"Airplane!" was a spoof of the disaster-related airport and towering inferno movies of the 1970s. And what an enormous sendup of American culture it was. Disco. "Jaws." Ronald Reagan. Poker-playing Girl Scouts. It's all there, in what is arguably the funniest movie ever made, a movie that turns 25 this summer.
Jim Abrahams, and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, the trio who wrote and directed it, also gave us "The Naked Gun" series (but weren't involved in the not-quite-so-funny "Airplane II: The Sequel.")
"Airplane!" was rooted in its time. And God did we ever need a laugh.
Oil prices were skyrocketing (deja vu), and the Iranians had been holding 52 men and women of our embassy hostage for months. Inflation was running in the mid-teens.
"Airplane!" made us forget all that. "Airplane!" made you spit out your popcorn, spew fountain soda through your nose, and shower the row ahead with your neighbor's Milk Duds. Surely you laughed so hard that you missed half the jokes -- and had to see the movie again.
Values were different back then. People dressed up to fly and smoked on board. They had all that poofy hair. Smoking sections on airplanes, of course, have gone the way of the dodo and Jordache jeans.
And airport security seemed so much easier in those pre-9/11 days. Leave a taxi parked outside the terminal for hours? Sure. (And just who was that passenger who waited while the meter kept rolling? Why, that was the late Howard Jarvis, the anti-tax crusader who pushed through California's property tax-slashing Proposition 13.)
And remember those Hare Krishnas (the "Church of Religious Consciousness" in the movie) who loitered in airports and then planted a yellow smiley-face sticker on you? Man, did they know how to infuriate my dad. I secretly admired them for that.
Then as now, "Airplane!" showed us the inconveniences of airline travel. One unfortunate man removes his false arm and leg to pass through the metal detector. Puh! He had it easy. Today, you get to remove your laptop computer, jacket, belt and shoes while holding your photo ID, boarding pass and carry-on bag. A wriggling toddler in tow? You're toast.
And long gone are the halcyon days when you could take your kid to the cockpit, where the captain would ask, "So Joey, you ever seen a grown man naked?" Yet for these few and subtle anachronisms, "Airplane!" has held up remarkably well. And it isn't just a string of sight gags: It actually has a well-conceived plot that moves toward a compelling climax.
The film's crisis begins with a simple question. "Steak or fish?" (Remember when airlines used to feed you?) Everyone who eats the fish -- including the entire cockpit crew -- gets violently ill. Ted Striker (played by Robert Hays) is the only passenger who knows how to pilot an airplane. But he has to overcome his phobia of flying since an ill-fated combat mission.
A decade before "In Living Color," the movie's humor bridged the racial divide. "Airplane!" wasn't making fun of race, it was poking fun at Americans, as in the scene where two little white kids have a tea party on the airplane.
"Cream?" The boy asks.
"No, thank you," the girl replies. "I take it black. Like my men."
Later, a jive-speaking man gets violently ill from the fish. A woman, played by Barbara Billingsley -- yes, June Cleaver -- comes to the rescue.
"Oh, stewardess? I speak jive."
This scene is possibly even funnier in German, where the jive passengers speak an impossible Bavarian dialect. (And yes, I used "funnier" and "German" in the same sentence.)
As the only doctor aboard the airplane, Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) asks Striker, "Can you fly this plane and land it?"
"Surely you can't be serious," Striker responds.
And Nielsen delivers the classic punch line: "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley." The action shifts between the airplane and the ground, where air traffic controller Steven McCrosky (Lloyd Bridges) comments, "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking" (and later, to quit drinking, taking amphetamines and sniffing glue). Things are out of control in the control tower.
"The tower? The tower?! Rapunzel!" shouts the flamboyantly gay character, Johnny (Stephen Stucker), as he prances off the set. Johnny completely stole the show. ("Ooh! There's a sale at Penney's!") Yeah, he seemed a pantywaist, but he gave campy gay humor a likable voice long before Just Jack on "Will & Grace." Sadly, "Airplane!" was released just two years before the AIDS epidemic began. It would take its toll on Stucker, who died in 1986 of complications from the disease.
Eventually, Striker overcomes his fear of flying, lands the plane with its sick passengers and crew, saves a little girl who needs a heart transplant and wins the respect of the flight attendant he loves. All in time for Ronald Reagan's landslide victory in the 1980 election. And you thought "Airplane!" was a comedy.
"Airplane!" is an iconic movie for the ages -- or for as long as we can still hear the flight crew calling out, "We have clearance, Clarence." "Roger, Roger. What's our vector, Victor?" That is, if sound can escape locked cockpit doors.