"Surely you can't be serious."
"I am serious... and don't call me Shirley."
Airplane! is the spoof to end all spoofs, the ultimate comedy takeoff on 70's movies and pop culture in general. Aside from being very funny, the film is also smart and spot-on with its parodies. Airplane! was written and directed by David and Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams. The trio had previously written the zany mid- 70's comedy Kentucky Fried Movie, directed by John Landis, which provided various parodies of television shows and commercials of the time. With Airplane! the group took things a step farther, aiming their satirical guns at the motion picture industry.
During the late 70's, disaster films were terribly popular - there was The Towering Inferno, which detailed the peril of persons trapped on a burning skyscraper; The Poseidon Adventure, about persons on a sinking cruise liner; and the Airport series (1970's Airport, Airport 1975, Airport '77, etc.) about - of course - people trapped aboard an airliner doomed to destruction. Besides the spectacle of such films - which had large budgets to lavish upon special effects - they also featured casts composed of both B- and A-list stars. Audiences seemed to take great delight in watching (let's say) Shelley Winters buying the farm on the big screen. The genre, naturally, was ripe for parody.
Airplane! naturally concocts a plot with all the usual intricacies and dilemmas - i.e., food poisoning which takes down the three-man flight crew, a former military pilot who's lost his will to fly a plane; etc. But it also makes reference to plenty of other pop-culture scenarios as well... many of which may be lost on younger audiences. There's a disco sequence, for example, during which the protagonists dances to the Saturday Night Fever theme; by 1980, when this film was released (it was filmed the previous summer) disco was fading out of fashion, quickly becoming tired and a bit embarrassing, and was starting to feed on its own campishness. In another sequence, a man accepts a cup of coffee from a stewardess, and his wife wonders, 'Jim never has a second cup at home;' this is a direct quote from a popular coffee ad of the time. Also, a brief joke makes a reference to a 'radar range' - which was an early type of (or name for) a microwave oven. All of this is trivial, of course, but it made for topical comedy for 1980 audiences.
Leslie Nielsen plays the role of Dr. Rumack; Nielsen hitherto had been known as a serious actor, famous for his starring role in Forbidden Planet, but he had also recently starred as the stalwart captain in The Poseidon Adventure, so naturally audiences would associate him with a heroic but doomed character in a disaster film. So popular was Nielsen's deadpan portrayal that the Zuckers would bring him back in their spoof television show Police Squad!. That show proved too far ahead of its time (as so many others seem to be), but everyone involved loved the characters and the concept so much that they eventually brought the characters back in a feature film. Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad! debuted in 1988 and Nielsen's celebrity was assured.
The entire movie is highly recommended. Especially notable are Barbara Billingsley (the mother from Leave It To Beaver) speaking 'jive' (i.e., 70's ebonics) to translate between two black passengers and a white stewardess; and Stephen Stucker as the over-the-top control room technician with more than a hint of teh gay to him. Funny stuff, even three decades on.