REVIEW: Surely You Can’t Be Serious : The True Story of Airplane! by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker
An in-depth and hysterical look at the making of 1980’s comedy classic Airplane! by the legendary writers and directors of the hit film.
Airplane! premiered on July 2nd, 1980. With a budget of $3.5 million it went on to make nearly $200 million in sales and has influenced a multitude of comedians on both sides of the camera.
Surely You Can’t Be Serious is the first-ever oral history of the making of Airplane! by the creators, and of the beginnings of the ZAZ trio (Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker) – charting the rise of their comedy troupe Kentucky Fried Theater in Madison, Wisconsin all the way to premiere day. The directors explain what drew them to filmmaking and in particular, comedy. With anecdotes, behind the scenes trivia, and never-before-revealed factoids – these titans of comedy filmmaking unpack everything from how they persuaded Peter Graves to be in the movie after he thought the script was a piece of garbage, how Lorna Patterson auditioned for the stewardess role in the backseat of Jerry’s Volvo, and how Leslie Nielsen’s pranks got the entire crew into trouble, to who really wrote the jive talk. The book also features testimonials and personal anecdotes from well-known faces in the film, television, and comedy sphere – proving how influential Airplane! has been from day one.
Four decades after its release, Airplane! continues to make new generations laugh. Its many one-liners and visual gags have worked their way into the mainstream culture. This fully organic expansion of the ZAZ trio’s fan-base, prompted solely by word-of-mouth, comes as no surprise to longtime fans. When all around us is in flux – laughter is priceless.
“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.”
This is another book I knew, as soon as I saw it, that I wanted to read. I mean the movie is not only iconic but hilarious and as I watched it after reading this book, I realized the truth of what so many people interviewed for it said – it’s timeless. Other great movies from 40-50 years ago have not aged so well but Airplane! has resisted (for the most part) getting old.
“Get me Rex Kramer!”
Like Ron Shelton’s “The Church of Baseball,” which details the story of “Bull Durham, the book begins with a bit (actually more than a bit) of bio on the three co-creators and then follows them as they move to LA in the early 1970s. Their experience with writing for and appearing in their live comedy sketch show “Kentucky Fried Theater” is crucial to the existence of Airplane!.
“The life of everyone on board depends on just one thing: finding someone back there who not only can fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.”
But their hope began to shift from making a living doing comedy to writing and bringing to life a deadpan humor remake of a little known 1950s film called “Zero Hour!” (complete with exclamation point). So with a naivete that is stunning in retrospect, they wrote a screenplay and began shopping it around. It was so shopped around that someone contacted them about the screenplay and when they asked how this person had read it, they replied they’d found the script on a bus.
“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.”
Years of effort, agony, and hope passed. Necessary connections were made with industry people, the script was rewritten, rewritten again, shopped some more, rewritten, rinse and repeat. Finally Paramount showed interest, more people critical to the film’s existence got behind it, and ZAZ got (in the contract) the right to co-direct it with the proviso (also in the contract) that they could be fired after two weeks of filming if things weren’t going well. After a day or two of filming, the number of people watching the dailies (usually something to be endured rather than enjoyed) was expanding and soon two rooms were needed to allow space for everyone who wanted to see them.
“It’s a damn good thing you don’t know how much he hates your guts.”
But before that came ZAZ’s efforts to get key actors interested in taking part (Leslie Nielson, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges all had to be coaxed into agreeing to be in it) as well as finding the two leads with the needed chemistry, innocence, and “I’m the sane one here” expressions required to carry the dramatic backbone necessary to get film goers invested in the movie. Yes, it’s the drama and the “will they land the plane” that is the hook of the last third of the film.
“Looks like I picked the wrong week to give up amphetamines.”
Other key bits had to be worked out (including staving off a lawsuit from Universal regarding the “sick child on the way for a heart transplant” scenes). The two actors involved worked out and wrote the “jive” dialog and ZAZ were thrilled that Barbara Billingsley agreed to be the white woman in the scene. Frankly I was a bit concerned about this part but Al White and Norman Alexander Gibbs said they enjoyed doing the scene and apparently African American audiences loved it then and now.
“I just wanna tell you both good luck. We’re all counting on you.”
Despite most of the actors finally “getting” the type of delivery that ZAZ wanted (totally straight acting of hilarious lines), a few had to see how well the film played in theaters (with audiences literally clutching their sides and howling with laughter) to realize how good the film is. It revitalized the careers of Bridges, Stack, Graves, and Nielson who then found themselves viewed as comedic actors. It changed how people viewed comedy including several well known actors and writers who tell what an influence it has been on them.
“Looks like I picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue.”
Yet despite telling the story behind a funny film, the book is more informative than funny. Of course I had to rewatch the film after reading the book and now I need to find time to watch it with the trivia track on. It’s been one of my favorites for years and now I know the inside info. B
“Well, I’ll give him another twenty minutes, but that’s it!”