Gender and Comedy in Airplane!

Airplane! (1980) is a parody that spoofs every aspect of its source material except the traditional conservative gender roles of man as source of strength and woman as the weaker sex. This simultaneous puncturing and reaffirmation, to use Wes Gehring’s terms, is accomplished by presenting a large number of gags, many in the vaudeville spirit, while maintaining a male melodrama narrative.     This paper uses analysis of the gags and consideration of the narrative to illustrate how the film can be anarchic and still “put men and women in their place.”Airplane! has a simple story that was first presented as a Canadian live television drama in 1956, Flight Into Danger (Atherton).

The pilots and several passengers on a plane become ill with food poisoning, and a travelling salesman who was a wartime fighter pilot must land the plane. In 1957, the story was expanded into a feature film, Zero Hour! The film changed the fighter pilot’s character from a travelling salesman to a jobless guilt-ridden lost man, who boarded the plane not to rush to a deal, but to try and win back his wife, who has left him and is taking the plane to start a new life in another city (IMDb). Zero Hour! is the primary source material parodied in Airplane!.

Gehring lists seven basic characteristics of parody (6-16), and Airplane! has them all. Some of the spoofed material, like the disco scene from Saturday Night Fever (1977), is widely known, while some, like the departing train sequence from When You Went Away (1944) is obscure, but the sequences are funny without viewer expertise. An example of creative criticism in Airplane! is the character of pilot Roger Murdock, played by basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and later identified by other characters as Kareem pretending to be Roger (within the fictional narrative – not as an actor in a movie). Funny on its own, this is also a reference to the football player Elroy ‘Crazylegs’ Hirsch who portrayed a pilot in Zero Hour!.

Gags such as the incorrect rear screen projections during a car driving scene spoof cinematic norms, while social norms, primarily gender roles, are not spoofed. Spoofing of social norms, according to Gehring, is satire, and while it can be in parody, it is not a basic characteristic. Gehring identifies two types of parody, puncturing and reaffirmation, and claims a film must be one or the other. Airplane! would never be confused with a serious genre film, Gehring’s tip for identifying reaffirmation parodies, but through the presentation of the gags it actively reaffirms the gender roles that it passively does not spoof or satirize.

The use of propeller plane engine noise during in flight shots of the jet plane is a gag that points to the time and space flexibility of parodies, and the multiple references to films in no way related to the plot is an example of compounding. Self-consciousness about filmmaking is mild, but present in the previously noted rear screen and audio gags. Gehring’s bonus sometime characteristic, that the actors play straight, is also present and emphasized by the use of actors who usually play similar roles in serious films. Leslie Nielsen, now known as a comic actor, largely for his ability to play straight in absurd situations, had only performed in serious films prior to Airplane!.

Though a typical parody by Gehring’s definition, Airplane! did advance the formula by the sheer number of gags. The parodies of Mel Brooks or Woody Allen are more sophisticated than Airplane!, but Airplane! set a standard for pacing that continues today, and remains a popular film[1]. Though only 85 minutes long, there are about 220 gags.

Counting gags was the first step of conducting a gag analysis[2]. Repeated gags were only counted once, but for sequences, each funny item in the gag sequence was counted. For example, the preparation of the plane for takeoff as if it were a car at a gas station was counted as three gags: one for checking the oil under the nose cone hood, one for the attendant falling off the front of the plane after being unable to close the nose cone hood, and one for the pilot paying by credit card through his window.

Each gag was identified as primarily one of four types: Visual, such as the jars of mayonnaise in the background at the Mayo Clinic; aural, such as the propeller sound effect; verbal, typically one-liners; and physical, generally a gag depending on performer movement. Verbal and physical gags were noted as favouring male or female performers, or both, and when gags occurred was recorded. All the data was placed into a spreadsheet and reviewed[3]. The highlights are in the following table:

Gag Timing Favours Men Favours Women Total
Verbal Whole Film 52 19 71
First Half 26 10 36
Second Half 26 9 35
Physical Whole Film 52 25 77
First Half 21 17 38
Second Half 31 8 39

*This figure does not include visual or aural gags, but does include some verbal and physical gags twice if they equally favoured men and women. For example, the spoof of From Here to Eternity (1953) has a man and a woman kissing in heavy surf, and both are repeatedly soaked.

On average, there were 12.5 gags every five minutes, and the actual count of gags in five minutes segments was usually close to the average (standard deviation 3 gags). Overall, the pace of gags is steady in the film. Men are favoured in most of the gags, and this is not surprising as most of the characters are men.

The type of gags done by the men are about half verbal, and half physical. While the pace of men’s verbal gags is consistent throughout the film, there are more men’s physical gags in the second half of the film. Women have more physical gags than verbal, and the slapstick antics include a young attractive character running into poles, a sick young girl going into convulsions when her IV line is ripped out, and her mother trying to revive her, not knowing the IV is out.

The women’s verbal gags are consistent throughout the film, but there are more women’s physical gags in the first half of the film.     With regard to physical comedy, women fade and men rise in the second half of the film. The nature of the physical gags also shifts over the course of the film. Many of the women’s physical gags in the first half of the film are associated with flashbacks or sequences outside of the narrative, while many of the men’s physical gags are associated with the narrative, especially the climactic landing sequence. Many of the women’s gags are sexual.

For example, a grandmotherly character tells a man that it is a shame a woman has rejected him, since the woman has “a darling figure, with supple, pouting breasts, firm thighs.” A woman reminisces with an ex-boyfriend, recalling, “All I have are memories. I remember how I used to sit on your face and wiggle,” and a little girl tells a little boy that she takes her coffee black, “like my men.” Although acknowledging female sexuality can be liberating, the context and presentation of these gags, and the lack of sexual gags by men, make these gags function as sexual subordination. This contradiction is a key aspect of a film type William Paul refers to as Animal Comedy (102), but it is also present in Airplane!. The content and presentation of the gags work to marginalize female characters and promote traditional conservative roles for men and women, but despite the emphasis on gags and the number of them, narrative is also important in this film. The simple plot of Zero Hour! is followed closely, and despite non-narrative scenes, intertextuality, and mocking of film conventions, the overall narrative of the plane in trouble and overall cause and effect continuity is maintained.

Viewers are frequently winked at, and in one case directly addressed, but never explicitly told that the story is not real. This acknowledgement and engagement of the audience is not unlike vaudeville performance, and there are a number of performances in Airplane! that would not be out of place in a vaudeville show.

These include a disco dance sequence with acrobatics including juggling, a magic trick involving removing eggs from a woman’s mouth (which appears to be done with sleight-of-hand, not camera tricks), a display of basketball skills, a song, a brief jazzy musical interlude where four main characters play instruments, a jump through a window, and two fights, one between two girls and one involving a man running a gauntlet of airport solicitors. In possible reference to Duck Soup (1933), there is a mirror gag and a horse in bed gag. The final shot includes fireworks, and there is even a chaser gag at the end of the credits. Some of these performances are related to the narrative, and some are not. The variety of gags, the performance nature of some of them, and the speed of delivery are all elements of the vaudeville aesthetic according to Henry Jenkins (96).

Jenkins claims vaudeville appealed to a heterogeneous audience, but Alan Dale, in his slightly leering account of the Marx Brothers, notes they often performed for “prostitutes and madams” (Jenkins 95, Dale 146).

For a less heterogeneous audience, the sexual gags, notably the mutually satisfying oral sex performed by the flight attendant to re-inflate the inflatable autopilot dummy, could also be considered a vaudeville performance (and is another example of sexual subordination parading as sexual liberation).Jenkins claims narrative emphasis and vaudeville comedy cannot go together as they are “competing if not directly contradictory aesthetic impulses” (99).

Airplane! manages to balance both, probably because the writing and directing team of Abrahams, Zucker, and Zucker have a background in live comedy improvisational theatre (IMDb), a modern equivalent to vaudeville, and they are parodying a film that represents classical Hollywood practices. Though they have added gags, they have kept the original melodrama narrative of Zero Hour! intact. This allows simultaneous puncturing of many aspects of Zero Hour! and other films, with reaffirmation of the original film’s male melodrama character development in a context of traditional conservative roles. In Zero Hour! the male lead must land the plane to become a whole man again, and save his relationship. Airplane! maintains this tension, and the issue of the man needing to “get over it” and take his place in society is not parodied or satirized, it is reaffirmed. This tension is not out of place in comedy, because the gap between male melodrama and comedy is slight.

Dale notes that slapstick, in the broader sense of low comedy, “plays on our fears of physical and social maladjustment” (5). The male lead, with his drinking problem (parodied in Airplane! as an inability to get the glass to his mouth, resulting in the drink spilling) and his relationship problem, is clearly maladjusted.

In Zero Hour! he is an object of sympathy and in Airplane! he is an object of comedy, but in both films he overcomes his fears and guilt, saves his relationship, and saves everyone on the plane. At the end he is an object of neither sympathy nor comedy, he is a real man at last, free of guilt and integrated into society. He embraces the woman who has come back to him, and other men offer to buy him a drink and shake his hand. The narrative as well as the content and presentation of the gags all work to reinforce traditional conservative roles for men and women.

This is best illustrated in a scene on the stricken plane, late in the film. An attractive young female flight attendant starts crying, and a calm male doctor asks what is wrong. She notes that she has never been so scared, is twenty-six, and does not have a husband. The doctor re-assures her that the plane will land safely and everyone will be okay. Then another woman appears. The doctor asks how she is doing, and she replies that she has never been so scared, but at least she has a husband. She leaves, and the attendant bursts into tears.

Women deliver both the setup and the punch line, but the humour relies on accepting a traditional ideology that promotes the male doctor and husbands in general as figures of strength, and accepting that both single and married women need husbands. The promotion of conservative traditional roles for men and women may be cloaked in anarchic humour, but the question remains about why it is there at all.

The creators of Airplane! are aware of how modern viewers might apply contemporary social concerns to Zero Hour!. In the original film, a young boy visits the cockpit, and is welcomed by the pilot with an affectionate hug. In Airplane!, the pilot is a blatant pedophile. The creators not only disregard how gender concerns might be applied to Zero Hour!, many of the gags and how they are presented serve to reinforce the original film’s sexism.

The reason for the presentation of traditional roles is outside the scope of this paper, but a starting point might be to consider the social landscape around 1980. The election of Ronald Reagan as United States President was a visible manifestation of the rise of the new right and a new conservatism. The times may have been perfect for a film that simultaneously spoofed male melodrama (a genre that accepted men can suffer) while reaffirming the message that men must be strong and women must be subordinate.


Works Consulted

Airplane! Dir. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker. 1980. VHS. Paramount, 1988.

Airplane Movie Review and Sounds. 5 Dec. 2004. <;.

Airplane! Review. 5 Dec. 2004. <;. Path: Cult Movies; Search Database.

Atherton, Tony. “A Dramatic Birth.” Ottawa Citizen 13 Nov. 2002. Rpt. in Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. 5 Dec. 2004. <

Dale, Alan. Comedy is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000.

Ebert, Roger. “Airplane! Review” Cinemania 97. CD-ROM. Microsoft, Redmond: 1996.

Gehring, Wes D. Parody as Film Genre: “Never Give a Saga an Even Break”. Contributions to the Study of Popular Culture, 69. Westport CT: Greenwood, 1999.

“Hailey, Arthur.” ABCBookworld. B.C Bookworld, Simon Fraser U Lib. 5 Dec 2004.     <;.

Hailey, Arthur, and John Castle.     Runway Zero-Eight. 1959.     New York: Bantam, 1969.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). 5 Dec. 2004. <;.

Jenkins III, Henry. “Anarchistic Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic.” Ed. Frank Krutnick. Hollywood Comedians: The Film Reader. London: Routledge, 2003.

Paul, William. Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

Since You Went Away (1944). 5 Dec. 2004. <;.

[1] Though 24 years old, the film is relatively well known, even among people too young to have seen it on release. The slightly older, lavish but slower disaster film parody, The Big Bus (1976), is almost unknown.

[2] This is admittedly a subjective process. I included gags that I did not find funny or did not understand, and I excluded anything that appeared to be unintentional evidence of low budget filmmaking, such as continuity errors or visible special effects. Also, different versions of the film include or exclude different gags, and at least one gag has a different punch line in the VHS version compared to the television broadcast version.

[3] The spreadsheet, 8 printed pages, is available on request.

Copyright © by Tim Covell, 2004, All Rights Reserved

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