What Made Airplane! the Funniest Movie of the 1980s?

Jerry Zucker takes us behind the scenes of Airplane! which remains one of the funniest films ever made.

Airplane at 40
Photo: Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images

What can you make out of Airplane! at 40 years old? Well, aside from a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl? Written and directed by brothers Jerry and David Zucker, and Jim Abrahams, the 1980 parody of disaster films is frequently ranked among the best comedies of all time.

So, what is Airplane! about? Following the plot of the 1957 drama Zero Hour!, as well as inspired by the 1956 Canadian TV movie Flight into Danger, and famed disaster movie Airport 1975, Airplane! is a spoof film about a washed-up pilot summoned to greatness on a potentially doomed aircraft.

But that’s not important right now. What is important is that the trio of young creators, known as the ZAZ team — also behind Wisconsin’s Kentucky Fried Theater sketch comedy team — crafted a style of machine-gun fast slapstick cinema which kickstarted a movie subgenre.

And surely one can’t forget the multitude of one-liners from Airplane! that continue to be part of the mainstream four decades later.

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As the film celebrates its 40-year legacy, and returns to cinemas for a limited run with TCM Big Screen Classics and Fathom Events through Sept 9, co-writer and director Jerry Zucker (also behind Ghost, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year…but more on that soon) joined Den of Geek for a look back at his favorite jokes, the reasons Airplane! flew so high, and why its journey is far from over, Oveur.

Why do you think Airplane! worked as a complete film? A sketch is shorter, and it requires less commitment from an audience, but 87 minutes of this could potentially get tiring.

One of the reasons Airplane! worked is because it’s a great story, which we can’t take credit for, because it was based on Zero Hour!, and the exact same story.

You could teach a structure course using Zero Hour! Things keep changing, and there’s danger. I mean, it’s the best possible setting for a comedy, because there’s always the danger. When you go back to it, you have to take it seriously. If you look closely at Airplane! you see that we keep coming back to actors seriously worried about the plane crashing.

And we keep coming back to the love story. Before she gets to, “I remember how I used to sit on your face and wriggle,” there’s a whole thing about, “Yes, I remember those days, but you couldn’t keep a job.” You know?

Do you think the spoof movie still exists?

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Of course, but not in the way we did them. We cast actors that had not really done comedy, and they played it absolutely straight. And it’s interesting, because when you say, “Play it straight.” A lot of people think they’re playing it straight or directing it just to play it straight, but really, it’s with a wink.

And we told our actors to pretend that they did not know they were in a comedy … Leslie is the most perfect example of how we envisioned that sense of humor and what our sense of ZAZ brand of humor is.

There are so many quotable jokes from Airplane! that everyone still just knows in the mainstream. Are there any you wish had been noticed a little bit more? (For instance, I happen to love just the scene when Robert Stack is leaving his house as the courier gets attacked by the dog, and there’s the mirror gag.)

There are gags like in the scene you just mentioned at Robert Stack’s home. At the very end of the scene, Stack leaves, and his wife is there, and he walks through the mirror. And it’s kind of a bizarre joke. We see his reflection in the mirror, and his wife looking at him, at the real him, not the reflection. But then instead of turning around and the reflection walking backwards, which would be real if it was a reflection, Stack walks forward, right through the mirror.

There are things like that, that I think I always found kind of funny or cool, but I think people just don’t notice. But it’s been fun to see which jokes stick. I certainly didn’t predict them. I always thought, “Don’t call me Shirley” was a great line, but I had no idea it would become the emblematic line of the movie.

What are some your personal favorite jokes from Airplane!?

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One of our favorites was when Leslie asks Lorna Patterson, “How are you holding up?” And she says, “I’m okay.” She starts crying, and she says, “I’m frightened, and I’m 26, and I’m not married.” And then the other woman comes in and says, “I’m frightened, but at least I have a husband.” Something about that always made David and Jim and I laugh a lot. So there are a lot of little things like that. But when the movie plays, they always get a laugh.

Were there any bits that just never worked?

Here’s one thing that apparently was not funny — but we always thought it was when we wrote it, when we filmed it, when we saw the dailies: Lloyd Bridges taking a puff of his cigarette and tossing it out the window and then putting his fingers over his ears. And then there’s a big explosion out there. It’s just not funny, I mean, evidently. It never really got a laugh. But for some reason, David and Jim and I were hysterical every time we saw that joke play.

You guys were all young men of, what, 30 years old, directing these cinematic icons. Obviously the gamble paid off, but were there moments where you thought, “We’ve made a terrible mistake”?

Well, we never did, David and Jim and I. This was a kind of a humor we had been doing in Kentucky Fried Theater — not quite to this extent, because it was theater, so we would be more likely to go over-the-top with performance. But we always believed in it.

You’re always worried before the first screening and everything, but we really believed in it.

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Veteran actors Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges were known more for dramatic parts, but then each did more comedy after Airplane! How did they approach the comedy differently?

Leslie loved it. He later said when he read the script, he would’ve paid us to do this. And it makes sense, because Leslie was a closet comedian. I’m actually surprised at how he could’ve done these serious roles for all these years, because he was really a nutty guy, and I mean that in the best possible way. He was gifted with comedy.

And Peter Graves? The story has it that he initially found it crass.

Peter Graves didn’t really get the script when he first read it. He thought it was kind of disgusting or whatever, and his family talked him into it. It helped one of our producers was Howard W. Koch, and that, I think, gave these guys a bit of confidence.

Peter was wonderful. He was in for a penny, in for a pound. He was a super cooperative, great guy to work with. But I remember that first screening that Peter saw at Paramount. His wife was just cackling through the whole thing and laughing. And the audience was laughing and stuff, and then I think he got it.

How about Lloyd Bridges?

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Lloyd Bridges, who I think is also fantastic in the film, didn’t trust the material, and I totally understand that. It was a new kind of thing, and what we were asking him to do was very odd.

We were saying, “Play a major role in this comedy, but don’t be funny.” And you can kind of see it in his performance sometimes. He’s just a little bit bigger, but it’s fine. It adds another texture, it’s great, so I think it all turned out well. But I don’t know what he was thinking during the filming, or how much confidence he had in it.

Of course, after the film came out, then he was in the Hot Shots movies that Jim made, and I think very much embraced that style of humor.

As Airplane! celebrates its 40th anniversary, and returns to cinemas, why do you think it has a legacy that keeps pulling new audiences in?

It’s the story. Story is as important, or even more so, in a comedy as it is in a drama, because on some moronic level, the audience, the Airplane! audience, cares about the plane getting down safely, and Bob and Julie getting together. That’s not what they talk about when they leave the movie. Those aren’t the lines they quote. But in the movie, especially as a first-time experience, there’s a part of you that wants this plane to land and the lovers together.

You know you’re watching a goofy comedy, and you want that next joke. But if you can come back to the drama of it, then when the jokes comes, it’s almost like a surprise. You know what I mean? Because you’re back into, “Uh-oh, we’re in trouble.”

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