The Absurd World of Airplane: The Individual Perspective of Modern Comedy

Published on June 23rd, 2011

James on Airplane!, and how comedy has evolved (or de-volved) in the decades that followed.

A commercial airline full of passengers is in trouble. Dr. Rumack is onboard and has determined many of the passengers are sick with food poisoning from fish served as the in-flight meal. More dangerously, the pilots are violently ill from the same source and are unable to land the doomed plane. Ted Stryker, a war veteran who hasn’t been able to fly since his squad took severe causalities on his last mission before he was shot down and hospitalized, is the only person aboard with flight training. Dr, Rumack needs to Ted to overcome his post traumatic stress disorder, land this plane and save the lives of hundreds.

Rumack: Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can’t be serious.
Rumack: I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.

Does he look like a Shirley?

For anyone unlucky enough to have never seen the 1980 film Airplane, this is one of its turning points, as well as its most popular line. When this film was re-released on DVD, it was called the “Don’t Call Me Shirley Edition” and the line was on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best lines in film history. Airplane is a movie that I initially saw when I was very young, watched several times while growing up and still find funny to this day. For those reasons, I was always happy when I met someone who enjoyed this movie, or when I discover that someone I already knew is a fan. It was a great litmus test about the sense of humour this person had. Someone who enjoyed the absurdist humour, the puns and the classic format of jokes displayed in the above “Shirley” line is someone I could usually get along with, even if all we could talk about was movies. Recently, Leslie Nielsen, who played Dr. Rumack died. As always, people in the entertainment industry as well as the public were quick to mourn the passing of a celebrity, praise his performances and the films he was involved in, a practice that usuallyinvolves people overstating the talent or importance of the newly deceased.  For example, the Notorious B.I.G., who does have plenty of good songs, was painted as a much more talented rapper and a more saintly human being than he really was because of his violent death while he was still an active artist. While people don’t talk about him as much as they did just after he died, he is still discussed in reverence and superlatives when he is mentioned in a way that is often undeserved. Consequently it came as no surprise to me that people discussed what a great actor Leslie Nielsen was shortly after his death and, tied to this, just how great Airplane is. While it was great to hear this person, who I thought was a hilarious actor, receive praise, and for a comedy I had loved since I was child to gain a new appreciation, I had to remind myself that this wasn’t all new.

Airplane was received well when it was released and has stood the test of time, cementing its place as a comedy classic before Nielsen’s death.  That brought renewed attention to the film but it had already been viewed as a great film. One of my funniest and lankiest friends in university did her final assignment in American Cinema on Airplane. This was years before Nielsen’s death but when she discussed the honours the movie had received, she had plenty to say. At a budget of $3.5 million, it made $83 million in theatres. Box-office receipts aren’t what determine classics though. That status is typically earned through 2 factors: critical reception and lasting public appreciation. Critically, Airplane did well immediately. Contemporary critics praised its non-stop laughs, irreverence, surprising yet ultimately brilliant casting and solid performances. The year of its release it received Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Comedy and a BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay, as well as a Golden Globe nod for Best Motion Picture- Musical or Comedy. Not bad for a cheap movie on a directorial film debut by the now-celebrated team of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. Years later, the American Film Institute voted it the 10th funniest American comedy of all time. Even overseas, where comedies tend to fail even in the same language, it was appreciated, as demonstrated when in 2007 the UK’s Channel 4 declared the second funniest film ever. The next year, Empire deemed it one of the 500 best movies of all time across all genres. On Rotten Tomatoes, it holds an astounding rating of 98% from top critics, summing the film up as, “Though unabashedly juvenile and silly, Airplane is nevertheless an uproarious spoof comedy full of quotable lines and slapstick gags that endure to this day.” It is reviews like this that confuse me about Airplane’s classic status. Films so widely recognized as juvenile and silly aren’t films that I thought could gain such critical acceptance. The general public, of course, can fall for such sophomoric humour, but these films don’t fit in the Library of Congress National Film Registry, a place reserved for films deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” right?  Well that’s exactly where Airplane found itself shortly before Nielsen’s death. I am of course happy it’s there but didn’t think it ever would be. When I look at the movies that are considered great since 1980, Airplane seems to be the odd one out, even among the comedies. So how could a movie so “juvenile and silly” reach such heights of critical acceptance?

In order to find out why this comedy works, I had to look at what jokes are at all. This is going to be a little sciencey for a second but stay with me. Scientists have long been trying to figure out why we laugh and the importance of humour in our species. Evolution theory states almost of the changes our species go through happen for a reason and because cultures all over the world have some form of humour, it probably serves an evolutionary purpose. One theory, which I will greatly oversimplify, states that we reward ourselves with humour for making sense of ambiguous situations. As a crude example, imagine a caveman looking for something to eat. He walks by a tree and sees a beehive in it. From past experience, he knows the things hanging from trees are usually nourishing fruits so he has that concept in his head. We will call that concept, the one of this bee’s nest being something he should eat, Concept A. But perhaps he has been stung by bees before, and since bees are flying around the nest, he is apprehensive to eat it and senses danger in whatever this thing hanging from the tree is. We will call this concept, the one of this object being dangerous, Concept B. Our cavemen friend has 2 concepts in his head: this object is delicious (A) and this object is dangerous (B). This caveman is intelligent and leaves the beehive alone and walks away without beestings. This caveman chose concept B, which is objective reality. Just as he’s leaving, a second caveman tries to eat it and suffers dozens of beestings. Our first caveman, seeing that he was able to identify reality out of 2 differing concepts, is rewarded by his brain releasing dopamine, a chemical which allows him to feel pleasure. Dopamine is released into our brains when we spend time with loved ones, orgasm, listen to music we like and pretty much when we experience anything we enjoy. When our caveman saw the hive, he had 2 opposing theories in his head, chose the right one and was rewarded. This is called the incongruity-resolution theory of humour, because he had 2 incongruent (opposing) concepts and his brain and experienced pleasure (dopamine) when he resolved the discrepancy by selecting the true one. We can see how this makes evolutionary sense, as it is objectively better to eat an apple than to try and eat a beehive. Perhaps it’s not clear why deciding it’s a beehive will cause laughter, but you can see it is a positive thing and is good for our species.

Now what does this have to do with Dr. Rumack misunderstanding Ted Stryker? Much of the humour in Airplane, and certainly the quoted lines at the start of this article, employ this kind of humour. We have the concept of “surely” meaning “certainly” and, opposing that, we have “surely” as the homonym of the name “Shirley.” Dr. Rumack guesses wrong, or fails to see the 2 concepts at all, but as the viewer, we understand where the miscommunication came from, and that miscommunication is funny to us. We see the nature of both concepts (“surely” as an adverb and as a name) and reward ourselves with some laughter.

The “don’t call me Shirley” set-up does mention airplanes, but it could be changed very easily and placed in any film. For example:

(Luke: Obi-Wan told me the truth. Surely, you killed my father.
Darth Vader: No, I am your father. And don’t call me Shirley.)

Now this may ruin a moment in cinema that is classic for different reasons but the point remains. That joke is not tied to the plot of Airplane at all and in this way it is a ‘joke’ in a very traditional sense of the word. It’s not a “you had to be there” bit of humour that only works in context. Adam Sternbergh of the New York Times wrote a great article about The Hangover 2 where he points out that these kinds of jokes are nowhere to be found in that film, or part 1 of the now-franchise.  He points out that many people’s favourite part of the first Hangover is that Zach Galifiniakias’s character Alan says “retard” with a different pronunciation than normal. That part of the movie is funny but it really isn’t a joke in the traditional sense of the word.

A guy walks into a bar and says “gimme a beer, you ruh-tard.” That’s not funny because we don’t know the character. Alan’s character is funny because he seems to get everything wrong, even when he’s trying to demean someone else for getting something wrong.
A guy walks into a bar and says “Surely you have Molson Canadian on tap.” The bartender replies “We don’t, and don’t call me Shirley.”
That’s a joke. Maybe it’s not side-splittingly funny without Leslie Nielsen’s deadpan delivery, but it’s a joke.

Sternbergh writes that we are now in the age of the jokeless comedy and he is very accurate, which is not to say that modern movies and television aren’t funny. The British version of The Office is praised by comedy snobs and critics but we all know it doesn’t really have jokes in the traditional sense of the word as given above. That is, of course, unless you count the ones that David Brent tells incorrectly or at an incorrect time, and even then, it’s not the jokes that are humourous, but Brent’s social failures. The UK Office is a consistently funny show that relies more on the humour of flawed individuals than isolated jokes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but simply an indication of where comedy is right now. One could argue that Dr. Rumack is as stupid as David Brent is for not understanding what Stryker meant by “surely,” but I think it’s rather clear these are much different jokes that provide an essentially different style of comedy. Another notable recent comedy is Borat. I find this movie to be extremely funny, but most of the jokes come from how out of touch this man from Kazakhstan is with the American society he finds himself in.

In the same article, Sternbergh points out how we got an entirely jokeless movie like The Hangover 2:

“This mutant subgenre is the offspring of two genetically compatible fathers: Todd Phillips, director of both “Hangover” films, as well as “Old School”; and Judd Apatow, director of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” and the producer/midwife to a litter of similar-looking movies with mix’n’match titles. (“Forgetting the Greek”? “Get Him to Sarah Marshall”? “Drillbit Taylor Express”?)”

His article is worth a read in its entirety, but I want to discuss a certain point about it. The humour that we get from these films is one derived from the actions and personalities of individuals, not of the situation itself. Yes, the situations in the Hangover are ridiculous and absurd, but the story has an internal logic and a lack of jokes in the classic sense. At one point in Airplane, Stryker tells the woman next to him on the plane about how he fell in love with Elaine through a flashback and when we come back to reality, she has hung herself out of boredom. No one on the plane reacts to the obvious, and this is treated as an isolated joke that has no bearing on the rest of the film. Others eventually replace her who subsequently kill themselves of boredom too and no one seems to mind. However, when passengers start getting sick from the food, everyone gets worried rather quickly, as this serves the narrative of the film. This break from logic and consistency is not something we’d find in a lot of contemporary films, and definitely not an Apatow film. All these characters are too ‘real’ to let something so exceptional happen without reacting. It is too extreme and involves an entire world of absurdity, not just a few silly individuals. What we are seeing is a shift from the comedy coming from situations to individuals.

Comedy is not the only place we see this, and many genres are becoming more about individuals than groups or situations. Action films are more about the adventures of a person than a nation, which can be seen in a well-documented trend identified as the ‘new patriotism’ in action films. While characters certainly aren’t outwardly anti-American, they are significantly less pro-America than war films of the World Wars-era. The unpopularity of Vietnam War made it financially irresponsible for movies to be too heavily pro-America and politics have been particularly divisive in the Bush and Obama administrations. Michael Bay is the director people say is responsible for the most patriotic bullshit, but his pro-America stance is very neutered. He calls himself a patriot in real life, yes, but it’s hard to find any of his films espousing American way of life to be the best, a sentiment common in past decades. His triumphant characters are after their own goals, loved ones, families or personal pride. In Transformers, we are not spreading democracy to the Decepticons, we are just fighting to survive. The new patriotism is about the story of individuals, and not as overtly promoting the moral supremacy of a nation. When Michael Bay’s president speaks in Armageddon, he says that he is not doing a speech as an American, or a world leader, but a citizen of humanity. Bay does make films about Americans starring Americans in movies that usually take place in America, but you’ll find little talk of American greatness. In Transformers 2, and I’d gamble 3 as well, international forces are fighting to save the whole planet and the story we follow is Sam Witwicky proving he is a man and protecting those he cares about.

"On this take, make sure you shoot the robots in the face in a 'global togetherness' kinda way."

In many genres, the individualistic nature of films is going even deeper than this. Sometimes large portions of entire films are now taking place inside a person’s mind or from their subjective viewpoint, like The Matrix, Inception, Memento, Darren Aronofsky, (spoilers ahead) with almost the entire climax of the movie hinging on this point, as we see in Sixth Sense, Shutter Island, Fight Club and a lot of David Lynch films (spoilers over). What we see is a general shift in cinema toward the individual. It happens across many genres so of course it will show up in comedy.

What inevitably comes with this individualized view of story and joke telling is possibly the most subjective concepts of all: love. As movies are now taking place in a more realistic, personal world, we are finding genuine emotions to be extremely common. It seems every comedy feels an obligation to ground all its hilarity with a romantic plot, no matter how secondary or contrived. While Knocked Up and 40 Year Old Virgin are comedies, they certainly have a dramatic side that tries to get genuine empathy out of the viewer. Yes, there is a romantic subplot in Airplane, but it is only there to mirror the plots of the disaster movies it is spoofing, and the viewer is not meant to feel sadness at their romantic struggles or genuine joy when they reunite. Even if it is a stoner comedy like Pineapple Express, there will be a romantic relationship, or sometimes a touchy platonic relationship, that the director really wants to stir up some feelings in the viewer with. One of the things that I enjoy about many Apatow movies is their ability to mix hilarious jokes with sincere drama. While this is great for some movies, it most be noted this is a different form of comedy than the pure ‘get as many jokes as we can’ approach of Airplane. This is like comparing Annie Hall to the earlier Woody Allen films like Bananas and Sleeper. All 3 of those films are great but Annie Hall is quite clearly a romantic comedy while the other 2 are comedic comedies. Allen has been quick to admit that pure comedies were the goal at the start of this career and that Annie Hall was his first try at doing something other than getting as many laughs as possible. Annie Hall, or if you ask some people, Shakespeare in Love, are often viewed as the last comedies to win Best Picture, but both of these movies are actually romantic comedies. Oscar wins, nominations, and deep critical appreciation given to comedies in the last 30 years are few and far between, as the last 3 decades have been dominated by drama. When a comedy does get some critical love, it is usually watered down with heavy-handed romantic elements. From the beginning of cinema, up until the 1970s, it was not rare for purely comedic movies or performances to receive recognition, but in the last 30 years, the Academy has shifted. Their tastes are clearly favouring ultra-serious movies, ideally around 3 hours long, but definitely at least around 120 minutes. Look at the titles, genres and length of recent winners and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It seems comedies just aren’t taken seriously anymore. This is the period that I have lived my entire life in, and why the critical appreciation of Airplane is so perplexing to me. Movies like Knocked Up are the comedies that seem to get the most critical love and even they devote at least a quarter of the film to being very serious. Airplane is unabashedly hilarious, makes no apologies or concessions and works as it hard as it can for its entire running time to make us laugh. When a movie succeeds in doing this, doesn’t that make it great?

I wonder if the Academy or critics will ever again appreciate a comedy that is not afraid to be strictly a comedy. It is quite possible the answer is no and that this is a shift that comes from a broader cultural change. After Vietnam, it seems filmmakers moved away from making messages about the greatness of America as a whole. Studies show people are moving slowly away from religion, further indicating that we are thinking less in terms of members of a group and viewing ourselves as individuals. The Internet has brought about a world of digital representations of ourselves that are very important and we work hard, through a variety of social media, to distinguish ourselves from others and narrowcasting has become the norm. Irreverence towards many of the classic institutions is increasing and we are growing more and more cynical of these large groups that used to have more power and a more devout place in people’s minds. It is not hard to see how this has led all of cinema, including comedy, away from stories about groups and situations, and more towards subjective story-telling and content.

As discussed in our podcast about Anchorman, Adam McKay and Judd Apatow/The Frat Pack, the focus has shifted away from a crafted comedy and now the actors improvise, trying to get the best lines. However, so many jokes in Airplane require direct set-ups that must be worded specifically. What we find in these Apatow improv sessions are a series of funny individuals being funny by saying funny things. What we find in Airplane, and in classic comedy all the way back to old Abbott and Costello bits like “Who’s on first?”are hilarious situations made of people saying the exact necessary things to create those 2 opposing realities and get big laughs. These well-crafted words lead to specific misunderstandings that create comedic bits that couldn’t be reached by two dudes playing video-games saying, “You know how I know you’re gay?” followed by whatever they could think of next. There is little hope for the incongruity-resolution model of jokes to spring up organically in this environment.

"Who's on first? Oh, wait. No, he isn't. He's in the dugout listening to Coldplay because he's so gay"

The shift towards the individual style of cinema has brought 2 notable changes to comedy. The first is that more, and often all of the jokes, are about certain characters in the film being flawed. Perhaps they’re not mature enough (Seth Rogen, Knocked Up), not smart enough (James Franco, Pineapple Express), or foreign (Borat) but there is something wrong with these people that will provide the humour instead of the inherent absurdity of the universe the film takes place in. This gives us more subjective, realistic stories. Tied to this, we are seeing more and more frequent genuine attempts at romantic or otherwise dramatic story elements. Together, we get more realistic and serious comedies. What makes Aiplane stand out to me as an exceptional comedy, oddly, is that is trying to be a comedy and nothing else. Airplane seems to be one of the last movies that were willing and able to be filled with solid jokes while being entirely absurd and lost no time to trying to tug at our heartstrings.

In our genre podcast, we discussed how the Academy will always love westerns because they were such an integral part of early American cinema. In the same way, I think they will always love movies like Airplane because of how they remind us of classic Abbott and Costello and very early comedy. To take it back even further, it brings us back to a primitive form of comedy that has been around since before cinema, since before we had to worry about being awkward or foreign and before we even knew what comedy was at all, back to our hungry caveman friend just trying to make enough sense of the world to survive. While the world of Airplane is certainly absurd, I’d argue our world is sillier, as we no longer let our comedies be full of jokes and nothing else. Perhaps all the cultural shifts that I have mentioned above will stop movies like Airplane to be made very often anymore, but surely critics and the public will always have a soft spot for a fundamental and hilarious execution of the comedic craft.


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