Saturday 29 July 2023

Airplane! (1980)


Højt at flyve

“Airplane!” is currently my son’s favorite movie and has been so for a while. I admit I like it too, but since introducing him to it, we have been watching it a lot and I have no idea how often he has been watching it alone or with other members of the family. Let us just say that he can recite a lot of the dialogue verbatim.

“Airplane!” is a spoof on disaster movies from before spoofs really was a thing.  It takes all the disaster movie tropes, and a lot of the conventions around flying in general, and makes them funny. Elaine (Julie Hagerty) has left Ted (Robert Hays) because of his inability to commit since a war incident. It is a bit foggy, but Ted was a pilot during the war (with footage indicating this could be Second World War…) and thinks he caused six fellow airmen to die. Since then, he has not been near planes. Unfortunately for Ted, Elaine is a flight attendant, so chasing her means that he must get on the plane with her. On this flight the crew (and half the passengers) get very sick from the food, so now they are looking for somebody who not only can fly a plane but also did not have the fish for dinner. It is up to Elaine and Ted to get the plane safely to Chicago.

As in all spoof movies, this is not about the plot, but about all the jokes and references that are made. In “Airplane!” the jokes are generally better than average, but what really makes it work is two things: The references are so general that anybody even today can relate to them without having watched some obscure move from the seventies and secondly, all the jokes are delivered with a straight face. This second item requires a bit of explanation.

The actors were instructed to consider their roles as if in a serious movie, no matter how silly the lines or the implications were. So, the Captain of the plane, Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) will ask the little boy totally inappropriate things, such as if he has ever seen a grown man naked as if it was the most normal thing to do and Leslie Nielsen as Doctor Rumack will enter the cockpit and wish Ted and Elaine good luck with a serious face three times, the last even after they landed.

This is the genius of “Airplane!”, that they let all the silliness act out seriously. In the clash it becomes funny. The bar scene where Elaine and Ted first meet, the craziness would not be half as funny if any of them had smiled or laughed. It is totally deadpan, when Ted takes off his white uniform jacket and wears a John Travolta outfit underneath and goes totally disco.

A lot of the fun happens in the background. In a serious (or seriously acted) conversation something bizarre may be happening behind or slightly offscreen. Sometimes you have to look for it, like the magazines Captain Oveur are reading while others are difficult to miss, like the “jiggle and leave” moment (an internal household joke).

Both Julie Hagerty and Leslie Nielsen went on to have great careers in comedy, largely based on their performance in “Airplane!”. Nielsen was frequently cast in the Zuckers (David and Jerry) later movies which tried to follow the formula of “Ariplane!”, which went well with “Naked gun”, though eventually the formula got a bit old.

“Airplane!” itself though is not getting old any time soon. We still laugh our heads off even if this was the umptieth time we watched it. Try say “Drinking problem” in this house and we are already laughing.

Various lists have named “Airplane!” as one of the funniest movies ever made, usually in top-10, and while taste in comedy is a VERY personal thing, I think that shows that I am not alone.

Perfect medicine for a gloomy day. Very highly recommended.


  1. Not everything from this group of producers and directors worked, but Airplane! is very close to a perfect comedy. There are more jokes throughout this than anyone thinks, and not everything lands, but no one cares. There are so many jokes that if one misses, the one that follows it two seconds later will work. Pure genius.

    1. The sheer density of the jokes is staggering, but to be it is the deadpan delivery that gives it that extra level. So much of what is going on is completely insane but all of it relatable. It just works.