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: 102.985%
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

FOX Reality Competition VH1 Mystery Horror Chernobyl name the review President all-time Tomatazos PlayStation Crunchyroll true crime Emmys Rock canceled spy thriller TBS Film Festival National Geographic worst movies El Rey rom-coms TV Land E! Chilling Adventures of Sabrina cartoon social media Women's History Month deadpool venice historical drama Star Trek archives YouTube Premium Pet Sematary Holiday award winner Emmy Nominations Cosplay Cannes Mudbound Tubi free movies American Society of Cinematographers Biopics best justice league BBC One NBC breaking bad cancelled TV series canceled TV shows Freeform jamie lee curtis Teen spanish language cancelled television docudrama TCA 2020 Kids & Family golden globes 71st Emmy Awards Superheroe doctor who classics Amazon Studios A24 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards aliens USA The Academy crime toronto E3 quibi Apple TV Plus mission: impossible Turner singing competition dc TCA Awards Spike harry potter space Superheroes sequel The CW halloween tv Year in Review Funimation cancelled Super Bowl casting 2019 AMC Schedule toy story APB BAFTA richard e. Grant spider-man VOD miniseries chucky Nickelodeon PBS Walt Disney Pictures comedies Trivia Amazon Prime Oscars unscripted Legendary Columbia Pictures ratings See It Skip It politics YouTube TruTV Photos police drama Nat Geo Mary Poppins Returns Black Mirror james bond directors superhero blaxploitation political drama Best and Worst ghosts TNT Rocketman critics Shondaland MSNBC Pop TV Endgame Logo Comic Book Pride Month Apple Universal Mindy Kaling cooking Tumblr king kong docuseries films teaser sports thriller 2018 ABC Family hist 2021 BBC America Cartoon Network Awards Rocky 99% crime thriller jurassic park Syfy Sneak Peek Peacock versus reviews LGBTQ south america Television Critics Association remakes Video Games Bravo Ovation revenge CW Seed Hear Us Out diversity DC Universe Hallmark Christmas movies a nightmare on elm street batman mockumentary comiccon game show 4/20 green book child's play Binge Guide Brie Larson Character Guide Box Office San Diego Comic-Con History spain Warner Bros. DirecTV Television Academy Turner Classic Movies blockbuster crime drama nbcuniversal based on movie spinoff joker kong latino VICE criterion WGN razzies 20th Century Fox satire hispanic Watching Series independent Netflix Sundance TV Lifetime Summer Sundance dogs sequels Broadway Fox Searchlight video on demand ABC prank Polls and Games supernatural Vudu Discovery Channel TIFF Hallmark Masterpiece HBO Go Valentine's Day 24 frames ESPN 2017 The Walking Dead Acorn TV technology emmy awards football monster movies Musical Western USA Network franchise streaming Epix IFC reboot finale Hulu Trophy Talk romance romantic comedy Extras travel Thanksgiving Netflix Christmas movies fresh Grammys GoT CBS Comedy Central Mary poppins biography dramedy TLC japanese Countdown twilight The Witch Certified Fresh Paramount GIFs YA 45 adventure Action renewed TV shows anthology pirates of the caribbean GLAAD Shudder Crackle asian-american kaiju Podcast Amazon Anna Paquin robots Avengers stop motion black TV indie Lifetime Christmas movies concert The Walt Disney Company Mary Tyler Moore disaster what to watch festival New York Comic Con dark Fantasy australia Comedy cinemax Classic Film 72 Emmy Awards movie Adult Swim screen actors guild stand-up comedy HBO Max A&E Academy Awards TV One zombies OWN Heroines golden globe awards war comic Tarantino superman X-Men discovery television scary movies Elton John PaleyFest Marvel Television Britbox SDCC TCM rotten movies we love Disney streaming service werewolf Captain marvel First Reviews FXX scorecard medical drama The Arrangement Toys DGA blockbusters Awards Tour anime Lionsgate Rom-Com Baby Yoda First Look Paramount Plus WarnerMedia indiana jones documentary serial killer CBS All Access Drama ABC Signature Christmas TV renewals SundanceTV Writers Guild of America mutant Marvel Studios nature boxoffice Fall TV talk show Martial Arts transformers The Purge TCA 2017 composers FX on Hulu Song of Ice and Fire telelvision Disney Winners nfl Fox News Black History Month Music Food Network cancelled TV shows kids zero dark thirty obituary science fiction witnail laika spanish Nominations comic books Winter TV Film Alien Premiere Dates Pirates Ellie Kemper italian animated vampires comics Lucasfilm halloween festivals Red Carpet OneApp christmas movies Family french trailers psychological thriller NYCC screenings BBC Esquire Infographic Sci-Fi zombie video theme song stoner parents fast and furious SXSW FX cops Pop YouTube Red game of thrones adaptation die hard Creative Arts Emmys Arrowverse Star Wars Election documentaries 2015 hollywood worst 007 CMT facebook rotten elevated horror Stephen King IFC Films Interview strong female leads Spring TV MCU cults Holidays Marathons Starz Calendar BET Awards 21st Century Fox Dark Horse Comics DC streaming service tv talk DC Comics Spectrum Originals ID ITV Sony Pictures cars news Reality Showtime dceu Opinion sitcom movies ViacomCBS Disney+ Disney Plus binge rt archives HBO Musicals Comics on TV book popular RT21 hidden camera CNN Travel Channel Trailer slashers women BET crossover TCA Winter 2020 Paramount Network MTV godzilla psycho dragons Amazon Prime Video Country Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt period drama RT History 2016 natural history foreign Set visit cats series LGBT Pixar sag awards boxing Sundance Now Marvel children's TV Animation Disney Plus Quiz universal monsters Disney Channel Apple TV+ Ghostbusters Exclusive Video