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31 Things We Learned from the ‘Airplane!’ Commentary

“This is probably a good time to say we had nothing to do with ‘Airplane II.'”
Airplane Kramer On The Radio
By  · Published on July 28th, 2020

Sometimes filmmakers and/or film lovers sit down to talk about the movie they’re watching, and it’s called a commentary. Sometimes our Rob Hunter listens to that commentary and shares the most interesting and entertaining parts. Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where this week’s pick is the 1980 comedy hit, Airplane!

Spoof movies aren’t for everyone, but if you’re a fan the odds are one of your favorites in the sub-genre is 1980’s Airplane! The film is the brain-child of three comedy writers and friends who went from running a sketch comedy group in Los Angeles to directing films both individually and as a team including the likes of Ruthless People (1986), The Naked Gun (1988), Ghost (1990), and my personal favorite, Top Secret! (1984).

Airplane! put them all on the map, though, and now Paramount has re-released it to special edition Blu-ray complete with a new transfer, new extras, and more. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…

Airplane! (1980)

Commentators: Jim Abrahams (co-writer/co-director), David Zucker (co-writer/co-director), Jerry Zucker (co-writer/co-director), Jon Davison (producer)

1. The opening clouds for the Jaws (1975) riff are made from cotton wool.

2. The great Elmer Bernstein composed the score, and they recall an early struggle trying to convince him that they wanted “a B movie score. We didn’t actually want like a really good score.”

3. Their first script draft was written in 1974 while they were operating the Kentucky Fried Theater on Pico Blvd in Los Angeles where they would poke fun at television commercials. One night their VCR recording of overnight TV gave them no fun ads but did offer an airing of Zero Hour! (1957) about a passenger jet facing disaster due to food poisoning and heavy fog.

4. These early drafts were initially titled The Late Show as they intended to include their commercial gags as well with the spoof movie itself being filler. They brought it to Lloyd Schwartz who suggested that the airplane story was “funnier and more interesting” than the commercial spoofs.

5. The voices on the LAX speakers announcing parking, stopping, and other rules belong to the actual people who do just that at LAX. In real life, they don’t bicker and discuss abortion on the loudspeakers, though.

6. Abrahams met his wife on the film. She’s the blonde extra walking by Robert Hayes at 3:55.

7. The plane model crashing through the airport window at the start cost $40k.

8. You can see a technician pulling cable in the corner of the shot at 4:34. “The picture was so cheap.” They later point out some visible Scotch Tape holding the plane set together at 14:37.

9. They envisioned the plane being a prop-engine style, but when they brought it to the studio Michael Eisner insisted it be a jet. This caused them serious struggle as they saw the movie as being a 50s-style riff, but while they considered saying no to the offer they agreed as it was their only one after other studios disliked the script, wanted to control casting, or thought it should only be twenty minutes long. Their compromise was to use prop-engine sounds for the plane exterior shots.

10. Eisner wanted Barry Manilow to pilot the plane, and others who tested include Bruce Jenner and David Letterman.

11. They had to fight to get all three of their names listed as directors.

12. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t keen on doing the film but agreed for $30k — because that’s how much a rug he really wanted would cost. It was more than they could afford, but they decided it was worth it. The part was originally written for Pete Rose, but baseball got in the way.

13. The bar fight was the only scene filmed on the Paramount studio lot. It was filmed in two days (out of the thirty-four-day shooting schedule).

14. The Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” playing during the bar’s dance scene is sped up by ten percent. They had to get permission.

15. The script had the two “jive dudes” saying “mofo” this and “mofo” that, but when Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White came in to audition they invented their own take on it.

16. The two kids dressed and talking like adults are speaking dialogue lifted almost directly from Crash Landing (1958). Minus the punchline, obviously.

17. Peter Graves only agreed to do the movie because his wife loved the script. He didn’t understand why they wanted him for the role and instead suggested they cast some funny people.

18. The script originally included another question between the pilot and little Joey — “Have you ever sucked a grown man’s cock?” It made them all laugh, but they all knew it had to be immediately cut from the script.

19. They ran early screenings on college campuses, and they noted whenever a gag or joke failed to get a laugh — and then immediately cut it from the film before the next screening.

20. They tried to get Helen Reddy to play the nun as she played a similar role in Universal’s Airport movies, but the rival studio threatened to sue. The same issue prevented them from landing George Kennedy.

21. The song sung by the stewardess to the sick little girl was written by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame. He was outraged when he saw the film, less at the filmmakers than at the fact that he had sold the song in the first place.

22. Lloyd Bridges had a lot of questions trying to understand his character, his motivation, and his dialogue, and Robert Stack pointed out that the visual gags were so frequent and nonsensical that no one in the audience was going to care. “Lloyd, we are the joke,” said Stack to Lloyd.

23. Stack was apparently offered a percentage of the film or an extra $20k, and he chose poorly.

24. The film’s premiere happened on the Paramount Studio lot, and they accidentally played the reels out of order. It opened theatrically in Buffalo, NY where it tanked, but when it opened wide a week later a hit was born.

25. One big misconception people often have about the film is that it’s filled with improvisation, but barring one or two exceptions they actually shot the script “religiously.” There were dozens of drafts before reaching the final script.

26. The bulk of the film was shot at Culver Studios, and they recall that back then the people running the sound stages didn’t want money — they wanted drugs. “If you gave them drugs you could use their studio for whatever you wanted.”

27. There’s an extra with the crazy beard in the background of the windy shot at 1:02:49, and “we took so much time and care in makeup and tested so that it would come off when the wind blew, and that was really the joke, and it didn’t work.”

28. Only a single airline bought the film for use on flights.

29. There was originally a gag involving Air Poland with Jose Feliciano and his seeing eye dog piloting the plane. Complaints led to its removal.

30. Paramount executives realized too late that they had neglected to lock in the filmmakers for a sequel, and by the time they went back asking for a follow-up they were unable to convince the directors to sign on. Paramount made a sequel anyway, and these three have still never seen it.

31. The end credits include a slight addition to the copyright claim, and it led to a call from the FBI who wanted it changed back. Prints had already been made, though, so they were unable to comply. “They felt we were mocking them.” “And we were.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“There’s the Paramount logo. I remember when we thought that up.”

“I bet you probably wanted us to say something.”

“Boy, this picture was badly scheduled.”

“We ended up with all the right people despite our stupidity.”

“Just in case you were worried, we bought the rights to Zero Hour.”

“This picture got criticized when it first came out for being too risque, too raunchy.”

Final Thoughts

Airplane! is nearly as funny today as it was four decades ago, and I’m confident saying that having re-watched it recently and then watched it again with the commentary. Don’t like a gag? Just wait ten seconds for the next. The three creators and the producer offer up some very funny observations on the film’s production and show a strong love for their film. It’s a great track as well because Paramount allows them to talk uncensored — most studios would have nixed their comments on drugs, cock-sucking, and more, so kudos to Paramount for respecting their creative talents. It’s a great movie and a fantastic commentary!

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.