The best cure for the sweltering summer is comedy, and ‘Airplane!’ has plenty.
It’s Debate Week. This article is one of sixteen arguments competing for the prize of being named ‘Best Summer Movie Ever.’ Read the rest throughout the week here.
Where many people remember the best summer blockbusters to be disaster and thriller movies, Airplane! puts all of them to shame by creating a monumental parody of them. Not only did this comedy become one of the most renowned in film history, but it also established comedic careers for actors known for the serious roles they make fun of in the movie. It’s obvious by looking at the sheer amount of comedy in Airplane! and it’s precedence in cinema that it is the Best Summer Movie ever made.
Just like any great film, Airplane! has a fun origin story. Comedy team David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (known as the ZAZ comedy team) were fresh off their feature debut The Kentucky Fried Movie. While searching through bad TV commercials to spoof, they stumbled upon an old disaster film Zero Hour! (1957) and decided to copy it as practice for writing a screenplay, but instead of making it a serious disaster movie, they made it a comedy. The idea of this spoof was going to be just a part of their sequel to The Kentucky Fried Movie, but the writers realized they had a bigger idea here, one worth an entire film.
Airplane! is a direct spoof of Zero Hour!, so much so that ZAZ had to obtain the remake rights to make the movie. After most of the passengers and the pilots on a plane contract food poisoning from eating fish for dinner, it’s up to a former air force pilot with PTSD Ted Striker (Robert Hays) to land the plane and come to terms with his past with one of the stewardesses Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagarty). Sounds like a solid, serious movie, right? Think again. There’s a singing nun, an inflatable autopilot, and a woman in bed with a real horse. It features fantastic minor characters like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a pilot, Leslie Nielsen in his first comedic role as the doctor that comes to the rescue, and a cameo with Ethel Merman. Here’s the line Nielsen is famous for.
There’s hardly a shot without a gag in it. If there isn’t one, it’s setting up a joke in the shots to come. This fast-paced comedy is unlike other quick comedies that came before it, cutting away from gags to move onto the next so fast you might miss it. Adam Smith actually calculated the number of gags in the first minute of the film for Empire. In one minute of the movie, there are eight gags and over 600 in the entire movie. The sheer volume of jokes in the movie is enough to make it legendary, but there are so many more great elements to the movie.
What makes Airplane! so funny is that instead of hiring comedic actors to play the characters, ZAZ specifically wanted serious actors to play the characters in a deadpan fashion, letting the parody style of jokes do the work rather than overacting. Many of the actors in the movie were known for their tough-guy roles that were being spoofed in Airplane!, like Nielsen, Hays, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack. As the plot gets sillier, the performances get more serious, which makes everything hilariously ridiculous.
The film makes fun of several direct movies rather than just the disaster movie genre. The opening sequence spoofs the famous shark in Jaws (also a famous summer movie). In a flashback with Ted and Elaine, the two act out a Saturday Night Fever dance routine with a twist, speeding up the famous Bee Gees song in the movie and featuring Elaine lifting Ted instead of the other way around, which many of us would expect. The famous scene on the beach in From Here to Eternity is spoofed by having Elaine and Ted covered with seaweed when they make out with the tide rolling in. ZAZ clearly perfected the parody with Airplane!, making it enjoyable for anyone who knows these references. Below is the hilarious dance scene spoofing Saturday Night Fever, featuring some brawling girl scouts.
Airplane! offers a silly, refreshing escape from summer. Summer movies tend to be entertaining, but the best have multiple layers to them. Despite being a parody, Airplane! has an exciting climax that could rival many of the action or thriller movies that come to mind when we think of summer blockbusters. There’s a reason it’s on Empire’s 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, The New York Times’ Best 1000 Movies Ever Made, American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest American Films, and AFI’s Best 100 Movie Quotes lists.
Airplane! gives us everything we could want from a summer movie times 10 and with 80 more gags than we’d expect. It’s pure fun entertainment, which is what we crave from a summer movie, while still being innovative. When considering the best summer movie, think about the movie that makes us laugh the most, laugh at other movies we love, and laugh even when we know what’s coming next.