It was helmed by the ZAZ trio (Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker), whose dedication to making the audience laugh is surprisingly adamant. Recent spoofs may have left a bad aftertaste in your mouth, but it seems to be a universal agreement: "Airplane" is the funniest film of its genre ever made. (Closely followed by "The Naked Gun" - also penned by the ZAZ trio - perhaps.)
The plot: Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is a war veteran-turned-cab-driver who decides to chase after his girlfriend, an airline stewardess named Elaine (Julie Hagerty), who has dumped him in order to pursue a new life. Right before her plane takes off, Ted climbs aboard, hitching a ride in order to woo her back into a relationship again.
When the aircraft is in midflight, both pilots become very ill after eating their meals. Eventually many passengers begin to show symptoms of a rare disease, apparently transmitted by the food. Onboard, Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) takes care of the sick passengers as Ted - an ex-fighter pilot from the war - decides to try and land the plane. If he messes up they will all die, and in a particularly funny scene, the pressure becomes so unbearable that he begins to literally sweat gallons in the cockpit.
That is essentially all the film is about, but most of its duration is spent cracking jokes. Spoof films are entirely different from other movies because normally we would criticize a film if it considered its plot to be the least important element. Not so here. This is a truly brainless piece of celluloid - a movie that doesn't try to be anything that it isn't. From the opening credits - that cleverly spoof "JAWS" - to the closing we realize that this is an altogether unique film going experience.
The movie's biggest laughs come through unexpected flashbacks, such as when Ted remembers where he first met Elaine in a crummy bar ("...it was worse than Detroit..."), and begins to disco-dance a la John Travolta from "Saturday Night Fever" (complete with Bee Gees soundtrack blaring in the background and the famous Travolta pose). Then, later, we are taken back to when Ted was hospitalized after the war, and finds out that he was responsible for the death of six men. "Seven, actually," he is informed, which adds to the pain of the moment for him.
Though this movie is very funny, many jokes misfire. If you're not pop culture savvy and you don't remember Mrs. Cleaver from TV's "Leave it to Beaver", the humor is going to go over your head. But unlike many comedies, "Airplane!" offers something unique for each person. I know that as a film lover, I picked up on many movie in-jokes that some people might not recognize. And then there were the gags that I first missed but picked up after a second viewing, or when someone explained them to me, or both. And I'm sure there are many yet that I'm not aware of. It seems that every time I watch it, there's something else to laugh at that I missed previously.
"Airplane!" not only was a huge success in 1980 (the year of its release), spinning off a horde of imitators and one sequel - it was also responsible for crowning Leslie Nielsen "The King of Spoof." Prior to "Airplane!" Nielsen had been a veteran of more serious productions, stemming back to playing cowboys on "The Mickey Mouse Club" and other embarrassing attempts at acting. However, Nielsen later claimed that he had always wanted to do a comedy, even when he first started acting seriously with projects such as the classic "Forbidden Planet" (one of the best science-fiction films ever made). He later reunited with the ZAZ trio for "The Naked Gun" trilogy, appeared in similar spoof films over the years such as "Wrongfully Accused" and "Scary Movie 3," and had his iconic comedy shtick ripped off by many screen veterans - most noticeably by George Gaynes in the unbearable "Police Academy" (1984).
When it comes down to a single evaluation, "Airplane" is simply the best spoof film ever made. It's like a MAD Magazine parody come to life. There are the occasional misfires, but unlike many other spoof film imitators, this one contains far more hits. The deadpan acting is genius and everything else fits into place, resulting in what may arguably be one of the absolute funniest films ever conceived and put on the big screen. And if you decide to watch the movie, don't blink - you might miss a gag or two. The "Police Academies" will come and go but "Airplane!" will never be forgotten.