Film takes disaster spoof to new heights

There is nothing like a good side-splitter to put everything into perspective.

From 1980 comes the comedic gem Airplane!, whose non-stop hilarity has stood the test of time. The American Film Institute even named it the 10th funniest movie of all time, coming in after such films as Dr. Strangelove, Annie Hall and M*A*S*H. And it holds this place rightly so, as it was solely responsible for creating an entirely new type of comedy: the silly, satiric spoof.

The creation of the genre was probably inevitable, though, as the cinematic landscape at the time was ripe with disaster flicks like Airport and The Towering Inferno.

In the vein of the disaster flicks it so lovingly mocks, Airplane! chronicles the flight of a plane from Los Angeles to Chicago – but it’s no ordinary flight. It starts off like any other but soon becomes one of the most surely horrifying experiences of the passengers’ lives. Viewers can probably guess that the trip is doomed for failure just from watching the opening sequence, which features a plane flying with its "dorsal" wing poking out among the clouds to the familiar tune from Jaws.

Similar to the National Lampoon movies, the ferocious silliness is really what carries the film – not the plot. The only way to recreate the style of humor might be if you were to combine Abbott and Costello and their vaudevillian slapstick with Kramer from Seinfeld, fade it to the background and put them in plane at the end of the disco era.

Not many comedies can boast a laugh per minute from the beginning to the end, but Airplane! can. The cockpit dwellers are named Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves), Roger Murdoch (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Victor (Frank Ashmore); there are jive-talkers on board; the automatic pilot is inflatable (and named Otto, who makes his film debut here); and all this and more leads to uncontrollable, ongoing laughter. You may actually have to watch it several times before catching most of the shtick.

The whole thing becomes even more uproarious the cast is considered. The credits bill well-seasoned gray-hairs such as Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielson and Robert Stack as some of the greatest characters in all of comedy. Though we now know Neilson as the master of his craft, his pre-Airplane! roles were more likely to feature him letting loose in the Wild West or visiting the Forbidden Planet.

The disaster genre is not the only one being spoofed; much of the humor comes from the overly dramatic, though decent, love back-story and the Vietnam flashbacks. Ted Striker (Robert Hays), a former combat pilot who has since lost his marbles and developed a "drinking problem" spends the duration of the movie trying to win back stewardess Elaine (Julie Haggerty) when he’s not preoccupied with flying the plane after the pilots all become incapacitated.

Ted and Elaine’s mannerisms almost evoke those that captivated Casablanca audiences. Everything is theatrical, the dramatic music sounds like it is emerging from an in-house orchestra and the kiss at the end lasts entirely too long. Of course, this element officially gives the movie the potential to be enjoyed by all: the silly, hopeless romantic; the adrenaline junkies wooed by suspense; and those charmed by fart jokes and bad puns.

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