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’m referring to scenes like the one in which two black characters speak entirely in a jive dialect so unintelligible that it has to be subtitled. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said to me, “You couldn’t do that scene today.” But I always wonder, why not? Half the gags in that joke were aimed at white people, given that the translation for “Shit” is “Golly!”—and the whole gag is topped off by the whitest lady on the planet, the actress who played the mom on Leave It to Beaver, translating.
The bit was evenhanded because we made fun of both points of view. No one ended up being offended by that scene, and all audiences loved it. They still do. But in today’s market, if I pitched a studio executive a comedy in which a white lady has to translate the speech of black people; in which an eight-year-old girl says, “I like my coffee black, like my men”; or an airline pilot makes sexual suggestions to a little boy (“Billy, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”), I’d be told, in Studioese, “That’s just fantastically great! We’ll call you.”
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.
Today, we’re faced with social and political pressures that are tearing our country and our families apart. Not that I couldn’t do without some family members anyway, but the point is, we live in the most outrageous period in our recent history, when the need for humor is greatest, and yet we seem to be losing our ability to laugh at ourselves and our world.
HUMOR happens when you go against what’s expected and surprise people with something they’re not anticipating, like the New York Jets winning a game. But to find this surprise funny, people have to be willing to suppress the literal interpretations of jokes. In Airplane!, Lloyd Bridges’s character tries to quit smoking, drinking, amphetamines, and sniffing glue. If his “addictions” were to be taken literally, there would be no laughs. 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.
I admit that their fear of audience retaliation is not entirely unwarranted. There is a very vocal, though I believe small, percentage of the population that can’t differentiate between Glue Sniffing Joke and Glue Sniffing Drug Problem. It is these people whom studio executives fear when they think twice about rereleasing Airplane! on its 40th anniversary, when they put disclaimers in front of Blazing Saddles, or when they pressure writers to remove jokes that are otherwise perfectly offensive. As a result of these fear-based decisions, some of the best contemporary comedy minds are abandoning laughter in favor of admittedly brilliant but serious projects such as Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, and Chernobyl, written by Craig Mazin. These men collaborated on two of the Hangover pictures, which struck gold at the box office. Phillips summed up the general plight of the comedy writer when he said, “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it. So, you just go, ‘I’m out.’”
Some people look at the mass exodus of comedy writers and proclaim that comedy must be dead. That’s not true. Comedy is not dead. It’s scared. And when something is scared, it goes into hiding. I do admire those comedy writers who can pour their creativity and talents into non-humorous projects. Unlike my peers, who can channel their rage into more socially acceptable psychological projects, I have no marketable skills aside from crafting jokes. As a teenager, I was fired on my second day on a job as a store clerk at a pharmacy because I couldn’t do the very two things that the job required: making change and finding things.
This is still a problem. My life would be much simpler if I, too, had the ability to turn away from comedy during these dangerous times. But then I wouldn’t have any place to turn to. For me, comedy isn’t an occupation. I don’t punch a clock to be “on” and punch out at the end of a workday. For whatever reason, it’s the way I live. The most ridiculous path is the one I choose, intentionally or not.
Frank Drebin, the detective played by Leslie Nielsen in the Naked Gun movies, is not some made-up character. He is me. I’m the guy who ran out of electricity in my experimental electric car 30 years ago with a newspaper reporter in the passenger seat. I stopped the car at a motel and plugged it into the nearest outside outlet, which immediately blacked out the entire building. Angry residents poured out, yelling. It made for an interesting Los Angeles Times story the next day.
I’m the guy who, on a soundstage, yelled, “Who’s blocking the camera?! I can’t see what’s on the monitor!” The assistant director replied, “It’s you, sir, you’re standing in front of the lens.” And I’m the guy who, on the same stage at Paramount, tried to find the men’s room through the maze of movie sets, went out the wrong door, and found myself locked out on Melrose Avenue. I was forced to reenter the studio gates with a tour group, while the entire production wondered what had become of its director.
Circumstances like these are a daily occurrence in my life, not only because I’m naturally inept, but also because somehow, abnormal seems to find me. During the great pandemic of 2020, I managed to quarantine with my ex-wife’s current boyfriend, my ex-girlfriend who teaches meditation, the guitarist for the ’80s rock band Ratt, and the reigning Miss Utah USA. My life could easily be a sitcom, except no one would believe it.
Perhaps I attract these situations to myself because I’m a middle child and need constant attention, or maybe it’s because I’m a perpetually frustrated person who’s annoyed and bored by the dullness that everyone else seems to tolerate so easily. I have a rage against mildness, against playing it safe, against political correctness. And to make matters worse, I’ve never been afraid of saying outrageous things, in private or in public. Jokes are my defense against normalcy, and as a comedy writer, if I’m not teetering on the edge of offending someone, then I’m not doing my job. Because I know that people get themselves stuck in a rut when they take things too seriously.
On the other hand, when we’re willing to lean into comedy, it has the power to shake us out of our complacency.
The fact that my movies are apparently loved, referenced, and quoted by so many people after all these decades tells me that maybe I’m not the only one who enjoys shaking things up. I think maybe secretly we’re all a little bored by our lives. Without boredom and anger, would there even be comedy? I also have a hard time censoring or toning down my jokes. They are equally tasteless whether I’m telling them to a theater filled with hundreds of people or to my own kids in the privacy of our home. In 2014, when my son, Charles, then a 14-year-old, wanted to attend a party unsupervised, my wife wanted to know whether there would be parents present. “You’re not going to take drugs or drink alcohol, right?” she asked. “You know, there’s going to be peer pressure.”
I couldn’t help myself. I jumped in immediately. “Charles, for example, you’re at this party and everyone is sucking d—k. What are you going to do? You have to resist the temptation.”
Charles laughed. His mom shook her head. And I found a way to not be bored.
I’m an equal-opportunity offender and usually nothing is off-limits, even my daughter, Sarah. About five years ago, when she was 13, I was driving her and three of her girlfriends back from the mall as they whispered about boys and giggled in the back seat, oblivious to the fact that I was right there, hearing every word. I finally had enough. “Let me tell you something about boys,” I interrupted. They fell silent, listening for the words of wisdom. “Boys are only interested in your brains,” I said. “You have to remind them that you have a body, too.”
They giggled all the way home, after which one of the girls asked Sarah, “Did your dad really mean to say that?” Sarah nodded. She was used to it. Today’s parents might be appalled to hear someone talk with their kids the way I do. I don’t censor jokes even for my own children, because I know that comedy is supposed to be risky. As my alter-ego Frank Drebin famously said, “you take a risk getting out of bed in the morning, crossing the street, or sticking your face in a fan.”
But in a 2021 world that penalizes joke tellers for taking risks, fearlessness can be a liability and, sadly, damaging to careers, unless you’re Carrot Top. I am a longtime environmentalist, and I’ve been a TreePeople board member for over 30 years. In the fall of 2018, at the height of the #MeToo movement, I was asked to present an award at our annual Harvest Moon Dinner. Before I went on stage, I was handed a short speech sprinkled with a few lame jokes that I figured would be more embarrassing than what I actually said.
“Um…they asked me to present this award,” I began, “because they figured I was a safe choice. You’re not going see 20 women coming forward to accuse me of sexual harassment. I mean, there’s a half dozen young boys, but they’re all lying!” The next morning, the headline of the Hollywood Reporter story read, “‘Airplane!’ Director David Zucker Jokes That Women ‘Aren’t Coming Forward’ to Accuse Him of Sexual Assault.” The irony was that I was in the middle of a lawsuit in which a business associate of mine had been accused of sexual harassment. The headline that read “‘Airplane’ Director Hit with Sex Harassment Suit” left out that the accusers’ complaint was against the business associate, and that they had expressed appreciation and gratitude for my mentoring. But again, I found myself doing what Frank Drebin would do, obliviously joking about sexual harassment in the middle of a sexual-harassment lawsuit.
As a result of that speech, my own agent and manager now hesitate to put me on a stage because they fear what I might say. I don’t blame them. They’re only looking out for my best interests, which is more than I ever did. In the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers, Harpo is running with a football, throwing banana peels over his shoulder to trip up his pursuers. Except before he crosses the goal line, Harpo throws a peel in front of himself, and he slips just short of the goal. I’m always tempted to throw the banana peel in front of myself. I figure if it gets a laugh, who cares about scoring?
The truth is, I still don’t fully understand why there’s a problem with making a joke that gets a laugh from an audience, even if it is mildly offensive. Why cater to the minority who are outraged when most people still seem to have a desire to laugh? Is there a way to determine what exact number of America’s population is killing joy for everyone? Is it 1 percent or 10; 3.3 million Americans or 33 million? Since I can’t seem to find one, let’s go with Phillips’s estimation of “30 million people on Twitter,” which computes to roughly 9 percent of America’s population.
What I often wonder is, why do studio executives feel as if they have to cater to these 9-Percenters? In all fairness, 9-Percenters are not a new segment of society. Historically, they’ve always lived among us. The difference between now and then, however, is that social media amplifies the voices of even the smallest subgroups while the anonymity of the Internet removes all consequences. This means that today’s 9-Percenters can hide behind screens and social-media handles as they attack any person on the Internet whose jokes offend them. The 9-Percenters of 40 years ago had to think twice about what they were sharing publicly, because at the end of the day, they had to sign their names to their reactions. Without this type of accountability, it’s all too easy for today’s 9-Percenters to attack and shame comedy writers into giving up on the genre.
COMEDY cannot thrive in a state of fear. For me, as for many comedians, the need to get laughs is greater than the risk of getting hurt. This doesn’t mean that funny people have a higher tolerance for pain or that they aren’t affected by what others say about them. On the contrary, people in comedy spend much of their time beating themselves up over the jokes that didn’t land or were taken seriously. What most 9-Percenters don’t realize is that comedians often don’t need to be shamed into feeling insecure and worthless. In a profession where feeling exposed and vulnerable is part of the job, insecurity is an occupational hazard—like arthritis for guitar players or adultery for politicians.
It’s no wonder most comedians battle depression. To a comedy writer, nothing is more important, more terrifying, and more dangerous than the desire to make audiences laugh. We throw banana peels and sometimes even grenades in front of ourselves, because there is no greater pleasure than hearing a room of people set aside their differences and laugh together.
Still, even though I love nothing more than jokes, and there is nothing else I’m qualified to do, 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. The TreePeople audience laughed at my joke because they trusted that I hadn’t actually molested young boys. My kids laughed at my jokes because they love me, and they know they’ll be beaten senseless if they don’t. Without trust, audiences begin to question the intentions behind every joke, they take jokes literally, and they use their collective voices to bully comedians and pressure studios against taking any comedic risk.
Recently, I went out with my newest script, a spoof of the international-spy-thriller genre, featuring a terrific female character. In talking about her training, she says, “I turned myself into a killing machine, had a breast reduction to fit into the Kevlar vest.” Talk about a mild joke. This one’s pure oatmeal, but it raised red flags among the super-timid. One of the executives who read it at the studio gave feedback, saying she was “not sure if that kind of comedy will work in the marketplace.” If I had been required to submit to this kind of abject cowardice on Airplane!, Julie Haggerty would never have uttered the line to Bob Hays, “I remember when I used to sit on your face and wriggle,” or gone on to blow up a blow-up doll in, shall we say, a compromising position. Yet this is how decisions about filmmakers’ destinies are made today.
We are in a comedy emergency. If we continue on this path, no first responders will be able to help us. Humor will be reduced to five-second, anonymous memes on the Internet, and movie comedy will be reduced to pablum. Oh, wait. That’s where we are now.
Comedy needs to come out of hiding, so that by the time Airplane! turns 50, there will be contemporary comedies to rival it. But how? Well, being a typical, angry comedy guy, my immediate instinct is to kill the 9-Percenters one by one. More practically though, we can weaponize our sense of humor and laugh so hard that we shake awake the soul of our country and realize that we are all one human race, united in laughter.
Of course, I don’t really believe that. It’s easier just to kill them.
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