Don’t Call Me Shirley: Airplane!


I have a theory that we’re entering a generation in which the language we use is made up of references.  This isn’t some grand theory of semiotics or structuralism.  It’s barely even related to linguistics.  We pick up cultural artifacts and recall them in conversations.  How many times a day do you reference a TV show, a movie, a comic? When we have a conversation with someone and evoke a reference, there’s a special bond that develops.  The odd part is that we’re so inundated with these snippets of culture that we’ve reached a point where people are often unaware of the source.  Every day thousands of people say, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” without knowing it’s from The Godfather.

Enter: Airplane!  A parodic remake of 1957’s Zero Hour! and referencing everything from the Hare Krishna movement to Saturday Night Fever, few other films have created cultural fodder than Airplane! and that’s the interesting part: Airplane! is a parody film and, as such, is comprised of film and cultural references all its own.  Others had certainly come before (For a Few Dollars Less, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein set the groundwork for the modern parody film), but I would argue that Airplane!, above all others, was instrumental in molding how we think about parody films, and how we think about comedy.

In fact, films like these directly shaped modern comedy.  A special note: if you’ve never seen the film, you might be tempted to watch it with younger folks in the audience.  It’s rated PG, but since it debuted in 1980, PG-13 didn’t exist.  In other words–it’s not PG as you know it.  There’s half a chance it would be considered for an R rating.  At the time, most comedies were relegated to PG status.  R rated comedies were a special breed; Mel Brooks has gone on record to say that Blazing Saddles wouldn’t even be made today. While the 1970s and 80s saw a number of classic R-rated comedies (Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, This is Spinal Tap) Thanks largely to Judd Apatow, the R rated comedy has seen a revival of late.  The Neighbors, The Hangover, Knocked Up–they all owe a debt to films like Airplane!.

And Airplane is alarmingly funny. Even after three decades and multiple viewings, the jokes hold up–so much so that many have become legacies all their own.  The movie has been referenced countless times in TV and film.  That’s not unusual; what is unique to Airplane is that the construction of jokes has been directly referenced.  The kinds of wordplay found in Airplane! are timeless:


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.


Is there any other joke that has been repeated and rehashed more than the Shirley line? I doubt it.  And then there’s this exchange, the structure of which was referenced in an episode of How I Met Your Mother:


Rumack: You’d better tell the Captain we’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.

Elaine Dickinson: A hospital? What is it?

Rumack: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.


The basic outline of that joke comes up about seven times in the movie and it works every time.  It never fails to get a laugh.  And then of course, there’s…


Captain Oveur: Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?


Nothing more needs to be said about that one.

But the comedic genius of Airplane! doesn’t happen by chance.  Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker co-wrote and co-directed the film.  You might know them from the Hot Shots! films, Top Secret, Kentucky Fried Movie, or the Naked Gun Trilogy.  Not exactly slouches.  David Zucker is responsible for Basketball, and one day I will shake his hand for that piece of genius.  Lloyd Bridges chews up his scenery like only Lloyd Brides can.  Robert Hays stars as Ted Striker, a pilot with PTSD desperately trying to win back his favorite gal.  Hays worked steadily before and since Airplane! but I fondly remember him as Hyde’s dad in That 70s show.  Airplane! makes the debut of Julie Haggerty as Elaine, Striker’s love interest.  Haggerty went on to a storied career in film and television, but, to me, her greatest achievement was playing Fay Marvin in What About Bob? (mostly because that movie is perfect).  Mr. Unsolved Mysteries himself, Robert Stack, is a commanding force of a character as Kramer, Ted Striker’s captain from the war.  Leslie Nielsen plays…well, a slightly curt version of himself. And, lest we forget: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It’s no surprise Airplane! is hilarious given an all-star writing and directing team and a top-tier cast.  In part, it’s because the movie has a crew most filmmakers would dream about.  I won’t go into all the details, but two folks stand out.  Elmer Bernstein wrote has written music for many classic films: The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Escape, True Grit, Ghostbusters, and many others.  His music has appeared in everything from Inglorious Bastards to The Simpsons.  Joseph Biroc, the director of photography, was the man behind the camera for It’s a Wonderful Life, The Flight of the Phoenix, Blazing Saddles, and, oh yeah: Superman.

If we do, in fact, live in a world in which our deepest emotions and philosophical musings are uttered through references to obscure 60s B-movies or failed sitcoms then I take comfort in the timelessness of Airplane! We can forge those conversational connections through cultural products if movies like that are kept alive, in the current consciousness, passed on through generations of movie watchers.  After all, this film worked hard to be a contender for the creation of this new kind of language.  Airplane!, at its heart, synthesized comedy and culture to create something new, something meant to not only be laughed at, but to be understood.  In doing so, it promoted cultural knowledge, showing how catching all the little references and inside jokes lead to a larger, fuller experience of the film–and of the world.



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