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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Book World: How ‘Airplane!’ became a first-class spoof

By Donald Liebenson Special to the Washington Post

1980 was the year of “The Empire Strikes Back,” but flying under the radar was a $3 million gag-fest called “Airplane!” that featured unknown leads, veteran character actors not at all famous for comedy, and three lifelong friends, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker (ZAZ), directing their first major studio movie. It was a sleeper hit at the box office and with critics, thus proving once again screenwriter William Goldman’s Hollywood adage, “Nobody knows anything.”

More than four decades later, “Airplane!” has attained classic status. The American Film Institute’s ranking of the funniest American films of the 20th century places it 10th, just behind “The Graduate” and just ahead of “The Producers.” And the Library of Congress inducted it into its National Film Registry alongside “The Birth of a Nation” and “Citizen Kane.”

The three directors have not made a film together since “The Naked Gun” in 1988, but they reunited for “Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True Story of Airplane!,” a wildly entertaining oral history that chronicles how this outlier got off the ground and changed comedy. In interviews conducted by Will Harris, the trio, along with the cast, crew, former studio executives, and admirers such as Adam McKay, Bill Hader and “South Park’s” Trey Parker and Matt Stone, reflect on the film’s bumpy history and its legacy.

The directors agreed to talk to The Washington Post about how their unlikely project, based on an obscure 1957 thriller, became a first-class spoof. Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit doing interviews.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: In publishing, as in comedy, timing is everything. Why now to tell the story of “Airplane!”?

Jim Abrahams: We were all pleasantly thrilled that “Airplane!” was still around. We said it would be a good idea to write this book for our kids and grandkids who might have interest in what went on back then. I said that at a book signing last night, and I got kind of choked up. My young granddaughter was there. Today, her dad texted that she asked him why everybody cared about what Bop [her pet name for Abrahams] had to say.

Q: “Airplane!” is a remarkably faithful goof on the 1957 disaster film “Zero Hour!” Do you remember how you saw it for the first time?

David Zucker: We used to do a live theater show in L.A. called the “Kentucky Fried Theater.” Part of the show was spoofs of television commercials. We would record late-night television and leave our videotape recorder on all night. Then in the morning we’d find out if there were any good commercials on it. One such morning, we got engrossed in this old movie, “Zero Hour!” Our first idea was to re-dub it. Then we had an idea we could remake it.

JA: The “Zero Hour!” script was really well written, with three solid acts. We merely had to add our jokes.

Q: How did the writing process work?

JA: When we were writing, we had what we called our materials, which were “Zero Hour!” and other disaster films from that era. We sat around and watched those movies together, and someone would say, “I have an idea, what do you think about this?” That was all we were thinking about at the time. Every joke – someone would have a germ of an idea, another would add to it, and then another said, “No, it should be this.” It was always a build.

Jerry Zucker: It helped that there were three of us because you either got an instant laugh or nobody laughed. And if nobody laughed, somebody would come up with an alternate idea or slightly changed line. I don’t remember any disagreements. It was always at least two out of three, and if something made us all laugh, we knew it was good.

DZ: We once watched “West Side Story” with a friend of ours. Afterward, he said he would never watch a movie with us again, because we just kept adding our lines.

Q: According to the book, this film was something like five years in the making. Do you remember how you felt the night before the first day of shooting?

JZ: We were wildly excited and nervous, but we were so focused and had done all this preparation. I think that night we were just thinking about the first day of shooting.

JA: Except for David. He took a sleeping pill and got to work late that day.

DZ: I set my alarm for the wrong time.

JZ: But it was just cool. Our first day, we were focused on what we had to do.

DZ: The producers wanted to schedule the simplest shots (for the first day). It was the scene in the cockpit with Leslie Nielsen, Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays. We got through that. I don’t know if the studio had a lot of confidence in the concept of the film or in the three of us directing. And casting Leslie Nielsen as a comedian? It was in our contract that they could fire us after two weeks. But we were told that during the first day’s dailies when Leslie delivers that line, “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” everybody just cracked up. After that, they had to add an extra screening room because everybody on the Paramount lot wanted to come see the dailies.

Q: Would cast members suggest jokes or want to improvise?

JZ: The hysterical woman on the plane (Lee Bryant) who the passengers were all shaking suggested that she get slapped, and then we came up with the line of people with guns and whips. But 99 percent was shooting the script. We spent years writing this script, putting stuff in and taking stuff out. One advantage to that is jokes you live with for a couple of years that you still think are funny are more likely to be funny. There were a lot of jokes that after a while, we went, “Nah, that’s not really funny,” and we took them out. There were certain moments I couldn’t wait to see in front of an audience.

Q: Such as?

JZ: For me, it was, “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” It’s so outrageous. It goes beyond just being funny. It’s like, “Did they really get Peter Graves to say that line?” It was a different kind of laugh.

JA: There’s a YouTube channel where you can watch people watching “Airplane!” for the first time. Every once in a while, if I’m feeling bad about myself, I’ll tune in. Most people who watch it and react weren’t alive when we wrote it. And yet it holds up as well today as it did 43 years ago.

Q: This brings us to the Library of Congress, which in 2010 inducted “Airplane!” into the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” American film. Your reaction?

DZ: We’re happy to be regarded as any kind of significant.

JA: If “Airplane!” is about anything, it’s that there are things you don’t need to take seriously. If people get that from “Airplane!” and learn to laugh at themselves and some of the ridiculous stuff they take seriously, then mission accomplished.

Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and New York magazine’s Vulture website.