In the 1970s, the comedy dream team of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker (later branded as “ZAZ” with a unique comedic style of their own) accidentally taped the movie Zero Hour!, about an airplane that’s headed for disaster after its pilot gets sick from the fish being served on the flight, when they were recording commercials on TV to spoof in their comedy act. They ended up enjoying the shameless corniness of the movie so much that they wrote their own movie remaking it as a comedy – it followed the original so closely (complete with some lines being left word for word) that the studio that ended up taking the risk and funding the wacky movie, Paramount Pictures, had to buy the rights to Zero Hour! so they couldn’t have their balls sued off. The movie was released to rave reviews and is still considered today – four decades after its original release in 1980 – to be the greatest comedy movie ever made. Airplane! was called “a remedy for the bloated self-importance” of other contemporary movies by critics, while its staying power is shown in all the lists of the funniest movies in the world that it tops and the fact that the Library of Congress chose it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry (a privilege reserved for movies like Apocalypse Now and The Godfather). Here are 15 reasons why, for almost 40 years, Airplane! has remained the greatest comedy movie of all time.
15. The reference points are timeless
While Airplane! as a whole is a parody of the disaster movie Zero Hour! and the Airport series of movies, in its plot and characters, the specific jokes and scenes reference a wide range of movies, including Pinocchio (when the doctor on the plane explain to the passengers that there’s no reason for panic and his nose grows longer), Casablanca (the war flashbacks), Shane (the dialogue exchange between Peter Graves and the kid Joey), From Here to Eternity (the kissing scene on the beach), Fantastic Voyage (sugar in the control room), The Poseidon Adventure (Sister Angelina singing the Academy Award-winning theme song “The Morning After”), Jaws (the opening credits), Silver Streak (the plane crashing through the terminal wall parodies the train in Silver Streak), and Saturday Night Fever (dancing to “Stayin’ Alive”). These reference points are from other movies that have also held up to this day. If you want to be a timeless parody, parody timeless movies – it’s simple.
14. Comedy out of a limited budget
Using the fact that your movie has a low budget to create more jokes is a stroke of genius that was also applied to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where they couldn’t afford to buy horses to use in their parody of Arthurian legend, so they pretended to have horses and galloped around, making the clip-clopping noises using coconuts. Classic example of having no money and finding a creative way around it by applying humor. In Airplane!, this technique is used in the driving scene with the bad green screen effects. Rather than try their hardest with limited technology and come out with shoddy results, they leaned into that and played it off as a joke. So, you’ve got green screen effects that make the car look far too small, using footage that was ostensibly shot by the second unit from a separate car that hit a cyclist. ZAZ will mine a joke out of absolutely anywhere they can.
13. Airplane! was so great that it ruined Mel Brooks’ career
There’s a myth that’s been going around Hollywood for four decades that when Mel Brooks first saw Airplane!, it terrified him. Until Airplane! came out in 1980, Brooks was the unchallenged, undefeated master of the film parody, having made such classic spoofs as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Silent Movie. But then Airplane! came along and changed the game. There were some new kids on the block, and their names were Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker, and they were ready to dethrone Brooks. All of Brooks’ movies after Airplane! struggled to capture his former glory. A new precedent had been set for movie parodies. Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights both disappointed Brooks fans, and with Dracula: Dead and Loving It, the legendary director finally gave in to the ZAZ stranglehold and cast Leslie Nielsen, only for it to be panned by critics and unexpectedly become the last movie he would ever direct. Sad times.
12. The critics’ lists and audience polls don’t lie
Airplane!, by all accounts, should not be ranked among the greatest movies ever made. Those lists and rankings are not for wacky comedies; they’re for beautiful, dark, contemplative dramas, like The Godfather and Casablanca and Pulp Fiction. And yet Airplane! has managed to get itself ranked on all of those kinds of lists. It was selected by an audience poll to be the number one comedy movie for the ABC television special Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time. Meanwhile, it’s also ranked high on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list and the 50 Greatest Comedy Films poll on Channel 4 (where it’s second only to Britain’s own Monty Python’s Life of Brian), and the Library of Congress called it “a sharply perceptive parody of the big budget disaster films that dominated Hollywood during the 1970s and introduced a much needed deflating assessment of the tendency of theatrical film producers to push successful formulaic movie conventions beyond the point of logic.”
11. ZAZ took time to perfect it
These days, the writers of comedy movies are so lazy. They’ll hash out a script for some dreadful thing like Dirty Grandpa by putting down whatever comes to mind, substituting swear words for jokes and tossing in a few things they consider ‘zany,’ like Zac Efron getting his penis kissed by a child or Robert De Niro singing the N word to a room full of black people, and then sell it for a few million dollars. That’s not real art. They didn’t bleed over that. Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker spent six years taking Airplane! from the initial conception stage to the actual release of the finished movie. It’s a work of art. They went through the script tirelessly and tweaked every single joke until it was perfect (the original line that the pilot said to the kid in the cockpit was, “Billy, have you ever sucked a grown man’s cock?”), and eventually it was and they shot it and it became what Empire magazine describes as “the Citizen Kane of zany comedies.”
10. The wordplay
Not many comedy movies can boast about having made their characters’ names funny. Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker really do never miss the opportunity for a gag. In Airplane!, the pilot’s name is Captain Oveur, the co-pilot’s name is Roger, and the navigator’s name is Victor, which makes any dialogue over the radio very confusing (and hilarious), like, “Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?” and such. No other movie tries to make its characters’ names funny. Just take a recent comedy, for example, like The House. The characters in that are called Scott and Kate Johansen. What’s funny about that? Nothing. No one thinks to do it, but as long as something has to be in your movie – settings, character names, costumes – you might as well make them funny if your movie is a comedy. That’s what ZAZ figured out with their very first movie, and it went on to become the very best ever made.
9. The sight gags
You can always count on a Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker movie for some good sight gags. In Airplane!, you’ll find all their best ones, since it was their first movie and therefore the first time they had to put all of the best funny ideas they’d collected in their brilliant minds over the years onto the silver screen. Sight gags are a ZAZ tradition, and Airplane! is full of them (and they never get old). For example, there’s the scene where Dr. Brody at the Mayo Clinic is called and after a swift cut, we see what his office looks like. Now, in real life, the Mayo Clinic is a highly respective non-profit medical practice and medical research group. But in Airplane!, it’s a place with a lot of mayonnaise jars in it. That’s just one of many hilarious sight gags.
8. It works as more than just a spoof
A lot of modern spoof movies only work if you’ve seen the original. For example, Meet the Spartans only works (and even then, it doesn’t really work) if you’ve seen 300. The same goes for Spaceballs – you can’t really fully enjoy it if you haven’t seen Star Wars. But Airplane!, despite following the story of Zero Hour! so closely that Paramount Pictures had to buy the rights to it to avoid a lawsuit, works as its own standalone piece. In fact, Zero Hour! is such a little known movie that most of the people who have seen Airplane! won’t have seen Zero Hour!, but they’ll still have laughed every step of the way and been able to follow the story and understand the gags and recognize it as the greatest comedy they’ve ever seen.
7. Casting against type
When Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker were writing their screenplay, they knew exactly how to pull off such a ridiculous and juvenile project – by leaning into the ridiculousness and the juvenility. They knew that comic actors couldn’t make their ludicrous dialogue work, because the ludicrous dialogue is only funny when delivered totally straight. So, they cast dramatic actors in all the roles and had them deliver the lines the same way they would deliver lines in a movie like The French Connection or Chinatown, and they made the whole comedy of the movie work by playing it all completely straight. Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker also made a comedy star out of Leslie Nielsen, who until then had only taken dramatic roles, but after Airplane!, was one of the funniest and best respected comedy performers in the world, starring in The Naked Gun, Spy Hard, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and so much more. When questioned about being cast against type in Airplane!, Nielsen quipped that he had “always been cast against type before” and that comedy was his true calling. He’s not wrong.
6. The joke rate
From an actual mathematical perspective, Airplane! is literally the funniest comedy movie ever made. The math has been done. The calculations have been worked out. There are a grand total of 223 jokes in Airplane! – the first of which being the Jaws parody in the opening credits and the 223rd of which being that great post credits scene (that leaves all the Marvel post credits scenes in its dust) where the guy Ted left in his cab is still sitting there, in the middle of the night, looking at his watch, saying, “Well, I’ll give him another 20 minutes. But that’s it.” If we divide those 223 jokes among the 86 minutes (minus end credits) in Airplane!’s running time, then we deduce that the movie has a gag rate of 2.6 jokes per minute – the best gag rate of any other movie.
5. Airplane! is so funny, it ruined the comedy genre
As comedy overlord Judd Apatow explains, “I feel like the studios don’t buy as many scripts now. It used to be you’d open up Variety, and you’d see a movie studio had just bought a big high-concept comedy. Now it seems like they’d rather things come in packaged: a script, a cast, a director. As a result, a lot of great comedy writers are going to television instead of sitting at home and trying to write a script for a film, write the way I was. When you make the list of the best movies of all time, you’re always going to put Airplane! on it. And if movies like that aren’t being made right now, it’s because people aren’t smart enough and funny enough to make them. I don’t think it’s a result of studios or audiences rejecting anything or trying to copy anything else. If someone made a movie as funny as Airplane! right now it would make a billion dollars. Occasionally people try; most of the time they fail. When you do a big, broad comedy and it fails, it’s an easy target for criticism. I also don’t think critics have a great respect for the effort it takes to make people piss their pants laughing. They think it’s more honorable to show someone in torment, but being able to do that doesn’t make you more of an artist than being able to make The Naked Gun. It’s not hard to make people cry. Kill a dog.”
4. Absurdist dialogue
You can never expect what a character is going to say at any given time, because the sensibility of Airplane! is so wonderfully absurdist. You’ve got a kid going up to the cockpit to meet the pilot and being asked, “Have you ever been in a cockpit before?” Starts off pretty harmless. But there’s no way you can anticipate what the captain is going to say to little Joey next: “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” And the questions just keep getting worse from there. What makes the comedy so funny in Airplane! is the fact that you can never see anything coming. Sometimes a joke can be funny when you can predict it, because the delivery makes it funny – but Airplane! goes that extra mile by hiding each next step from you.
3. The gags hold up
The critical consensus for Airplane! on Rotten Tomatoes says that it’s “an uproarious spoof comedy full of quotable lines and slapstick gags that endure to this day,” and that is one hundred percent true – specifically the part about how the jokes “endure to this day.” The idea of being harassed in public spaces by religious zealots of various different persuasions will always be relevant – and the sight of Robert Stack beating them up one by one as they try to recruit him will always be funny as a result. The same goes for the inflatable autopilot, the “Whacking Material” section of the magazine stand, the subtitled jive talking, Nun’s Life magazine, and every other hysterical gag in the movie. Those jokes will be funny in a thousand years – and Airplane! will still be the best comedy movie ever made.
2. It’s endlessly quotable
The only reason that the list of quotable lines in Airplane! isn’t literally endless is that the number of lines in Airplane! is limited to the 87 minutes of movie. The quotable lines are just the lines in the movie. It’s such a tight script that every single line is hilarious and every single one lands. Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker must have worked tirelessly on their script, night and day, until it was absolute perfection. “Surely you can’t be serious.” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.” That exchange was voted one of the greatest movie quotes of all time by the American Film Institute. But that’s not all, not by a long shot: “No, I’ve been nervous lots of times,” “It’s a big building with patients,” “I take it black, like my men,” and “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue,” to name just a few.
1. Airplane! embraces its silliness
Airplane! is a silly movie. And unlike a lot of other, less successful comedies, it doesn’t shy away from it. And it doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. And that’s where it succeeds. That’s where it goes from being a hilarious movie to being the greatest comedy movie ever made. It is hysterical from start to finish and never relents for a second with the gag rate, because it accepts its own identity, and in doing so, the movie has created a genre and style entirely of its own. Everything in Airplane! – its voice, its tone, its sensibility – exists entirely within the delightfully concise 87 minute runtime. Dumb and Dumber co-director Peter Farrelly calls this “a very specific kind of comedy that we now call the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker school.” Thanks for the laughs, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker school!