An airplane crew takes ill. Surely the only person capable of landing the plane is an ex-pilot with a drinking problem, who's now afraid to fly.
There's a story that when Mel Brooks — until then acknowledged king of the movie spoof with the likes of Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety and Young Frankenstein behind him — first saw Airplane! his heart sank. There were, he realised, some new kids on the block playing Mel's game, and they seemed to be playing it as well and sometimes better than he did. The experience was a pivotal one. Over the next few years Brooks would vainly struggle to retrieve the send-up mantle with insipid pastiches such as Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men In Tights, but his spirit was mortally wounded and he retired from the fray shortly after Dracula: Dead And Loving It (1995). He probably did the right thing.
The brothers Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams had first met in the 70s and, as "ZAZ" founded the Kentucky Fried Theatre Company, a sketch troupe specialising in spoofs of bad TV commercials. To gather material they used to leave an old VCR taping the telly through the wee small hours. Some time in 1974 they were spinning through the ads when they came across a terrible 1957 disaster movie - Zero Hour - based on a novel by Arthur Hailey (who would also pen the novel Airport, the film of which is often mistaken for Airplane!'s main inspiration). They immediately saw the comedic potential of the story of a shell-shocked ex-navy pilot having to land a jetliner packed with food poisoned passengers and started writing gags. Not that the trip from page to screen was easy. One studio wanted it as a 20 minute sketch at the heart of Kentucky Fried Movie 2; ZAZ saw the movie as set in 1957 aboard a twin prop, but were dissuaded. And the movie was originally written with commercial breaks, into which ZAZ would bung some of their ad spoofs. Finally these were stripped out entirely. What emerged six years later was quite simply the Citizen Kane of zany comedies.
The distinguishing feature of what many people consider to be the funniest movie ever made is the sheer number of gags. They say you can't analyse humour. Au contraire my friends, here's a quick statistical breakdown of a one minute sequence towards the start of the film with the timing of each joke marked: A man in a captain's uniform walks to a news rack marked with "fiction, non-fiction, whacking material" (5.14);he picks up a magazine titled Modern Sperm (5.15); a tannoy announces "Captain Clarence Oveur (5.20) white courtesy phone"; he picks up the red courtesy phone and a voice says "no, the white phone" (5.30); he picks it up and the tannoy continues to page him, "I've got it!" he yells (5.35); at the other end is a Dr. Brody at the Mayo clinic with a live heart for transplant beating in a petri dish (5.50); we cut away, and when we cut back the heart keeps bouncing into shot (6.05); the operator interrupts saying there's an urgent call from a Mr. Hamm. "All right," Captain Oveur orders, "give me Hamm on five, hold the Mayo." (6.14.).
That's a grand total of eight gags in one minute; a jph (joke per hour) rate of 480, and even if that section was particularly joke-rich, a best estimate for the whole movie (and taking into account that ZAZ initiated their policy of keeping the laughs coming through and after the end credit crawl) is well over 600. Frankly, if you're not laughing, get checked out for lockjaw.
But it's not only the gag density which elevates Airplane! to the pantheon of truly great movies. ZAZ populated the cast not with established comedy actors, but with newcomers such as the criminally underused Julie Hagerty and big screen heavyweights noted for their macho gravitas, mostly new to comedy. Lloyd Bridges is outstanding as McCroskey ("Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue") and would establish a whole new comedy career on the back of the movie, as would Leslie Nielson as Dr. Rumack ("I am serious, and don't call me Shirley") and Peter Graves, who initially dismissed the script as "the worst piece of junk I'd ever seen," before" immortalising Captain Oveur with a gag you simply couldn't get away with these days ("Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?"). But then the original line, "Billy, have you ever sucked a grown man's cock?" was rapidly rejected as beyond the pale even then. Even the background characters delivered, most memorably Stephen Stucker — who sadly died in 1986 — as the unutterably surreal Johnny ("The tower, the tower... Rapunzel, Rapunzel...") Thankfully Zucker Abrahams Zucker turned down the immensely inferior Airplane 2, leaving their flight of comedic genius unsullied and making the asinine parpings of today's comic duo, the Farrelly Brothers, look distinctly grounded.
Surely as good as modern comedy gets? and don't call me Shirley.