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“The most perfect comedy of all time”

Blazing Saddles might like to have a word, perhaps, but me, I can’t argue with that assessment.

Here’s a peek into one recent discussion I had on our PJ Media Slack channel with my friend and boss Paula Bolyard, our editor-in-chief:

Chris Queen [9:15 AM]
Hey, I have an idea for a column.

paula [9:22 AM]
A column? What is it?

Chris Queen [9:24 AM]
It’s a collection of words that discusses a certain topic, but that’s not important right now.

Okay, so that didn’t actually happen, but the fact that you laughed at it — at least I hope you did — demonstrates the staying power of what I call the most perfect comedy of all time: 1980’s “Airplane!”

Earlier this month saw the release of a behind-the-scenes book telling the story of how “Airplane!” took flight. I don’t normally do book reviews, but I listened to the audiobook of “Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True Story of Airplane!” and it was one of the funniest and most fascinating listening experiences I’ve ever had.

As wonderful as I imagine the print edition of the book being, nothing can compare to hearing Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker telling the story of how they developed their love of comedy and filmmaking and how the two dovetailed together so perfectly with “Airplane!” Stories from cast and crew and studio executives, as well as appreciation from comedians and actors, make for a rich behind-the-scenes look at how a true film classic came together.

Could there possibly BE a more perfect opportunity to run a clip or three from the Zuckers’ magnum opus? I think NOT!

A bit heavy on the Rex Kramer, you may have noticed, only because Robert Stack’s Kramer would have to be my favorite character from the movie. I’ve seen Airplane! about a bazillion and one times over the years and can still hardly help but laugh every time he’s on screen, even if only for a few seconds. Back to the book review for our closer:

For years, I had heard some of the stories, such as how devout Christian Peter Graves was skittish about the creepiness of his character Capt. Oveur, but the directors talked him into going with it. “Surely You Can’t Be Serious” is loaded with fascinating and hilarious stories of how Abrahams and the Zuckers cast dramatic actors like Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, and Lloyd Bridges in these roles.

The directors’ advice to their stars to deliver lines as if their characters don’t realize they’re in a comedy is genius, and it’s a huge part of the appeal. The list of actors that studios or producers wanted to cast but who didn’t make it into the movie is fascinating. Barry Manilow? Dom DeLuise? Bruce Jenner? (Abrahams claims that Jenner offered to read for the roles of Ted Striker and Elaine Dickinson, but it’s hard to tell if he’s deadpan or serious in delivering that line.)

The influence of studio executives like Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg and producers like Howard Koch helped the directors bring their comic vision to life on the big screen. It’s inspiring the way men like these went to bat for the team in order to bring “Airplane!” to life.

The way the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team was able to get around plagiarizing “Zero Hour!,” the movie that served as the inspiration for “Airplane!,” was genius, as was the latitude they gave actors Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White to develop the “jive” dialogue and train Barbara Billingsley in how to “speak jive.”

Music played an important role in making “Airplane!” so great. Composer Elmer Bernstein was responsible for many iconic “serious” movie scores, and he understood what the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team was looking for. His score helps give “Airplane!” the drama and tension that makes it so effective as a comedy and as good storytelling.

More good schtuff yet to the article, of which any fan of Airplane! (and how on earth could anyone NOT be?) will want to read the all.

Update! And stop calling me Shirley.


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