Surely You Can’t Be Serious–Comedy trio recounts making one of the funniest movies ever

Review by C.J. Bunce

I sat down and read this one straight through and went to bed at 3:25 a.m.  In my view there is nobody who understands comedy in the history of comedy better than the late David Brenner and Harold Ramis.  Three came close.  In the 1970s three boys from Wisconsin got their acts together and delivered a giant joke to the world, timed exactly right, tied up in a neat little box called a movie.  The movie was Airplane!  The guys were David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker.  And their new book is called Surely You Can’t Be Serious–The True Story of Airplane!  It’s available for pre-order now here at Amazon, arriving in bookstores next week.  It’s a gut-buster of a book, complete with insight into the ZAZ brand of humor, and how they got some of Hollywood’s biggest straight-arrow actors to poke fun at themselves in their one-of-a-kind parody of the Dana Andrews movie Zero Hour!  The funniest page is their recount of executive producer Howard W. Koch stepping in to show them how to make fake… shit… and throw it at a fan.

From how to successfully use exclamation points in movie titles to making your own live comedy shop, the book is a giant interview with the three directors of Airplane! recounting how the celebrated American Film Institute entry was made, and the events that led to them leaving Wisconsin for Los Angeles to be funny for a living.

As authors they include all the key players, from recent and old interviews.  That’s Robert “Bob” Stack explaining to Lloyd Bridges why he had to play the scenes straight, to Bridges’ sons Jeff and Beau discussing the movie’s role in their dad’s career, to Leslie Nielsen actually being so funny in real life that he always kept a fart machine in his pocket on the movie set, to Peter Graves coming to terms with a character like he’d never played before.

If you ever thought Airplane! sure seemed a lot like Zero Hour!, it’s because the writers bought the rights to Zero Hour! at the nudging of a lawyer–since their script would otherwise be plagiarism, incorporating actual re-creations of scenes and lifting dialogue straight from Arthur Hailey’s script for the 1957 movie.

The book is also a history of Kentucky Fried Theater and Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker’s Kentucky Fried Movie, a comedy shop they created and spun off into the movie that allowed John Landis to land the gig as director of National Lampoon’s Animal House.

Why wasn’t it funny that someone shot an arrow across one scene into a wall, and another time a watermelon fell out of nowhere?  They dissect their movie in their own attempts to understand comedy–skills to be used later in the short-lived Police Squad! series, and and humor that would continue in Top Secret!, Hot Shots! (more exclamation points!) and in The Naked Gun movies (and inspire others’ projects, like the Angie Tribeca TV series.

How do you get Leave it to Beaver’s mom Barbara Billingsley to talk jive in your movie, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar to make fun of his own career on camera?  Apparently you just ask.  Who was Stephen Stucker and why did he keep popping up in the air traffic tower?  That’s a good story, too.

Along with what happened, the book has a lot of what didn’t happen.  That’s Shelley Long or Sigourney Weaver starring as Elaine instead of Julie Hagerty, or Bruce Jenner or Barry Manilow starring as Ted Striker instead of Robert Hays.

What the book doesn’t need are the little sidebars along the way from primarily B-level comedians talking about why they liked the movie.  It’s fluff this book doesn’t need because it’s a classic already.  But readers can just skip that part, along with a little too much reminiscing about what stood for funny in the school and college circuit of 1970s Madison, Wisconsin.  But at 352 pages there’s room for plenty of funny anecdotes and recollections.  It arrives in hardcover with a book jacket, and it’s stuffed with black and white movie clips and all the best dialogue from the film.

Forty-three years later and it’s still funny.  Don’t miss Surely You Can’t Be Serious–The True Story of Airplane!  An unorthodox account of an unusual movie, available for pre-order now here at Amazon, arriving in bookstores next week.

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