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Airplane!: The Unexpected Flight Of A Comedy Classic

Entertainment | April 2, 2022

Source: (IMDb).

While in college, David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams formed Kentucky Fried Theater, a comedy sketch troupe, and they performed around Madison, Wisconsin before taking their show on the road to Los Angeles, where they transformed their show into Kentucky Fried Movie in 1977. Then, in 1980, they released Airplane!

Robert Hays as Striker. Source: (Film Stories).

It Was Not Their First Film, But It Was Their First Screenplay

The 1970s brought a deluge of disaster movies, but the disaster movie which Airplane! parodied was released in 1957: Zero Hour. Airplane! didn’t just parody Zero Hour though; it appropriated the plot and structure of the movie, and some of its lines, like “we have to find somebody who not only can fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.” After watching Zero Hour repeatedly, they realized that all they needed to do to parody the film was to layer absurdities over it. In the end, because of the amount of material they took from Zero Hour, they had to buy the rights to the film. Incidentally, Airplane!’s only award was for best adapted screenplay from the Writer’s Guild of America as they considered the film to be adapted from another film. Although the script for Airplane!, completed in 1975, was the first script they completed, they failed to sell it and the director John Landis suggested they turn their comedy sketches into a film instead; hence, Kentucky Fried Movie became their first film. Creating Kentucky Fried Movie did get them on a film set for the first time, and it became a learning experience. Eventually, when they presented the screenplay for Airplane! to Michael Eisner at Paramount, he recognized the potential of the film, and also noted that it had a small budget. After their experience with Kentucky Fried Movie, they recognized the importance of directing, and they insisted on directing Airplane! themselves. 

Kareem Abdul-Jamar, Ross Harris, and Peter Graves. Source: (IMDb).

Some Of The Actors Made Their Own Contributions To The Script

Just as the Zuckers and Abrahams simply layered absurdities over Zero Hour, the trio relied a bit on their actors to come up with sections of the dialogue. Stephen Stucker, who played Johnny Henshaw-Jacobs, came up with his zany responses to the straight lines they gave him. The three writers also didn’t write the “jive talking” scene as it appeared in the film. At first, the trio had written a bunch of nonsense syllables and David Zucker apologized to the actors cast as the passengers, Norman Gibbs and Al White, telling them that it "was the best that three Jewish white guys from Milwaukee could do." Then, Gibbs and White wrote their own jive dialogue. To add to the humor, White worked with Barbara Billingsley, who plays a passenger on the plane, to make sure she knew how to actually speak jive.  

Otto, Julie Hagerty, and Robert Hays. Source: (IMDb).

The Casting Helped To Create The Humor

The casting arose from their understanding that finding serious actors to play the comedic parts, and to have them play the parts straight, would help to enhance the humor in the film. In fact, the instruction they gave to the cast before calling action was to “Pretend you don’t know you’re in a comedy.” And it worked. This was especially true for Leslie Nielsen who had a goofy side which was not apparent on the screen before Airplane! and the film was the perfect venue for him, as he was able to say a line like “Don’t call me Shirley” completely seriously. However, not all of them understood the humor or liked the film; Peter Graves, who played Captain Clarence Oveur thought it was “tasteless trash,” but was convinced to take the role.

Stephen Stucker and Lloyd Bridges. Source: (Pinterest).

The Film Defied Expectations

When Airplane! came out, no one expected it to do much. It was up against The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack, but both films received lukewarm reviews and did not do remarkably well at the box office. Airplane! received good reviews, with Roger Ebert saying that the film “is sophomoric, obvious, predictable, corny, and quite often very funny. And the reason it’s funny is frequently because it’s sophomoric, obvious, corny, etc.” During the film’s first five days in wide release, it earned back its budget, and would become the fourth highest grossing film of the year, making $83 million domestically. In 2015, it was ranked fourth on the Writer’s Guild of America’s list of “101 Funniest Screenplays” and it has ranked highly on other lists as well. The sleeper hit has stood the test of time, and is now in the Library of Congress Film Registry.

Tags: 1980s Movies | Airplane!

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Linda Speckhals


When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.