Even for someone nearly half its age, it’s hard to believe that Airplane! is 35 years old as of this week. To me, its humor seems uniquely contemporary; its sensibility, as manifested in today’s film comedy genre, feels like an evolution of the form, but that evolution implies that there is something off of which to continue to build. Airplane! is like an anomaly of its era, ripped from the present and cast back into the past, existing as a delightfully baffling outlier against the comedy landscape; it’s ahead of its time, to say the least.
And it’s not even a single comedic flavor we’re talking about here, either. One reason it can be hard to pin Airplane! down is that it contains so many different kinds of jokes. All of its humor is rooted in the absurd, but that absurdism takes about every conceivable shape without the film ever missing a step. Wordplay, visual puns, slapstick, parody, deadpan reactions, drawn-out non sequiturs, gag characters, and many more aspects visually propelled humor that don’t even have names or labels (at least to my knowledge).
And Airplane! is so nonchalant in its cornucopia of joke formats that it’s difficult to draw a line between any one of them. Take the inflatable autopilot system named Otto, whose facial expression occasionally changes between cuts without the camera ever appearing to take notice. Or the couple arguing over the airport loudspeaker that the viewer may not have even noticed until the conversation nears its end. Or the two men seen fencing when a panicked, riot breaks out on-board the plane.
To the contrary, perhaps the joke that Airplane! is best at is the one that’s funny because of how obvious the film makes it out to be. This is the kind of slapstick humor best known when (for example) Sideshow Bob steps on multiple rakes in sequence of gags on an episode of The Simpsons; such jokes that go on for so long that they stop being funny, and then keep going until they become funny again. The consummate example in Airplane! is the extended flashback dance scene, which goes on for so long that the film’s commitment to the joke becomes the joke. This becomes a running gag for the character involved, and each time he finishes the flashback, the person he’s been telling the story to has killed themselves out of sheer boredom.
Then there’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s role as a co-pilot, a character who is revealed to in fact be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in disguise, a visual deconstruction of the entire idea of the celebrity cameo via an overt acknowledgment that Abdul-Jabbar’s character is irrelevant in the eyes of the audience, whose image of him is predisposed and preformed outside of the narrative logic of the film itself. The joke that never fails to get me comes in the introduction of Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack. Elaine (Julie Hagerty), searching the plane for a doctor, is directed to Rumack by his seatmate. “Are you a doctor,” Elaine asks. The film cuts to show Rumack wearing a stethoscope. “Yes,” he replies. The comedy here lies in the absurdism of the non-absurd, where normalcy somehow transforms into silliness, and becomes profoundly amusing, a train of narrative logic that works over the course of the entire film, and is what makes it such a persisting gem within the realm of the studio comedy system.
The way that the film is written plays an undeniable role in its success. Jim Abrahams and David & Jerry Zucker famously wrote the film’s script by taking the 1957 drama Zero Hour! and adding jokes to it. They didn’t need to bother writing a story; they just needed to focus on the comedy, and that focus payed off in spades. Airplane! is packed to the gills with jokes to a degree that might not have been possible if the writers were simultaneously concerned with the demands of communicating plot. And you can see the difference in comparison with any other more plot-heavy comedy (particularly in the last twenty-odd years, since comedies have become increasingly concerned with plots and premises), where most of the jokes are designed to advance and explain the story. That’s not inherently a bad thing, as not every movie can be Airplane!, nor should every movie be so, but Airplane!’s greatest joy can be found in how disconnected its humor can become from its featured story. There are a ton of gags that have no ties to the rest of the movie whatsoever, as if Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers had come up with them independently, and had been itching to use them in something ever since their initial inspiration.
But despite all of this, Airplane! isn’t just “random humor” in the same style as Seth MacFarlane. Its tone is consistent throughout, and as a result, all of its disparate elements feel like they’re cut from the same cloth. As wildly different as some of its jokes can be, all of them have one thing in common: they’re in Airplane!, and that’s not an arbitrary umbrella. Against all odds, Airplane! holds together. Even 35 years later, it holds up as a comedic masterwork.