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Non-Review Review: Airplane!

Surely you can’t be serious?

I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.

The lads over at Anomalous Material are running a ‘greatest comedy of all time’ tournament at the moment, which is well worth a gander if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t yet seen all 128 movies. What I have seen, however, is Airplane!, and I can assure you that it deserves serious consideration for the crown.

A take off of all your favourite films...

How many comedies can you name that started their own subgenre of comedy? Hell, the type of movie comedy that Airplane! gave us could probably be best described as “Zucker” comedy, built upon sheer bulk of references and jokes, using any means of humour from puns to surrealism to smut to pop culture references to draw a laugh from an audience. If comedy movies could be classified as action movie archetypes, this would be the big guy with the minigun (think Blain from Predator, for example) – it isn’t about accuracy or skill or luck, if you point that thing in the right direction and pull the trigger you’ll land more than a few hits.

It’s this school of comedy which brought us dumb fun like Hot Shots! and Police Squad! (and the spin-off Naked Gun). In recent years, it has been somewhat tarred by association with the relatively passable Scary Movie III and the downright abysmal Scary Movie IV. It’s misapplication of this school of comedy which has given us the works of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, the “brains” behind films like Date Movie or Epic Movie or… you get the idea. Yet, it’s somewhat unfair to tar Airplane! by association with these modern poor imitations, perhaps in the same way it’s unfair to blame Toy Story for killing conventional animation. But, watching it these days, the thought does play across my mind from time to time.

The ‘problem’ with Airplane! – if there is one – is the same thing that plagues Seinfeld. Most of the hilarious jokes (and there are more than a few) were so effective that they wormed their way into popular consciousness. Chances are you’re familiar with the above line, even if you’ve never heard of this film (okay, that’s unlikely, but even if you never got around to watching it). The jokes are so well known outside the franchise that shows like Family Guy or the Simpsons can play them for a cheap laugh. There have literally been instances where I have laugehd at a joke I found familiar, and haven’t been able to place it until I caught this film again (or an even more embarrassing situation where I just found it an odd intrusion and didn’t get that it was a reference at all).

This doesn’t discuss the fact that a fair portion of the jokes do fall flat, but the movie hits you with enough rapid-fire witticisms that you gloss over the ones that don’t hit. There’s an urban myth which states that the film was repeatedly screened for test audiences, and jokes were inserted wherever there was a lull in audience laughter. Looking at the finished product, it isn’t that hard to believe. It’s not hyperbole to state that everytime I watch that film I notice or pick up on something new. Sure, it isn’t an enlightnening philosophical theme or a clever observation on the human soul, but it’s a joke that I must have been laughing so hard I missed the past few times.

It’s kinda tough to review comedies, what with them being what they are. It’s kinda pointless to pick apart the genre, as that can take a lot of fun out of it. It’s easy when movies have subtext and explore themes (like The Big Lebowski, for example, a hilarious comedy with a wealth of subtext), but Airplane! isn’t that kind of comedy. It’s just meant to make you laugh. And it will.

You’ll laugh so hard you might develop your own drinking problem.

6 Responses

  1. One of my least favourite aspects of this movie’s success is when Leslie Nielsen keeps popping up in one of the “Not another” films using the line “I just want you to know, we’re all counting on you”. Times must have been tough, but to sell out like that… tut tut tut.

    Great review, from an obvious fan of the film. I can tell you that I love the film, but I can’t tell you why… it’s classified!

    • Yep, I feel sorry that he has been reduced to that. I hope they pay well though, he has earned the right to retire comfortably at least.

  2. I married a Shirley… can you even begin to imagine how often we hear that friggin’ quote? haha

  3. One of my favorite comedies ever, perhaps only beaten out by Clue, the Police Squad series, and Galaxy Quest.

    It’s crazy to me how funny Airplane! is when you consider that the Zuckers’ only prior movie was Kentucky Fried Movie, a Monty Python-esque series of skits that generally fall completely flat. It’s the comedy equivalent of going straight from painting the garage to the Sistine Chapel.

    It’s also a good example of how studio interference can improve a film made by fresh directors. The studio managed to convince the Zuckers not to film in black & white, and to use a passenger plane instead of a little turboprop plane like the original movie that they were parodying.

    One interesting insight from watching the directors’ commentary on this movie was that the Zucker brothers often planned out extremely expensive set scenes that got far fewer laughs or quotes from the audience than ridiculous one-liners. A huge portion of their budget went into the sight gag where a plane flies into the glass wall when parking, but I doubt 1 in 100 viewers remember that part of the movie compared with lines like “it looks like today was the wrong day to quit crystal meth!”.

    According to the director’s cut, the same thing happened in the Police Squad movies: the scene where Nielsen accidentally sets an apartment on fire: huge cost to film, but only a few audience chuckles, while “Nice Beaver!” brought down the house.

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