by Abraham Riesman
There are few movies as quotable as the 1980 disaster-movie parody Airplane! — and of the movie’s many memorable gags, arguably the most enduring is the moment when reluctant pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays) tells Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen), “Surely you can’t be serious,” and Rumack replies, “I am serious — and don’t call me Shirley.”
As part of our weeklong 100 Jokes That Shaped Comedy series, we dug into the origins and execution of that exchange — as well as the overall comedic mechanics of Airplane! — with the trio who wrote and directed the film, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker.
What was the origin of “Don’t call me Shirley”?
Jerry Zucker: The origin of that joke is similar to the origin of a lot of jokes in the movie: While we were writing, we used to watch a lot of old, serious movies that had a lot of this overly dramatic dialogue. We’d say, “Wait, wait, wait. Stop the tape,” and we’d go back and we’d put in our punch line or our gag in the background. That was one of those lines where someone actually did say, “Surely you can’t be serious.”
David Zucker: The other person might have even said, “I am serious.” But we added the “Don’t call me Shirley.”
So you’d do that for lots of the dialogue?
Jerry Zucker: A lot of it, yeah.
Jim Abrahams: Constantly. There’s a line in [1957 airplane thriller] Zero Hour! that says — how does the line go?
Jerry Zucker: “Stewardess, can you face some unpleasant facts?” And then, in Zero Hour!, she says, “Yes.” But in our movie, she says, “No.”
David Zucker: Or “We need somebody who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.”
Abrahams: That’s an actual line! That was a line from Zero Hour! Written by Arthur Hailey.
David Zucker: The whole plot of Zero Hour! is that everyone on a plane who ate fish, including the pilots, got sick.
Jerry Zucker: We just put that line in, verbatim.
What do you recall of filming the “Don’t call me Shirley” gag?
Abrahams: Well, Paramount Pictures was apprehensive about three first-time directors working together on a movie.
David Zucker: Our contract said they could fire us after one week.
Abrahams: As it turned out, the “Don’t call me Shirley” scene was filmed on the first day of shooting. When Paramount Pictures watched the dailies and saw that joke and the way it played, they were relieved. They finally understood the concept and were much more comfortable dealing with us.
Jerry Zucker: We got the call and it was kind of like, “Oh, now we get it.” I think they previously said, “Okay, fine, you can have [Robert] Stack, [Lloyd] Bridges, [Leslie] Nielsen, and [Peter] Graves,” but I don’t think very many people understood what we were doing by casting these serious, straight-men actors until they saw it.
David Zucker: It was a radical concept. We were doing a comedy without comedians. I think the studio most likely green-lit it thinking this was Animal House on an airplane, and it turned out to be totally different than what they imagined.
Jerry Zucker: It’s a line that a lot of different people could have said, and it would’ve been funny — people would’ve gotten it. But I don’t think it would be remembered in the same way if it hadn’t been said the way Leslie Nielsen says it.
David Zucker: That’s a good point. We love Bill Murray and people who do comedy well, but it wouldn’t have been the same if a comedian had said that line.
What direction did you give Leslie for that scene?
Jerry Zucker: I think we had shown him Zero Hour! previously because we wanted him to see the style. We told everyone that “playing it straight” doesn’t quite do it, because they think they have it, but they’re still winking. We told them to play it like they don’t know they’re in a comedy. Like no one told them. Just the way Leslie would have played this in The Poseidon Adventure, or any other of the films or television shows he had done. Leslie, more than anyone, really got that and relished it. He loved it. For the whole movie, Leslie didn’t need a ton of direction on performance.
David Zucker: He just jumped into the water and swam. He knew what he was doing.
Abrahams: You can intercut scenes from The Poseidon Adventure with his performance in Airplane! and you can’t distinguish, performance-wise, between them.
That line is followed almost immediately by another wordplay gag, the bit where Ted says, “It’s an entirely different kind of flying altogether,” and Rumack and Randy repeat that line, all together. Most of the movie is like that. How did you keep it from getting too joke-dense?
Jerry Zucker: It took us a while to sell the movie, and we just kept putting in jokes and putting in jokes. If a joke lasted for all that time between the time we wrote it and when we finally shot it, we figured it was probably a pretty good joke. But that was part of our idea of the kind of movie we wanted to make: We wanted the jokes to come really fast.
David Zucker: For ten years before that, we had done a live comedy show on Pico Boulevard called Kentucky Fried Theater, and that show also had a fast pace. We found that it was easier to keep an audience laughing than to start them up all over again. That’s where we got the pace of Airplane!
Jerry Zucker: Also, in this movie, we knew we weren’t going to be able to rely on just a funny character to make a mediocre line delightful because they’re making a face. So we better have another joke.
How often do you go back and watch the movie?
David Zucker: More often than you’d think because they’re constantly having screenings. There’s the 25-year, the 30-year, the 35-year anniversary. A lot of film festivals. We’ve literally been all over the world showing it.
What gag tends to get the biggest laughs, on average?
David Zucker: Some of the gags, like “Don’t call me Shirley,” it’s almost like when you see a concert and the musicians start playing a song and the audience recognizes it and they applaud. Some of the things I enjoy are the really simple things that got laughs 35 years ago and will get laughs 35 years from now. Like when the stewardess says, “I’m 26 and I’m not married,” and the other lady comes in and says, “Yeah, I’m scared, too, but at least I have a husband.” That joke always works! It’s so simple!
Abrahams: I’ve had many different favorites over the years. In recent years, the one that sticks most with me is “You can tell me — I’m a doctor.” That’s because, when we wrote that, who knows what we were thinking, but as life has gone on, my family has absolutely been subjected to medical arrogance. Whatever that mentality is that allowed Leslie to say in the movie, “You can tell me — I’m a doctor” has become satiric in my later life instead of just a parodic point of view.
David Zucker: The easiest, hugest laugh used to be the reporters running into the phone booth. But I think, with the passing of decades, I don’t know if people know what phone booths were!
Jerry Zucker: Sometimes I like some of the odd stuff. Like Leslie saying, “What the hell’s going on back there?” and then you see the woman’s in stirrups and he’s holding a speculum. Not because it’s the funniest joke in the film, but it’s just odd, in a way. It’s not a clear play on words or anything. “Everyone get in crash positions,” I’ve always been fond of.
What do you think the comedic legacy of Airplane! is?
Jerry Zucker: One of the great things about DVDs is every new generation, everybody sees it. It’s easy to see it more times. It has more of a legacy now than it did when it just came out and kinda vanished, like all movies.
David Zucker: I love going to parties and not having to put out any effort to be funny. I did Airplane!, I don’t have to be funny. They’ll laugh at anything.
Abrahams: It’s impossible for us to answer these kinds of questions seriously because the whole point is to not take things seriously. That’s what Airplane! is about. That’s what I hope the legacy of Airplane!, if there is any, is. Even in that line, “Don’t call me Shirley,” we pointed out that there are things in culture and media that we all take seriously that we don’t need to take seriously. I like to think, even today, when you hear in the news somebody say “surely” this, or “surely” that, I like to think that there’s a whole bunch of people around the world who hear that and kinda chuckle to themselves because they remember the line and they know they don’t have to take that seriously.
Jerry Zucker: And then, of course, there’s, “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” Why didn’t that make your top 100 jokes? Shouldn’t that have been in one of the hundred?
We tried to allocate only one joke per work of art.
David Zucker: Don’t you think some works of art deserve three or five mentions?
Jerry Zucker: I would think, if you’re doing this thing properly, you’d just wanna take the best lines. If Blazing Saddles has five of them, then great.
David Zucker: Well, Blazing Saddles would probably have one. But Airplane! would probably have ten, don’t you think? But whatever you want to do is fine, I guess.