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Looks like we picked the wrong week to quit quoting 'Airplane!'

Original artwork for the poster for "Airplane!"
Paramount Pictures
Original artwork for the poster for "Airplane!"

In 1980, you didn't need a marquee to tell you where "Airplane!" was playing — you could hear the laughter from the parking lot. It was a cultural phenomenon and one of the most transformational comedies in film history. Nobody had seen anything like it. It had so many rapid-fire jokes. And many of them are still quoted to this day (for some people, a bit too often).

Remembering the reaction at a test screening, David Zucker writes, "Sometimes, as a result of the reactions, we had to extend a shot to accommodate the laughs so the audience could hear the next line. When Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar, who played co-pilot Roger Murdoch] is done shoving the little boy and lets go of his shirt, we hold on Joey's shocked expression for a long time. That's because the laugh lasted that long."

The writing and directing team behind the film — David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker — have a new book of oral history: "Surely You Can't Be Serious: The True Story of Airplane!" And they spoke with Morning Edition host A Martinez about the classic film.


JIM ABRAHAMS

Recently I was at a party and this little boy came up to me – like, eight or ten years old — and he actually quoted a few lines from "Airplane!" and said how much he enjoyed it. I'm not sure he understood the lines that he quoted. And I said, "Well, how is it that you got to see 'Airplane!'?" And he said, "Well, my grandfather made me watch it."

A MARTINEZ

I'm wondering when it would be okay to have my granddaughters watch it. My granddaughter is 13, and I have another one who's about to turn 10, and I never know what would be the appropriate age to show them films that I loved growing up. So what do you think?

DAVID ZUCKER

I think any age is appropriate because anything that they don't understand won't affect them. And when they do understand it, they already know it.

I showed the movie to my son when he was two. His favorite part was the boobies.

I mean, he saw it as food.

A MARTINEZ

Yeah.

DAVID ZUCKER

And then, you know, after that we started watching softcore porn.

A MARTINEZ

The three of you were in a sketch comedy troupe in Madison, Wisconsin. And I think I see a Green Bay Packers logo on your cell phone.

DAVID ZUCKER

We're all still big Packer fans, yeah. Often we gather at my house on Sunday nights.

A MARTINEZ

You all then moved to Los Angeles and started your own theater here. How did you drum up the courage to do that?

JERRY ZUCKER

Well, we started it because we got a hold of a huge Sony videotape machine. I mean, in those days, it was an enormous thing with reel-to-reel tape and stuff. And we were just having fun with it. It was just a lark. And then we started doing shows in Madison, Wisconsin, putting [homemade videos] in front of people and adding live skits. And it just became this thing. At some point, it wasn't just a lark anymore. It was something we wanted to do as a vocation. We weren't making money in Madison, Wisconsin, and we had bigger ambitions. So I don't think it was so much having the nerve to do it; I think we felt it was our only option.

A MARTINEZ

Like, Madison is a little too small for what you guys were hoping for?

DAVID ZUCKER

It was small, but we were encouraged by the reaction of the audience. I mean, we were packed and we didn't do advertising. We couldn't afford it. But we wanted to be discovered. And there was this performing group on the Johnny Carson show at the time called The Ace Trucking Company. And we thought, well, we could be as good as they are. We got a theater that had 140 seats — as opposed to Madison was 70 seats.

A MARTINEZ

So then you three stumble on a disaster film from the '50s. How did that become "Airplane!?"

JIM ABRAHAMS

The way we used to get material for our theater was: we would leave a video recorder on all night. We did spoofs of commercials and TV shows and movies from that era, so we would leave the videotape machine all night because that's when the stupidest commercials and TV shows and whatnot were on. And one day we took a look at what was on our video machine, and there was this movie called "Zero Hour," which is a 1957 melodrama starring Sterling Hayden and Dana Andrews. And it was just essentially the story of "Airplane!" — about a guy with PTSD who takes off in a plane and has to overcome his demons in order to land the plane in the woods. It was kind of perfect. It was done very straight. There was even a line in "Zero Hour" that said, "We need to find someone on this plane who not only can fly a plane but didn't have fish for dinner." It was like a gift from the gods when we came across that.

A MARTINEZ

Was there a line in "Zero Hour" that led to a joke in "Airplane!?"

JERRY ZUCKER

Lots of them.

DAVID ZUCKER

Oh, yeah. When Lloyd Bridges says, "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking" — that was right from "Zero Hour." That was our kick-off, our setup line. And then we, of course, wrote the three lines after that.

JERRY ZUCKER

And the whole idea of the kid in the cockpit, "Joey, have you ever been in the cockpit before?"

DAVID ZUCKER

There's a straight line from "Zero Hour."

JERRY ZUCKER

I would say that half the lines in the movie had setups from other movies because we'd just watch every flying movie and a lot of other dramas. "Surely you can't be serious" was from another movie. We would watch the tapes of these movies and someone would just say, "Stop the tape! How about if he says..." And we put it in the script.

A MARTINEZ

What was the 'sell' process like? To be able to get a studio to say: Okay, this is something that we're on board with?

JERRY ZUCKER

I mean, it was terrible and perfect in a way. We just thought our first draft of the script: "Hey, this is great! Let's go out and sell this thing! Of course, someone's going to think it's just as brilliant as we think it is!" And that just didn't happen for a long time. So we kept rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. And by the time we ended up at Paramount, we had a much better script, and they were fantastic in helping us bring it along even further. But it was a long process. And in the middle of all that, we made "Kentucky Fried Movie."

DAVID ZUCKER

And we actually learned to direct from John Landis. We were on the set as the executive producers and writers, and John directed. We had never been on a movie set before.

A MARTINEZ

So how was that? To learn to direct in real time basically.

DAVID ZUCKER

It was a great experience. John was very generous in listening to half [of] our suggestions. And he also added a ton of material, great jokes. And then we had the confidence and the knowledge to be able to direct after that.

A MARTINEZ

What was wrong with the script that you needed to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite? What was not working?

JIM ABRAHAMS

I think at the beginning, we never knew anything about storytelling. We knew about writing jokes, but we never knew about storytelling. At the beginning, we actually called it "Kentucky Fried Airplane" and broke up the story with commercials and whatnot. Once we got to Paramount, they were actually very helpful in teaching us how to hone down the script. So we stuck to the story and we stuck to character development. And as much as those guys get overlooked in "Airplane!" today, those are really the heart and soul of the movie.

JERRY ZUCKER

Yeah, we also kept adding more jokes. I mean, we were fortunate that Arthur Hailey had given us a great structure (he was one of the writers of "Zero Hour"). But every time we would go back to it, we just kept putting in more jokes and more jokes.

DAVID ZUCKER

And Paramount assigned to us a guy named Tom Parry from their story department, who wasn't so concerned with the jokes, but just wanted us to add more story. He was the one who said [to] add these flashbacks. There's about four flashbacks: the John Travolta bar, the hospital, the beach and all that. Those were all suggestions from the studio. And we were fine with it because we could add more jokes. Tom Parry said, "Make jokes plot points — and plot points jokes." And we've always taken that to heart.

A MARTINEZ

So you got this script then full of jokes, but you get actors who aren't known for telling jokes, who aren't comedians. How did those two things work?

JERRY ZUCKER

That was always our vision. I mean, that's the reason we insisted on directing it. That was the thing when we were writing it that always made us laugh — the idea of Robert Stack saying these lines. When we started working with these guys, we said, "Don't play it straight. Act as though you don't know you're in a comedy." And there's a difference — because people always think they're playing it straight, but they're not really. They're just putting a little twist on it because they want to be funny. They're in a comedy, so they think they should be funny. Part of the challenge that we were very rigorous about is: No, you have to play naive. And for us, that's the heart of the humor.

A MARTINEZ

Were there any actors that you had trouble getting on board?

DAVID ZUCKER

Lloyd Bridges was trying to make sense out of his dialogue, and that was a big mistake. He wanted to change it. But fortunately, Robert Stack was there, and Stack said, "Lloyd, just keep talking. They're not looking at us." You know, spears are going in the wall, watermelons are crashing down. "Just keep talking." And I think he got it after a while.

JERRY ZUCKER

Leslie Nielsen later said, "I would have paid them to do this." I mean, he just loved it. And he's such a comedian. Peter Graves thought it was the most disgusting script he'd ever read, but for some reason his family really liked it. And he was just in for a penny, in for a pound. And Stack would always say, "I get it. We're the stooges." You know, HE was the joke. They all had different reactions to it, but in the end, when they saw the movie, that's when they really got it.

JIM ABRAHAMS

That's true of the studio too. Paramount was willing to finance everything, but I think they always had their doubts. But then the first day they saw dailies – coincidentally, "Don't call me Shirley" was in the first day's dailies — suddenly Paramount got it too.

DAVID ZUCKER

They just cracked up. And Jeff Katzenberg called us up, immediately said, "You guys are fine, we get it."

A MARTINEZ

In the book, you talk about going to see "Airplane!" with an audience that's primarily Black. The scene [with] the two men that are jive talking. And then Barbara Billingsley, who is June Cleaver — as you describe in the book, "the whitest woman" you could imagine to deliver the interpretation of what these two men are saying — was that where you were wondering how this was going to turn out?

JIM ABRAHAMS

I remember being just a little bit apprehensive when that scene came up. And to be honest, they laughed harder than anybody. That was reassuring because our intention from the beginning was to sub-title the Black guys with stupid white-guy interpretations of what they were trying to say. And I think it kind of speaks to 400 years of white ignorance to the Black experience in the United States.

DAVID ZUCKER

The Black jive came about very organically because we all went to see "Shaft" and we loved it. But as we're leaving the theater, we said it was hard to understand what they were saying. And so we were saying, Oh, let's make a joke about that. We were making a joke on ourselves in a way because we were kind of out of it.

A MARTINEZ

And the two men in the scene [Al White and Norman Alexander Gibbs], they essentially wrote their lines?

JERRY ZUCKER

Yeah, they just figured it out. Because, you know, we were three white, Jewish guys from Milwaukee. We couldn't figure that out.

A MARTINEZ

And for Barbara Billingsley, when you approached her, was she game? Or was she wondering, okay, what is this? What do you want me to do?

JERRY ZUCKER

Totally up to it. She thought it was great. And Al White was really helpful with her. He taught her how to say her lines. It was fun to watch the two of them speaking, rehearsing jive with each other.

A MARTINEZ

I know there's a lot of movies out there that are made a while ago that kind of get filtered through today's comedy standards. But it seems like your film doesn't go through that. I think your film not only stands the test of time, but it gets funnier and funnier as time goes on. Why do you think your film hasn't gone through that same kind of scrutiny as much as others?

JERRY ZUCKER

I think one reason: it's all very sweet-hearted, you know? We're not angry guys. It's all a satire on a style of acting — really tough, heavy drama. I think probably if it was a new movie today, it would be difficult. Peter Graves with the kid? You know, "Have you ever seen a grown man naked?" But when you think about that, really we were just busting the pilots' image in the movies. Peter Graves was perfect because he had played those roles before. So really that was the joke. We weren't making a joke about, you know, child molestation. It was about image.

A MARTINEZ

So I've got Roger Ebert's 1980 review of "Airplane!" — three stars! He wrote, "This sort of humor went out with Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, and knock-knock jokes. That's why it's so funny. Movie comedies these days are so hung up on being contemporary, radical, outspoken and cynically satirical that they sometimes forget to be funny." Are we in one of those periods now where comedies forget to be funny?

JERRY ZUCKER

Yeah, I think we're kind of always in that to some extent. There are always some wonderful exceptions. When we started doing the theater in Wisconsin, it was right at the end of the Vietnam War protests. And we just had the sense that we were tired of politics. So it just wasn't us; we just wanted to be silly. And actually, we got a bad review or two because we weren't political. Reviewers were kind of outraged by that. But the audience loved it, and they were ready to just leave the seriousness, the heaviness, behind and have fun.

JIM ABRAHAMS

We have this internal discussion among the three of us about whether "Airplane!" is parody or satire. I've always taken the position that we don't aim for anything higher than: you don't have to take this seriously. There's no political meaning. It's not "Dr. Strangelove." And I think this is a good message for all of us forever, that there are things we don't have to take seriously.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Taylor Haney is a producer and director for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First.