Thoughts On: Airplane - Comedy In The Cinema


Airplane - Comedy In The Cinema

Thoughts On: Airplane (1980)

Passengers and pilots aboard an aeroplane heading towards Chicago are brought to death's door by food poisoning, leaving a war vet and his estranged girlfriend to land the plane.

Airplane is widely considered to be one of the funniest movies ever made. Knowing this, as I watched this movie I felt half-insane for a while. I laughed about 6 or 7 times during this film, and they were all sniggers at best. 6 or 7 laughs must equal about 1 laugh every 13 minutes - which is pretty bad. But, what makes this even worse is that this movie makes about 13 jokes every 30 seconds, which is probably not an understatement. In this regard, you can almost think of Airplane as an experimental film, one that questions if you can successfully bombard an audience with weak jokes for 90 minutes. To many, this experiment must have worked, but, for me... not even nearly.

The sound design is pretty terrible, almost every single joke is an obvious one that falls flat and the narrative as well as acting are (intentionally) awful. Before delving further into this, it has to be said that there are a few clever moments within the script and that this is not an impossible movie to get through. Moreover, there is an interesting approach to story that sees the narrative play out, for the most part, in the background or in an inconspicuous part of the frame. This makes Airplane somewhat unique - especially considering the extreme to which it takes this approach. But, ultimately, none of these elements are very redeeming.

Considering for a moment why I didn't like this film, I'd have to say that I probably saw it too late and that it's just not the kind of comedy I like. In such, if I were 12 or 13, I think this film would be slightly funnier to me. However, intentionally dumb, or 'spoof', movies have never really appealed to me and have grown more and more annoying over the years. This is why I refuse to watch movies like The Room or Birdemic; people go to these movies wanting to laugh at them and at the idea of a terrible movie being made, which is ludicrous and vapid to me. Nonetheless, whereas a film like The Room probably isn't intentionally terrible, Airplane attempts to tap into the same sensibilities within an audience. In such, it doesn't just embrace its dumber side like a film such as Hardcore Henry may.

Airplane means to imitate and embellish bad movie tropes, especially those present in 70s disaster movies, poking fun at cinema itself. I'm not a fan of this because, whilst a movie like Hardcore Henry isn't great and it does embrace a cheesier form of filmmaking, it sustains some sense of genuity. There isn't any of this in Airplane, it's just irony and satire for the sake of it - irony and satire that isn't even smart or witty for the most part. This, however, is a subject we've talked about a few times before. With Aladdin, we touched on an idea of David Foster Wallace's that suggests that postmodern irony has somewhat run its course and simply isn't funny anymore. This is true in Airplane in my opinion as the irony isn't put in place to serve any other purpose than to point at something and snicker with derision. And this leads onto the Lion King post where we discussed lazy and disingenuous writing in many blockbusters such as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Avengers: Age Of Ultron. The ideas raised in that post are relevant to Airplane as there isn't a moment in this movie where you're supposed to take your guard down and genuinely enjoy or invest in characters or situations. In such, if the plane dropped out of the sky in the middle of the narrative, would you care? No, your not supposed to. Every single person on the flight is a mere caricature that you don't care about even slightly. Two good examples of this would be the reoccurring joke where passengers want to commit suicide as they listen to Ted's stories...

... and the sequence in which the guitar unplugs the sick girl's IV and she, for all we know, dies.

What both of these jokes say is that we don't care about any characters inner or physical conflicts; that characterisation doesn't matter at all. Whilst I wouldn't argue that this is the fundamental reason as to why these scenes aren't funny, it is an indicator of the core problem with this movie. The reason why having a lack of characters in a movie isn't implausible all comes down to exploitation.

As we discussed with The Last House On The Left, exploitation films do not have true rounded characters and needn't. In such, the rules or indicators of exploitation are as follows:

1. It is a concept that the exploitation film exploits, one that is fixated on to an extreme. 
2. Characters do not exist in exploitation films; they are caricatures or pawns for audience and filmmaker. 
3. The exploitation film, at its best, is intimate.

The reason why exploitation films are like this is because they appeal to our more calloused and unforgiving nature whilst prodding at our deepest and most visceral fears. In such, and in a certain sense, an exploitation film plays a game with an audience whereby we try to not react to, be horrified or offended by, all the insane and ludicrous things a director/writer may throw at us. The best exploitation films at this, in my opinion, fall into the horror category because horror is often linked to visual imagery; e.g, a monster running at you. Whilst it is true that horror is very much a psychological phenomena, visually inciting those psychological anxieties is much better done with, say for instance, an image of a creepy corridor...

... rather than a description of it. This is because words do not hold the unpredictable and visceral presence that an image accompanied by sound does. After all, when was the last time you were jump-scared by words on a page?

When we apply the same rationale to Airplane, indulging the idea that it too is an exploitation film in respect to our 3 rules, we do not always find the same thing. In such, a lack of characterisation is not always supported by cinematics. We certainly find exploitation comedy to be effective in films such as Jackass:

However, when applied to a narrative, exploitation comedy is nowhere near as successful - as Airplane makes obvious. This all comes down to the fact that comedy as a form of relief and distraction is much more nuanced than horror. This is a subject we discussed when look at this joke from Gervais' Out Of England 2:

I think, without a doubt, that you couldn't film this as a sketch comedy scene. This is simply because a filmmaker never has as much control of an image as a stand-up comedian has over his or her words. So, by acting out this scene, you'd take away the shadows and turns that Gervais casts so that you don't see the little girl as a victim, much rather a concept within a joke of misdirection; a game between the audience and comedian. This, as we had concluded, probably marks the bounds of cinematic comedy. Moreover, this implies that narrative comedy films need characters within them to function well. Without great characters we just get the banal absurdity seen in Airplane:

If this film was to be funny like the skits in Jackass are, it'd need a lot more verisimilitude so that we, just as we do in Jackass, believe that this situation isn't just fake. This realism would reduce the banality of the absurdity, making it striking. However, because Airplane is constantly trying to be a dumb movie, there is no verisimilitude, there is no genuity, just dumb shit.

However, what Airplane ultimate had me considering was comedy films in general. There are many great comedy films such as Groundhog Day, Some Like It Hot, Ghost Busters, The Life Of Brian, The Apartment, The Big Lebowski, His Girl Friday, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, It Happened One Night, Step Brothers - not to mention anything by Chaplin, The Marx Brothers or Buster Keaton. However, when you take away the 'film' aspect of these movies, in other words, when you do not consider them as narratives with intertwining genres and screenwriting tools, and you just consider them as straight comedies... how funny are they? For example, I completely love screwball comedies (It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, Some Like It Hot), but take away the romance, the characters and the story lines, and these films fall pretty flat. What this then says is you go to a film like Some Like it Hot for more than just comedy; for more than just to laugh, instead, to fall in love with characters and enjoy the twist, turns and tropes of a story. This is true of a vast majority of narrative comedies. Exceptions that arise are the non-narrative movies such as mokumentaries like Borat or prank/stunt films such as Jackass - we go to these primarily to laugh, little more. However, we are also left with the films of the Marx brothers and the Monty Python crew, which don't offer much in the story or character department that isn't put there to just make you laugh. These are then the closest examples to a pure cinematic comedy that isn't too muddied by genre and narrative devices that mask how entertaining and funny a movie is. And, as alluded to, this is because films like Duck Soup or A Night At The Opera are straight insanity and slapstick whilst films such as The Life Of Brian and The Holy Grail are predominately satirical and absurd. With these examples of simple, straight comedy, we then have something to compare to other forms of comedy such as stand-up - which do not have narratives and genres in the same respect that most movies do.

What we can now ask is, what is funnier, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Louis C.K, Joey Diaz, Joan Rivers and Bill Burr stand-up specials or The Life Of Brian, Duck Soup, Borat and Jackass?

In a certain sense, I think this is a disingenuous question as it compares two different mediums of comedy - which is, of course, a highly subjective form of storytelling. Nonetheless, it is quite hard to ignore the fact that I will laugh to the point of being in pain for almost an hour straight when watching stand-up specials, and, at best, snigger quite a bit with movies. In such, an absolutely hilarious film to me has me laugh like an idiot in a scene or two. A really good comedy movie has be chuckle every now and then. An ok comedy will just have me smile quite a lot. By questioning what can be funnier, stand-up comedians or movies, I then mean to ask why these standards are lower and why I don't laugh so hard in movies. Is it that figures such as Eddie Murphy, Louis C.K and Richard Pryor are just better on stage than they are in their movies/TV shows? Is it that, as suggested, there are bounds to movie comedy? Or, is it something else?

Whilst I do mean to leave this open to your own interpretation, I think it's a mixture between the idea that there are bounds to movie comedy as well as that 'something else' which is at play. To elaborate, this 'something else' draws us back to exploitation films.

Whilst I'm not a particular fan of these kinds of movies, they do hold a strong capacity to engage our fears as some kind of shock therapy. Comedy has a similar function in that it aids discussions on difficult and taboo subjects. As mentioned, horror is visually as well as psychologically driven - and so it comedy. However, extreme comedy, like that of Borat and Jackass, which utilities the real world as a stage, is not the norm. The average comedy and some of the best, like Airplane allegedly is, are then, in certain senses, the equivalent of classic horror films.

In such, even though the 1931 Frankenstein is a classic and a great film to watch to this day, it certainly isn't scary. This is because it is not explicit enough in regard to visual imagery...

... or psychological themes...

... like the truly horrifying movies are. This isn't to say that comedy films such as Airplane are in their infancy, rather that they aren't explicit and do not engage the two primary elements of comedy (visuals and psychology) like effective horror films do. The question we now resort to is: well, now what then? What do comedy films have to do differently? Become more explicit?

When we look to the likes of Borat and Jackass, the route towards greater verisimilitude and explicitness seems to be the route toward comedic gold. However, do we only want to see extreme mokumentaries, MTV prank shows, teen sex and gross-out comedies? I certainly don't, but maybe some would like to see more of them. And so, to these people I'd urge that they seek out, support and make comedies that push exploitation without being banal and pointlessly absurd. In other words, avoid Airplane and look for better - or don't. Either way, I think I'm fine with how comedy functions in cinema, and so I'll stick with screwball comedies, Chaplin, the Marx brothers and narrative films that admittedly do mot make me laugh as much as the stand-up specials I love, but are nonetheless rife with character and genuine genre elements.

To conclude, I hand things over to you. How funny are movies to you and why? Do you think they could be funnier? How could they do this?

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