Top-flight comedy from disaster spoof

A classic of its type, 'Airplane' surely isn't serious.
A classic of its type, 'Airplane' surely isn't serious.

Now that we’re well embarked on the seemingly endlessly bleak month of January, a good laughter hit doesn’t go amiss. So one word - ‘Airplane’.

For those in need of an easy endorphine fix, this 1980 comedy should fit the bill; if it was coffee it would be espresso - an intense dose of comedy that delivers a sharp punch to the senses with fast-paced dialogue, slapstick and sight gags.

It’s also a wittily observed satire of the epic disaster films that seemed to proliferate in the mid-1970s. Based loosely on ‘Airport 1975’, the basic premise is that a passenger jet on a routine internal flight is left pilotless after the flight crew comes down with food poisoning.

Ted Striker (Robert Hays), a traumatised combat pilot, is aboard to try to win back his girlfriend, flight attendant Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty). As the only passenger with experience, Ted has to overcome his fear of flying to pilot the plane as well as confront his resentment of former comrade Captain Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) who has been called in to talk him down.

The comedy comes thick and fast, consisting mainly of set-pieces with pun-filled dialogue and top-notch delivery from a great cast. It launched the comedy career of Leslie Nielsen, whose deadpan portrayal of Dr Rumack is one of the highlights of the movie; when asked at one point “Surely you can’t be serious?”, his curt response of “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley” has since entered the collective consciousness.

It led to Nielsen’s long-running role in ‘Police Squad’ and the spin-off ‘Naked Gun’ franchise produced by the same team of Jim Abraham, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker and allowed him to show a hidden side to his talents. Along with co-stars Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, Nielsen had been known exclusively for dramatic roles and the three of them are pitch-perfect. No matter how often you’ve seen it, you always seem to spot something new that elicits a laugh out loud response.