“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week Ensley F. Guffey and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. And don’t be fooled into thinking that genre matters to the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy is in here, along with science fiction, animation, bloody horror, toe-tapping musicals, and more. The Ten Percent last for two reasons: (1) they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception and (2) they somehow manage to capture something fleeting and rare and preserve it for the lucky viewing public.
It’s an often-cited adage that the Academy doesn’t give Oscars to comedies. It’s also a often-cited adage that comedy is difficult – as Peter O’Toole’s Alan Swan says in My Favorite Year, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” (Yes, other people are credited with saying it first, but when you try to track that down, the footprints vanish into the mist quite completely. So O’Toole it is.) At any rate, good, gut-busting comedy is hard to come by and comedy also changes with the times; far more so than straight dramatic stories. (This is one reason why Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to be a bit easier for modern audiences to understand than his comedies. Times change, and with that, tastes change as well.) We’ve written about comedy before here at The Ten Percent, but we haven’t delved into one of the great slapstick parodies of the last half-century. This column intends to rectify that.
Parodies often work best when more than one particular item is being spoofed. If all the jokes rely on your audience having seen the One Thing that serves as your source material – well, that can be risky indeed. So Blazing Saddles spoofs the entire genre of Western cowboy movies instead of just sending up High Noon. In a similar fashion, back in 1980, Jim Abrahams, along with brothers David and Jerry Zucker, decided that the disaster film genre could use a comedic treatment. Borrowing from the 1957 film Zero Hour! as well as Airport 1975, they gave us the fast-paced hilarity of Airplane! and lo, the world was a better place.
Much of the humor of Airplane! derives from watching heretofore serious actors who have been given a very loose rein to “go big or go home.” Robert Stack, who plays Capt. Rex Kramer, had previously played the captain who loses his nerve in 1954’s The High & the Mighty, one of the first airline disaster films, and here has a wonderful, scenery-chewing time as the straight man. Lloyd Bridges, who plays Steve “Looks like I picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue” McCroskey, is directly parodying his role as the airport manager in San Francisco International Airport, a television show from 1970 – 1971. And Peter Graves (Capt. Clarence “Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?” Oveur) had played in the made-for-TV disaster film SST: Death Flight (seriously, what a title!).
Moreover, most viewers don’t know that Leslie Nielsen, who is so incredibly funny in this film (as well as in the Naked Gun series, which was also written and produced by the Airplane! team) began his career as a square-jawed leading man – go watch the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet if you need a refresher.* And yes, it’s that straight-ahead hero type who terrorized the Airplane! set with – yes – a whoopee cushion.
Overall, the plot is standard disaster-film issue and is basically lifted right from Zero Hour! But nothing like the rapid-fire punning, visual gags, and off-color jokes had been seen in a disaster film before – and they worked. The film made a handsome return on its cost and has been named one of the best filmed comedies of all time on a number of polls and is ranked as #10 on the American Film Institute’s list of Best Comedies. In fact, Airplane! is on the National Film Registry, which is run by the Library of Congress, thereby ensuring that generations yet unborn will delight in seeing Johnny (the late, and greatly missed, Stephen Stucker) declare, “There’s a sale at Penney’s!” (And they will also get to benefit from his extensive origami skills.)
Look, life is hard these days. Airplane! gives us an hour-and-a-half of sheer, rib-splitting laughter. Do yourself a favor and watch it again, for any movie that allows the Beaver’s mom (Barbara Billingsley) to send up that pearls-and-apron paragon of domestic perfection certainly deserves its spot on The Ten Percent.
*Plus, bonus points if you know that Gunderson, the tower tech who checks the “radar range,” was played by Jonathan Banks, who would go on to memorably play Mike Ehrmantraut on Breaking Bad. (Look at the 15-second mark on this clip.)
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.