I was seven-years-old. I had never been to an airport, never seen a disaster film and had no concept of what a hare krishna was. Didn’t matter. All I knew was this: watching Robert Stack beat the shit out of the topknotted bastards was just about the funniest thing I’d ever seen. In fact, not knowing why or if these harmless looking kooks had it coming only enhanced the hilarity; random violence was one thing on Tom & Jerry, but quite another when dished out on real, seemingly innocent people. God, it was glorious.
Thereafter, Airplane! became an addiction. It was eighty-eight minutes of uninterrupted bliss – and you can truthfully cite the entire running time because the jokes keep coming throughout the closing credits – that exploded my barely formed notions of what comedy could be. I had never seen a movie that refused to take its own narrative seriously, preferring to measure its effectiveness in accumulating the highest gag-per-second ratio possible. Airplane! took the audience’s cursory investment in Ted Striker’s predicament for granted, and used the familiar beats of the hero’s journey as a springboard to unconscionable lunacy; this is how Striker’s wartime romance with Elaine manages to spoof From Here to Eternity and Saturday Night Fever in the same scene. That their anachronistic "Staying Alive" dance-off/courtship is incited by a girl scout getting her head smashed into a Wurlitzer is just further, excessive brilliance.
The most liberating aspect of Airplane!, however, was knowing that it was the work of adults*. If grown men could get away with this kind of nonsense, why bother taking anything seriously ever again? So it was, at the too-early age of seven, that I made note of the names at the end of the opening credits: David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. ZAZ. And while I would learn to appreciate many styles of comedies throughout the years, it was a blessed event when these three fellows got together.
Unfortunately, their collaborations were too damn infrequent. The four year wait for Top Secret was particularly excruciating; absent a new ZAZ movie, those of us hooked on their aesthetic had to make do with knock-offs like Student Bodies (has its moments), Spaceship (featuring Leslie Nielsen and maybe one or two laughs) and Airplane II: The Sequel (an abomination). Perhaps it was this combination of limp imitation and seeming inactivity that dulled the public’s interest in ZAZ’s shotgun blast brand of gag writing (it also didn’t help that their brilliant television dalliance, Police Squad, was poorly promoted and cancelled by ABC after six episodes). Or maybe it was the fact that audiences couldn’t square the conflating of Elvis movies with World War II epics. Whatever the excuse, their sophomore directing effort, Top Secret, bombed during the summer of 1984.
None of this was my fault. During that amazing summer (which also gave us Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom among others), I revisited Top Secret maybe three or four times. Being that I was not quite eleven at the time (and that the nearest theater showing the film, Bowling Green’s Cinema 1 & 2, was too far for biking), this took some doing. Friends and family were implored and/or bullied into seeing the movie with me; and while no one was ever terribly excited to check it out, every last one of my moviegoing companions emerged smiling as if they’d been worked over by "The Anal Intruder".
So it was gratifying last week to see Top Secret get its due with an appreciative audience twenty-three years later as part of The Wright Stuff festival at The New Beverly. Finally, I wasn’t the only one singing along to "Skeet Surfing", "How Silly Can You Get" and "Straighten Out the Rug" (why Top Secret hasn’t become an audience participation mainstay is beyond me). Best of all, Mr. Edgar Wright’s honored guests, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, got to watch their most crushing box office failure with a wildly enthusiastic group of Nick Rivers devotees. And while they seemed a bit wary of the unfettered adoration, they were happy to share stories about the film’s successful test screening (which Jeffrey Katzenberg astutely labeled a fluke), Val Kilmer’s dating of Cher and their repeat investment in a racehorse named "All Pink" (think about the call from the announcer should the horse move to the inside of the track).
At the conclusion of the Q&A, Edgar was clearly in awe. We all were. ZAZ taught us comedy by ignoring the established rules. They made a joke of everything. They were our Marx Brothers. So why do we take them for granted? Why don’t we ever hear Judd Apatow venerating their achievements when he discusses Walk Hard? David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker are giants; without their films, comedy would be a much more rigid genre. As Dr. Klahn might say, they deserve our gratitude.
*And that it was PG despite a completely gratuitous flash of bare breasts.