Watching “Airplane!” for the very first time was an emotional experience for me. It was the first time in my life when I realized there were other people whose inner thoughts were just as strange as mine.
All at once, I didn’t feel so alone in the world.
It was the Christmas break of my sophomore year. I was home from Tuscaloosa, where I was a student at the University of Alabama. I had been away from home in the college world for long enough to be disappointed to realize that college students weren’t much different from the kids I’d gone to high school with. I was feeling a little lost in the world to realize I hadn’t really found “my people” in college.
I was bored and restless when I flipped on the television that afternoon. As I flipped through channels, I came across a movie that was just starting. I saw clouds and then I heard the melody of the theme from “Jaws.” There was the tail fin of an airplane instead of a shark.
The airplane dramatically burst onto the screen and I burst out laughing. This felt like humor from a kindred spirit. The next 90 minutes would change me.
Everything about “Airplane!” is a farce.
The trailer for the movie looks outdated by modern standards, but you can still tell just how absurd the humor is. There had been a slew of disaster movies during the previous decade — including one called “Airport” — and “Airplane!” took all of the serious themes from those movies and made them look just as ridiculous as they really were.
There are various kinds of humor and I can enjoy lots of them. But the kind that has always been special to me — the kind that my mind makes up as I go through the day — is taking expected reactions in life and twisting them in odd ways to match them with something that doesn’t quite fit. For me, this often includes puns — and puns were important in “Airplane!”
Ted: “Surely you can’t be serious.”
Doctor: “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
If your brain works the way mine does, you see possibilities for this sort of pun multiple times a day. I don’t always say the puns — because more normal minds claim not to enjoy puns — but there’s something deeply funny in such clever lines that subvert what the listener thinks is being said.
Elaine: “A letter came from headquarters this morning.”
Ted: “Headquarters? What is it?!”
Elaine: “It’s a big building with generals, but that’s not important right now.”
In the normal world, nobody thought Ted was calling the doctor Shirley. Nobody thought Ted was really asking what headquarters was. But in these lines — and in lots of others, delivered in rapid-fire one after another — the jokes subvert what we expected to hear. And that’s funny.
In what other movie could a doctor call someone from his office in the Mayo Clinic — and you notice there are dozens of jars of mayonnaise behind him? Nothing is ever said about it. It’s just a visual pun. As the pilot talks with the doctor from the Mayo Clinic, an operator interrupts the phone call to say there is an emergency call on Line 5 from a Mr. Hamm.
“OK, give me Hamm on 5 and hold the Mayo,” he deadpans. As he says it, you can imagine he’s saying, “Give me ham on rye and hold the mayo.”
Watching “Airplane!” that first time was life-changing for me. It’s not that it was the best film ever made. It wasn’t even that the writing was so clever that it was unlike anything ever created.
I was simply that it let me feel as though there were others like me. Somebody had made this movie. Somebody out there had watched it and enjoyed it. That meant there were others who could understand this part of me which I normally kept hidden.
The world was different back then. The Internet didn’t exist. For the most part, the only people we knew were those in our own little conventional world. “Airplane!” let me see that there were people — far beyond my conventional world — where my kind of strange thinking was normal and accepted, not something that needed to be hidden.
I tried to share the movie with others, but nobody was interested except my best friend, Larry. He also “got it” and for the next few years, we drove to wherever “Airplane!” was playing in a movie theater. We knew all the lines. There was nothing new about it.
But it was a shared cultural experience which said to both of us, “We are not so alone.”
It’s easier to find people who are more like us today. On my Facebook friends list are dozens of people who love this movie just as much as I do. They quote it and laugh at it and watch it again. I’ve never met most of them. They live in California, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, Illinois, England, Spain and a dozen other places. They’re all bright weirdos who almost certainly grew up feeling just as alone as I did.
About seven years ago, somebody did research into which movie is the funniest film after made. After calculating the number of laughs per minute, “Airplane!” came out on top. A lot of it is ridiculous humor, but it touched me on a visceral level — especially that first time.
I tell people that “Airplane!” is my favorite movie. I really have so many favorites that it’s hard to say what truly would be No. 1. All I know is that on a cold holiday break at home, it was something that gave me the joyous emotional jolt of knowing there were other people like me.
“Airplane!” let me know I wasn’t alone. I will always appreciate the filmmakers for that amazing gift.