With the release of the most recent spoof movie Fifty Shades of Black we’ve written a bit around here about why the spoof genre may be dying before our eyes. While that would be a tragedy, the good news is that we will always have the great spoofs to go back to when we’re in need of great comedy. The original Zucker Brothers masterpiece Airplane! is one of those movies. The parody of great disaster movies was actually one of the first of its kind. The idea was so new that the studio considered firing the three filmmakers from the film after the first week. However, one joke helped the studio understand what the directors were trying to accomplish. It’s a really good thing that the "Don’t call me Shirley" line was filmed early.
Paramount Pictures was apparently so nervous about the three unknown directors, brothers Jerry and David Zucker along with Jim Abrahams, playing with a concept that the studio apparently didn’t understand, that their contract was actually written so that Paramount had the right to fire them after the first week of filming. At the end of that first week, the dailies were reviewed and luckily the joke that would become the movies’ most well known struck a chord with the studio as well.
As it turned out, the ‘Don’t call me Shirley’ scene was filmed on the first day of shooting. When Paramount Pictures watched the dailies and saw that joke and the way it played, they were relieved. They finally understood the concept and were much more comfortable dealing with us.
According to their interview with Vulture, once the three had the studio’s support, it opened up the floodgates and they were able to make the movie they wanted to make. It turns out they hadn’t been given the ok to actually cast known actors like Robert Stack and Peter Graves until after they got approval from Paramount. Now that the studio understood what these guys were doing, they were trusted to not do any damage the valuable property that was these actors’ careers.
What’s often forgotten today is that all of these actors were well known for being in serious films, including movies similar to the thrilling disaster movies that Airplane! was spoofing. While this film would start a second career for Leslie Nielsen doing almost exclusively spoofs, like the Police Squad TV series and it’s follow up Naked Gun movies, he had actually been a serious actor previously. Which, of course, was the point. The joke wasn’t simply the line, it was the guy saying the line.
Luckily for all of us, Airplane! was made as the directors intended, leading to a number of other memorable spoof movies from the trio. Now, what do think it will take to get them back and making more of these great films? We could really use them.