'Airplane!' Mastermind David Zucker on Leslie Nielsen, the 'Naked Gun' Reboot and His New TV Show

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Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Peter Graves

Has it really been 35 years since the pioneering parody comedy Airplane! first flew into theaters? Surely you can’t be serious. But it’s true: Back in 1980, brothers David and Jerry Zucker, along with co-writer Jim Abrahams, released their uproarious spoof-disaster movie, which starred a bunch of faded TV stars and future NBA hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and invented an entirely new pop-parody genre.

Lifting its plot from 1957’s Zero Hour!, a corny midair thriller, Airplane! retained that film’s straight-faced storyline, but filled it out with a seemingly impossible number of rapid-fire jokes, sight gags, groaner puns, off-color remarks, and risqué references that made pedophilia and sniffing glue somehow funny. It was such a hit ($83 million at the box office) that it would launch an entire genre of satirical flicks, some from Abrahams and the Zuckers themselves (including the Naked Gun franchise), and inspire the careers of the Farrelly Brothers and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

The film will screen at the Wild West Comedy Festival in Nashville in mid-April, giving us the perfect occasion to catch up with David Zucker, who co-directed the film with his brother and Abrahams. By this time, the trio had already found some success with their comedy club, Kentucky Fried Theater, and the cult-hit sketch comedy film Kentucky Fried Movie, both of which taught valuable lessons about how to win over audiences.

“The pace was everything; we realized it was easier to keep the audience laughing than start them up all over again. That’s been our M.O. ever since: Everything has to be a joke, or a setup to a joke.”

Zucker spoke to Yahoo Movies about making Airplane!, working with Leslie Nielsen, the state of parody comedy, his new TV pilot, and more.

Leslie Nielsen became such a comedy icon in his later years that we forget he was a dramatic actor in the ’50s and ’60s. What made you think of him for the role?
We didn’t think of him specifically; he was the third choice. Only Robert Stack was our first choice for his role. We met with Jack Webb for the Lloyd Bridges part, [and] we thought of Charlton Heston for the Peter Graves part, or Efrem Zimbalist [ Maverick, The F.B.I.]. There were bigger names [considered]. We really lucked out. We got the right people. But Leslie was the last person cast. He was the least well-known of all of them. People kind of knew the face, but they didn’t always know his name.

Our casting director was at his wit’s end at that point. His job was to cast a comedy, and here his name was going to go on a movie [starring] Robert Stack and Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges, and he didn’t know they’d be funny at all. So he just exploded

Peter Graves famously didn’t want to play the aspiring-pedophile pilot at first. Was he reluctant to deliver lines like “Have you ever seen a grown man naked”?
Peter Graves’s reaction [to the script] was, “This is the most disgusting piece of garbage I’ve ever read.” His wife and his daughter read it and they laughed all the way through and they said, “Dad, you have to do it.” So he was ready to do it when we shot.

He put himself in our hands, and a lot of it was [due to] the fact that our executive producer was Howard W. Koch, who used to be the [head of production] of Paramount Studios, and [who was] really a beloved older figure. I think he was the one who assured Stack and Graves that this was going to be OK, and helped us wrangle Lloyd Bridges. [Bridges’s] problem was he was trying to make sense of his dialogue. And Stack said, “Just keep talking.” Stack totally got it. Just do it.

Looking back on some of the jokes, do you wince at some of them now? I’m thinking specifically of the “talking jive” gag.
I think it would work today, but it’s not fresh today, because it’s been done. There’s certain things that maybe people wouldn’t try [now] because they’re not PC. We didn’t care about that. I think so many comedies today are probably too self-conscious about being PC, and that interferes with the comedy, because to get laughs you have to be outrageous. You have to go for it. You cannot care about all the rules and niceties.

The Naked Gun opens with Leslie Nielsen beating up and humiliating a bunch of foreign leaders, and no one seemed outraged by it. But this winter, The Interview nearly caused a war because it was about assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.
[Naked Gun] was a different time. I dont know if we could do that today. I think we would get a laugh, but I don’t think a studio would release [the film]. It’s pretty chilling about what happened to The Interview. I haven’t seen it. Nobody can make fun of North Korea now.

We [the Zucker brothers] have a new show — a spoof on the international spy thriller genre, and it’s called Counter Inteligence, with one “L.” We had a script and we had a whole scene we had to cut, because I don’t think any studio would do it: It opened on North Korea, and we did a whole thing with Kim Jong-Il. We’re working on it as a TV series, with the Weinstein Company.

Now there’s going to be a remake of Naked Gun, starring Ed Helms. Do you have any involvement with that?
I have no involvement in it. They own it and they wanted to do it with Ed Helms and two writers. It won’t be like the Naked Gun that I did. It may be good, but it won’t be that kind of movie. They’re going to use the title. They asked me if I wanted to produce. They’re nice people, but they don’t want to do that style of spoof that I do. I would want somebody who had never been in an comedy. Ed Helms is very well known for three of the biggest comedies ever. I understand why Paramount is doing what they’re doing. If my name was on it, I would be making all sorts of suggestions and trying to change it, and it would be frustrating.

Have you still never seen Airplane II?
None of us ever saw it. No desire. I wasn’t even curious. Jim [Abrahams] just said, “If your daughter became a prostitute, would you go and watch her work?” It was just completely unnecessary to do it. But the studio had an asset that they wanted to exploit. It’s all business. I’m used to it. I don’t have any emotions about this stuff anymore. Paramount wanted to do Naked Gun 4 — I just didn’t want my name on it. If it’s great, that’s fine. People should go back and look at the credits. I’ll stand by anything I’ve done, even if it’s not successful.

The parody genre seems to have worn thin over the last few years.
It becomes watered down. I produced Scary Movie 5, [and] that was so watered-down that [it] contributed to ruining the genre, as did all the Friedberg and Seltzer movies [such as Date Movie, Epic Movie, and Meet the Spartans]. [Parody] has come on hard times. They’re not being done well. Scary Movie 3 and 4 did well, they made tons of money, they were huge hits. But by Scary Movie 5, it just got watered-down, we had to do what the studio required. It’s why I didn’t want to direct it anymore.

So let’s go back to the more pure days of parody: What was your favorite joke in Airplane!?
I always laugh when all the reporters run up and they knock over the phone booth, but audiences today I dont think they know what they are. Phone booths — they’re such an old reference.