“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”
Captain Oveur, Airplane
The stock of spoof films has fallen quite a lot in recent years. From the relentless battering of Scary Movie’s in the early 2000’s to the Friedberg and Seltzer glut of jokeless reference-athons (Meet the Spartans, Vampires Suck, the forthcoming Who the F#@K Took My Daughter), it might be hard to remember that they used to be well crafted, delightful movies. Comedy cinema as a whole is a difficult thing to trace, from Chaplain to the silent screen, from the Catskills to the Marx Brothers. But the root of the most recent kind of spoof film can be traced back to a pair of brothers: David and Jerry Zucker.
Their directorial debut (along with Jim Abrahams) 1980’s Airplane was a massive hit at the box office and somehow stands the test of time as a densely written and tightly staged comedic masterpiece. Released in Australia under the name Flying High! (and, in profoundly Teutonic fashion, released in Germany as The Incredible Trip in a Crazy Airplane), it was a satire of disaster films like Airport 75 and the 1957 film Zero Hour. The team of Friedberg and Seltzer, by comparison, managed to release The Starving Games just one year after The Hunger Games premiere.
But the defining difference between the Friedberg/Seltzer team and the Zucker brothers is that the Zuckers weren’t looking to cash in on a load of easy references. Airplane works just as well if you’ve never seen the source material it’s riffing on. Instead it relies on scenes packed with visual gags, language games and deadpan performances from top tier dramatic actors. It may be hard to reconcile now, but Leslie Nielsen was not then known then as one of the great comedic performers, but instead as the character actor who appeared in dramatic films like The Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure. Difficult to believe for a man whose epitaph reads: “Let ‘er rip”.
Airplane gleefully does the sort of world building necessary for great fantasy or science fiction, developing a set of laws different to our own but internally cohesive. It’s simultaneously ridiculous and satisfying for the autopilot onboard the airplane to be a blow up doll with a captain’s hat. It’s the same internal logic that allows the Road Runner to run into a tunnel that Wile E. Coyote painted on the side of a cliff-face.
Airplane riffs on everything from the archetypes of the disaster movie to jive talking grannies. For every joke, the Zuckers lay out a clean chain of logic we can follow that leads to impossible events, stuffing the frame tight with comedic detail. Paul Thomas Anderson said the Zucker’s brand of comedy had an informing effect on him as a director, “It made me feel like: ‘Oh, you can do anything? Anything you you want? That’s ok?’ That’s a very liberating feeling… Remembering that energy from being a kid, that anything is possible, remembering that you can get away with multiple things at the same time”.
The Zuckers style is plain to see in the films of Mike Meyers, Will Ferrell and the Farrelly brothers. It’s a focus on the gag above all else, without feeling any need to force in pathos where it’s not needed. No unfunny romantic subplots, no end of second act action sequence. It’s about fitting as many jokes into a feature film as is humanly possible and not a beat is wasted. It’s surely one of the finest examples of pure joke-writing in cinema. And no, I’m not calling you Shirley.
Airplane is playing in 2k in a double bill with Wayne’s World
When: 7:30 (Wayne’s World playing first)