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With the news that shitmongers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Disaster Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans) will soon be releasing another cinematic abortion under the title The Starving Games – a ‘parody’ of The Hunger Games and other non-related films, hilarious – I decided to bleach my eyeballs and revisit perhaps the best spoof film ever made, Airplane!.
Mel Brooks was the king of spoofs in the 70s, his oeuvre proudly boasting Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein to name just a couple, but come 1980, he was dethroned. From the powerhouse comedy team of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker (ZAZ), Airplane! lampooned with great spirit the ubiquitous disaster movies of the 70s, in this case the increasingly ludicrous Airport series. The film centres on a troubled couple – he’s a psychologically wounded fighter pilot, she’s a flight attendant – who have to put their problems aside and work together when the pilots of the plane they’re on fall ill. And hilarity ensues.
It really shouldn’t work. Airplane! is juvenile, silly, predictable, obvious and groan-inducing. And yet it’s all the better for it because of this. The film takes pride in being unabashedly corny. Quite a few comedies of the time tried to be something new and often ended up becoming cynical in the process, but Airplane! took an even bigger risk: it dared to be terrible. That’s not to say the film itself is terrible – I think I’ve made that clear already – but it dared to appeal to a connection we all share, that of the love/hate relationship with bad jokes, puns and gags. Maybe this is why the film works. The ‘jokes’ in Christmas crackers are nearly always abysmal but they’re designed to be. It can be a source of bonding because it becomes everyone against the joke. If they were clever or obscure, it would result in those who got the joke versus those who didn’t. Through the sheer ridiculousness of the gags in Airplane!, the audience comes together and laughs, making it not only a brilliant film but a brilliant experience.
That being said, not all of the jokes succeed. Some of them come across as being slightly too dumb and there are those that are fairly outdated when watched in a modern context, but Airplane! keeps everything moving along at a breakneck pace. If a joke doesn’t work, then another will be along in a second that will have you guffawing. In terms of a gags-to-minutes ratio, Airplane! is pretty hard to beat.
Many of these jokes flourish through sending up movie clichés in an inspired fashion (something that Friedberg and Seltzer at least attempted somewhat with Scary Movie but disregarded completely for all subsequent projects), like the opening sequence which features a plane flying through the clouds Jaws-style, with the famous brooding notes playing in the background. Some get by just through sheer repetition or becoming increasingly outlandish, such as “looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking/smoking/sniffing glue,” as well as several zingers from Leslie Nielsen, who is hysterically serious (and don’t call him Shirley).
Airplane! may be nothing ground-breaking but it didn’t need to be. It gets by just fine with its unabashed enthusiasm to go all out and be as shamelessly daft as it can. Where Friedberg and Seltzer trip up, however, is that they confuse being daft for being stupid and the result is laziness. ZAZ would later have a few more triumphs with works such as the Naked Gun series, but it’s Airplane! that truly shows off their genius.