Tuesday, October 30, 2007

 

He is serious — and don't call him Shirley

By Alex Ricciuti
Airplane! is one of the best films ever? Surely, you must be joking? No, I'm not. And don't call me Shirley.

That joke is just so absurd, so innocent and universal that it goes on being funny even after so many years. Airplane! was released in 1980, when I was 11, and I only got to see it for the first time a couple of years later on TV. It quickly became a classic of teenage indulgence, watching it with my friends and recalling the jokes for years on afterward. And then many years after that, after I had moved to Switzerland and watched a dubbed version of it late at night, I realized how staidly funny the damn thing was. That joke worked even in German. They simply substituted Ernst (Earnest) for Shirley to fit the colloquialism of the language.


Comedies do not usually have a long shelf life. There are exceptions such as the Marx Brothers, Toto, Louis De Funes and films such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but most comedies aren't able to escape the eras from whence they came. I remember discovering Fawlty Towers back in the 1980s as a teenager and thinking it was so brilliant. Seeing them again recently, they couldn't even produce a chuckle in me. Think about all those hit comedies you have seen through the years, which ones have really stayed with you? Or look back at the big comedy films of past decades and how many can you still laugh at today?

Film comedy is a very difficult thing to pull off. Actors need to be razor sharp and the medium is often stifling to comedians used to working in front of an audience and being masters of spontaneity and timing. It's hard to generate that energy on take 23 in front of the guy holding a boom mike, but many comedic actors have earned to work with the medium and have become pretty successful at it. Successful except for the making funny movies part. I'm thinking of Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and all those other lesser, nameless comedians with their dumb/immature guy routines. How many of the recent spate of high concept comedies being churned out by Hollywood will stick around? You know the ones that are so transparently based on a single gag or contrivance or fish-out-of-water theme that barely get written past that initial idea. It's as if they film the gags for the trailer and forget to work out the rest of the movie.

Think of all those good bad-movies that create a campy following, such as Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Blob or anything that is so bad it's funny. I remember my sister and I laughing our heads off at another Krystle/Alexis catfight by the pool on Dynasty. Years later, I heard a bit on NPR where one of the Dynasty writers admitted the whole setup was one, huge campy joke. That the writers would sit around and think up the nuttiest ways to torture the ever suffering Krystle.

Now imagine if you wanted to auto-generate that kind of campy comedy? OK, imagine you are somewhere in the mid-'70s and you've just seen Lorne Greene ridiculously playing Ava Gardner's father in Earthquake when he was just seven years older than her, with grievously delivered lines from Charlton Heston like," I need a drink," and you wanted to re-create that kind of so-bad-it's-funny camp? How would you do it?

What Airplane! did was just that.

Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers (Jerry and David) decided on doing away with comedians and comedic actors altogether (to which you must repeat: "Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers decided on doing away with comedians and comedic actors."). By doing so, they just happened to make one of the funniest films ever. They went out and hired a slew of second and third rate melodramatic actors and simply asked them to deliver their lines straight up. Everyone became the deadpan straight-man. It was brilliant. Airplane! was so original, it created its own brand of humor, and led the Abrahams/Zuckers team to make the equally funny Police Squad TV series and Naked Gun films (as well as the mostly forgotten Top Secret!). Others followed in the same ilk such as Hot Shots (on which only Abrahams worked) being of particular mention. It's a technique that may have also inspired a great cineaste such as David Lynch, who employs the wooden, expository dialogue of '50s sci-fi flicks and '70s disaster films to great simultaneous humor and creepiness in his work. The Zuckers/Abrahams method was brilliant. Even Gore Vidal, a snobbish aesthete if there ever were one, thinks the Naked Gun films are a hoot.

Comedies don't easily make best picture winners, either at European film festivals or at the Oscars and that is fine. It takes time to know a good film and it probably takes even longer for a good comedy to make itself known.

So why isn't a film that started a whole new genre, invented an entirely new style of humor, one that is funny to anyone with a pulse, universally funny, with jokes that appeal to all people at all times, why doesn't this film qualify as one of the best, most original films ever? It should fit the criteria of what constitutes a great film no matter how strictly you draw the lines. Shirley, that you cannot deny.

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Alex Ricciuti is a freelance writer based in Zurich, Switzerland.


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Comments:
Airplane is a great movie. I saw it in the theater and I'm old enough to remember when Leslie Nielsen was playing straight cop roles on TV and in movies. I also remember repeats of Robert Stack in The Untouchables, and of Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt. (damn, I'm old as hell!) Seeing them play their roles straight while saying and doing absurd things was indeed hilarious. I can still laugh at the jokes, even when watching the Pop-Up Video version of the movie they have on the DVD.

Still, I like Top Secret better. That's my favorite ZAZ movie.

I don't think the ZAZ guys were trying to make a campy movie like Earthquake. (If they did, it would have had to be in Sensurround. And it wouldn't be funny. Earthquake is terrible.) ZAZ were going after Arthur Hailey and the Airport series. Airport '77 is even funnier than Airplane, except it's supposed to be serious. I had the pleasure of watching Hailey's Zero Hour, which is the movie Airplane is parodying, and it's hard to keep a straight face now that I know what the jokes in Airplane are.

In Snakes on a Plane, Julianna Marguiles pays homage to Airplane by asking Julie Haggerty's famous line "does anyone here know how to fly a plane?" It's a goofy moment, but I appreciated it.

Airplane has some dated jokes in it, so I disagree with your assessment that it's perfect and timeless. The whole Saturday Night Fever sequence is a rare misstep. I don't think anyone under 18 would get some of the airport jokes that we old bastards get too.

As far as movies being funny over time: perhaps there is something wrong with me, but if I found something funny 30 years ago, it's still funny to me now. And I love Fawlty Towers too.
 
I saw Airplane! on the very first day it opened, not knowing what to expect. My mom and grandma took me and I don't think I've ever laughed that loud and that continuously in my life. From the spoof or Jaws opening, all throughout. I about lost it when the shit literally hit the fan. I couldn't wait to tell my dad and go back and see it again. It took multiple viewings to catch every gag hidden in there. My favorites have always been the crazy nonsequitur lines and I still use them today. When I was a groomsman for a friend's wedding, I kept making the point of each time I came in before and after the ceremony saying, "I just want to tell you both, Good Luck, we're all counting on you." I still steal bits from Robert Stack's great speech ("Do you know what it's like...to be kicked...in the head...with an iron boot? Of course not Ted, no one does. That never happens. Forget I said that." One thing that saddened me about the Naked Gun films is that they lost what I think made Airplane!, Top Secret and Police Squad so great: No one ever reacted to the craziness around them. As the Naked Gun series went on, more and more they'd have Leslie Nielsen mug for the camera, undercutting a lot of the comedy. It's sort of a shame that the ZAZ team went their separate ways because they proved they could succeed in a different form of comedy with Ruthless People.
 
Airplane is still great...and so is Fawlty Towers
 
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