'Airplane!' at 40: David Zucker defends the comedy classic's controversial jive-talking sequence: 'Everything is so sensitive nowadays'

Otto, Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays in 'Airplane!' (Photo: Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection)
Otto, Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays in Airplane!. (Photo: Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection)

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story was published on September 5, 2019. The article has been updated to reflect the movie’s 40th anniversary.]

Surely, we can be serious: Forty years ago in the summer of 1980, Airplane! flew into theaters and made the friendly skies safe... for laughter. The disaster movie spoof became an era-defining hit and launched the directorial careers of writing partners David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker — better known by their comedic call sign ZAZ. The trio went on to make such oft-quoted favorites as Top Secret!, The Naked Gun and Hot Shots!, but Airplane! remains their crowning achievement, even landing a spot on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

Today a generation of movie buffs and comedy nerds can quote the script line by line, repeating such classic zingers as “No, I’ve been nervous lots of times,” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue,” and, of course, “I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.” When Yahoo Entertainment spoke with David Zucker last fall, he told us that fans still discover new gags in every frame of the film. “We don’t point stuff out; our idea was to have the audience meet us halfway. That’s why, forty years later, they’re still finding things in it. Things like when the plane crashes through the glass wall of the terminal and the crowd disperses, a woman with a baby is running away in a panic, and she throws the baby in the air!”

In the four decades since the release of Airplane!, Zucker has answered virtually every question there is to ask about how ZAZ’s virtual shot-for-shot satirical remake of the deadly serious 1957 drama, Zero Hour!, became part of the pop culture lexicon. But he indulged our own inquiries and shared five fascinating behind the scenes stories from the making of Airplane! including the joke that was too mean to make the final cut.

The joke that was too mean for the big screen

While Airplane! is filled with gags that are funny in every age, some jokes play very differently in 2020 versus 1980. That includes moments like the “I speak jive” sequence, which might strike contemporary audiences as being out of step at a time when the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests are shining a light on the way race is addressed in Hollywood comedies from the past and present.

Zucker, though, stands by it four decades later. “It’s evenly laughing at Black people and white people. Everything is so sensitive nowadays, but when we show the movie, it still gets a laugh. People get it. It cuts through all the sensitivity, because in humor, you can’t be that sensitive.” On the other hand, Zucker notes that ZAZ made a point of road-testing all of their movies in front of preview audiences in order to spot jokes that crossed the line into meanness. “Sometimes stuff just isn’t funny, and that’s our fault. If the audience doesn’t get it, we haven’t done our job and we cut it out.”

In the case of Airplane! there’s at least one gag that remains on the cutting room floor due to viewer objections. “We had this joke about Air Poland where the pilots were Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and José Feliciano,” Zucker remembers. “Somebody from the Anti Defamation League called and said that young Polish kids growing up had a bad self-image because of these sorts of jokes. That didn’t occur to us, so we cut it out. And I’m glad we cut it out. One of the reasons Airplane! has lasted so long is because the jokes are timeless. Nobody does Polish jokes anymore, and the thing is that they’re mean-spirited. It’s not funny, so we were saved from that.”

Leslie Nielsen saved the movie on Day 1

Even though the ZAZ trio had made a name for themselves in the ‘70s comedy world by creating and writing for the Kentucky Fried Theater — which begat John Landis’s hit 1977 sketch film, The Kentucky Fried Movie — Paramount Pictures was dubious about their directorial abilities heading into Airplane! “We had a very hard time convincing Paramount to let us direct,” Zucker recalls. “So in our deal, they insisted on putting their own guy, [producer] Howard W. Koch, as an executive producer on the movie to supervise us. The other clause was that they could fire us after two weeks.”

To ease the novice directors in slowly, the producers decided that the first day of filming would be a simple scene of three people talking. As fortune would have it, those three people were stars Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty and supporting player, Leslie Nielsen, and their conversation consisted of the soon-to-be immortal “Don’t call me Shirley” exchange. When Paramount saw the dailies of that scene, and specifically Nielsen’s performance, they realized Zucker and his partners were onto something. “That line delivered by Leslie Nielsen versus Bill Murray or Chevy Chase was a world of difference,” he remembers now. “In that moment, the studio got it. And afterwards, our dailies were standing room only everyday, because everybody wanted to see what was shooting on Stage 9!”

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For his heroic service in rescuing Airplane! from studio interference, the veteran actor was rewarded with a breakout role that made him one of the biggest comedy stars of the 1980s, headlining hits like The Naked Gun series. (Nielsen died in 2010.) “Leslie always had this rebellious anarchist sense of humor, but he was trapped in a day job doing serious movies and TV shows,” Zucker says of the first half of Nielsen’s career, which consisted of straightforward parts in movies like Forbidden Planet and guest spots on series ranging from Daniel Boone to Kojak. “When we saw Zero Hour! our idea was to remake the whole thing with serious actors. At the first table read, Leslie was winking, and I think we thought he was winking too much in the sense that he was joking it up. We sent him home with a VHS copy of Zero Hour! and said, ‘The doctor in this is also in this movie. Just be that guy.’ And he was perfect!”

Stephen Stucker came to set with his own dialogue

Like Nielsen, all of the actors in Airplane! were instructed to play the movie’s silliness with a straight face. There was one performer who got a free pass to be as zany as possible, though: Stephen Stucker, who steals every scene he’s in as easily excitable air traffic controller, Johnny. One of the reasons why ZAZ cut Stucker so much slack — to the point where they allowed him to write all of his own material — is because they experienced his absurdist comedy stylings firsthand as the resident pianist for the L.A. branch of the Kentucky Fried Theater. “We were all guys from Wisconsin, and we had never met anyone like him,” Zucker says of the openly gay comedian, who made a point of going big and broad whenever possible. “At first we thought, ‘There’s no way this could work,’ but then when we were onstage, no one was watching us — they were all watching Stucker.”

Early on in production, ZAZ knew that they needed Stucker’s energy to enliven the second half of Airplane! to provide a counterpoint to the deadpan performances being delivered by Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack as the two men tasked with helping Hays’s Ted Striker and Hagerty’s Elaine Dickinson land the troubled plane. “He was a great foil for them, because they were acting like they were in a deadly serious movie and suddenly this nutball comes in. We were so glad to see him succeed.”

Stucker went on to reprise his role in the ZAZ-less Airplane II: The Sequel and also appeared in Trading Places and Mork & Mindy. But his career was cut short in 1986 when he died of AIDS after becoming one of the first actors to publicly disclose that he had contracted the disease. “That was a hard loss for all us,” Zucker says now. “We didn’t even know that he was sick when he died. It would have been amazing to see where his career would have gone, because he’s such a personality in Airplane!.”

Accidents will happen

A flub can be spotted in this classic scene from 'Airplane!' (Photo: Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection)
A flub can be spotted in this classic scene from Airplane!. (Photo: Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection)

Part of movie magic is erasing anything from the frame that might spoil the illusion. But so much of Airplane’s magic comes from spotting the various flubs and accidents that ZAZ allowed to remain onscreen. Case in point: During the Girl Scout duel in the Drambuie nightclub, you can see the camera wobble after one of the actresses playing the scouts is pushed into it. “She hit the camera,” Zucker confirms. “We didn’t even notice that until years later. One of the girls also broke a chair over the other’s back; it was a breakaway chair, but I don’t think they prepped it enough and it was a hard hit.”

Zucker happily calls out some other “mistakes” that you may or may not have already spotted for yourself. “When Bob is rushing to catch up with Julie in the airport, you can see a grip laying cable on the left. And when the airplane crashes through the glass wall in the terminal and the crowd disperses, there’s a woman running away with a baby and she throws the baby in the air.” Where other filmmakers might squirm at these accidents, Zucker embraces them. “As directors, we didn’t want to cut those things. We wanted to have the audience meet us halfway, and I think people appreciate that. That’s why they’re still finding things in it 40 years later. Besides, if you’re noticing that stuff then you’re not paying attention to the jokes!”

Where’s Otto now?

Time exacts its toll on all of us… even inflatable balloons. Asked what happened to Otto — the plane’s inappropriately touchy-feely autopilot — Zucker suggests that he hasn’t aged all that well. “I believe Jerry has a decaying version of it in his garage,” he says, laughing. “It was eventually repainted to be Mrs. Pilot for the final scene; I don’t know if it ever got painted back.” In other words, don’t expect Otto to put in appearance at the live reading, which is generally one without props save for miniature plane that soars by on a wire. The director has fond memories of working with that quiet actor, though. “The special effects crew got him to work very well. They figured out how to pump air and release air, and make the head revolve around. The head of the special effects crew, John Frazier, later won an Oscar. Not for Airplane! but for something else.” If you ask us, Otto totally deserved a Best Supporting Balloon statue.

Airplane! is currently streaming on Netflix.

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