Airplane! (1980): Zany Spoof of Disaster Movies like Airport, Co-Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker


As a genre, comedy has never had it better at the box-office than in the 1980s, not even in the golden age of the screwball comedy during the Great Depression.

The vast majority of the decade’s blockbusters have been comedy-adventures, and the ruder and louder the comedies are the better their chances for profitability. In the 1980s, screen comedians seem to have made their mark with a vengeance. In addition to Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams scored an unexpected triumph in Good Morning Vietnam, Tom Hanks in Big and Turner and Hooch, Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, and Steve Martin in Parenthood.

As expected, “Ghostbusters” and its sequel, “Ghostbusters II,” did well for their performers. Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (who also wrote the script), the original was a funny “horror” film, full of skit humor and disjointed parodies that were best suited to their talents. The special effects are not always to the point of the story, but the “Ghostbuster” movies are not about coherence or structured narrative; there are too many loose ends in their screenplays.

The blockbusters that lacked A-list directors or star-performers have mostly been high-concept pictures. Behind the success of each one of them stands a hip factor, an original idea, a technological innovation, a spoof of previously made films.

For example, the 1980 comedy “Airplane” was a zany spoof of the “Airport” disaster movies. Fast-paced, laced with a nonstop string of gags, “Airplane” had three directors, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, who collaborated again in “Ruthless People” (1986).

The writing-directing team hails from such broad comedies as “The Kentucky Fried Movie” and “Naked Guns.”  The first parody of the serious subgenre of disaster-in-the-air (“The Crowded Sky,” The High and the Mighty,” “Zero Hour,” and of course, “Airport” and its sequels and imitators), “Airplane” is replete of slapstick comedy, silly sight gags, and some witty and campy one-liners, all of which account for a zany lampoon, which knows its limitations in format and running time (only 88 minutes).

Consider the characters: Robert Hays plays a failed fighter pilot; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a legendary sports figure) is the captain and co-pilot who gets sick and needs to be replaced; Julie Haggerty is the pilot’s stewardess and girlfriend; Leslie Nielsen is the crazy Dr. Rumack.

Mixing a cast of vet film actors (Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack) and TV comedians (Leslie Nielsen) also work well for this self-conscious, self-referential comedy, which makes allusions not only to Hollywood movies, but also to TV sitcoms, and pop culture.

A number of sequels cashed in on the concept, but this is the only truly funny picture in the franchise.


Paramount Release

Produced by Jon Davison

Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker

Screenplay: Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker

Camera: Joseph Biroc

Editing: Patrick Kennedy

Music: Elmer Bernstein

F/X: Bruce Logan.

Choreography:  Tom Mahoney

Costume: Rosanna Norton

Running time: 88 Minutes