This One ‘Airplane!’ Joke Still Haunts My Brains, Even 40 Years After Its Release

     July 29, 2020

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Airplane! is stuffed with jokes. The classic 1980 comedy from the trio of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker — likely my favorite film comedy of all time — uses a strong, simple, fundamental plot (borrowed from a couple of earnest “airplane dramas” like Flight Into Danger and Zero Hour!) as a sturdy skeleton to hang as many jokes in as many different forms as possible. From sight gags to wordplay to non sequiturs to even the abrupt mimicry of television commercials, if ya don’t like one joke in Airplane!, just wait, like, two seconds: another one’s coming posthaste. Many of these jokes have become ubiquitous in our culture — “Don’t call me Shirley,” “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue,” everything Stephen Stucker says — but there’s one very, very specific joke that has carved out a corner of my brain’s real estate, jumping at me with startling quantity. Allow me to explain.

Some quick context to get you up to speed: Robert Hays is a veteran struggling with trauma and pining over the lost love of his life, flight attendant Julie Hagerty. In a last-ditch effort to get her back, he buys a ticket on her latest flight, despite his war-caused fear of flying. On this flight, a case of bad food causes all of the pilots to get sick — meaning that Hays must conquer his fears, fly and land the plane, and save everyone on board, especially his love!

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Image via Paramount Pictures

When the rest of the world finds out about this potential mid-air catastrophe, the ZAZ trio gives us a brief news montage of how the international media is covering what’s going on (including some jokes about non-Western cultures that do not age well). The final piece of this montage involves William Tregoe as the host of a “Point/Counterpoint” styled newsmagazine show (which ZAZ diehards will recognize as a callback to The Kentucky Fried Movie). Tregoe speaks briefly to an off-camera co-host, before turning straight to us to deliver the final blow:

Shana, they bought their tickets, they knew what they were getting into. I say let ’em crash!

“I say let ’em crash.” A line so easy in its flippancy. So casual in its pointless nihilism. So borderline Randian in its libertarian “let the free market sort them out” philosophy of human life (a quick foreshadowing of David Zucker’s descent into right-wing madness?). It’s a perfectly efficient encapsulation of a certain type of troll. Arms-folded, devil’s advocate playing, eager to dive into “whataboutism,” chomping at the bit to distill real human suffering into intellectual play. “I say let ’em crash” is sneakily the most satirical Airplane! joke, jutting out against its primary mode of go-for-broke silliness.

And it has absolutely infected my brain. It pops up at random moments, becoming a knee-jerk reaction to any and every personal interaction (my computer starts to slow down? You best believe I’m busting out a “I say let it crash”). I will think about it in public, and begin giggling for no reason in front of strangers, whom I imagine are worried. This line is so bluntly funny, and my overreliance on it so silly, I can make my stomach hurt laughing at it, then laugh at myself laughing at it, and on and on the cycle goes.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

“I say let ’em crash!” It’s kind of a tempting siren song, a “giving in” to life’s unpredictable mishaps with a level of “walking away, washing my hands” apathy that can feel cathartic. What does it mean to be a human living purely in the present moment if not to say, “I am fine no matter what happens. I am not in control of anything out of my control. I say let ’em crash”?

Obviously, I do not think we should let people about to be in a plane crash crash. This line as it plays in the film takes any generous philosophical reading to its absolute extreme. Its level of wanton, childlike cruelty against something as objectively “in need of help” as “a group of people about to die in a plane crash” is so beyond absurd, so aggressively “wrong” that we must laugh at it as an example of inhuman absurdity that we would never reach in real life. Right?

Well. Sadly, our current moment is also proving that this one Airplane! joke is more malleable than I’d like, beyond my personal usage of it. Mass groups of people dining while their servers wear masks? Sending kids back to in-person school despite the meetings being held remotely? Releasing friggin’ Tenet? All of this during a horrific, life-threatening pandemic while scientists are screaming that if we just stay put and wear a mask for like four weeks we’ll have it taken care of?!

Clearly, “I say let ’em crash” isn’t just a joke I’m obsessed with. It isn’t just another one of Airplane!‘s many deadpan non sequiturs. It’s clearly an almost-literal commentary on the grim ease at which modern-day humans, figures of authority or not, will cast aside people who don’t directly involve them. The plane is coming down. But I’m not currently on it. They bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into.

I. Say. Let. Them. Crash.

Airplane! is currently streaming on Netflix, and available in a newly remastered Blu-ray from Paramount.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

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