It’s no secret that the 1980 comedy movie Airplane! is a parody. But for some reason, I’ve spent my entire life believing that Airplane! was a broad parody of 1970s disaster movies. And while the movie clearly took inspiration from some of those films, it’s actually a very specific parody of a movie from 1957 called Zero Hour! Yes, with the exclamation point and everything.
How specific is the parody in Airplane? Huge chunks of dialogue in the classic comedy are taken verbatim from Zero Hour! Everything from “looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking” to a young boy visiting the cockpit are directly lifted from Zero Hour! Everyone on the flight getting poisoned by eating fish appears as a plot point in both movies as well. Even some of the character names are identical—Ted Stryker is the main character in both films.
So why didn’t the producers of Zero Hour! sue for plagiarism? The writers of Airplane! bought the rights to the old 1957 film to make sure there weren’t any problems.
You don’t have to take my word for how similar the two movies are. Zero Hour! is available for rental on YouTube for $2.99. And if you don’t feel like watching the entire thing, YouTube user Mason Wood created a side-by-side comparison of both movies a few years ago that you can view here.
I love old movies, but I found watching Zero Hour! really jarring. And I still have no idea if it’s because Zero Hour! is a bad movie or if it’s because the film is so close to Airplane! that I can’t help but hear the jokes after everything the actors say.
Honestly, I feel like I’ve been lied to, and I suddenly wonder why so many people like me grew up thinking that Airplane! was a generalized parody of 1970s disaster movies like Airport and its many sequels. I wasn’t even born when the movie was released in 1980 (I was introduced to this garbage world in 1983), and yet it was a movie that I saw many times in childhood.
Plenty of people already knew that Airplane! is a direct parody of a single movie—it’s mentioned in the first paragraph of Airplane!’s Wikipedia page and the second paragraph of Zero Hour!’s—but it’s just now blowing my mind. I’ve spent years believing that the plot points in Airplane! were the creation of Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers, David and Jerry. But in reality, those guys simply added the jokes into a pre-existing script. They’re funny jokes, mind you, and the work is truly transformative. But I can’t help but wonder why the writers of Zero Hour! never got a writing credit on Airplane!
Again, it’s truly weird how much of the 1980 parody is lifted verbatim from the 1957 movie. Airplane! is a great movie, and it deserves to be considered one of the greatest comedies of the 20th century. It was rightly added to the Library of Congress Film Registry for preservation in 2010. But knowing that it’s a direct parody of an old 1950s movie definitely makes me look at it differently. Not better or worse, just differently.