Airplane! (1980) – A Comedy Cult Classic

Airplane! (1980) is a Timeless Comedy Classic that you need to see to truly appreciate. When it comes to slapstick comedy, few films have achieved the cult status and enduring popularity of Airplane! (1980). Directed by Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers, David and Jerry, this film redefined the genre with its rapid-fire jokes, sight gags, and absurd humor. Even after more than four decades, Airplane! remains a beloved classic that continues to make audiences laugh out loud.

The Genius of Airplane!

Airplane! is a parody of the disaster film genre, particularly the 1957 Paramount film Zero Hour!, from which it borrows much of its plot and some dialogue. The film follows Ted Striker (Robert Hays), a former fighter pilot with a fear of flying, who must land a commercial airliner after the crew is incapacitated by food poisoning. What ensues is a series of hilarious and over-the-top situations that have become iconic in the world of comedy.

The Airplane! Cast: A Blend of Serious and Comedic Talent

One of the most notable aspects of Airplane! is its cast, which includes actors typically known for their serious roles. Leslie Nielsen, in particular, shines as Dr. Rumack, delivering some of the film’s most memorable lines with deadpan precision. Nielsen, who was known for his dramatic roles before Airplane!, found a new career path in comedy thanks to his performance here. His line, “Don’t call me Shirley,” has become one of the most famous quotes in cinema history.

Another standout is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA legend who plays co-pilot Roger Murdock. His cameo adds an extra layer of humor, especially when a young boy recognizes him as the famous basketball player, leading to a hilarious exchange that breaks the fourth wall.

Airplane! Iconic Lines and Their Context

Airplane! is packed with quotable lines, many of which have entered the lexicon of pop culture. Here are some of the most famous:

  1. “Don’t call me Shirley.”
    • Context: When Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) is asked by Ted if he can fly the plane and lands it safely, Rumack responds, “Surely you can’t be serious.” To which Rumack deadpans, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
  2. “I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”
    • Context: Lloyd Bridges’ character, Steve McCroskey, gradually reveals he has several bad habits, including quitting smoking, drinking, and sniffing glue, all at the worst possible time.
  3. “A hospital? What is it?”
    • Context: When the flight attendant mentions they need to take the sick passengers to a hospital, Dr. Rumack replies, “It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.”
  4. “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”
    • Context: This line is repeated by Dr. Rumack when another character, Elaine, questions the seriousness of the situation.
  5. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.”
    • Context: Another of McCroskey’s running gags as he realizes the gravity of their situation, having picked the wrong time to quit his vices.
  6. “We have clearance, Clarence.”
    • Context: The interplay between the pilot and control tower using rhyming names adds to the film’s whimsical tone.
  7. “There’s no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you enjoy the rest of your flight.”
    • Context: After a series of increasingly dire announcements, the attempt to calm the passengers comes off as absurdly humorous.
  8. “Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?”
    • Context: The wordplay with the characters’ names (Roger, Victor, and Clarence) adds another layer of humor.
  9. “The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only.”
    • Context: The airport announcers bicker over the intercom about the logistics of the white and red zones, a seemingly mundane detail that becomes comedic gold.
  10. “I’ve got to concentrate…concentrate…concentrate…Hello? Echo!”
    • Context: Ted’s nervous inner monologue about focusing is humorously interrupted by an actual echo.

Airplane! Notable Scenes: Comedy Gold

The film’s humor isn’t just in its dialogue but also in its visual gags and set pieces. Here are some of the most notable scenes:

  1. The Drinking Problem
    • Significance: Ted’s “drinking problem” is revealed to be him literally missing his mouth when trying to drink, a perfect example of the film’s literal humor.
  2. The Jive Talk Scene
    • Significance: Two passengers speaking in exaggerated jive, which is humorously “translated” by an elderly white woman.
  3. Blow-Up Autopilot
    • Significance: Elaine inflating the blow-up autopilot, which results in a visually hilarious scene when the autopilot gets a satisfied look on its face.
  4. The Panic Line
    • Significance: When Elaine asks if anyone can fly the plane, leading to chaos and panic among the passengers.
  5. Calm Down Scene
    • Significance: A woman hysterically panics, and passengers line up to slap her to “calm her down,” escalating in absurdity.
  6. Ted’s Flashback
    • Significance: Ted’s dramatic recount of his past with increasingly ridiculous and over-the-top events.
  7. Rex Kramer’s Entrance
    • Significance: Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) dramatically removes his sunglasses, revealing another pair underneath, parodying the intense, serious hero.
  8. The Fish Dinner
    • Significance: The in-flight meal causing food poisoning, with exaggerated symptoms and reactions from the passengers.
  9. The Final Landing
    • Significance: Ted’s struggle to land the plane, with increasingly absurd and comical difficulties.
  10. The Inflat-O-Pilot’s Departure
    • Significance: The inflatable autopilot waving goodbye at the end, a whimsical end to the chaotic flight.

The Airplane! ast and Their Roles

  • Robert Hays (Ted Striker): Known for his comedic timing and ability to play the straight man amidst chaos. Following Airplane!, Hays continued to work in film and television, including the Airplane! sequel and the sci-fi comedy series Starman.
  • Julie Hagerty (Elaine Dickinson): Elaine’s sweet and somewhat naive character perfectly complements Ted’s anxious demeanor. Hagerty went on to star in several other comedies, such as What About Bob? and She’s the Man, and appeared in TV series like Malcolm in the Middle.
  • Leslie Nielsen (Dr. Rumack): His deadpan delivery and serious persona contrast hilariously with the absurdity around him. Nielsen’s career was revitalized by Airplane!, leading to a successful run in comedies like the Naked Gun series and Spy Hard.
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Roger Murdock): Adds a layer of meta-humor by playing a co-pilot while being a famous basketball player.
  • Jonathan Banks (Gunderson): Appears in a minor role but would later become widely recognized for his role as Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
  • Lorna Patterson (Randy): The bubbly and endearing flight attendant who is part of many memorable scenes.
  • Lloyd Bridges (Steve McCroskey): Plays the harried air traffic controller with a penchant for bad habits, delivering some of the film’s funniest lines.
  • Peter Graves (Captain Clarence Oveur): The dignified captain whose interactions with a young boy passenger result in some of the film’s most awkwardly funny moments.
  • Robert Stack (Captain Rex Kramer): The no-nonsense ex-pilot and Ted Striker’s former commanding officer, whose stern demeanor provides a perfect counterbalance to the film’s zaniness.

Breakout Roles and Future Success

  • Leslie Nielsen: Nielsen’s role in Airplane! transformed his career, leading to a successful run in other comedies like the Naked Gun series.
  • Julie Hagerty (Elaine): continued to work in both film and television, often in roles that played to her strengths in comedy.
  • Jonathan Banks (Gunderson): Although his role in Airplane! was minor, Banks went on to achieve significant acclaim for his portrayal of Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Roger Murdock): Known primarily as a basketball star, Abdul-Jabbar’s role in Airplane! showcased his comedic talent and added a unique layer of humor to the film.

A Parody Masterpiece

Airplane! expertly parodies the disaster film genre, replacing the tension with absurdity. The film’s success lies in its ability to keep the audience laughing with its relentless pace of jokes, clever wordplay, and visual gags.

Why I Am Watching Airplane!

Watching Airplane! is like taking a delightful trip back to the golden age of slapstick comedy. The film’s ability to blend clever wordplay with physical humor creates a timeless experience that remains hilarious with each viewing. Whether you’re watching it for the first time or the tenth, Airplane! is guaranteed to make you laugh.

In a world where comedy often relies on shock value or crudeness, Airplane! stands out with its clever writing and impeccable comedic timing. It’s a must-watch for anyone who appreciates humor that doesn’t take itself too seriously. So, if you love slapstick comedy and haven’t seen Airplane! yet, do yourself a favor and give it a watch. You won’t be disappointed.

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