Sophisticated and subtle it ain’t, but the absurdist humour, great quotable lines and set piece satire that make up spoof airline disaster movie Airplane! live long in the memory. Every voted list you’ll ever see includes this at some place or other as one of the ten funniest movies ever made, and certainly one that you could not help but love – the sort of picture for which the phrase “off the wall” was created.
In fact, ask anyone over 40 at random and chances are they will be able to quote their favourite line, and top of these is generally the deadpan Leslie Nielsen intoning “I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley!”
Have a very small selection more quotes from the movie, and see how long you can last without smiling or even indulging in a full-scale belly laugh (and the one that cracks me up every time is the first, along with the memorable line “what’s the vector, Victor?”):
Roger Murdock: Flight 2-0-9’er, you are cleared for take-off. Captain Oveur: Roger! Roger Murdock: Huh? Tower voice: L.A. departure frequency, 123 point 9’er. Captain Oveur: Roger! Roger Murdock: Huh? Victor Basta: Request vector, over. Captain Oveur: What? Tower voice: Flight 2-0-9’er cleared for vector 324. Roger Murdock: We have clearance, Clarence. Captain Oveur: Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor? Tower voice: Tower’s radio clearance, over! Captain Oveur: That’s Clarence Oveur. Over. Tower voice: Over. Captain Oveur: Roger. Roger Murdock: Huh? Tower voice: Roger, over! Roger Murdock: What? Captain Oveur: Huh? Victor Basta: Who? Rumack: Captain, how soon can you land? Captain Oveur: I can’t tell. Rumack: You can tell me. I’m a doctor. Captain Oveur: No. I mean I’m just not sure. Rumack: Well, can’t you take a guess? Captain Oveur: Well, not for another two hours. Rumack: You can’t take a guess for another two hours? Joey: Wait a minute. I know you. You’re Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers. Roger Murdock: I’m sorry, son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdock. I’m the co-pilot. Joey: You are Kareem! I’ve seen you play. My dad’s got season tickets. Roger Murdock: I think you should go back to your seat now, Joey. Right, Clarence? Captain Oveur: Nahhhhhh, he’s not bothering anyone. Let him stay here. Roger Murdock: But just remember, my name is… [showing his nametag] Roger Murdock: ROGER MURDOCK. I’m an airline pilot. Joey: I think you’re the greatest, but my dad says you don’t work hard enough on defense. [Kareem gets angry] Joey: And he says that lots of times, you don’t even run down court. And that you don’t really try… except during the playoffs. Roger Murdock: [breaking character] The hell I don’t! LISTEN, KID! I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes. Male announcer: The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone. Female announcer: The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone. Male announcer: [later] The red zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the white zone. Female announcer: No, the white zone is for loading of passengers and there is no stopping in a RED zone. Male announcer: The red zone has always been for loading and unloading of passengers. There’s never stopping in a white zone. Female announcer: Don’t you tell me which zone is for loading, and which zone is for stopping! Male announcer: Listen Betty, don’t start up with your white zone shit again. [Later] Male announcer: There’s just no stopping in a white zone. Female announcer: Oh really, Vernon? Why pretend, we both know perfectly well what this is about. You want me to have an abortion. Male announcer: It’s really the only sensible thing to do, if its done safely. Therapeutically there’s no danger involved. Randy: Can I get you something? Second Jive Dude: ‘S’mofo butter layin’ me to da’ BONE! Jackin’ me up… tight me! Randy: I’m sorry, I don’t understand. First Jive Dude: Cutty say ‘e can’t HANG! Jive Lady: Oh, stewardess! I speak jive. Randy: Oh, good. Jive Lady: He said that he’s in great pain and he wants to know if you can help him. Randy: All right. Would you tell him to just relax and I’ll be back as soon as I can with some medicine? Jive Lady: [to the Second Jive Dude] Jus’ hang loose, blood. She gonna catch ya up on da rebound on da med side. Second Jive Dude: What it is, big mama? My mama no raise no dummies. I dug her rap! Jive Lady: Cut me some slack, Jack! Chump don’ want no help, chump don’t GET da help! First Jive Dude: Say ‘e can’t hang, say seven up! Jive Lady: Jive-ass dude don’t got no brains anyhow! Shiiiiit.
…and many more. But the visual slapstick humour is also going on in the face of highly serious clichéd lines too, often in the background. Some examples are hit or miss, but they keep coming at such a rate you can’t ignore them, in fact you need to watch the movie several times just to keep up with the sheer volume, and even then you won’t get all the references since many related to American themes that never made it to the UK, and long-forgotten TV series.
The rate of inventiveness in this movie is staggering, for which Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker deserve huge credit. You could argue that they might have achieved more laughs by cutting down the sheer volume and playing out the best to milk their full comic potential, but I defy anyone to see Airplane! and not love it for what it is – even if slapstick is not your thing. You’ll also spot a variety of nods, winks and take-offs of a whole bunch of other movies, not least Jaws, Airport and Saturday Night Fever.
Of the cast, selecting actors known for their gravitas rather than comedy background was a masterstroke, hence the presence of Nielsen (who went on to score a huge success as Lt. Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun series), Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Robert Hayes, to counterbalance the natural comedians such as the majestic Stephen Stucker. Add a handful of guest appearances (Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Ethel Merman) and you have the makings of an enduring hit and very many me-too followers trying to recapture the inspired lunacy that made Airplane! the success it is.