50 Visual Gags In 'Airplane!' -- Surely You Caught Them All
By | August 22, 2022
There are few movies as dense and re-watchable as the 1980 comedy Airplane! Its gags and jokes come fast and furious, with some of them happening simultaneously. Others seem like cryptic nonsense -- it might take you a few viewings to figure them out. Part of the film's charm is the contrast between the subtle and the obvious -- for example, you can't miss it when Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) is telling a lie and his nose, Pinocchio-like, begins growing. Other Airplane! jokes and gags are hidden, such as signs and magazines that you can't even read if you're not looking for them, or weird stuff inserted into the end credits. Sure, you know there’s a joke made out of the inflation device on the plane, but do you know what the no-smoking sign actually says? And are you a big enough Airplane! fan to know which Victorian author gets credit at the end of the film? Read on to for the visual gags you love -- or might have missed -- in Airplane!
The Ghost Of Blockbusters Past
The film opens with familiar theme music, and a plane's tail slicing through clouds, in a clear riff on Jaws (1975).
What's On The Monitor?
When the film begins the audience gets a taste of the hectic nature of the airport. There are cult members! Air passengers! People going to and fro! One visual that you definitely missed is the series of strange images that pop up on the monitor behind the airport attendant -- rather than information about what's happening in the airport, we see an X-ray of a set of lungs. There’s no word on who those belong to but they definitely don’t appear in the credits.
Is That A Baby In The Air?
Early on in the movie when the ground crew accidentally sends an airplane crashing through the airport terminal, future passengers jump out of the way in any way that they can. While this is pretty obvious - you can’t really miss an airplane smashing through a big glass window - the one thing that you probably missed is the baby flying through the air.
That’s right, watch closely and you’ll see a woman who’s got the unlucky placement of being in front of the plane tossing her baby straight up into the air. We’re sure the baby’s just fine.
Throughout the film, there are a couple of fast-paced visual jokes that make light of signs in airports and on planes that offer a bilingual approach to instructions. Both signs look as if they were written by someone who only speaks English, but who was trying their darndest to get the point across. The first sign is for “no smoking” and it features the phrase “el no a you smoko.”
Sound It Out
Later, there’s a sign in “German” that reads “Gobacken Sidonna.” Is it technically in a language? No, but it definitely gets the point across. Sort of?
Keep An Eye On Baggage Claim
This baggage claim gag is truly so silly that it has to be mentioned. When the camera takes the audience through the airport it passes baggage claim and rather than show people waiting on their bags on the carousel, it shows budget travelers riding the carousel -- evidently, if you buy the really cheap tickets you fly in the cargo hold with the luggage. This is seriously one of those gags that’s so wild that you have to rewind to see if you saw what you think you saw.
Like most of the visual gags in Airplane! this carousel bit is something that’s so simple, but so crazy when you actually see it played out. If only more comedies did stuff like this.
A Very Comprehensive Magazine Rack
When Captain Oveur is checking out the magazines in his pre-flight routine you’ll have to pause to see all of the wild jokes in this scene. First, one of the sections is written as “whacking material,” which is pretty on the nose but it’s where the Captain pulls his copy of Modern Sperm. That’s got to be a collector’s edition.
Some of the titles that you can find in this airport are Dominant Female, Bare Rider, and Bad Blood. There’s also an inordinate amount of magazines titled John Wayne for some reason. It looks like one magazine can't contain The Duke.
Just Plane Religious
The Air Israel plane has a beard and wears a yarmulke (skullcap) and tallit (prayer shawl).
There's a classic goodbye from wartime movies as a soldier is about to get on the plane, complete with a railroad stationmaster checking his pocket watch.
When Ted Striker buys his ticket at the airport, the attendant asks him "smoking or non-smoking?" While this would usually refer to the section where he'd be seated (back then, when people smoked on airplanes), here it refers to the actual ticket as well, which is literally giving off smoke.
Does That Sounds Like A Jet Engine To You?
So this visual joke is definitely going to fly over your head unless you’re well versed in the world of plane sounds. Whenever the jet is shown flying from the exterior it has the sound of a propeller plane and not the sound of a jet. This is actually a two-fold joke. First of all, it’s ridiculous that this plane would sound like it had a propeller, and secondly, the directors (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker) actually wanted the plane to be a propeller plane, not a jet.
According to production legend, the producers really wanted the movie to take place on a jet (maybe they were just big fans of this new-fangled brand of transportation) and the propeller sound was a bit of a compromise. Whatever the case, the sound is a real gas.
What Else Would They Have There?
Cut to the Mayo Clinic, where a donor's heart is awaiting the young cardiac patient on the plane. In the background is an entire wall full of jars of mayonnaise.
Whatcha Readin’ There?
Before things go haywire on the plane, the camera tracks through the seats to show off the cast of characters to their audience. You’ve got basketball players, Japanese soldiers, businessmen, some nuns, and a boy. Look closely and you’ll see that the nun is reading Boy’s Life magazine, the official magazine of the Boy Scouts. The boy is reading Nun’s Life.
While Boy’s Life is full of information on hunting, camping, and general horseplay, what could Nun’s Life be about? Where to buy the best habit? The best rulers for hand slappin’? Info on the upcoming series The Flying Nun? It could be anything.
What’s Up With The Scissors?
When people start getting sick on the plane it’s up to Dr. Rumack to tend to them. The first person he inspects is really having a bad time, and in spite of the silly nature of the film, his bedside manner is nothing but serious. While asking the woman about her symptoms Rumack holds out his hand and someone just hands him a pair of scissors out of nowhere.
Rumack never uses the scissors and he barely even acknowledges them. This brand of abstract humor is exactly why we love Airplane! Still, we’ve gotta know who was handing out scissors on that dang plane.
While he doesn't use the scissors, he does use his hands -- to pull whole chicken's eggs out of her mouth.
Mirror Mirror On The Wall…
More so than any of the other visual jokes that we’re including here, this one really needs to be seen to be understood. When Rex Kramer is getting ready to drive to the airport you can see him putting on his hat and coat in a mirror while having a conversation. The film cuts around for a conversation, and when it comes back to Kramer he’s ready to get to work.
When he leaves he literally walks through the mirror -- because now it's no longer a mirror, it's a doorway. This is a real mind-bending joke and it’s really worth seeing to believe.
Jesus Rides With Me
If you look closely at the dashboard on the plane you’ll notice a classic Jesus statue stuck to the top of it. While this would be enough of a joke for a lesser movie, the Zucker brothers actually go a little further with it later on in the film. When Ted takes over the plane to try and land it everyone gets scared - including Jesus Christo.
As soon as it’s revealed that Ted is the only hope for survival for the passengers the little dashboard Jesus covers his eyes. You know you’re in bad shape when Jesus doesn’t even want to hang with you.
Kramer Is A Shady Character
The dramatic pop of a man yanking his glasses off is used frequently in tense disaster movies. Kramer comes equipped with a spare -- under his sunglasses, he's wearing a smaller pair of sunglasses.
I’ve Heard Of A Microphone, But A Microcone?
Multiple press conferences happen throughout the film, and in every single one of them, there’s a visual joke that you’ll miss if you aren’t paying attention. Every time someone is speaking to the media they’re giving their interview in front of a bank of microphones. All of the mics have classic news stations written on them, except for one of them.
One of the microphones isn’t a microphone at all, and it’s actually an ice cream cone. Keep an eye on the cone throughout the movie and you’ll see that it’s actually melting a little more in every scene.
The Plane's Running A Little Hot
This is such a fast joke, and if you’re not paying attention to every frame of the film then you’ll definitely miss it. When Ted’s trying to explain how the plane’s doing to air traffic control he says that it’s “running a little hot.” Then the camera cuts to a shot of the airplane panel with a light on it that reads “a little hot.”
This is a simple joke but it works like gangbusters. Not only does it completely nail the off-the-wall goofiness of the film, but it points out exactly how ridiculous the vagaries of things like “a little hot” can be.
Everyone Loves Atari
Keep an eye on some of the men in the air traffic control building — they’re not all doing the best jobs. While plenty of the guys are doing their best to get Ted’s plane on the ground a couple of them are definitely goofing off. There’s a quick shot of two men playing 1978's Atari Basketball, which at the time was a state-of-the-art video game.
This joke would be copied in multiple comedy films, but it was never done better than at this moment. However, it’s a little hard to notice what with all the crazy stuff happening around them.
What Counts As An Emergency Vehicle?
By the end of the film, it’s clear that there’s no way for Ted to land the plane without causing a huge crash. The gang in air traffic control only has one thing to do in order to keep people safe and that’s a call for every emergency vehicle in the area to come out and help. This leads to a visual gag featuring a ton of funny vehicles appearing on screen.
After the call goes out the screen is inundated with unnecessary vehicles such as an ice cream truck, an Alhambra truck, and even a tractor. There’s also an old-timey fire truck with a Dalmatian sitting on top.
It Must Be Laundry Day
The air traffic control station is a flurry of activity throughout the film. Not only are there people playing video games and sniffing glue, but there are even a few members of the team doing their best to help keep Ted and his crew alive. While Gunderson is checking on the plane’s position one air traffic controller can be seen doing his laundry.
And here we were thinking that all of those fancy air traffic control machines were for something specific. Maybe that's why these guys are having such trouble landing a plane. Hey, at least they’re staying clean while they’re at work.
The No Sex Warning Sign
The filmmakers behind Airplane! made a meal out of the ridiculous safety signs that can be found in airports and on planes, but no sign is as ridiculous as the one announcing that there is to be no sex in rows 13 - 51. Man, those first-class passengers really do get to do whatever they want.
You may have missed this sign on the first watch, and it’s likely that you just didn’t see the message announcing that there’s to be no sex. The placard looks so similar to that of a regular airplane notice that you shouldn’t feel bad if you didn’t catch this joke the first time around.
Questionable Choice Of In-Flight Entertainment
The movie being shown on the plane depicts a plane crash. Airlines tend to avoid showing this sort of subject matter in real life.
Nothing To Be Alarmed About
This is just a fun visual gag that we feel should get a little more attention - especially because it goes by so quickly in the final product. When Randy the flight attendant is talking to a woman who’s worried about her husband being sick she says, “Oh, it’s nothing to be alarmed about.” However, as soon as she turns around she gives the international sign for “Oh no! We should be worried about this thing!”
It’s a great little bit of physical humor that doesn’t get enough credit in this wacky tapestry of visual gags. Keep an eye out for it next time!
Ted Striker Has A Drinking Problem
It's not alcoholism -- it's that he literally cannot drink. When he tries to drink, he misses his open mouth and douses himself with the beverage.
Pinch Me, Stranger
When Ted first spots Elaine, he's so lovestruck that thinks he might be dreaming -- so much so that he asks the person next to him to pinch him. The person in this case happens to be a beefy, tattooed sailor, and he is uninterested in pinching a strange man in a bar. The sailor gives Ted the side-eye and walks off.
Now This Is Really Rough
Striker describes the bar where he met Elaine:
It was a rough place - the seediest dive on the wharf. Populated with every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta. It's worse than Detroit.
To demonstrate how bad it is, a violent brawl breaks out -- between two Girl Scouts.
Disco In The Wrong Place
When Ted meets Elaine in the seedy bar, he impresses her with his dancing -- which is, of course, disco dancing. But what are the Bee Gees doing on the jukebox in this third-world hellhole? And where did the white three-piece suit come from?
Ted And The Bad Handshake
Trying to ingratiate himself to the tribal leaders, Ted exchanges some different, stereotypical "soul brother" type handshakes. When he slaps the bewildered chief's hands, the chief responds by punching him.
One Word: Plastics
Elaine and Ted are remarkably unsuited to helping the tribal people they're with. Elaine introduces the women to Tupperware, which is of questionable value to them, while Ted "teaches" the men to play basketball -- and they're clearly far better than he is from the get-go.
Disco Joke #2
We hear a snippet of a radio broadcast:
This is WZAZ in Chicago, where disco lives forever...
Immediately, the runaway plane buzzes WZAZ's building, taking out the radio antenna. So much for eternal disco.
Pull Down To Inflate
The life vest is a duck.
How You Know He's A Doctor
When we first meet Dr. Rumack, he's wearing a stethoscope although he's not examining anyone -- doctors just wear stethoscopes all the time, you know.
TFW You Turn On A Little Air
So this is actually a visual gag that never worked out quite as the Zucker Brothers intended. In the film, a male passenger says that he’s going to “turn on some air.” When he does the air is so strong that it’s like someone turned on an industrial-sized fan in front of his face. This is probably one of the more prominent visual gags in the film. But the thing you’ve never noticed is that there’s a guy whose beard stays perfectly in place throughout the gag. What was actually supposed to happen was that his beard was meant to fly away with the wind -- but it stays in place! Sure, you couldn’t notice this gag because you didn’t know it was meant to be, but now that you do you can impress your friends with your Airplane! knowledge.
The Wild Drive To The Airport
As Kramer is driving to the airport, there's an obviously fake background -- which was a standard effect before Hollywood figured out a better way to film driving scenes. But since this is Airplane!, things get a little weird. Kramer hits a guy on a bike, who stands up and yells at him. Then the road becomes extremely twisty, and Kramer doesn't even need to move the wheel. And then, out of nowhere, the scene behind the car is replaced by old, black-and-white stock footage of riders on horseback chasing after Kramer's car.
That's Really Ethel Merman
Shell-shocked Lieutenant Hurwitz thinks he's Ethel Merman and breaks into a convincing version of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy. It's convincing because Lieutenant Hurwitz is played by the real Ethel Merman, in one of her last on-screen performances.
As the experts on the ground come together to try and figure out how to get out of this mess, a referee appears to help them all get introduced.
Just Following Orders
As McCroskey searches his memory, he says Ted Striker's last name aloud a few times. "Striker... Striker... Striker..."
Suddenly, a man behind him slaps (strikes) a female co-worker.
The Siamese Twins
This gag is just so strange that we have to talk about it, even if you caught it the first time. In one of the cuts back to air traffic control McCroskey is ordering people around, and while speaking to two men who look strangely similar he tells one to go one way, the other to go another way. They agree, but when they try to go do their jobs they can’t because they’re actually Siamese twins.
It’s legitimately wild that something like this would be in the movie, and it shows how the Zuckers were throwing everything at the wall to get a laugh in this timeless classic.
Well He Said Every Light…
When Ted is attempting to land the plane on the airstrip he needs all the help he can get. After Kramer calls for every emergency vehicle in the airport to stand by, he says, “Steve, I want every light you can get poured onto that field.” Then we cut to a dump truck pouring every kind of light imaginable onto the field.
There are lamps, fluorescent bulbs, and even chandeliers. It’s one of the more ridiculous jokes in the movie and you’ll completely miss it if you’re not paying attention. The next time you see the movie remember to keep your lamps handy.
There Is No Right Week To Quit
As the drama builds, Steve McCroskey gives up on his resolutions to quit... everything. He needs a little something to take the edge off:
"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking."
"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking."
"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines."
"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue."
The National Enquirer Headlines
We see a montage of newspaper headlines reporting on the impending airplane disaster, which in itself is absurd -- how long has this plot been unfolding, that newspaper reporters can go out, report on a story, file it, and we can see it printed in the paper while the plane is still in the air? Of course, not every paper prioritizes the air disaster -- the tabloid National Inquirer has bigger stories to break: “Boy Trapped In Refrigerator Eats Own Foot.” That’s such a goofy headline that it’s hard not to notice, but the smaller headline is the real kicker.
On the lower left-hand corner of the paper is a headline that reads “Meteorite Lands Near Baby.” That’s easily one of the most inspired non-headlines ever written and you can barely even read it!
Dr. Rumack Is Attending To Patients
When all hell begins to break loose, we cut to Dr. Rumack, who is apparently conducting a gynecological exam in the middle of the cabin. He's a doctor, you know.
Young Joey is convinced that pilot Roger Murdock is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, playing on the idea that when you're a kid and you don't know any better, a lot of grownups look the same, and a really tall guy might actually be a pro ballplayer. Joey keeps at it, until Murdock snaps -- because he actually is Kareem. Grabbing Joey by the collar, he loses his cool:
I'm out there busting my buns every night! Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes!
Later, when Murdock (or Kareem) falls ill, we see that he has been wearing his L.A. Lakers uniform under his pilot's uniform.
Otto Gets Fresh
As the plane is going into free-fall, Elaine grabs the bulkhead to steady herself. Otto grabs Elaine.
A Subtle Omen
As Ted is trying to psych himself up to land the plane, things aren't looking good -- in fact, there's a buzzard perched on his shoulder. Buzzards are known to hang around waiting for things to die.
Mrs. Oveur Is Sleeping With A Horse
There isn’t much attention paid to this “little” gag but when Captain Oveur calls his wife it’s clear that she’s in bed with something. Is it a man? Is it a stuffed animal? Afraid not. It turns out that while Captain Oveur is away at work his wife is having an affair with a real live horse. YIKES!
As she's leaving, she informs the horse that, "There's juice in the refrigerator."
This blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag is one of those moments where you realize that you’re watching a movie that’s really wild. Most filmmakers wouldn’t insinuate that one of their characters is sleeping with an animal, but most filmmakers aren’t the Zucker Brothers, two guys who’ll do anything for a laugh.
The Credits Are Very Revealing
Airplane! doesn’t just limit its jokes to the film, the actual credits have some of the funniest jokes in the movie. Although if you’re not paying attention then you won’t see them. There are two major gags in the credits and they’re both great. The first has Mike Finnell credited as “Generally In Charge Of A Lot Of Things.” Mike Finnell was a producer who worked on films like Gremlins and Inner Space, so yeah, it’s an accurate credit.
Yet another accurate, yet hilarious credit passes by when Charles Dickens makes it into the film as “Author of Tale of Two Cities.”