October 20, 2021 – Airplane! writer and director, David Zucker, is the latest artist to share thoughts about the state of comedy in 2021. His full essay here, originally published by Commentary.Org:
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 Theatre 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 “s- -t” 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 8-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’ 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.
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 nonhumorous projects. Unlike my peers, who can channel their rage into more socially acceptable psychological projects, I have no marketable skills aside from crafting jokes.
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. 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.
About five years ago, I was driving my 13-year-old daughter, Sarah, 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.”
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? Since I can’t seem to find one, let’s go with Phillips’ estimation of “30 million people on Twitter,” which computes to roughly 9 percent of America’s population.
In all fairness, 9-Percenters are not a new segment of society; they’ve always lived among us. The difference now 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 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. 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, 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.
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. 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.
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.