, it was a huge hit and the jokes were on everyone’s tongues. It created a style of comedy that was absurdist, off-beat, and highly referential. It totally reinvented Leslie Nielson and led the way for the television show Police Squad! and The Naked Gun films and arguably led to the Farrelly brothers eventual style of films.
And I used to really like it all, especially Police Squad! and Top Secret! (1984). But interestingly, this time through, I didn’t find it quite as funny. The best jokes are still great, delivered impeccably and truly timeless. But a lot of the other stuff has come to seem more dated and less punchy. I’d really rate it mediocre at best overall on its own. To appreciate it, I think I have to take it into its context and not simply as the film itself.
The other thought I had was how this style of comedy had its antecedents in some Tex Avery cartoons and other Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons of the 1940’s. These would be films like The Early Bird Dood It! (1942), Who Killed Who? (1943), or Symphony in Slang (1951) in which absurd throw-away gags break the pace of a story (or become the whole point), disrupting the narrative in asides, jokes that don’t make sense within a standard diegesis.
And the style also has is own more contemporary analogs (no doubt, more directly influenced). Namely, the television and film work of Seth MacFarlane. His whole Family Guy style of in and out of narrative context gags seems a true inheritor of this style of comedy.
The kids enjoyed the film overall. Felix said the best joke as Robert Hays’ drinking problem. Both kids thought that Stephen Stucker (Air Traffic Controller Johnny) had a lot of the funniest jokes, though they play out more in the background. Stucker was funny. Sadly, he died of AIDS-related complications only six years later at the age or 38.