Saturday, September 21, 2013

Airplane! Still Funny After All These Years

When the movie Airplane! came out in the summer of 1980, I was just shy of eleven years old. My whole family went to see it in the theater and by the end I was certain it was the funniest movie I had ever seen, despite the fact that I laughed at some of the jokes for the wrong reason. (For example, when the little boy asks the little girl if she wants cream in her coffee and she says, “No thank you; I take it black, like my men,” I laughed heartily, because I thought it was hysterical that a little girl would like black coffee.)

About two years after the release of Airplane! my family became the first on our block to get a VCR. The $900 machine, that was only slightly smaller than a Volkswagen, quickly became the focal point of my existence. To get our video library started we purchased two movies—The Graduate and Airplane! While I cited The Graduate as my favorite movie, it was Airplane! that I kept on watching over and over again. Airplane! to me was what Star Wars was to most kids of my generation. I was obsessed.

Before I knew what a spreadsheet was, I created a spreadsheet to keep track of how many times I watched each of the VHS tapes that we owned. Within a year I would see Airplane! 23 times, according to the penciled hash marks on my loose-leaf paper. I knew the movie by heart and quoted it ad nauseum. While I struggled in my junior high school Spanish class, I was fluent in jive.

As my teen years progressed, the frequency of my Airplane! viewings gradually declined. I moved on to other obsessions like classic rock bands, reruns of Taxi, and the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. I would guess that sometime in my early-20s was the last time I watched the film…until yesterday.

My wife got me the DVD of Airplane! as one of my birthday gifts. (I had never bothered replacing the VHS tape when I switched to DVDs long ago.) So last night, after our kids went down to bed, we watched it—my first time in over 20 years. It was almost a surreal experience watching a film I know by heart after such a long hiatus.

One interesting phenomenon was that I kept on laughing ahead of the punch lines, since I knew exactly what was coming. (This behavior must have seemed strange to my wife who had only seen the film two times previously.) For instance, when Julie Haggerty is walking around in the plane asking if anyone is a doctor and one woman says, “Stewardess, I think the man sitting next to me is a doctor,” I already burst out laughing before they panned over to Leslie Nielsen sitting there wearing a stethoscope in his ears.

Another interesting phenomenon was that it took about 5 or 10 minutes for the movie to grow on me again. I wasn’t laughing that much in the beginning and for a brief time I was very nervous that maybe the movie wasn’t as funny as I remembered. But soon the laughter took hold and I couldn’t stop. I think the slow start wasn’t the movie’s fault, though. I think it was more akin to meeting up with an old friend after 20 years. There might be an initial period of awkwardness, but eventually you feel like everything is just like it was when you last talked.

And so I laughed. I laughed every time Robert Hays missed his mouth because of his drinking problem, and when Peter Graves asks the boy visiting the cockpit if he likes gladiator movies, and when Leslie Nielsen assures the passengers that everything is going to be fine and his nose keeps on growing a-la Pinocchio. And pretty much at everything in between.

At this point I have no idea how many times I’ve seen Airplane! I lost my loose-leaf spreadsheet decades ago. But the movie is still hysterical and now that I’ve got it on DVD I can watch it as many times as I want. And this time I can keep track in Excel.