I’m not sure what’s most incredible about Airplane. It could be the sheer variety of jokes: First, there are the parody gags, which are more sparse than one might expect given that this is marketed as a parody of a very specific, very tropey subgenre. (It’s like if only 20% of Walk Hard’s jokes were making fun of the beats of musical biopics rather than 95%.) This is where you categorize the runner about the protagonist with the elaborate backstory — so dull and exposition heavy, the listeners want to kill themselves — and the outrageous confluence of bad luck leading to the disaster — everyone who ate the fish gets sick, and a little kid, practically mid-surgery, waiting for a heart transplant on board.
You also have the aggressively literal interpretation (or misinterpretation) of idioms and turns of phrases. This is where “don’t call me Shirley” and “but that’s not important” fall. This is probably the most reliable of the gag frameworks in Airplane, at least the one that had me chuckling most often.
We can’t forget the visual gags. The omnipresent, almost inexplicably hilarious, blow-up co-pilot gets some of the best of these. I had remembered the crude and expected simulated blowjob bit; I had forgotten the payoff of seeing the stewardess and blow-up doll smoking a few shots later.
Another reliable joke structure is the constantly escalating runner. It’s astonishing how many jokes end up getting one-upped by more absurd versions of the same riff. Four seems to be the magic number of repetitions. Three is the expected cadence: You get the control version of the joke, the heightened version, and the outrageous payoff. But then we get the magic final one, a blast of over-the-top goofiness that takes it to a new level. (E.g. “wrong week to stop smoking” / “drinking” / “amphetamines” / “sniffing glue.”)
And even with all of those formats of jokes, there’s still a whole pile of little one-offs of varying level of edginess and absurdity that just pile on top of each other (e.g. ”I’ve never been so scared, but at least I have a husband”). Airplane really is a joke vehicle with a relentless cadence that also manages to never feel too exhausting or try-hard in its timing.
So, perhaps what is most incredible about Airplane might be the variety of the jokes, or it might be that all of them land so damn hard and consistently. It’s truly rare to go more than a minute or two without a solid laugh. Plenty of other great comedies manage barely half that and still feel quite zippy. Very few match Airplane’s pace, and I’m honestly scratching my head to even think what any of them are as I write this.
Famed parodists and slapstick goofballs ZAZ (David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams) had made a sketch comedy film, Kentucky Fried Movie, before Airplane. I’ve never seen it, but sketch comedy work seems like it must have been a good warm up for Airplane, in which each scene is a micro-sketch. They’d go on, in whole or in part, to work on Police Squad, Top Secret, Hot Shots, the Scary Movies, and the Naked Guns. Not bad longevity for a style of comedy that routinely burns out its talent in short order. But none of those movies — at least among the ones I’ve seen, and I’d imagine among any of the rest of their output — are as inspired or funny as Airplane.
Only a couple of things are holding me back from calling it an unimpeachable masterpiece. First is the handful of stinkers: The worst offender is the flamboyant air traffic controller, Johnny, where the joke seems to be that nobody has noticed that the outrageous caricature is gay. I also wonder if the movie leans even too far away from having a story to tell and characters I care about. There are no stakes here, just yuks. It’s like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for example, though that one goes out with a subversive rug pull. Although now that I’ve written it out, it feels like I’m sniffing glue to suggest that Airplane could use “more story.”
I guess what is actually most incredible about Airplane is that, despite the fact that it really is little more than one joke after another, it all holds together. The way the gags build and feed into each other and create an escalating anarchy heightens every surrounding joke. There’s a real shape to the film. It just so happens that shape is a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl. In short, Airplane is one of the funniest movies of all time.