Airplane! (1980) is too funny for traditional analysis. It’s the funniest movie ever made, so to dissect it to see what works and what doesn’t risks undercutting what makes it so fun. It has to be funny. It can’t help but be funny. It gives us gags upon gags, jokes within jokes. There’s a stretch near the beginning in which Elaine (Julie Haggerty) chastises Ted (Robert Hays) for his lack of ambition and tells him why they can’t be together. It is perhaps the longest period in which the movie doesn’t go for a laugh. It lasts all of 45 seconds. In school we used to have competitions in which classmates were given a small window of time to make the lunch table laugh. Classmates, myself included, would smash food into their heads, make funny voices, tell lame jokes until somebody cracked a giggle. The antics themselves were rarely funny, twelve-year-olds don’t have the best material, but the effect was cumulative. We were trying so hard someone eventually gave in to the effort. Airplane! works on much the same level, more sophisticated perhaps (though not all the time), but it’s game is to break you down. Perhaps its gags work 80% of the time but there are three to five gags a minute so by the end you’re stomach hurts and you have tears running down your cheeks.
The movie’s worldview is encapsulated when Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) receives a call from the Mayo Clinic. This is a movie prepared to make word puns, sight gags, and crude jokes; it’s even happy to reuse them. First there’s a couple of lines about which phone Oveur needs to answer. Then, in the office of the Mayo Clinic a conservatively dressed doctor stands in front of a wall lined with mayonnaise jars. There is a beating heart plopping around on his desk, presumably waiting for a transplant. When Captain Oveur gets a call on line five from a Mr. Ham, he tells the operator “Give me Ham on five, hold the Mayo.” Most movies would be satisfied with just one Mayo Clinic-mayonnaise joke, but not Airplane! which probably had to stop itself at two.
The plot, if we want to call it that, is about a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago that gets a batch of bad fish that lays waste to its crew and half the passengers. Under the guidance of Elaine the flight attendant and Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nelson) in the plane and the unflappable Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) on the ground in flight control, passenger Ted Striker (Robert Hays), tries to land the plane. Ted is a veteran of the air force but a war tragedy sapped his confidence and derailed his promising relationship with Elaine, one he boarded the flight in the first place to try to rekindle. The story is borrowed from countless 1970s disaster movies, most of which have been laid to rest while their skewerer lives on. Part of the way the movie remains so fresh, a tough trick with comedies, has to do with the universal nature of its jokes. With a few exceptions they aren’t pointed at contemporary mores. They are rarely specific but simly variations on the oldest types of jokes in the world. Even the particular gags, like the spoof on Jaws (1975), Saturday Night Fever (1977), Knute Rockne All American (1940) or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s magnificent cameo remain evergreen because they are lampooning the idea and not the details (the Fever bit is so durable it was remade in Ted , not spoofed, but literally reenacted, it’s actually one of the funniest parts of the movie). Airplane! has the confidence to develop them and then run them about an inch away from the ground. It’s a risky game, one that could fall apart at anytime but the script knows how good it is, has some fantastic zingers and the right actors to give them.
The visual gags are inventive, wry and explicitly cinematic, from the nonsensical war-footage that comprises Striker’s flashback to the fun the movie has with back projection during scenes in cars. One of my favorites involves Kramer in his home. He prepares himself in front of a full-length mirror and we see him looking at his reflection. The camera cuts away and when it comes back we see only what we think is his reflection but when he’s ready he walks through the mirror. I must have seen the movie ten times before I even noticed it.
But there’s nothing worse than discussing jokes. What works for Airplane! is a rare and difficult to define mixture of great writing, energetic storytelling and a breathless need to make us laugh. Even the creative team responsible, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, have never quite been able to replicate that combination. Airplane! is a cinematic miracle. It doesn’t rank with greater comedies that aren’t as funny like Some Like It Hot (1958) or The Lady Eve (1941) because it’s not interested in greatness, it’s interested only in being funny every minute for ninety minutes. Some Like It Hot and its ilk give up something too, a certain number of laughs, but that’s the trade-off for telling a story and not an extended, hour and a half joke.