Tuesday, July 28, 2015

And Don’t Call Me Shirley: 35 Years of ‘Airplane!’

[LP note: I was fortunate enough to attend the world premiere of "Airplane" in Hollywood along with an audience of film dignitaries. Since, relatively speaking, there was very little fanfare about it before its release, no one knew quite what to expect. It received a thunderous if not standing ovation at the end. A big difference from "Heaven's Gate", of which I also watched the premiere, which had garnered a lot of adverse publicity before its release. The audience, at least those who were left, after sitting through its 219 minutes, afforded it only a stunning silence.]

The puns, non-sequiturs, sight gags and smart casting of ‘Airplane!’ create a movie still filled with surreal, anarchic laughs 35 years after its release.

By David Mermelstein, WSJ
July 27, 2015 6:55 p.m. ET

Surely it can’t be 35 years since the comedy “Airplane!” (1980) first arrived in movie theaters. In fact, it has been that long—and don’t call me Shirley. If that last remark elicits a smile, you are among the legions of film lovers with special affection for the first picture written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, in which a commercial jet, its cockpit crew rendered useless by food poisoning, seems destined to crash unless a passenger—a traumatized war pilot—can overcome his demons and land the plane safely in inclement weather. The three writer-directors would go on to create comedies that defined humor in the 1980s—spoofing police procedurals, first on TV in the series “Police Squad!” (1982) and then on the big screen in “The Naked Gun” trilogy (1988-1994), and spy films, “Top Secret!” (1984). But in some ways, they never topped their freshman feature.

Puns, non-sequiturs, sight gags and miscellaneous forms of anarchic humor defined their craft. Often the jokes were juvenile, sometimes crass, but they could also be subtle, embracing an almost absurdist ethos of the sort espoused by such paragons as Steve Martin and David Letterman. And though the influence of “Airplane!” and works like it has waned in the wake of our infatuation with more puerile, to say nothing of more vulgar, forms of comedy, its impact continues to resound. Take the recent movie “Ted 2,” which in many ways seems far removed from the concerns of the Zucker Brothers and Mr. Abrahams. Yet it opens with a joke in which viewers must guess which wedding guest might have snorted cocaine. Hint: the one acting like a maniac on the dance floor. The gag is obvious and faintly dumb, but right out of the Abrahams/Zucker playbook: The real joke is on us, how we’re expecting to be challenged and then aren’t. Similarly, in the just-released “Trainwreck,” we get LeBron James playing a tightfisted but warmhearted version of himself. “Airplane!” was there first, though, using Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to play a basketball superstar moonlighting as a co-pilot. Silly (maybe even stupid), yet somehow funny.

Vastly more impressive was the mining of comic gold from such longtime exemplars of screen rectitude as Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen. (Indeed, Nielsen would forge something of a new career capitalizing on his gift for delightfully affectless readings of both solemn and inane lines by Messrs. Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker.)

(More here.)


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