Surely You Can’t Be Serious!
Speaker's Corner: "Airplane!" celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer. Michael Yessis looks back at a comedy classic -- and one of the greatest travel movies ever made.
07.25.05 | 9:19 PM ET
Most of the things I found funny when I was 11-years-old - Gary Coleman, armpit farts, Lake Titicaca - no longer make me laugh. One exception is the movie “Airplane!” Twenty-five years after its debut in July 1980, it can still make me laugh so hard that my stomach hurts. I know this because I just finished watching a golden anniversary broadcast of the movie on American Movie Classics, and I can still feel the burn.
I didn’t need to see “Airplane!” again. I’ve watched it probably 20 or 30 times, far more than any other movie I’ve seen. The visuals are burned into my memory, and I know most of the lines by heart:
“I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.”
“I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”
“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”
“A Hospital? What is it?” “It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.”
“I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.”
The list goes on.
Yet here I sit, once again having watched Robert Hays, Leslie Nielsen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the rest of the cast do its thing. And after watching Ted Striker steer the jumbo jet through the rain to a sparking, skidding stop in Chicago, I’ve come to a conclusion: Not only is “Airplane!” the funniest movie ever made, it also belongs in the ranks of the best travel movies of all time.
David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker - the three Wisconsinites behind “Airplane!” - set out to make a parody of 1957’s “Zero Hour.” They pulled the story and several lines of dialogue directly from that B-movie. Bad fish plagues the passengers on both planes, and the heroes are both named Ted Striker. In “Airplane!” he’s a traumatized ex-fighter pilot/cab driver who fights all sorts of obstacles - incapacitated pilots, a drinking problem, members of the Religious Consciousness Church - in a fight to land a troubled jumbo jet and win back his former lover, Elaine Dickinson, a flight attendant on the plane.
Comedy, of course, is as much a part of modern travel as jet lag. It’s reflected in advertising campaigns for Jet Blue and flight attendant announcements on Southwest. It’s woven into best-selling books by Tim Cahill and Bill Bryson, and into the long history of travel movies. From the Bob Hope road flicks to “National Lampoon’s Vacation” to “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” humor often propels the narrative. “Airplane!” fits squarely in that tradition.
The movie certainly doesn’t aspire to make grand statements about travel, though. It doesn’t show how travel can shape one’s world view, as in the excellent “The Motorcycle Diaries.” It’s not based on a pure travel quest like “The Endless Summer” or “Around the World in 80 Days.” The setting is not a primary character, as Vienna is in “Before Sunrise” or the two-lane highways of the American Midwest are in “The Straight Story.” And a plot that involves a 747 in crisis certainly isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to help sell airline tickets. Yet, in its own zany way, “Airplane!” incorporates many of these classic travel movie elements.
Take the opening scene. Striker abandons his cab curbside at Los Angeles International Airport to chase down Elaine through a gantlet of solicitors and travelers. The commotion feels real because it is: The directors filmed the airport scenes on location at LAX, and the extras are mostly real travelers. If, like me, you have a Pavlovian response to airports - you just want to get on a plane, any plane, and go somewhere - you’re hooked.
Like any good travel story, “Airplane!” evokes a sense of place. Ted and Elaine, as we are shown in a flashback, had met during the war in a bar - in Drambui, off the Barbary Coast. “It was a rough place, the seediest dive on the wharf, populated with every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta,” Striker says, surrounded by gamblers, thugs and girl scouts. “It’s worse than Detroit.” Aboard the plane, the chaos seems more and more real as time goes by. When one of the passengers panics, and the others line up with baseball bats and whips to straighten her out, it’s only slightly more outrageous than REM guitarist Peter Buck being brought up for “criminal damage to a quantity of crockery” on a British Airways flight.
It’s not just a detail here and there, though, that makes “Airplane!” a great travel movie. As a whole, it can be read as a metaphor for what I, like many travelers, hope to get out of any travel experience. Striker and the other passengers set off for Chicago, and along the way they encounter obstacles. They’re seated next to people whose language they struggle to understand. For them it’s Jive. For us, it might be French or Farsi. They encounter people from all walks of life, such as hari krishnas and wrench-wielding grandmothers, just like as we do. (The hari krishas, at least). They also face the fear of potential disaster, the same fears we struggle with daily in an age of global terrorism.
But Striker and the passengers on the Trans American flight persist, and so do we. The rewards of travel are too great not to persist. We may get scared or lonely or sick on the road, but we also have some gut-busting laughs along the way. And, in the end, we emerge transformed.
It’s the kind of experience you want to have over and over again. Maybe 20 or 30 times.