Airplane! (1980)

2009 #21
Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker | 84 mins | DVD | PG / PG

Airplane! is not… well, many things. But what it is is a comedy, and, as I’ve said before, if a comedy makes me laugh that’s good enough — it’s its job and, unless there’s more advertised, there’s no good reason to expect or desire more. So is it funny? Yes. But…

The main problem with watching Airplane! for the first time now is that it occasionally suffers from its own popularity. Many jokes are too well known to seem original in context, and while some retain their humour others look tired. The ungenerous would mark it down for this, but that seems unfair considering it’s only the film’s fault in the sense that it was so good everyone’s copied it. However, age is a problem in other ways: cultural references always date, and some jokes here depend on those; some depend on being American too, meaning they passed by with an uncomfortable awareness that I was watching a joke but had no idea why it should make me laugh.

Airplane! combats these almost-faults in two ways: one, it is irrepressibly silly, which in this case is a very good thing; and two, it has an incredibly high joke rate. Combined, these mean it can coast over some of the problems. Even when it slows for a minute or two while running through a gag you don’t get, there’s an overriding silliness that can raise a chuckle and an awareness that there’ll be another along promptly enough.

There’s a good mix of gags too. As well as visual and out-there humour there’s a pleasing use of moderately intelligent wordplay — you’d be hard pushed to find that in a modern populist comedy film. Considering the BBFC’s PG rating there’s also a surprising number of gags that are adults (or, really, teenagers+) only. Even more surprising is that a film with jokes about blow jobs, suicide and cocaine, and which briefly features a pair of bare breasts, only received a PG from the MPAA.

This model of comedy — the silly spoof, as it were — is still in use today in the depressingly endless series of …Movie movies (like this weak example). But where they’re just crude, Airplane! is witty; where they’re just random, Airplane! is irreverent; and where they’re just derivative, Airplane! was original. It may have aged a little, but it’s still funny, and that’s good enough.

4 out of 5

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