“Can you fly this plane and land it?
Surely you can’t be serious.
I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”
Every comedy fits somewhere on the spectrum from dry and detached to Airplane! This movie is the biggest, most successful spoof ever committed to celluloid. Without this movie, and a few others, it would seem as though a spoof can’t sustain an entire movie. While my personal tastes lean on the drier side, I can’t help but be charmed by Airplane! for its overwhelming commitment to not being committed to anything. It shoots for laughs and hits its mark at an astounding accuracy for what seems like such a flimsy concept.
The film is a parody of the 1957 airplane disaster movie Zero Hour!, drawing on its structure and even large chunks of its dialogue. But like a page out of Mad Magazine, Airplane! holds nothing sacred, leaping from one gag to another with no regard for emotional investment. It just wants to make you laugh. It “follows the story” of an airplane flight gone wrong when the pilot and much of the crew become sick with food poisoning, leaving a troubled pilot responsible for landing the plane.
Many comedies hold one premise at their center and use it to mine for comedy (Dr. Strangelove: exaggerating the absurdities of the Cold War). Airplane! doesn’t abandon this tactic, coming back to character flaws and familiar airplane jokes for a good portion of its laughs, but it also pulls jokes from nowhere. Sight gags and one-liners are abundant, and the filmmakers abandon all coherence in favor of a ridiculous spoof. A lesser movie would try to hold some emotional ties to the audience, but Airplane! is smart enough to realize that those ties only take away from the point of the move. In its purest form, a spoof has nothing realistic or conventional to get you invested in its characters, and Airplane! is the purest of spoofs.
I wonder as I watch Airplane! why it seems so much more successful than MASH. Both movies are socially problematic by today’s standards, but MASH seems more mean-spirited about it. I also think that MASH is incredibly coy with its humor, glorifying its gags so that you really get a sense of how proud of himself Robert Altman was while shooting the movie. Airplane! seems more on the audience’s side. It has more fun, acknowledging how ridiculous it is, and I think MASH is still caught in the weeds of realism when it feels like it could just be purely ridiculous instead.
I definitely enjoyed Airplane! more when I was a kid, but my tastes have changed, and I still hold a lot of admiration for this movie. It’s one of the boldest comedies out there, and comedies aren’t made the same way anymore. There’s a formula now, one with an emotional payoff and lovable characters, and Airplane! just wouldn’t fit the mould today. It’s fast, smart, and wholly ludicrous in its approach to comedy, earning it a spot among the greats.
Films Left to Watch: 858