The Jewish Team Behind ‘Airplane!’ Explains How it Got Off the Ground

From left: Writers and directors Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker attend the 30th-anniversary screening of “Airplane!” at the Walter Reade Theater on Aug. 9, 2010, in New York City. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images via

Lenny Picker

Growing up in Milwaukee in the 1950s, brothers David and Jerry Zucker entertained themselves by performing skits for their family during Chanukah parties. In a recent conversation, David Zucker downplayed the skits’ significance, noting that they were “really just pre-9-year-old stuff,” but the younger Jerry Zucker had fonder memories of their performances.

“I’m not sure that the skits we were performing in our living room had a lot to do with Chanukah — it was just wanting to get up in front of an audience,” Jerry Zucker said. “It was great because that’s the last time we didn’t need to be funny, and everybody laughed.”
More than 60 years later, the Zucker brothers, along with their friend Jim Abrahams, have entertained a much larger audience than just their relatives. Millions worldwide have embraced their anything-for-a-laugh approach to spoofing movie genres and cliches, exemplified in 1980’s “Airplane!,” a side-splitting lampoon of the disaster movies that Hollywood had churned out in the prior decade, such as “The Towering Inferno” and “Airport.”

“Airplane!” was not only a critical success and an influence on legions of comedians including David Letterman and “Weird Al” Yankovic but a commercial one: Paramount Pictures, which gambled on three first-time directors to the tune of $3.5 million, netted hundreds of millions of dollars from the film’s worldwide release. In 2010, “Airplane!” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, along with “All the President’s Men” and “The Empire Strikes Back.”

The unusual, and far-from-inevitable, path they took toward a place in cinematic legend is explored in depth in their oral history “Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True Story of ‘Airplane!,’” published in October.

It explores their career arc in depth, through their recollections and those of their friends and professional colleagues, focusing on the movie’s turbulent journey from idea to reality. After college, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker founded Kentucky Fried Theater, a sketch comedy group in Madison, Wisconsin, that often mocked commercials they’d discovered by recording late-night movies. One night, they stumbled on “Zero Hour!”, a 1957 melodrama in which the pilots of a passenger jet fall ill from food poisoning, leaving the fate of everyone onboard in the hands of a Canadian Air Force veteran who hadn’t flown since World War II.

That find inspired “Airplane!”, a parody that used the plot elements of “Zero Hour!” (and even some dialogue, including the immortal sentence, “We need to find someone back there who not only can fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.”) while playing its premise for laughs, and stuffing the film with puns and visual gags. Their approach was novel — employing stolid actors, such as Peter Graves, Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen, not known for their comedic chops, to deadpan outrageous dialogue — and proved an obstacle in getting the studios to understand it.

That approach to humor was a legacy from the Zuckers’ father, Burton, a commercial real estate owner and developer, and an active member of many Jewish organizations in Milwaukee, including the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, the U.W. Hillel Foundation in Madison and the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. David Zucker recalled that his dad “didn’t tell jokes, but he would say funny, dry, humorous things with a straight face,” which David Zucker considered to be the antecedent to Nielsen adopting that same approach in portraying Dr. Rumack in the film. In the book, Abrahams praises Nielsen for perfecting “the art of pretending he had no clue he was in a comedy.” Playing Rumack revived Nielsen’s career, and the role featured his often-repeated response to the quote incorporated in the book’s title, “Surely you can’t be serious”: “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”

While the Zuckers and Abrahams sought to have their jokes and humor appeal to a wide audience, they also included throwaway references for their own amusement, including ones inspired by their Jewish upbringing. For instance, when a passenger asks a flight attendant for some light reading, she is offered a leaflet, “Famous Jewish Sports Legends.” That was one of Abrahams’ favorite jokes in the film.

“Here we were three Jewish guys who were sub-mediocre athletes on our best days, making fun of Jews being poor athletes,” he recalls in the book.

In one of the film’s countless sight gags, Air Israel’s aircraft is adorned with a kippah, tallit, payes and a robust beard. Such shoutouts to their heritage also appear in some of their other films: 1977’s “Kentucky Fried Movie,” a sketch film that they wrote, featured an ad for Sanhedrin, a headache remedy that took its name from the Talmudic-era rabbinic court, as well as the use of a spirited rendition of “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem” in two scenes, one a torrid sex scene, and the other a satire of Kung Fu movies. In their 1984 espionage spoof “Top Secret!”, which they wrote and directed, an imprisoned scientist played by Val Kilmer is stunned when his captors demand he complete a deadly weapon by “Sunday.”

“Sunday?” responds the Nordic-looking Kilmer. “But that’s Simchas Torah!”

The trio was also working in a tradition of show business satire whose best-known practitioners were Jewish. Mel Brooks, who wrote parodies of classic Hollywood movies for Sid Caesar’s shows, hit box office gold in the 1970s with films sending up the cliches of the Hollywood Western, horror films and Hitchcock movies. Mad Magazine, whose masthead was predominantly Jewish, was famous for its movie parodies. In his 1966 film “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?”, Woody Allen took an actual Japanese spy movie and redubbed it in English, turning it into a spoof about the search for the world’s best chicken salad recipe.

Columbia University professor Jeremy Dauber, in a biography of Brooks, calls such parodies “nothing less than the essential statement of American Jewish tension between them and us, culturally speaking; between affection for the mainstream and alienation from it.”

The team known as “ZAZ” describe how they adapted a script from a 1950s B-movie to create a joke-filled lampoon of the disaster movie genre.
St. Martin’s Press via

Does the “Airplane!” crew think there is something particularly Jewish about their brand of humor? “I would say there is, in the sense that Jews have always had a sense of humor,” Jerry Zucker said. “They’ve had to have a sense of humor because there was such a long history of persecution.”

Abrahams said he was less certain, commenting that while “the heart of our humor is that you’re better off not taking a lot of things seriously, I don’t think that’s a particularly unique Jewish point-of-view.”

All three recalled using humor to get through sometimes long family Passover seders. When Abrahams shared that he’d “always related most to the simple child [of the Haggadah], seeing things through his eyes,” Jerry Zucker quipped, “Fortunately for Jim, David and I had wisdom, so, you know, things worked out.”

Today, the trio have different connections to their religion. David Zucker, who’s traveled to Israel, is the most observant, attending Shabbat Zoom services faithfully and studying Torah “as taught by Dennis Prager,” the conservative talk show host who started off as a Jewish educator. His general love of history led him to record his grandmother Sarah’s memories of her life in the small village of Hinkovitz in what is now Slovakia, which yielded his previous book, “Before the Invention of Smiling: The Incredible Journey of the Zucker Family from Horse & Buggy to Indoor Plumbing.”

Jerry Zucker, after joking that he’d joined a devil worship cult, shared that he’s proud of his heritage, and considers himself “very culturally Jewish,” but not religiously observant. Abrahams celebrates Passover and fasts on Yom Kippur. He credits the Judaism his parents practiced with teaching him to count his blessings and to feel responsible for giving something back to the world.

The three discounted any attempt to imbue the enduring popularity of “Airplane!” with any deeper meaning. David Zucker and Abrahams agreed with Jerry Zucker’s observation in the book that, “We all take ourselves too seriously.” David Zucker commented that, “I wouldn’t go for any deep social meaning other than we saw these movies, they were really serious, and we could make jokes.”

Abrahams concurred. “Life is much easier,” he said, “if you don’t take seriously all the stuff we do take seriously.”


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