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Airplane! The Screwball Story Behind the Ultimate Slapstick Parody

Steve Palace
Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images
Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

In 1977 The Kentucky Fried Movie landed on an unsuspecting public. Directed by John Landis (The Blues Brothers), it comprised of sketches lampooning disaster, kung fu and blaxploitation films. Based on this experience, young writers David & Jerry Zucker — together with Jim Abrahams — took another journey into parody two years later. The result was one of the biggest-grossing comedies of all time… Airplane!

The Kentucky Fried Movie had been independently-produced and was based on a live comedy act called Kentucky Fried Theater. Established by the Zuckers and Abrahams in 1971, it further entertained audiences by showing videotaped spoof adverts. In recording material off air for inspiration, the team stumbled on a 1950s melodrama set aboard a stricken plane… Zero Hour!

With its earnest tone and unintentionally hilarious content, it spurred them on to write a comedy version. It wasn’t too far off the original, however. In fact the rights to Zero Hour! had to be bought to avoid a possible lawsuit.

Robert Hays 2013. Photo by Rob DiCaterino CC BY 2.0

Robert Hays 2013. Photo by Rob DiCaterino CC BY 2.0

The plot of Airplane! follows pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays) as he tries to navigate the plane ride from hell. Starting off as a passenger to pursue ex-girlfriend and flight attendant Elaine (Julie Hegarty), he winds up taking the controls after food poisoning spreads among the qualified characters. The action is stuffed to the gills with sight gags, puns and surreal set ups.

Pointing out the similarities between Airplane! and Zero Hour!, Paleofuture says, “Everyone on the flight getting poisoned by eating fish appears as a plot point in both movies … Even some of the character names are identical — Ted Stryker is the main character in both films.”

Talking of fish, the group were still small fry in Hollywood terms. As Jim Abrahams explained to The A.V. Club, “We were sort of credible… but we attached ourselves as directors, so that was a dealbreaker in most places. But we shopped it everywhere. Somebody told me that they’d read a copy of the screenplay. I said, ‘Oh, yeah? Where’d you find it?’ And they said, ‘I found it on a bus.’”

Jerry Zucker, right, the director of Airplane!, Ruthless People, Ghost and other Hollywood hits, with Joe Klein at the Vloggies. Photo by JD Lasica – flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Jerry Zucker, right, the director of Airplane!, Ruthless People, Ghost and other Hollywood hits, with Joe Klein at the Vloggies. Photo by JD Lasica – flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Eventually the fun found a home at Paramount. The Zuckers and Abrahams “were rather amazed that anybody would give them a budget — and $3.5 million at that — to make such a lark,” according to the New York Times. So keen were the trio of writer/directors to recreate Zero Hour!’s vibe, they cast straight actors in absurd roles. Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges were hired, often to their confusion, in order to lend the slapstick-heavy romp the right amount of weight.

Take a look at the hilarious original trailer here:

“That kind of stuff allowed us to get more ridiculous with the jokes,” explained Jerry Zucker to the A.V. Club. At one point Barry Manilow was being thought of for Robert Hays’ part and Sigourney Weaver reportedly auditioned for Julie Hegarty’s role, arriving at the audition in an air stewardess’s outfit. Thankfully the team wanted Hays, and Hegarty’s natural innocence made her the perfect choice for Elaine.

At one point Barry Manilow was under consideration for the part of Ted Striker. Photo by Weatherman90 CC BY 3.0

At one point Barry Manilow was under consideration for the part of Ted Striker. Photo by Weatherman90 CC BY 3.0

The performer who gained most from the experience was Leslie Nielsen. Known for his roles in Forbidden Planet (1956) and, appropriately, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) he relished the opportunity to unleash his inner-clown. “I really enjoy comedy much more,” he told Den of Geek. “I was always trying for laughs between takes… The boys, the Zuckers and Jim Abrahams, spotted my silliness, and channeled it into a whole new career.”

Unlike Mission: Impossible’s Peter Graves (Captain Oveur) — who thought the project “was tasteless trash,” as Jerry Zucker revealed to the New York Times — Nielsen was in his element. “Leslie was the one who was just a fish in water,” Zucker told The A.V. Club, revealing he “just loved it, every minute of it, and practically didn’t need direction, because once he got what we were doing, that was just his thing.”

Peter Graves attending a ceremony to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo by Angela George CC BY-SA 3.0

Peter Graves attending a ceremony to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo by Angela George CC BY-SA 3.0

Cast members mention his use of an infamous novelty item, which emitted a loud farting noise to distract people during takes. Nielsen went on to deploy this in various situations such as interviews. His association with the Zuckers and Abrahams continued to great effect in TV show Police Squad! (1982) and big screen follow up The Naked Gun (1988).

Nielsen’s character Dr. Rumack had one of Airplane!’s most quoted lines. In response to the question “Surely you’re not serious?”, he replied “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” To the filmmakers’ delight, they didn’t have to work too hard for dialogue. Some of it was transplanted directly from Zero Hour!.

Lines like: “The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane but who didn’t have fish for dinner.” Not that the 1957 movie’s influence was entirely comedic. The fledgling scriptwriters found the story had a pretty solid structure.

“It was written by Arthur Hailey, who also wrote Airport,” said Jerry Zucker. “You could teach film structure using Zero Hour.” Commentators have noticed that, while Airplane!’s approach appears scattergun, it actually takes the trouble to knit a decent yarn.

Leslie Nielsen. Photo by Alan Light CC BY 2.0

Leslie Nielsen. Photo by Alan Light CC BY 2.0

The film made its money back many times over and has been acknowledged as an influence on The Simpsons and South Park, as well as numerous cinematic imitators. Writer/director Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary) got his breakthrough, David Zucker. “We didn’t realize until later that what we’d seen was a very specific kind of comedy,” he remarked to the New York Times, “that we now call the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker school… if the Zuckers didn’t exist, there would be no Farrelly brothers.”

Airplane II: The Sequel followed in 1982. It saw most of the lead cast return, with William Shatner joining the fun for the space-bound silliness. The Zuckers and Abrahams weren’t along for the ride, replaced by Ken Finkleman who’d written Grease 2 the same year. The movie made a profit but nowhere near the huge financial return of its predecessor ($130 million).

David Zucker went on to direct the first two Naked Gun movies, with Nielsen as accident-attracting detective Frank Drebin. Jerry was wielding the megaphone for smash hit Ghost (1990) and Abrahams worked on the Hot Shots! franchise. All three continued to collaborate.

Read another story from us: Blazing Saddles! 5 Hilarious Facts About this Legendary Comedy

But they made the biggest splash with their sky-high comedy, which made it into the Library of Congress Film Registry in 2010. Its cultural impact, and of course relentless gags, will be preserved for the ages. Next year Airplane! turns 40. It should be flying for a long time to come.