Before Airplane! came along in 1980, the anything-goes vaudeville aesthetic had more or less died off with the Marx Brothers, which might explain why much of a generation grew up thinking the disaster-movie spoof was the funniest ever made. Not the best comedy ever made, of course, but considered in bulk, nothing could really top the sheer quantity of laughs being offered, even when dozens of gags fell flat. It's impossible to overstate Airplane!'s influence on the genre, not just in the slew of gag-a-second knockoffs and Leslie Nielsen vehicles that followed, but also on the constant riffing now common to modern Disney animated features, or many of the films built around sketch comics from Saturday Night Live. Like John Carpenter's Halloween, Airplane! is a landmark film that encouraged a lot of bad habits: Since the laughs aren't especially pointed and don't rely on sustained plotting, comedies were freed to string together jokes without considering the big picture. As a result, too many of them collapse into random silliness, hoping the hit-to-miss ratio is high enough to keep people interested.
The hits outnumber the misses well enough in Airplane!, especially in the first half, when the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team (writer-directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker) are layering jokes in the foreground and background. There are parodies of popular favorites like Jaws and Saturday Night Fever, wacky stock footage on back-screen projection, slapstick violence against various religious solicitors, and plenty of silly wordplay. (When a passenger asks for "light reading," she's offered a leaflet titled "Famous Jewish Sports Legends.") Inspired by disaster movies like Airport '77, ZAZ devise just enough of a story to keep things moving, placing battle-afflicted fighter pilot Robert Hays in the cockpit after bad fish knocks out the crew on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. In the main cabin sits a colorful cross-section of passengers: Jive-talkers, a sick girl in need of a heart transplant, a nun with a guitar, a freckle-faced imp named Joey, and a pair of pint-sized sophisticates, one of whom likes her coffee like she likes her men: black.
The new "Don't Call Me Shirley!" special edition isn't all that special; it features a desert-dry commentary track by ZAZ and producer Jon Davison, plus other bits of trivia that can only be accessed through an icon that periodically blinks on the screen. Some of the nuggets are interestingDavid Letterman auditioned for the Hays role, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (in a role intended for Pete Rose) asked for just enough money to pay for an oriental rugbut it isn't worth scrolling through the entire film to get to them. (Why should advertised features be treated like Easter eggs?) As for the movie itself, it holds up surprisingly well, even though its 87 minutes of fun aren't enough to redeem the countless hours of lame comedy that followed in the film's sizeable wake.