Why Airplane!'s Title Is One of the Classic Comedy's Best Jokes

Surely we can't be serious, right? We are: There's a rich history behind the exclamation point in Airplane!, which tells you everything you need to know about the iconic spoof.

by | July 2, 2020 | Comments

Airplane! title logo
(Photo by Paramount Pictures)

The movie Airplane!, which celebrates its 40th anniversary on July 2, is routinely regarded as the crème de la crème of spoof films.

Filmmakers Jim Abrahams and brothers David Zucker and Jerry Zucker’s goofy comedy is meant to be a send-up of the Airport movies of the 1970s — which capitalized on large star-studded casts and even larger theatrics — as well as other films. It’s Certified Fresh at 97% on the Tomatometer, and decades after its release, it still regularly makes it onto people’s lists of favorite comedies, even as the spoof comedy has fallen out of vogue.

Simply put, Airplane! works because it covers something that is deathly serious — an airline disaster — but doesn’t take itself too seriously. In addition to an inflatable cockpit “autopilot” named Otto and Lloyd Bridges’ increasingly frantic control tower supervisor — he picked the wrong week to quit smoking, drinking, taking amphetamines, and sniffing glue — there’s a running joke centered on whether Leslie Nielsen’s Dr. Rumack understands the difference between the woman’s name Shirley and the adverb “surely.”

But, even prospective first-time viewers who might balk at the spoiler-heavy paragraph above would clearly have gotten a sense of what kind of film Airplane! is from its title alone. Or, more specifically, from the exclamation point in its title.

“An exclamation point is usually used for a different meaning… like a strength or importance or [to get you to] pay attention,” says Mike Kaplan, a film marketing strategist also known for his extensive collection of vintage movie posters. “With Airplane!, as I remember it, it’s a satire on the other movies that have used it. It’s an interesting jumping-off point for sure.”

Kaplan, who worked on posters and campaigns for films like A Clockwork Orange, says it’s not necessarily a bad thing to see punctuation used in cinematic titles or posters as long as it “works organically” and doesn’t have the “feeling that it’s been manipulated.” The point is to not be bothered by it, to almost forget it’s there.

Before we spoke, he said he never paid much attention to the use of the symbol. He then remembered he’d worked on a couple campaigns that used it, including director Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 dramedy, O Lucky Man!, which stars Malcolm McDowell. Kaplan participated in a documentary about Anderson in which McDowell tells the story that the film was originally meant to be called Lucky Man, but that Anderson changed the title after reading the treatment because, Kaplan says, “that’s signifying it’s more important, and that a title like ‘Lucky Man‘ could mean… you’re lucky for different things. But O Lucky Man! gives it a universality and importance, almost a philosophical statement.” Kaplan says he remembers the exclamation point coming in around when he did the film’s first title treatment. Anderson, whom he recalls had distinct handwriting and always wrote with red Pentel pens, responded back by noting a red exclamation point next to the title. Kaplan says it was “just the icing on the cake.”

Poster for O Lucky Man!
(Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures)

As with O Lucky Man!, the exclamation point in Airplane! does a lot of the heavy lifting from a marketing standpoint. The symbol is almost shouting to the audience that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously and that some zany hijinks are in store.

But this wasn’t always the case. The exclamation point used to be revered, and it was only used to signify grandeur and grab your attention. You see it in the 1960s musicals Hello, Dolly! and Oliver!.

Robert Lee, a musical theatre writer who is on the faculty of the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, says he doesn’t know for sure why either of those two musicals has an exclamation point in its title, although he points out that both are set in the 1800s and “trade in nostalgia.” He wonders if they’re there to channel “old-time theater handbills” from an era when literacy rates were lower and when the exclamation point was used as a sort of punctuational carnival barker on posters to grab your attention. He also adds that both are titles derived from the leads’ names and songs sung about them.

Both were also known for show-stopping numbers, and their trailers create the feeling that these are films the whole family cannot miss (even though the latter’s focus on starving London orphans isn’t exactly a happy-go-lucky topic).

They’re also both based on stage productions, a medium that has a long love affair with the symbol. The double-punctuated musical revue Oh! Calcutta!, which debuted Off-Broadway in 1969, has what a 2015 New York Daily News article describes as “a pair of grammatical jazz hands.” The article quotes a branding specialist who says the title for that production works because “it brings urgency, excitement and humor.”

Poster for Zero Hour!
(Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures)

Abrahams and the Zucker brothers wrote the screenplay for their comedic masterpiece based on the 1957 film Zero Hour!, a World War II drama from director Hall Bartlett that takes itself extremely seriously (the Zuckers bought the rights to the film, so there’s no issue of copyright infringement). A a representative for David Zucker confirms that the filmmakers kept the exclamation point in their film’s title for that reason. They would go on to use it for other screwball spoofs like Top Secret! (a parody on both musicals and Cold War-era spy films) and their TV series Police Squad! (a knock on cop dramas), the precursor to the Naked Gun films.

Henry Fuhrmann is a professor at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism and a former chief of the Los Angeles Times copy editing desk – where he had a reputation, among myself and others, for his extreme distaste for the exclamation point. During our interview, he thinks of classic front-page headlines where the exclamation point was unavoidable, such as the one for D-Day that screamed “Invasion!” But he also references the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

Workers at the Douglas Aircraft Co. read about the D-day invasion in a Los Angeles Times extra edition
(Photo by Douglas Aircraft Co./Los Angeles Times)

He says that exclamation points were usually thought to be unnecessary in formal writing, because if a sentence “has the right active, strong verb, it will connote the tenor of the drama that you’re trying to say.”

Fuhrmann says it’s a testament to Airplane! that not including the exclamation point is “an obvious error to anyone” because “you just know it’s a part of the title.” Brands like Yahoo!, which also uses the punctuation symbol, do not get the same kind of respect.

“It definitely works in Airplane!,” he says, because “it’s just a small thing with potentially great power, and that’s what makes punctuation so interesting.”

But the advent of social media has made us crave an even stronger hit of punctuation endorphins. Fuhrmann points to Gretchen McCulloch’s 2019 book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. There, McCulloch argues that our language has evolved so that the exclamation point connotes “warmth or sincerity, rather than just excitement.” The Comedy Central series Corporate, a dark satire about white-collar desk jockeys, directly addresses this. A broken keyboard forces one of the leads to stop using exclamation points in his emails, resulting in his bosses feeling personally attacked.

However, McCulloch equates the overuse of exclamation points to “hyperbolic adjectives” — like the word “awesome” — that “lose their force through overuse.” These days, an exclamation point just doesn’t convey as much as it used to. Does this mean that any potential remake of Airplane! will inevitably require multiple exclamation points in its title? Surely you can’t be serious.

Where You Can Watch It Now

FandangoNOW (rent/own), Amazon (rent/own), Google (rent/own), iTunes (rent/own), Netflix (stream) Vudu (rent/own)

Airplane! was released on July 2, 1980.


Airplane! (1980)

Adjusted Score: 102.979%
Critics Consensus: Though unabashedly juvenile and silly, Airplane! is nevertheless an uproarious spoof comedy full of quotable lines and slapstick gags that endure to this day.
Synopsis: This spoof of the Airport series of disaster movies relies on ridiculous sight gags, groan-inducing dialogue, and deadpan acting --... [More]

Thumbnail image by Paramount Pictures

Tag Cloud

2016 Pop zero dark thirty Film Apple canceled Masterpiece Lifetime Christmas movies TV game of thrones Super Bowl BBC America Election First Look award winner Netflix Sundance Now Apple TV Plus 24 frames Apple TV+ Fall TV Best and Worst stoner Paramount Pet Sematary Calendar die hard harry potter Holidays DC streaming service laika TruTV National Geographic Star Wars festivals green book docudrama PlayStation Spectrum Originals Sundance blockbuster Rocky MSNBC Hallmark Christmas movies Comic Book IFC Films breaking bad sequel reboot The Walking Dead Disney streaming service south america Pixar Travel Channel E! reviews anthology Kids & Family nature strong female leads war TCM binge nbcuniversal Oscars Marathons transformers sports Lifetime Rocketman classics CBS All Access Mary Tyler Moore 45 crime drama cancelled superhero SundanceTV Academy Awards Hallmark mutant Crackle Character Guide indiana jones Amazon aliens Musicals Ghostbusters technology Trailer 007 psycho BET Awards universal monsters Lionsgate Valentine's Day 72 Emmy Awards adaptation Biopics Food Network Cannes HBO Go rotten indie what to watch GoT Nominations Song of Ice and Fire boxoffice 2015 Country Animation TCA Awards dc The Purge Peacock worst Syfy comiccon Classic Film Star Trek A&E cancelled TV shows The Arrangement cartoon dramedy Cartoon Network Comics on TV Tomatazos Crunchyroll SDCC Dark Horse Comics NBC Watching Series casting TBS HBO cats Certified Fresh Ellie Kemper batman BET animated Sci-Fi disaster TV renewals Endgame game show scary movies Tumblr WarnerMedia Shondaland Spike 2017 children's TV hollywood 20th Century Fox Black History Month dragons Amazon Prime TV Land jamie lee curtis Heroines rotten movies we love Walt Disney Pictures Television Academy PaleyFest TNT Winter TV Discovery Channel unscripted mockumentary a nightmare on elm street ghosts OWN Hear Us Out Avengers FX on Hulu ratings documentary APB natural history 4/20 Arrowverse Amazon Prime Video RT History TCA Winter 2020 Reality Competition First Reviews news emmy awards chucky See It Skip It LGBT ESPN The CW Disney+ Disney Plus Acorn TV book Fantasy hispanic halloween cancelled television USA Mary poppins Paramount Network Writers Guild of America RT21 Hulu Comedy obituary zombies facebook justice league SXSW latino discovery Elton John kids biography Ovation dogs video New York Comic Con Schedule DirecTV crime thriller Rock mission: impossible historical drama Freeform Mindy Kaling true crime Logo police drama Mary Poppins Returns singing competition Stephen King crossover romantic comedy Television Critics Association VICE Infographic Nickelodeon HBO Max Showtime Black Mirror 21st Century Fox stand-up comedy Action medical drama VH1 X-Men Horror miniseries asian-american Lucasfilm MCU movies child's play Turner social media spy thriller Awards Tour Disney Plus anime Teen BAFTA Columbia Pictures fast and furious doctor who 2019 cinemax cults TCA 2017 Set visit Red Carpet series christmas movies spanish language Mudbound twilight Mystery Video Games Starz Pride Month Pop TV Music YouTube Premium Brie Larson NYCC Martial Arts Emmys Emmy Nominations werewolf The Witch comedies AMC CNN Comedy Central Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt tv talk serial killer screen actors guild toy story MTV Photos Family Fox News cars Holiday parents best Sneak Peek Polls and Games Grammys 2020 sequels Warner Bros. Awards Britbox Drama witnail finale Year in Review Toys DC Universe robots Women's History Month dark CW Seed Countdown Netflix Christmas movies YouTube Red Opinion period drama sitcom Spring TV space Rom-Com PBS political drama TCA GIFs Thanksgiving renewed TV shows Sundance TV science fiction cancelled TV series films DC Comics diversity composers Universal FOX Nat Geo foreign YA Interview versus crime President Sony Pictures free movies History zombie DGA screenings USA Network satire YouTube Trophy Talk VOD Reality cops revenge video on demand E3 TLC comics spider-man 2018 Summer BBC Tarantino spain Extras Binge Guide spinoff Disney Channel talk show Shudder joker ABC Family Bravo Winners Anna Paquin Pirates critics IFC Marvel Funimation dceu Adult Swim Podcast Chernobyl Western quibi based on movie politics romance Box Office American Society of Cinematographers A24 streaming Film Festival Marvel Television Amazon Studios Quiz vampires hist Disney television criterion name the review CBS OneApp stop motion Baby Yoda Turner Classic Movies Tubi Captain marvel cooking TIFF Cosplay blaxploitation CMT El Rey Epix LGBTQ travel psychological thriller documentaries 71st Emmy Awards Superheroes FX ITV WGN FXX sag awards Marvel Studios elevated horror Christmas Superheroe Premiere Dates teaser independent adventure Esquire Trivia golden globes directors San Diego Comic-Con GLAAD franchise thriller Vudu supernatural theme song slashers Musical comic canceled TV shows Creative Arts Emmys concert Chilling Adventures of Sabrina richard e. Grant ABC all-time BBC One movie