“I Picked the Wrong Week to Quit Smoking/Drinking/Sniffing Glue”

Airplane!, which follows ex-Air Force pilot Ted Striker onto an ill-fated flight in an attempt to win his girlfriend, stewardess Elaine Dickinson, over again, is one of the funniest movies I have seen in a while. This hilarious film, which has little plot to speak of, shines in the sheer insanity of the situation that its characters must face. How the actors managed to stop themselves from laughing while filming this escapes me! Perhaps that is one of the things that make Airplane! so great… While all the actors take their roles seriously, the film itself is one long joke from start to finish.

One of my favorite parts of the film was the dialogue itself, which involves a lot of miscommunication among the characters. The “What is it?” gag, for example, is repeated several times:

Elaine Dickinson: You got a letter from headquarters this morning.
Ted Striker: What is it?
Elaine Dickinson: It’s a big building where generals meet. But that’s not important right now.

And later:

Dr. Rumack: You’d better tell the Captain we’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine Dickinson: A hospital? What is it?
Dr. Rumack: It’s a big building with patients. But that’s not important right now.

The movie is chock-full of this childish humor. Add to the mix an inflatable “Otto Pilot,” a guitar-playing nun, and a smoking, alcoholic, drug-taking air traffic controller and you have a perfect environment for nonstop laughter!

“Otto Pilot,” Elaine, and Ted in the cockpit!

Apart from “harmless” jokes, Airplane! also managed to work in some more serious topics, all while maintaining the humorous mood. The movie certainly has its share of racist humor – the African-Americans’ conversations in “Jive” are subtitled, a Japanese man commits hara-kiri, and an Indian man pours gasoline on himself and almost lights himself on fire in what I can only assume is a mockery of sati (even though the practice of sati only applies to Indian women). What caught me unawares was the talk of abortion in the very first minutes of the film. If I wasn’t expecting this, I can’t imagine how audiences must have felt about it in the 80s… By the end of the film, however, the viewer has forgotten this small transgression.

All in all, I really enjoyed this movie, although how much of this is due to the fact that I watched it with my father rolling with laughter next to me, I can’t say.

P.S. I just found out that this movie was a spoof on a much more serious plane movie of the 50s – Zero Hour! Apparently, Airplane! is modeled on it exactly. Even the name Ted Striker is derived from Zero Hour!’s Ted Stryker.

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