Friday, July 02, 2010

 

It looks like a big Tylenol, but produces far more laughs


NOTE FROM EDWARD: Ali, I just wanted to tell you, "Good luck. We're all counting on you."

By Ali Arikan
Thirty years after its release, Airplane! remains a breath of fresh air. Actually, not so much fresh air as an obstreperous, obnoxious and noxious fart. It’s as subtle as Lars von Trier playing a vuvuzela while driving a monster truck in Mogadishu. It’s offensive, juvenile and stupid; and refreshingly so. Nothing is off limits, and if you don’t find Peter Graves trying to homosex a 10-year-old’s ass funny, then you are an asshole.


From its opening shot, as the titular (Heh — titular) vehicle makes its way under the clouds, with its tail sticking out like a shark’s dorsal fin (as opposed to a bear’s dorsal fin), and John Williams’ buh-bum-buh-bum Jaws theme echoes in the soundtrack, the writing-directing team of Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams lets the audience know exactly what sort of film they’re in for: one in which the lead actress (Julie Hagerty) will fellate the plane’s “autopilot,” a massive blow up doll called Otto. Like Top Secret!, the ZAZ-trio’s 1984 follow-up, Airplane! has the complete courage of its convictions as the next shot shows Hagerty having a post-coital cigarette, with an all-too familiar look of shame on her face.

Ali, I just wanted to tell you, "Good luck. We're all counting on you."

What’s really interesting about Airplane!, however, is its exceptional structure and the ZAZ team’s impressive command of the language of film (with the best example being the stepping-out-of-the-mirror gag near the end). Inspired by the 1957 airplane-in-poisonous-fish-peril movie Zero Hour!, Airplane! sticks closely to the disaster film formula in the way it introduces the characters (consider the workmanlike way the secondary characters make their appearance at the terminal) and sets up the necessary tension to drive the plot. And if the characters remain one-note stereotypes such as hero, damsel, jive-speaking grandma, the form remains professional and tight. Like your mama’s ass, dear reader.

The film’s nonchalance toward anything that the American public might hold dear is simply beautiful. Only seven years after the Vietnam War had its official end, Airplane! has the audacity to bookend a convoluted gag involving Ethel Merman with a glib “war is hell.” Despite the madcap in-your-face comedy, the film gets the greatest laughs by what is implied rather than stated. In the aforementioned scene with Graves and little Joey (Rossie Harris) in the cockpit (Heh — cockpit), the former’s indecent interest in making the little boy his catamite is only insinuated. Which makes the scene all the more seditious.

Ali, I just wanted to tell you, "Good luck. We're all counting on you."

Equally subversive is an earlier scene where a precociously dapper young boy, talking with an immaculate upper-class inflection, brings coffee to another young member of the bon ton. As it is, the scene plays cute, and the joke seems to be how uptight these two kids are, their behavior incongruous with their nature, like those pictures of dogs playing poker. Then, however, comes the kicker. Asked how she likes her coffee, the little girl says “I take it black — like my men.” The implication of jungle fever is not the joke; instead, the joke is a young girl’s appreciation of the stereotypical well-endowment of African men. You don’t see that in your Ben Stiller comedies (though, in his next film, Stiller gets to stab Robert De Niro in the old-fella, which, according to my understanding of the Book of Revelations, is the final sign of the coming apocalypse).

I’ll leave you on an embarrassing note. I first watched Airplane! when it debuted on Turkish television in the early '80s. I didn’t get half the gags (most would have been censored, anyway, and I suppose the climax of Graves’ questions dubbed as one about a Greek prison), but liked it nonetheless. And when Otto popped up, I was giddy. Unable to fully grasp the concept of a spoof, however, I thought for a long time, longer than I care to admit, that all autopilots were in fact blow-up dolls. I live with this.

Ali, I just wanted to tell you, "Good luck. We're all counting on you."

By Edward Copeland
Surely Ali, you didn't think you'd get off that easy. I'm sure this has happened before in the blogosphere, but I'm hijacking Ali's post because I love Airplane! too much not to be able to pay tribute as well. (I vaguely recall having to hijack a blog-a-thon years ago whose instigator seemed to have little interest in actually holding it once the date began and you just don't treat Billy Wilder that way. I mean, do you know what it's like to be kicked...in the head...with an iron boot? Of course, not Mr. Wilder. That never happens. Forget I said that.)

In fact, so many of our contributors at ECOF love Airplane!, we probably could have had all of them contribute something. Two of them have. Alex Ricciuti wrote about the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker masterwork here in 2007 and Matt Zoller Seitz wrote about its 30th anniversary just last weekend in The New York Times. I could probably write a 30th anniversary piece consisting of nothing but me regurgitating quotes from the film, but a comedy landmark such as this deserves much more than that. I can't confirm it as a fact but I'm fairly certain that no more than a week or two has elapsed since I saw it as an 11-year-old on its opening day in 1980 that I have not found a way to reference the film in a conversation in some way. It's just like riding a bicycle: it's just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes. I can't remember the specifics of its marketing campaign, but it was persuasive enough for me to insist that my mom and grandma (who we were visiting) take me to it on that opening day. I'd never laughed so hard in my life and within a week or so I had dragged my dad, an air traffic controller, to it as well and discovered even more things to laugh at. That's part of the genius of Airplane! It is packed so deep with gags that I'm not sure how many viewings it took me to finally catch them all. In reality, I can't be certain that I have caught them all 30 years later since they start before the credits and continue until the end credits are complete (and many are sprinkled throughout the end credits themselves). I do know the gag that made me laugh the loudest and hardest as an 11-year-old. It is pictured in this paragraph.

The reason that Airplane! could stuff so much humor onto an actual coherent albeit silly story that contains a beginning, middle and end is that the ZAZ trio use every type of comedy available to them, so no dead space goes un-pun-ished, so to speak. From lowbrow to slapstick, to sophisticated verbal repartee to the most juvenile jokes you can imagine, from sight gags to silly puns. If they saw a chance for a laugh, they took it, grabbing what they needed from the comedy toolbox and implementing it with precision and expertise and, amazingly, never at the expense of the "reality" of the story at hand. Two of the most important types of jokes employed to the greatest effect are the nonsequitur and the play against expectations. Even before Airplane!, I was a big fan and purveyor of the nonsequitur and my use of it only metastasized after I saw the movie, grew older and more sophisticated. I can't explain the appeal, but the out-of-context line cracks me up and I love to utilize it myself. It's funny enough to see an out-of-place train conductor tell a young soldier that "You'd better get on board, son" as his apparently WWII-era gal runs alongside the departing plane waving goodbye and crashing into runway structures, but what cracks me up is when the young man tosses the girl his watch and she says, "Your watch. You'll need this" and he responds, "That's OK. It doesn't work anyway."

As for playing against expectations, the key to that wasn't just casting the likes of Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen and Robert Stack, known as mostly serious actors, in this whirlwind of chaos but getting them to play it perfectly straight. As later films in this school of comedy such as The Naked Gun series were made, a lot of laughs were lost because they began to show the actors reacting to the nonsense surrounding them. It was the straight-face deadpan that made Airplane! priceless. It's something post-Airplane! spoofmakers should have known, not just from this film but dating back to Buster Keaton. When I saw the film, these actors were mostly known to me from TV or, in Leslie Nielsen's instance, as a bad guy in a terrible horror movie called Day of the Animals where he got killed by a bear. It wasn't just the names that got to play against the expectations, as Ali mentioned with the serious young kids, it also was the older woman who tries to comfort Robert Hays about losing Julie Hagerty. "She's lovely. Supple, pouting breasts. Firm thighs. It's a shame you two don't get along." Of course, the price for lending a sympathetic ear eventually leads to suicide, one of the movie's many great running gags.

In all the discussions of Airplane! that have been taking place or will take place this year, there is one name that has not received the credit I believe he is due. When he died in 2004, despite his many credits, Elmer Bernstein's wonderful score for Airplane! was the first to pop into my head. It's infectious and I don't think there has ever been a better marriage between a broad comedy of this sort and a musical score. Try to envision the terminal scenes without it. Even if they've forgotten who Howard Jarvis and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were, (Hell, I may be the only one who knows who Howard Jarvis is now or where he is in the movie) I predict in another 30 years Airplane! will still make people laugh as much as it does today. I don't know where I'll be then, but it won't smell too good, that's for sure.


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Comments:
Ah Airplane! I remember seeing this on video for the first time and thinking that this was, by a wide margin, the funniest movie I had ever seen up to that point. And you know what? As far as movies that make me laugh heartily and out loud on a consistent basis, I don't think I've encountered anything to match Airplane! (though ZAZ's subsequent Top Secret! comes close).

Another great look back, Ali and Ed! By the way: In his Chicago Reader capsule review, Dave Kehr suggests another valuable contributor to the artistic (yes, I used that word in the context of this movie) success of Airplane!: Joseph Biroc, the cinematographer, whom he says gives the film "an authentically flat, artificial Universal look." Perhaps, then, it wasn't just the disaster-movie narrative structure ZAZ were trying to make sure they got right, but even its visual style, meant to look like something that might indeed come out of the '50s or '70s. Clever boys, those three.
 
So many classic bits from this film that is absolutely loaded with visual gags, verbal gags and everything else in-between. I think my fave moment is still when Robert Stack's pilot walks into the airport and takes out all the people asking for donations or trying to give him pamphlets. It certainly dates the film as you don't see that in airports anymore. Also, any scene with Stephen Stucker is comedic gold. Just had to say that.

I still think that this is the best thing the ZAZ team ever did, with the underrated TOP SECRET a very close second.
 
WOMAN: Nervous?
STRIKER: Yes...
WOMAN: First time?
STRIKER: No, I've been nervous lots of times.

This and Ted's "drinking problem" are probably my favorite Airplane! gags...though I'll bet a basketball season doesn't go by when my family and I aren't referencing Kareem Abdul-Jabaar's "Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier down the court for forty-eight minutes" rant.
 
The ZAZ film I think gets unduly underrated is the one they made that wasn't in this style of comedy: Ruthless People. It's well-cast, well-made and funny as hell, even if it's not the nonstop barrage of gags as their other efforts.
 
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