Hollywood Execs Thought Airplane Might Be Too Controversial to Re-release
Every major Hollywood studio has gone woke. And that meant that movies and TV shows made in a freer time are being retroactively censored or denounced. Even the Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park had to bend the knee to some elements of wokeness despite some resistance. And any older movies are treated as potentially horrifying hate crimes requiring urgent trigger warnings.
While HBO Max pulled and then restored “Gone With the Wind” over its "racial prejudices" complete with a disclaimer lecture, and Turner Classic Movies, owned by Warner Bros, launched a series condemning classic movies like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (Mickey Rooney's buck teeth), "My Fair Lady" (misogyny), and "Psycho" (transphobia)...
So Paramount getting nervous over Airplane! should have come as no surprise, as David Zucker notes.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the release of Airplane!, the comedy I wrote and directed with my brother Jerry and our friend Jim Abrahams. Just before the world shut down, Paramount held a screening at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, followed by a Q&A in which an audience member asked a question we never used to receive: “Could you make Airplane! today?” My response: “Of course, we could. Just without the jokes.”
Although people tell me that they love Airplane! and it seems to be included on just about every Top Five movie-comedy list, there was talk at Paramount of withholding the rerelease over feared backlash for scenes that today would be deemed “insensitive.”
I suspect there's no rerelease being planned for The Kentucky Fried Movie. Airplane! was youth culture for its time. Major Hollywood players allowed a bunch of kids to make a parody of a classic film and cast a bunch of seasoned actors in it without really understanding what they were doing. Studio execs, as Zucker notes, stepped back and let them have fun on the theory that it would appeal to younger audiences.
By contrast, in 1979, Michael Eisner, then the president of Paramount, didn’t feel that he had to censor, take apart, or micromanage the jokes in the Airplane! script, even the ones he didn’t understand. Eisner somehow knew that comedy requires a certain amount of recklessness and that comedy writers and directors need to experiment until they hit that perfect note where a joke can illuminate uncomfortable subjects by giving us permission to laugh at them.
But these days younger audiences are seen as in need of coddling and that reckless jokes are dangerous. The chaotic comedy of Airplane! is too unsafe.
Many of today’s studio executives seem to believe that audiences can no longer look past the literal interpretations of jokes. Fear of backlash rather than the desire to entertain seems to be driving their choices.
More accurately the issue is that every joke and every utterance is tested, compared to appropriate and inappropriate language codes, and viewed entirely through a political lens leaving little room for any kind of comedy that doesn't serve a political purpose.
Call it Soviet comedy.
I probably would not have been able to achieve success as a comedy writer if I were starting out today. Airplane! would probably not have been made, and Police Squad! (the ABC sitcom that was the root of the Naked Gun movies) would have been cancelled after two episodes instead of six. When gatekeepers who have the ability to fund, make, and champion comedy projects start to cater to 9-Percenters, we find ourselves in a world where comedy is censored, 9-Percenters are empowered, and the 91 percent of the population that gets the jokes feels reluctant to laugh.
The root of the problem is a loss of trust. Comedy is ultimately about trust.
An added element I would argue is tension relief. And the people who oppose tension relief, who believe that anything that relieves tension undermines a political agenda that requires tension don't want people to have the option to just laugh.