THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF AIRPLANE!

August 20, 2010

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On July 2nd, 1980, AIRPLANE! was released in the United States. For its 30th anniversary, the Film Society at Lincoln Center held a screening and a Q&A last night with directors and writers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (hereafter known as ZAZ). Ever since I stumbled out of THE NAKED GUN (1988) as a giddy seven-year-old, the ZAZ initials have been emblazoned in my consciousness, their screenplays replacing large chunks of my grey matter. I am not an impartial observer. But it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that ZAZ’s peak equaled those of the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks in the density of quality jokes-per-minute. Their approach was unique in that these comedies didn’t use comedians. Their laughs came from the cognitive dissonance of watching handsome leading men spout intricate absurdities. All of the performers play the straight man, while the writing is the star.

As Zucker put it, it was “as if we were taking real movies and re-dubbing them.”  (From my main source,  Robert J. Emery’s The Directors: Take One, Vol. 1) It is a constricted style, with little room for characterization or pathos. We are always laughing at these characters, rather than with the complicit guffaws of a Duck Soup. If the jokes fail, there is nothing left. But the ZAZ team was so relentlessly creative within these limitations that the strain never showed until Naked Gun 33 1/3 (1994), which I still treasure anyway.

Jerry and David Zucker grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where their mother, David said, would “talk back to the TV and criticize what was going on. That’s kind of where the satire comes from.  She was an actress from the time she was five.” When they went to college, they started making jokey Super-8 movies, including one “about Jerry running around campus trying to find a place to leak.” (I urge Paramount to spend large amounts of money restoring this). After graduation, they hooked up with childhood friend Jim Abrahams, and in 1971 started up the Kentucky Fried Theater in the back of a Madison, Wisconsin bookstore.  Their blend of live improvisation with film and video skits landed in Los Angeles a year later, and became a cult hit.

Airplane! was the first screenplay ZAZ wrote, but they couldn’t sell it, so they adapted their stage show to the screen, and the Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), directed by John Landis, became a considerable success. Airplane! was next, the result of a fortuitous night of television:

We used to leave the video tape recorder on overnight just to catch the late movies and to get the commericals so we could re-dub later and spoof them in some way. One night we recorded a movie called Zero Hour. It’s a 1957 movie starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell and Sterling Hayden. It was one of those “airliner in trouble” movies.

With the series of Airport films topping the box office, ZAZ took Zero Hour as their template for a parody, making a remarkably faithful adaptation. At the Q&A ZAZ said they even mimicked the camera setups, needing all the shortcuts they could get as first-time directors.

Originally the structure was going to be the same as Kentucky Fried Movie, with spoof commercials breaking up the main feature, an airline disaster film. But the feature was getting such a positive reaction, they cut everything else out. Intent on making a film with the same feel as Zero Hour and other late night flicks they were watching, they hired Joseph Biroc as their DP (Robert Aldrich’s long time lensman, he would shoot …All the Marbles the following year), and Elmer Bernstein to do the score. When they told Bernstein that they wanted a B movie score, he deadpanned, “so you think I’m the right one for it?” After he guffawed throughout the test screening, David remembered, they knew they had the right man.

Next came the casting. David Zucker:

We were watching these Airport movies and thinking, “Charlton Heston is just too funny.” The trick was to cast serious actors like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges. These were people who up to that time had never done comedy. We thought they were much funnier than the comedians of the time were.

Paramount originally pushed Barry Manilow for the Ted Striker role, but then reluctantly agreed to ZAZ’s plan for the leads. As a compromise, Paramount insisted on casting name comedians (Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Robin Williams) in supporting roles.  During the Q&A at Lincoln Center, Jerry Zucker talked about how they kept this from happening. Their producer, Howard Koch, supported their decision to go with dramatic actors, so he would intentionally bomb the pitch, telling the comics that the script was “shit”. Jimmie Walker was the only star to sneak through their defenses: he cleans the plane’s windows before bouncing off the fuselage.

The actor most closely associated with ZAZ is Leslie Nielsen, but his part was originally offered to Vince Edwards, who turned them down, irrevocably changing the course of Nielsen’s career and my childhood (Jerry Zucker said they also pursued Charlton Heston and Jack Webb for different roles, to no avail). At that time, Nielsen was taking anodyne TV roles, and the studio told Zucker that he’s “the guy you hire the night before.” But Nielsen was eager to sign, telling his agent, “I don’t care if you have to pay them. I want to do this movie.”

Graves was the most reluctant, unsure of why he was being cast in a comedy. Here was Zucker’s pitch:

We told him it was going to be a new kind of comedy that didn’t rely on comedians but relied on the jokes and the seriousness of the characters and the absurdity of the situations. And the straighter he could play it the better it would be.

While this group of old professionals may have been wary, they got the job done, as usual. Of all of the straight men, Lloyd Bridges’ work still stands out. His air traffic controller, McCroskey, spoke with the speed and bravado of Lee Tracy from a 30s newspaper film like Blessed Event. It’s a performance of controlled mania that ZAZ gifts with some of their greatest riffs, including the “I guess I picked the wrong week to stop drinking” routine that Bridges snaps off with a growling panache. He’s also superb in the ZAZ spinoff Hot Shots as the absent-minded President, whose endearing idiocy now looks like a model of Will Ferrell’s buffoonish take on George W. Bush.

One of the greatest unsung performances in the spoof pantheon is Stephen Stucker’s Johnny, Bridges’  flamboyant assistant who is always ready with a sarcastic retort. In deference to his wit, ZAZ let Stucker, a Kentucky Fried Theater alum, write all of his own lines  – which still generate some of the biggest laughs in the movie. A whirligig of transgressive jollity, he could turn a weather map into a pterodactyl and impishly unplug the runway lights before an emergency landing. He’s a force of nature, the only actor ZAZ allows to be a comedian, mocking the proceedings from the inside. A legendary character, he was a classically trained pianist who showed up to his Kentucky Fried Theater interview in two-toned leather hot pants. Tragically, he was one of the first actors to announce he was suffering from HIV. He died in 1986 at the age of 38.

The other sublime work here is by Leslie Nielsen, as Dr. Rumack. He is perhaps the straightest man in film history. He paralyzes his facial muscles as much as his immovable silver hair – there is not even a hint of a smile or a glint of emotion. His eyes are glazed and serious, and rarely looks at anyone in the face. He prefers to tip his head up to gaze dramatically off camera. It is a turn of extraordinary woodenness, a solid oak of uninflected speech and metronomic movement. It is the Platonic ideal of ZAZ performances. Nielsen’s commitment to looking oblivious is unshakable, and that kind of perfection is beautiful, and forever funny. He would be nominated for an Emmy for a similarly flawless routine in Police Squad! (1982), ZAZ’s short lived cop show spoof that was canceled by ABC after six episodes. They were able to revive the concept for The Naked Gun six years later, which taught me how to boil a roast: “Very hot. And awfully wet.”

At the end of his late 90s interview with Robert Emery, David Zucker says, “I guess the test is if the movie still works twenty years later. We’ll see in a couple of years if it’s still funny.” Now it’s been over 30 years, and it’s still cracking me up.

Postscript: Top Secret (1984) is incredible too.

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