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New book examines the making of the 1980 comedy movie classic 'Airplane!'


I'm about to ask three guys how they made a funny movie 43 years ago that still gets quoted today.


KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: (As Roger) We have clearance, Clarence.

PETER GRAVES: (As Captain Oveur) Roger, Roger. What's our vector, Victor?

LLOYD BRIDGES: (As Steve) Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.

ANN NELSON: (As Hanging Lady) Nervous?

ROBERT HAYS: (As Ted) Yes.

NELSON: (As Hanging Lady) First time?

HAYS: (As Ted) No, I've been nervous lots of times.

LESLIE NIELSEN: (As Dr. Rumack) Can you fly this plane and land it?

HAYS: (As Ted) Surely you can't be serious.

NIELSEN: (As Dr. Rumack) I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.

MARTÍNEZ: "Surely You Can't Be Serious" is the name of a new book by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. It tells the true story of "Airplane!," the film they wrote and directed. At the time, they were total Hollywood outsiders. They'd moved their sketch comedy theater from Wisconsin to LA, and they had a strong cult following there. One thing they do to look for sketch ideas was to leave a video recorder running all night, taping whatever bad late-night TV was on to get material. Here's Jim Abrahams.

JIM ABRAHAMS: In one day, we took a look at what was on our video machine, and there was this movie called "Zero Hour!," which is a 1957 melodrama.


DANA ANDREWS: (As Ted) Both pilots?

GEOFFREY TOONE: (As Dr. Baird) Can you fly this airplane and land it?

ANDREWS: (As Ted) No, not a chance.

ABRAHAMS: It was essentially the story of "Airplane!," about a guy with PTSD who takes off in a plane and has to overcome his demons in order to land the plane. And it was kind of perfect. It was done very straight. There was even a line in zero hour that said...


TOONE: (As Dr. Baird) The life of everybody aboard depends on just one thing, finding someone back there who not only can fly this plane but who didn't have fish for dinner.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

ABRAHAMS: And that was like a gift from the gods.

DAVID ZUCKER: Oh, yeah. When Lloyd Bridges says looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking, that was right from "Zero Hour!" That was our kickoff, our setup line. And then we, of course, wrote the three lines after that.


BRIDGES: (As Steve) Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue (sniffing).

JERRY ZUCKER: And the whole idea of the kid in the cockpit.


ZUCKER: Joey, have you ever been in a cockpit before?


ROSSIE HARRIS: (As Joey) No, sir. I've never been up in a plane before.

GRAVES: (As Captain Oveur) Have you ever seen a grown man naked?

ZUCKER: Could be half the lines in the movie had setups from other movies.

MARTÍNEZ: So Jerry, when all three of you decide, we want to do this, we want to make this film, what was the sell process like to be able to get a studio to say, OK, this is something that we're on board with?

ZUCKER: Oh, it was terrible and perfect in a way because, you know, we just thought, our first draft of the script, hey, this is great. Let's go out and sell this thing. And of course, someone's going to think it's just as brilliant as we think it is. And that just didn't happen for a long time, so we just kept rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.

MARTÍNEZ: But, Jim, what was wrong with the script that you needed to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite?

ABRAHAMS: Well, I think, at the beginning, we knew about writing jokes, but we never knew about storytelling. And once we got to Paramount, they were actually very helpful.

ZUCKER: Paramount assigned to us a guy named Tom Perry from their story department. And Tom Perry said, make jokes, plot points and plot points jokes. And we've always taken that to heart ever since.

MARTÍNEZ: So you got this script, then, full of jokes, but you get actors who aren't known for telling jokes, who aren't comedians. How did those two things work?

ZUCKER: That was always our vision. I mean, that was the thing when we were writing it that always made us laugh is the idea of Robert Stack saying these lines.


ROBERT STACK: (As Captain Kramer) Striker, you listen, and you listen close. Flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle, just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes.

ZUCKER: When we started working with these guys, we said, don't play it straight. Act as though you don't know you're in a comedy. You have to play naive to it. And for us, that's the humor of the film.


NIELSEN: (As Dr. Rumack) Captain, how soon can you land?

GRAVES: (As Captain Oveur) I can't tell.

NIELSEN: (As Dr. Rumack) You can tell me, I'm a doctor.

GRAVES: (As Captain Oveur) No, I mean I'm just not sure.

NIELSEN: (As Dr. Rumack) Well, can't you take a guess?

GRAVES: (As Captain Oveur) Well, not for another two hours.

NIELSEN: (As Dr. Rumack) You can't take a guess for another two hours?

MARTÍNEZ: Now, OK, there's a scene in "Airplane!" And in the book, you talk about going to see "Airplane!" with an audience that's primarily Black. And the scene I'm talking about is the two men that are jive talking. And then Barbara Billingsley, who is June Cleaver, as you describe in the book, the whitest woman you could imagine...


AL WHITE: (As Second Jive Dude) This mofo butter laying me to the bone, jacking me up. Tight me.

LORNA PATTERSON: (As Randy) I'm sorry, I don't understand.

NORMAN ALEXANDER GIBBS: (As First Jive Dude) Cutter say he can't hang.

BARBARA BILLINGSLEY: (As Jive Lady) Oh, stewardess, I speak jive.

PATTERSON: (As Randy) Oh, good.

ABRAHAMS: I remember being just a little bit apprehensive when that scene came up. And to be honest, they laughed harder than anybody, I think.


BILLINGSLEY: (As Jive Lady) Just hang loose, blood. She gonna catch you up on the rebound on the med side.

WHITE: (As Second Jive Dude) What it is, big mama? My mama didn't raise no dummies. I dug her rap.

BILLINGSLEY: (As Jive Lady) Cut me some slack, Jack.

ABRAHAMS: Our intention from the beginning was to subtitle the Black guys with stupid white guy interpretations. And I think that comes across. And maybe, perhaps, if we don't get too serious, it kind of speaks to 400 years of white ignorance...


ABRAHAMS: ...To the Black experience in the United States.

ZUCKER: And the Black jive came about very organically because we all went to see "Shaft," and we loved it. But as we were leaving the theater, we said it was hard to understand what they were saying.


ZUCKER: We were making a joke on ourselves in a way...

ZUCKER: Right.

ZUCKER: That we were kind of out of it.

MARTÍNEZ: So I got Roger Ebert's 1980 review of "Airplane!" Three stars. He wrote...


MARTÍNEZ: This sort of humor went out with Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis and knock-knock jokes. That's why it's so funny. Movie comedies these days are so hung up on being contemporary, radical, outspoken, and cynically satirical that they sometimes forget to be funny. That's 1980. Are we in one of those periods now where comedies forget to be funny, Jerry?

ZUCKER: Yeah, I think we're kind of always in that to some extent, but then there are always some wonderful exceptions. You know, when we started doing the theater in Wisconsin, it was right at the end of the Vietnam War protests. And we were tired of politics. And actually, we got - in Madison, Wis., we got a bad review or two because we weren't political. And reviewers were kind of outraged by that, but the audience loved it.

ABRAHAMS: We have this internal discussion among the three of us about whether what "Airplane!" is is parody or satire. And I've always taken the position it's very - we don't aim for anything higher than you don't have to take this seriously. And I think this is a good message for all of us forever. If we can laugh at the fact that we took something seriously, that's really therapeutic.

MARTÍNEZ: David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. Their new book is "Surely You Can't Be Serious: The True Story Of Airplane!" Thanks for being here. Thank you very much.

ZUCKER: Thank you, A.

ZUCKER: Sure, it was wonderful.

ZUCKER: This was fun.

ABRAHAMS: Thank you.


BEE GEES: (Singing) Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk I'm a woman's... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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