The 50 Funniest Moments in ‘Airplane!’
I don’t care how many times you’ve seen Airplane!, arguably the greatest comedy ever made, there are still jokes you probably missed. Likewise, you perhaps think you know everything about the making of that 1980 classic, but as Surely You Can’t Be Serious proves, that well may be endless.
A book-length oral history from writer-directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, Surely is a deep dive into everything ZAZ, including their early days as childhood friends — David and Jerry are brothers, of course — and the launch of Kentucky Fried Theater, which paved the way for their first film, 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie. But their masterpiece was the follow-up, a spoof of disaster movies — specifically, flight-in-crisis films like Zero Hour!, whose melodramatic dialogue they sometimes lifted verbatim — that also riffed on everything from Jaws to Saturday Night Fever to Gerald Ford. The book details loads of excellent behind-the-scenes details about Airplane! — David Letterman auditioned! Badly! — and contains new interviews from cast and crew, as well as testimonials from contemporary comics like Bill Hader, who elucidate what makes this 43-year-old comedy so timeless. It’s a delight.
To celebrate Surely’s release, I hopped on Zoom with the ZAZ team to highlight 50 of Airplane!’s funniest, strangest, most memorable and most underrated moments. The below ranking is mine and doesn’t come close to encapsulating every joke from that incredible film. (I wish we could have chatted about shit hitting the fan.) But over more than an hour of talking, these were the bits either I wanted to bring up or they wanted to. (One quick note: Jim Abrahams wasn’t able to join for as long as the brothers, but as you’ll see, David and Jerry had plenty of nice things to say about their partner-in-crime in his absence.)
I learned a lot from the book, but I was stunned that, in our conversation, ZAZ highlighted jokes that even I hadn’t noticed despite obsessively rewatching Airplane! over the years. That movie packs so much in 87 minutes, the filmmakers refusing to settle for jokes that were just-okay.
“Usually it does need to get a laugh because ‘merely clever’ wasn’t enough,” David Zucker explains about their comedic approach. “You have to grab the laugh — you have to claim the laugh.” The guys are steadfast about not revealing which person came up with what joke, but they had no compunction about digging into some of their favorites — and also sticking up for gags that they love, even if you don’t.
The Mystery of the Spear and the Watermelon
Perhaps the two most bewildering Airplane! jokes happen in the same scene, almost back-to-back. Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) and Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) are discussing what to do about Ted Striker (Robert Hays) up there in the cockpit. Kramer says, “Ted Striker was a top-notch squadron leader, a long time ago” — and, then, a spear slams into the wall behind them. McCroskey instructs Kramer that he’s gonna need to guide Striker to a safe landing: “So help me, you’ll have to talk him right down to the ground.” For no reason, a watermelon falls from the sky, crashing down on a desk. What exactly is going on here?
Jerry Zucker tries to explain: “We’re watching Zero Hour!, or some old movie, and we’re imagining (our joke) happening in that movie. When you take it out of context, once in a while it just doesn’t work. We’re looking at Sterling Hayden (who was in Zero Hour!) and thinking, ‘Boy, what if a watermelon just crashed? Or a spear (shows up) as these guys are (talking)?’ But putting it in our movie, it just doesn’t work — it just seems so funny to have something so crazy happen.”
“That taught us a lesson,” adds David Zucker. “We were fascinated by background stuff, but I think we learned from that gag that the background has to be related to the foreground. You can’t just do pure background stuff — it can’t be a non sequitur. So you live and learn.”
So Many Damn Solicitors at the Airport
Used to be, you had to avoid people trying to sign you up for stuff when you were heading to your flight — mostly, religious groups. Kramer ends up beating up a ton of these solicitors when he gets to the airport. To my surprise when I rewatched the movie, I noticed that one of these people is advocating for Scientology, which wasn’t quite as big a thing in the culture then as it is now.
“I don’t think it really mattered to us that much,” Jerry Zucker says about the reference. “I think people knew the name. (We just picked) a bunch of people who would proselytize at the airport.”
I jokingly suggested that perhaps the movie helped discourage airports from allowing religious groups to sit in the lobby pestering people. “Yeah,” David Zucker replies with faux-seriousness, “Airplane! had some social significance.”
In the Saturday Night Fever flashback, Ted talks about how dicey the bar was where he met Elaine: “It was a rough place, the seediest dive on the wharf, populated with every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta. … It was worse than Detroit.” The Motor City was a frequent comic target for the filmmakers.
“That was just a little homage to Kentucky Fried Movie,” Jerry Zucker says, alluding to similar “Detroit is a hellhole” gags in their earlier film.
“Yeah, around 1976, there were a lot of bad things happening in Detroit,” David Zucker notes. Sadly, Detroit has only further declined as a major American city since Airplane!
In a flashback to Elaine (Julie Hagerty) and Ted’s early love affair, we see them working with the Peace Corps in Africa, trying to “educate” the locals about seemingly astounding first-world advancements, like Tupperware. The whole sequence is a knock on the arrogance of Americans going into other cultures, thinking they need our help.
“Tupperware was big then — they had Tupperware parties and all that,” Jerry Zucker remembers. “Everybody knew Tupperware — now, much less so.”
Funny thing, though: ZAZ actually had to call the product Supperware in the movie, presumably so they wouldn’t get sued.
Airplane! opened in the summer of 1980. A few months later, Ronald Reagan was elected president. But before then, he was governor of California — and, before that, an actor. His movies were not considered masterpieces, which explains why one of Airplane!’s ill passengers, Shirley (Mary Mercier), declares, “I haven’t felt this awful since we saw that Ronald Reagan film.” Little did the ZAZ guys know what a greater impact he’d have on the world soon.
“I think one of the reasons the movie lasts is because, by and large, we stayed away from stuff that was too topical,” says Jerry Zucker. Still, he likes this dated bit: “It’s fine because it works.”
‘Christmas, Ted: What Does It Mean to You?’
The plane now safely on the ground, Kramer congratulates Striker over the radio, not realizing he and Elaine have already left the cockpit. Unaware, Kramer goes into a strange monologue about Christmas and municipal bonds, with no one listening. “(That’s) one that might be slightly underrated that I always love,” says Jerry Zucker.
Where did this odd ramble come from? “Jim just wrote those,” David Zucker says, admiringly.
‘What a Pisser’
Jim Abrahams notes, “(Zero Hour!) gave us the whole boy-meets-girl, loses-girl, gets-girl story, and there’s a line when Elaine says to Ted, ‘I can’t live with (a man I don’t respect).’” The line was swiped directly from that movie, but when Elaine walks off, Ted turns to the audience and says, dejectedly, “What a pisser.” Fun fact: His line was cut when Airplane! played on cable because of the vulgarity, the censors ending the scene with Ted just looking at us. For years, I had no idea I was missing a crucial punchline.
Blink and you might miss it: Near the end of the film, the plane on its descent into Chicago takes out a radio tower for a station that proudly describes itself as “Where disco lives forever!” But did you catch the radio station’s name? It’s WZAZ, for Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker.
“That was a joke that was added later where the plane hits the WZAZ (tower),” says David Zucker. “That was in post-production.”
“The miniature guys who did that made it say ZAZ for the call letters,” Jerry Zucker recalls. “Actually, we were a little uncomfortable with it, because we don’t like to call attention to ourselves in the movie.”
“We don’t want to call attention to ourselves until we write a book,” David Zucker adds, sarcastically.
Ask Jim Abrahams about his favorite Airplane! moments, and he responds, “I’ll be driving along sometimes, and I’ll think of something that makes me laugh. Toward the end of the movie, there’s a shot of a fire engine with a Dalmatian on the back who barks, and that was taken right from Zero Hour!, but we dubbed in a hound barking.” He chuckles. “(For a) Dalmatian, that’s so silly.”
This is another joke I had never noticed before.
When Captain Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) is browsing the airport magazine stand, there’s a prominently-displayed section entitled “Whacking Material.” I tell the guys that I love the use of “whacking,” which is a fantastically old-fashioned name for masturbating. If anything, the joke may be even funnier now because it’s such an antiquated term.
“A lot of terms last for 10 or so years,” David Zucker replies. “About 10 years ago, I was calling somebody, the assistant answered, and I said, ‘Where is (so-and-so)?’ and he said, ‘I’m sorry, he’s out to lunch.’ And I said, ‘I’m not interested in your personal opinion of him — I just want to know if he’s in!’ Somebody told me (later) that term is no longer used.”
Face the Facts
“There’s little things that the audience doesn’t really laugh at,” says David Zucker, “but they are really funny — I insist that they’re funny.” One such instance: When Leslie Nielsen’s Dr. Rumack says grimly to Julie Hagerty’s Elaine, “You’re a member of this crew — can you face some unpleasant facts?”
“She says, ‘No,’” David says, laughing. “And then he keeps going right on.”
The Magic Trick
Attending to the ill passenger Shirley, Dr. Rumack pulls an egg out of her mouth — and then another. All of a sudden, we’re in the middle of a magic trick, with a bird coming out of one of the eggs.
“That’s an old trick, which is the point,” Jerry Zucker explains. “We actually hired a magician to come and teach Leslie. When we first met (the magician), he said, ‘I could make a bird come out of it.’ We said, ‘Great!’ And the bird was great because I don’t think we did a ton of takes — it just (flew) all around within the camera frame.”
The Funny Face
Sweet young Lisa (Jill Whelan) is a sick girl who needs a heart transplant. But after her IV is knocked out of her arm — it’s a long story — she goes into shock in the funniest way imaginable, requiring Whelan to make hysterical faces.
Jerry Zucker says, “That’s how we auditioned her. A lot of kids could read the lines fine, but we needed that face — everybody that came in and read had (to) do it.” What direction did they give prospective actresses? “‘Cross your eyes at the same time,’” says David Zucker.
‘He Thinks He’s Ethel Merman’
Musical comedy icon Ethel Merman, who died in 1984 at the age of 76, provided a cameo in Airplane!, playing a shell-shocked soldier who believes he’s the singer. Merman was a cultural touchstone for all three filmmakers.
“For some reason, Jerry and I were aware of Ethel Merman,” says David Zucker. “Jerry in one of his apartments during the ‘70s had this shelf full of little cubby holes, and in one he had it rigged up, when you opened the door, it was a picture of Ethel Merman and the sound (of her singing), ‘You’ll be swell! You’ll be great!’ And Jim was a big Ethel Merman fan because his mom would take Jim and his sisters to see musicals, and he loved Ethel Merman. So he was especially happy that he got to meet Ethel Merman.”
Ride the Lightning
To amusingly underline the dramatic stakes, sometimes when there’s a huge plot development in Airplane!, lightning and thunder occur right outside the cockpit window — perfectly on cue for the crucial information that’s just been said.
“We always kept trying to push the drama — and maybe even push it a little more than it might be,” says Jerry Zucker, “because that just helped the jokes and helped remind the audience that this is a big, dangerous situation.”
The Reporters Run into the Phone Booths
“I don’t even know if anybody knows what that is anymore,” says David Zucker about this outdated but still really funny piece of slapstick that spoofs movies in which hard-hitting journalists dash to the phone to deliver their big, important scoop to their editor. “There must be instances where a verdict is granted in a courtroom, and then I guess they don’t all run out — they just probably get on their cell phones.”
Dr. Rumack’s Pinocchio Nose
On its surface, it’s a pretty straightforward gag: Dr. Rumack is trying to reassure the passengers about the dire situation, but with each lie he tells, the longer his nose grows. But Jerry Zucker is especially pleased with the bit’s final joke. “At the end of that, sometimes people just can’t hear it,” he says. “His last line is ‘(The pilots) are at the controls flying the plane, free to pursue a life of religious fulfillment.’”
“Which was a line that one of Jim’s classmates wrote in his yearbook!” adds David Zucker, laughing. Wait, is that true?
“It was the weirdest thing,” Jim Abrahams replies, seemingly still bewildered by the incident. “Some girl in high school — I barely knew her, she was just this fun-loving girl, but she wrote in my yearbook. And all of a sudden, it got very heavy: ‘I hope you live a life where you’re free to pursue a life of religious fulfillment.’ I’ve got it in the other room — I could show you.”
Did Jim and this woman ever speak after? “I don’t think so. I think I had only talked to her once or twice before she wrote that.”
Never Order the Fish
David Zucker is partial to a seemingly straightforward line spoken by Leslie Nielsen: “The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.”
But what makes it so funny, as David points out, is “that line is just intact from Zero Hour!” Often, ZAZ would lift a bit from Zero Hour! or another disaster movie, and then add a punchline — here, they left it as-is because the original dialogue was just so ridiculously “dramatic.”
Airplane’s ending joke — Otto and his inflatable female friend fly off together — took a little while to figure out. “I don’t think we had a kicker,” David Zucker recalls. “What we came to realize (was) you need that at the end of a comedy. At the end of Naked Gun, Norbert goes down the thing and flips and goes flying — you need that one last big gag.”
“As many little other kickers as you can have, the better,” Jerry Zucker notes. “The effects guys suggested Mrs. Autopilot, and (Otto’s) wink (to the camera) — it was great, it added two fun things. The script was just the autopilot taking off.”
“It was helped by the fact that, in the movie, we established there was an actual character to the autopilot,” says David Zucker. “He was a randy, sexy guy, so we knew what the wink meant.”
The ‘Jaws’ Opener
Airplane! establishes its silly, spoofy spirit from the start, parodying Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster as a plane’s tale slices through the clouds. “The original opener was just all the people going to the airport, the Hare Krishnas and the jive dudes and everyone else, because that’s how a lot of those (airplane disaster) movies opened,” explains Jerry Zucker. “That was how the script was, but then when we decided on the fin, it was to the Jaws music, because that was the whole joke of it.”
The Naked Breasts
For inexplicable reasons, during one mid-flight freakout inside the cabin, a naked female torso runs right in front of the camera, then departs. “That was someone I was dating at the time,” David Zucker says, deadpan, prompting his brother Jerry to respond, “He wishes.”
So how did they pick the actress for the role? “I guess we must have auditioned people,” says David Zucker. “I don’t remember.”
“I think (producer) John Davison showed us some photos and we go, ‘She’s fine,’” adds Jerry Zucker. “I don’t remember seeing hundreds of women.”
“I do remember live auditions for Kentucky Fried Movie — we had people in the theater on stage,” replies David. “John Landis was in the theater, and we were all up in the control booth. (This was for) the shower scene, but there were other naked parts.”
‘I Take It Black, Like My Men’
The 1958 disaster flick Crash Landing, which costarred the future Nancy Reagan, provided the inspiration for this joke. Says David Zucker, “That’s where we got two grownups meeting and flirting together — and we cast those two little kids.”
Is That a Propeller?
When we cut to the outside of the crippled aircraft, we don’t hear jet engines — instead, it sounds like a puny old prop plane. Says Jerry Zucker, “That’s why we did the sound of a propeller plane and not a jet engine: because it’s more dramatic. That jet whine isn’t really that interesting, but that propeller sound is great.”
“I like the really outrageous stuff, but it’s subtle because we don’t point to it,” David Zucker says. Case in point: For no reason at all, Dr. Rumack is, at one point, holding a speculum while inspecting an unseen woman who’s got her legs up in stirrups. Where did he get the speculum? What’s going on with the woman? What the hell is happening?
“I like how we threw it away,” David says of the gag. “It’s not pointing to it. That’s another reason why I think Jim and Jerry and I thought we had to direct this: because nobody else was going to get those subtleties.”
Airplane! spoofs the familiar moment in overheated dramas when the one hysterical female supporting character has to be shaken back to her senses after a panic attack. The ZAZ team, naturally, took the joke further, presenting a line of passengers eager to mete out violence to poor Mrs. Hammen (Lee Bryant).
There’s one bit in particular that David Zucker loves in this scene. “I don’t know who wrote this — it may have been Leslie — but we have the line of people shaking the woman, and Leslie is the third one and he shakes her and slaps her,” he says. “And then somebody says, ‘You’re wanted up front.’ And then before he goes, he slaps her again for no reason. It’s really one of the funniest things that I can think of in the movie.”
‘Roger, Roger. What’s Our Vector, Victor?’
Look, if the three people you have in the cockpit are named Roger, Victor and Oveur, you’re just asking for communication breakdowns. Soon, Airplane! descends into a cavalcade of dumb puns.
“Those names we came up with because we wanted to do that — they may have even had different names before we came up with that joke, I don’t remember,” says Jerry Zucker. “As a kid, we used to do funny names, like Carrie Firewood. There was a whole list of those things that we used to always come up with silly names for people. I don’t know that that was necessarily a precursor of anything — it was just we used to come up with any possible funny thing we could.”
“That is one of David and Jim and my favorite jokes,” Jerry Zucker says with pride, referring to a bit many may overlook. At one point, one of McCroskey’s men says on the phone, “(Ted Striker) is a menace to himself and everything else in the air.” Pause as the man listens to the person on the other end — then, he replies, “Yes, birds, too.” Just the idea that the other person on the call would ask to clarify whether birds would also be in danger is stunningly dumb, and hilarious.
“I don’t think we ever thought it’s going to get this huge laugh,” says Jerry. “But for some reason, it just seemed so silly to us.”
There’s a similar joke in Airplane! that the guys also like: Kramer’s on the phone in the car, advising that they keep Striker’s flight “at 24,000.” Then, a long pause. “No, feet,” Kramer clarifies before hanging up. Makes you wonder what the other person initially could have possibly thought Kramer meant.
“One of Jim’s quotes is that we elevated stupidity to an art form,” says David Zucker. “Some of the best laughs are just really stupid things. Like in Top Secret!, we had, ‘It seems, Mr. Devers, you are — how do you say — indispensable.’ And Val (Kilmer) says, ‘Indispensable.’”
‘And Leon’s Getting Laaaarger!’
This Stephen Stucker line, an absolute non sequitur, had its roots in his early partnership with ZAZ. “He was in our theater show, Kentucky Fried Theater,” says David Zucker. “Our producer, Bob Weiss, who was a little bit heavy, Steve would sneak up behind him and shake his belly and go, ‘Would anyone like a roooooooll and coffee?’"
Stucker, who died in 1986 at the age of 38, played Johnny, Airplane!’s irreverent prankster, the one character who actually cracks jokes and doesn’t adhere to the movie’s straightlaced comic style. “He wrote all his own lines,” David Zucker says of his late friend. There will be a lot of Stucker bits coming up later in this list, and the guys speak of him with such fondness.
Says Jim Abrahams, “My favorite Stucker joke was something he did when we were doing our live show. Back in the day, Ann-Margret was a big Las Vegas star, and her husband’s name was Roger Smith, who was a famous actor, too. She was doing a show once in the ‘70s and she fell off the stage and she got hurt and she had to have some plastic surgery, so Stucker in our live show would do a reenactment of that. He’d start by playing, ‘Ladies and gentlemen from Las Vegas, it’s Ann-Margret!’ And then he’d get up and start singing some song from Bye Bye Birdie or something. Then he’d fall off the stage into the audience, and he’d yell out, ‘Oh, Roger! My face, my face!’ It was brilliant.”
The Trick Mirror
“There’s some things that we meant as jokes,” David Zucker says, “but they’re weird things. We did a lot of it in Top Secret! In Airplane!, it’s when the guy goes to pick up Robert Stack at his house — he’s looking in a mirror, and then he walks right through the mirror.”
Airplane!’s humor often revolved around silly sight gags, but this bit actually incorporates a cool visual illusion. The filmmakers first establish a mirror image of Stack, cut away, and then cut back to the real Stack now standing where it appeared his mirror image was — it looks like his reflection is walking out of the mirror into the real world.
Adds David, “(There’s) little cinematic tricks that we like to do — I don’t know if we expected there to be a laugh or some reaction, but there really wasn’t. But we liked it — we kept it in.”
“We always liked the idea of messing with people,” says Jerry Zucker. “That particular joke was fine, even if it didn’t get a big response because he’s just walking forward, so it’s not a huge swing. If you don’t notice it…”
“...he’s just exiting,” David says.
Famously, Paramount was concerned about hiring three relatively inexperienced directors to shoot a studio comedy — but, with this gag, they definitely showed off some chops. Not that David agrees, insisting, “We never for a minute ever thought, ‘Hey, we’re pretty good directors!’ We weren’t thinking of Buñuel or whatever. We only said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if…,’ and we figured it out.”
That Second Cup of Coffee
It’s a pop-culture reference now largely forgotten: In the 1970s, a coffee company called Yuban had an ad in which a housewife is stunned that her husband, who only has one cup at home, agrees to have a second cup at a party. “Jim never has seconds of my coffee,” the woman laments, “and I make pretty good coffee.” Turns out, you just need Yuban, apparently.
Airplane! alludes to the commercial as Mrs. Hammen is flummoxed by her husband Jim (Nicholas Pryor) taking a second cup of coffee: “Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home.” (Later, when he’s poisoned from his fish dinner, she notes, “Jim never vomits at home.”)
Few remember those ads, but according to Jerry Zucker, “What really surprised us is when we started to screen it years later with an audience that clearly didn’t know the commercial, they still laughed. I can’t figure out exactly why. Maybe it just sounds like a commercial. We talked to people — no, they never heard that commercial, they didn’t realize it was based on a commercial. But it still gets a laugh.”
Some of the truly genius Airplane! jokes are the ones that make no logical sense. For instance, it’s established that there are only two meal options on the flight — chicken or fish — with everyone who ordered fish getting deathly sick. When Dr. Rumack is informed of this, he nonchalantly replies, “Yes, yes, I remember, I had lasagna.”
“It’s underrated because (it) never got a laugh, or maybe a little bit,” David Zucker says. “We thought that stuff was hilarious.” He’s right. Seriously, how the hell did he get lasagna? Did he bring it onto the plane with him?
Lloyd Bridges’ Steve McCroskey absentmindedly throws his cigarette out the window, resulting in a huge explosion outside, which he somehow doesn’t notice at all. (Spoiler alert: There’s a lot of flammable stuff at an airport.) “It’s just so funny to us,” says Jerry Zucker about the gag, “and it never got a laugh. I can’t say it’s one of my favorite jokes, but if there was ever a joke that we missed on in terms of the difference between our expectations of how funny we thought it was and how it actually played, it was that one.”
“That actually came from a friend of mine in high school,” explains David Zucker. “He’d smoke and then when he would throw the cigarette away he would go like this —” covering his ears “— not as a big ha-ha deal, just that’s what he would do every time.”
I tell the guys that this remains one of my all-time favorite comedy bits — in fact, a buddy and I still mimic the explosion sound whenever someone tosses a cigarette away. Jerry’s pleased to hear that, but he admits, “There’ve been a couple of those times in our careers — actually, a few — where there was something we couldn’t wait to hear the reaction (from the audience). And then… just silence.”
In one key flashback, we learn how Ted and Elaine met, which becomes a lengthy homage to Saturday Night Fever. The filmmakers used a sped-up version of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” for the dance scene.
“We wanted to speed it up so they could dance to it,” explains David Zucker, who insists they didn’t hate the original film. “I liked it,” he says, “but at the same time, I thought it was stupid. We liked all the Airport movies and we liked all the Dirty Harry movies. Most recently we saw Top Gun: Maverick, and I thought it was a great movie — but at the same time, you could make fun of it.”
Adds Jim Abrahams, “What I’d forgotten is that ‘Stayin’ Alive’ wasn’t played in the disco (in Saturday Night Fever) — it was during the opening credits.” Right, that’s “You Should Be Dancing,” but who cares?
McCroskey explains to Linda Oveur (Lee Terri), “Your husband and the others are alive but unconscious.” Right on cue, Johnny chimes in: “Just like Gerald Ford.”
“I doubt if people get that,” Jim Abrahams says today.
“Probably, yeah — or, if they know the name, I don’t think they quite get what Gerald Ford’s personality was like,” adds Jerry Zucker. “They probably know that he was a president, so I think they still kind of get the joke, but not why it would be more appropriate to Gerald Ford than anyone else.”
“One of the nice things about Airplane! is that it wasn’t political,” Abrahams says, “so lots of the jokes really didn’t depend on whatever the politics were of the day. (The jokes) lasted much longer than they might’ve if they were all references to Gerald Ford.”
‘What Is It?’
Three times in the film, a character will mention something to another character, who’ll get alarmed and ask, “What is it?” — and each time, the first character will explain what the actual item is.
Rumack: This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine: A hospital? What is it?
Rumack: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.
Jim Abrahams is succinct in his feelings about this running joke: “It’s so stupid,” he says, approvingly.
Adds David Zucker, “That’s not even a good definition of a hospital.”
Laughing, Jim notes, “He could have said anything, but ‘a big building with patients’?”
“We originally had meant just to (have), ‘A hospital, what is it?’ We didn’t realize that that wouldn’t even be the first iteration of that (joke in the movie),” David Zucker says. “I guess we figured we could get away with three of them — it’s the same joke.”
“Looking back at it, we may have done one too many,” Jerry Zucker says. “On the other hand, somehow making it a running joke, people remember it more and it becomes a thing. So maybe it was the right thing to do.”
‘It’s An Entirely Different Kind of Flying’
Explains David Zucker, “That’s from Zero Hour! They said that straight line, ‘It’s a different kind of flying altogether’ — what we hear is on a different planet. We hear, ‘Say it all together.’ It’s just what became our way of thinking.”
“That was another great example of a joke that stills gets a good laugh, but it’s not huge — but we just always thought that was great,” Jerry Zucker says. “It was so dumb.”
A Big Tylenol
“One of the reasons I love that joke is I remember when the three of us called (Stucker) up,” Jerry Zucker recalls. “We read him the lines that the reporters were asking, and we said, ‘What kind of plane is it?’ And, boom, (Johnny’s answer) just popped out — he didn’t say, ‘Give me a minute, let me write something.’ He just responded. I wish we had recorded it.”
‘Where Did You Get That Dress, It’s Awful!’
As a rule of thumb, you should probably not insult a fearful wife who’s worried her husband is going to die in a plane crash by ripping on her dress, coat and shoes. But our Johnny, he just can’t help himself. As per norm, Stucker dreamed up that magic bit for the filmmakers. As David Zucker puts it, “We gave him the straight line — he just did that himself.”
‘But At Least I Have a Husband’
“Whenever we do interviews, that’s the one I mention as my favorite bit,” David Zucker says. If you don’t remember, flight attendant Randy (Lorna Patterson) tells Dr. Rumack that she’s frightened, getting very emotional: “I’ve never been so scared. And besides, I’m 26 and I’m not married!” After consoling her, Rumack talks to passenger Mrs. Hammen to see how she’s doing: “Well, to be honest, I’ve never been so scared. But at least I have a husband.” This sends Randy into another crying tailspin.
The setup line — “I’ve never been so scared” — came from Zero Hour! David says, “And then one of us came up with, ‘And I’m 26 and I’m not married,’ and we all cracked up — then (we) came up with the extension of that when the other lady comes in: ‘At least I have a husband.’ I love that bit because it was all done in one shot and it doesn’t need any comic acting. It was funny 43 years ago, it’s funny today, and it’ll be funny 43 years from now.”
‘There’s a Sale at Penney’s!’
Everybody else on the ground is concerned about the alarmist headlines in the newspaper about the plane crisis. Not Johnny, who can’t believe this sale that’s happening. “That joke was actually in our live show,” Jerry Zucker says. “There was some skit where people said, ‘Oh no, war has been declared!’ And then (Stucker) said, ‘There’s a sale at Penney’s!’”
“So it went right into the script,” adds David Zucker.
‘Have You Ever Seen a Grown Man Naked?’
Captain Clarence Oveur has a truly odd, weirdly sexual conversation with young Joey (Ross Harris). Graves, a famous dramatic actor thanks to the Mission: Impossible television series, had misgivings about his character’s creepy dialogue, and he wasn’t the only one — so did the Zucker brothers’ mom.
“She didn’t like the Peter Graves grown-man-naked (bit),” says David. “I tried to explain, ‘No, Mom, we’re making fun of the straight image of airline pilots.’ But I don’t think she made that distinction.”
Such criticisms were rare, though. As Jerry puts it, “My mother in general was very overpraising.”
Laughing, David adds, “Completely. ‘Such nice breasts that you cast!’”
The Zuckers loved the bit, though. Says Jerry, “We used to occasionally drive by the theater and stop and look at our watches and try to figure out, ‘Can we still see that part?’ The reaction, it was more than a laugh — they couldn’t believe it. I always loved the way that played, because it was really pushing the boundary — it was such a twist that it was fun to watch.”
Roger Murdock Is Not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Okay?
No matter how annoyingly persistent Joey is, Murdock keeps telling the kid that he’s a pilot, not the Los Angeles Lakers superstar. Initially, the guys thought of having Pete Rose play Murdock, although one of the issues was that they didn’t have a funny angle on Charlie Hustle.
“I was looking over the old scripts, and there’s nothing — it was just, ‘No, I am Roger Murdoch, I’m an airline pilot.’ That was it,” says David Zucker. “At the time, there wasn’t any controversy (around Pete Rose). If it had been after the whole gambling thing, we could have done that, I suppose, but Kareem was 10 times better. (With Rose) we would’ve loved to (have the kid say), ‘My dad says you have a gambling problem.’”
But the real reason ZAZ didn’t go to Rose was that his reps said he’d, naturally, be unavailable during the summer shoot, since that’s when baseball season is. “I don’t think he even knew,” David Zucker says. “I don’t think he even read the script.”
Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White played two Black men who speak jive, confusing the clueless white characters — except for Barbara Billingsley (aka June Cleaver), of course. When Gibbs and White talk to each other, their conversation is subtitled into very white-sounding dialogue.
“We got the idea for that when we all went to see Shaft,” David Zucker recalls. “We loved the movie, but when we came out, we were saying we couldn’t understand what they were saying. I think one of us said they should have subtitled it — ha ha ha — and then we said, ‘Why don’t we do a bit?’”
This, of course, required the filmmakers to figure out how to approximate jive in their script. “All we knew is ‘mo sho fo po’ — I mean, we didn’t know anything — and that’s how it was in the original script,” says David. “But these guys, Al White and Norm Gibbs, came in — we found out later they had just met each other in the waiting room. They worked out some stuff, and they actually read for the part using that.”
Adds Jerry Zucker, “The casting director had everybody audition in twos (for the jive characters). (Actors) would come in individually, but they would pair people together to read it, which was a smart way to do it. We loved (White and Gibbs) immediately — we just said, ‘Okay, these are the guys.’”
In fact, White and Gibbs went above and beyond to craft their characters. Once they were cast, “they went back and really fleshed out their scenes — they actually looked up in jive dictionaries what they could say, and they did that,” says David. “They were the only ones who wrote their own parts, aside from Stephen Stucker.”
Wriggle or Wiggle?
Thinking back to their early, happier days, Elaine tells Ted wistfully, “I remember everything. All I have is memories. Mostly, I remember the nights when we were together. I remember how you used to hold me ... how I used to sit on your face and wriggle.”
“That’s the way Jim wrote it,” David Zucker says. “Jim would type, and he would do these things that he never thought would be in the movie, just to see Jerry and me read it. And when we did, we just cracked up — we said, ‘Let’s put this in.’”
The visual of meek-mouse Elaine talking about something so filthy in such a sweet way was comic gold, but sometimes you’ll see online sites incorrectly state that she says “wiggle.” ZAZ confirms it’s “wriggle.”
“‘Wriggle’ is funnier than ‘wiggle,’” Jerry Zucker suggests. “I don’t know, there’s something about it.”
In Surely You Can’t Be Serious, they mention that Sigourney Weaver, who was considered for Elaine, informed them that she wouldn’t say the “wriggle” line. Hagerty had no such issues.
“She was game for anything,” Jerry raves. “She’s just great.”
“She was uniquely qualified to get away with those lines because of her delivery,” David says. “Her voice and her personality is so innocent. She is that character — I often think that she didn’t act her way toward it. She was just very natural in her acting — there’s a lot of Julie in that.”
“I don’t think she saw herself as a comedian,” marvels Jerry. “She saw herself as an actress. But her comic timing was brilliant.”
‘Get in Crash Positions!’
To this day, my dad will reference this joke whenever something about “crash positions” comes up in a movie or on TV. It’s a genius-level dumb bit, and the ZAZ team happened upon it as part of their prep work for the script. “We’d watch old movies, particularly the flying movies,” remembers Jerry Zucker. “I’d say, ‘Wait, stop the tape. What if…?’ Sometimes it was a punchline — sometimes it was a visual thing, like ‘What if people are in positions as though they crashed?’ We did a ton of that.”
‘Looks Like I Picked the Wrong Week to…’
Seriously, McCroskey has a lot of vices, all of which he decided to quit this week. The “wrong week to stop smoking” bit came directly from Zero Hour! “We did that just as it was,” explains David Zucker, “and then we added drinking. And then amphetamines. And finally glue-sniffing. In Kentucky Fried Theater, we learned to build a joke and to not do the most outrageous one first — that’s what you see in Airplane!”
‘Surely You Can’t Be Serious’
Arguably Airplane!’s most famous bit came not from Zero Hour! but Crash Landing. Yet, despite how iconic the bit now is, the guys are pretty modest about coming up with their deathless “And don’t call me Shirley” joke.
“It was a setup (in Crash Landing),” Jerry Zucker says simply, “and then we added that.”
The Drinking Problem
Man, Ted really does have a terrible drinking problem. “That was in the script,” says Jerry Zucker. “I think it was just described (as) ‘He says, “I had a drinking problem.” He lifts the glass and pours it on himself.’ It was a fairly simple description.”
And Robert Hays nailed it.
Reinflating the Automatic Pilot
Elaine needs to step up when Otto, the automatic pilot balloon, starts to lose air. Lucky for her, he has a manual inflation nozzle. And, well, you know the rest.
Says David Zucker about the bit, “It pretty much came full-blown when we were writing.”
With perfect comic timing, Jim Abrahams adds, “No pun intended.” After his buddies laugh at his double entendre, he adds a correction: “The joke evolved. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if the autopilot was a balloon?’ And then from that, he was lecherous — that just evolved from the original idea of the autopilot being a blowup doll.”
“And then smoking a cigarette after,” Jerry Zucker says.
Sophomoric, naughty, brilliant, Airplane!’s finest moment wouldn’t work if Julie Hagerty didn’t play the whole thing incredibly straight. “One of the hard things about doing a film like this is you cast actors in a comedy, but you won’t let them be funny, so they really have to trust,” Jerry notes. “What we always used to say is, ‘Don’t let on that you’re in a comedy.’ That’s the whole thing — and Julie, without having to be reminded or told, that was just her way.”