Earlier this month marked the release of a captivating behind-the-scenes book chronicling the journey of the iconic film, “Airplane!” I don’t typically engage in book reviews, but my recent experience with the audiobook version of “Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True Story of Airplane!” was nothing short of extraordinary. It ranks among the funniest and most enthralling listening experiences I’ve encountered.
While I can only imagine the brilliance of the print edition, nothing quite rivals the sheer delight of hearing the narrative recounted by the masterminds themselves – Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. Their tale encapsulates their shared passion for comedy and filmmaking, seamlessly interwoven with the creation of “Airplane!” The book offers a treasure trove of anecdotes from the cast, crew, and studio executives, along with accolades from fellow comedians and actors, providing a rich tapestry of the film’s evolution behind the scenes.
Over the years, I’d come across tidbits of these stories, such as the hesitations of devout Christian Peter Graves concerning the eccentricity of his character, Capt. Oveur. However, “Surely You Can’t Be Serious” brims with captivating and comical narratives, revealing how Abrahams and the Zuckers successfully cast dramatic actors like Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, and Lloyd Bridges in roles that defied their usual gravitas.
The directors’ ingenious counsel to their stars, urging them to deliver lines as if their characters were oblivious to the comedic chaos around them, forms the bedrock of the film’s appeal. The roster of actors that studios and producers aspired to cast but ultimately didn’t is an intriguing chapter. The likes of Barry Manilow, Dom DeLuise, and even Bruce Jenner were considered. Abrahams even humorously claims that Jenner offered to audition for the roles of Ted Striker and Elaine Dickinson, though one can’t be entirely certain if he delivered this line with a deadpan tone or seriousness.
The influence of studio executives like Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, as well as producers such as Howard Koch, emerges as a source of inspiration. These individuals championed the team, going to great lengths to bring “Airplane!” to life on the big screen.
The creative brilliance displayed by the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team, particularly in sidestepping plagiarism issues regarding “Zero Hour!” – the movie that inspired “Airplane!” – is a testament to their ingenuity. Equally remarkable is the creative freedom they granted actors Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White to develop the iconic “jive” dialogue and their efforts in teaching Barbara Billingsley how to “speak jive.”
Music also played a pivotal role in elevating the film’s comedic brilliance. Renowned composer Elmer Bernstein, celebrated for his iconic scores in “serious” movies, astutely comprehended the vision of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team. His score infuses “Airplane!” with the dramatic tension and gravitas that underpin its comedic brilliance.
The Bee Gees’ consent to accelerate “Stayin’ Alive” for the disco scene, a fact that had previously eluded me, along with Peter Yarrow’s admission of regret for permitting the use of “River of Jordan” during the scene in which Randy (Lorna Patterson) serenades the ailing girl, provide insight into the role of music in shaping the film’s greatness.
Nonetheless, the most valuable facet of “Surely You Can’t Be Serious” lies in the filmmakers’ in-depth discussions about the development of their comedy philosophy. Their “15 Rules of Comedy” exude brilliance, and their explanation of the dynamics that render their style of humor effective is nothing short of invaluable.
“Surely You Can’t Be Serious” is an absolute must-read for comedy enthusiasts, aficionados of behind-the-scenes accounts, and, naturally, anyone who enjoys the unparalleled charm of watching “Airplane!” repeatedly. No proficiency in speaking ‘jive’ is required to relish its humor and wit.