Like the sound of one hand clapping or a tree that falls in the woods unnoticed, determining the best line from the 1980 yuk-fest 'Airplane!' is an unanswerable riddle, a comedy koan that, 30 years later, continues to inspire endless and heated debate in bars and living rooms the world over.
For writer/directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, the idea of "too many jokes" never existed. Indeed, 'Airplane!' may have the highest gag-to-running time ratio of any movie, and the never-ending onslaught of one-liners inspired everyone from John Landis to Lorne Michaels (who came up with the idea for 'Saturday Night Live' after taking in the trio's live theater troupe, Kentucky Fried Theater, in Los Angeles.)
Pillaging 1957's 'Zero Hour!' and a slew of 1970s disaster movies, ZAZ (as the three filmmakers were collectively billed) enlisted mostly serious actors, such as Robert Stack,Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen, to play the comedic leads. "We thought they were much funnier than the comedians of that time were," David Zucker once said.
It paid off. The film is one of a few that can make the case for funniest movie ever made. Moviefone has already looked at some of the film's funniest quotes, but with the recent passing of Barbara "I speak jive" Billingsley, we figured it was a good time to catch up with the rest of the cast and crew.
Then: Brothers David and Jerry Zucker (far left and right, above) were childhood friends with Jim Abrahams (center) growing up in Milwaukee. They moved to L.A., started the Kentucky Fried Theater and became a sensation. 'Kentucky Fried Movie,' their screenwriting debut, was directed by John Landis and became a modest cult hit. But it wasn't until the release of 'Airplane!,' for which the trio won a Writers Guild award for Best Adapted Screenplay, that the three men became comedy superstars.
Now: ZAZ followed 'Airplane!' with a slew of movies that mined similar comic material, including 'Top Secret!,''Hot Shots!' and the 'Naked Gun' series. Their style has been heavily mimicked over the past 30 years.
Role: Ted Striker
Then: Prior to landing the lead role of former fighter pilot Ted Striker, Hays had been a veteran of the San Francisco theater scene and a costar in the short-lived television show 'Angie.' As Striker, Hays channels his experience over Macho Grande ("I don't think I'll ever get over Macho Grande") in order to -- spoiler alert! -- land the crippled plane safely.
Now: The 'Airplane!' series would prove to be Hays' career apex, although the actor has semi-regularly appeared in film and television, most notably as Hyde's possible father in 'That '70s Show.' In 2008, Hays starred in the spoof film 'Superhero Movie!' alongside 'Airplane!' co-star Leslie Nielsen.
Best quote: "Let's see ... Altitude: 21,000 feet. Speed: 520 knots. Level flight. Course: zero-niner-zero. Trim and mixture: wash, soak, rinse, spin."
Role: Elaine Dickinson
Then: Hagerty began her career as a prominent model before switching to acting, appearing in a number of Broadway and off-Broadway plays and co-founding a theater group with her brother. The dim-witted stewardess Elaine Dickinson was the actress' debut film role, and Hagerty skillfully managed to make the airhead an indelible character.
Now: Hagerty was often typecast as the bumbling blonde in such roles as Dulcy in Woody Allen's'A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy,' but she excelled in Albert Brooks' 1985 road movie 'Lost In America.' Hagerty has since amassed an impressive resumé, including appearances in Todd Solondz's 'Storytelling' and last year's 'Confessions of a Shopaholic.'
Best Quote: "There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you'll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?"
Role: Dr. Alan Rumack
Then: Despite a consistent comedic presence for 30 years, Nielsen, like many of his costars in the film, began his career as a dramatic actor, making his first appearance in 1948 alongside Charlton Heston. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Nielsen had a starring role in dozens of films, including 'Forbidden Planet' and 'Tammy and the Bachelor.' It was only in 'Airplane!' that the actor, 54 at the time, began his comedic career.
Now: Since 'Airplane!,' a generation of film lovers know Nielsen as the go-to guy for slapstick and deadpan humor. ZAZ would go on to cast him in the short-lived, but long-admired television show 'Police Squad!' and its subsequent 'Naked Gun' movies. He would later star in any single spoof comedy that came his way, including 'Wrongfully Accused,''2001: A Space Travesty' and a bunch of other movies you've never heard of. In Nov. 2010, Nielsen died from complications with pneumonia. He was 84.
Best Quote: "I'm doing everything I can ... and stop calling me Shirley."
Role: Captain Clarence Oveur
Then: The veteran actor had starred in a number of television shows in the 1950s and '60s, but it was his role as Jim Phelps, the squad leader in 'Mission: Impossible' that earned the actor "classic" status. As the genially sketchy Captain Clarence Oveur, Graves was an amalgam of every creepy grandfather you've ever met.
Now: Unlike Nielsen, Graves only took a short detour into comedy, reprising his 'Mission: Impossible' role in a new version of the series in 1988 before narrating A&E's popular documentary series 'Biography.' He would remain a steady presence throughout the 1990s and 2000s, appearing as a running joke on 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' and guest-starring on 'House' and 'American Dad,' before passing away in March 2010.
Best quote: "Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?"
Role: Steve McCroskey
Then: One of Columbia Pictures' go-to actors in the 1940s, Bridges worked his way up from Three Stooges comedies to serious dramatic roles, appearing in over 90 films (including 'High Noon' and in the sci-fi film 'Rocketship X-M'). Allegations of communism temporarily stymied his career in the 1950s before he accepted the lead role of Mike Nelson in the popular television show 'Sea Hunt.'
Now: Bridges took to comedy quickly after 'Airplane!,' appearing in numerous Abraham films including 'Hot Shots!,' 'Hot Shots! Part Deux' and 'Jane Austen's Mafia.' Despite his impressive resume, his most well-known productions may be his two sons, actors Beau and Jeff Bridges. He died in 1998 at the age of 85.
Best quote: "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue."
Role: Captain Rex Kramer
Then: Throughout the 1940s and '50s, Stack was one of Hollywood's leading men, appearing in a series of diverse roles and earning an Academy Award nomination for 1957's 'Written on the Wind.' From 1959-1963, Stack portrayed Eliot Ness on the popular TV show 'The Untouchables.'
Now: Sporting a stern, serious demeanor, Stack had already parodied himself in Steven Spielberg's '1941,' but it was as Rex Kramer that he earned widespread acclaim as a deadpan comedic actor. He would go on to star in a number of comedies, including 'Caddyshack II,''Beavis and Butthead Do America' and 'BASEketball,' and he spent 15 years as the host of 'Unsolved Mysteries,' a show devoted to paranormal activity and unsolved crimes. He died in 2003 at the age of 84.
Best quote: "Flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle; just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes."
Role: Roger Murdock/himself
Then: With no other discernible talents, actor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was forced to try his hand at acting, first appearing as Bruce Lee's enemy Hakim in 1978's 'Game of Death' before landing the role of co-pilot Roger Murdock -- a role originally envisioned for baseball great Pete Rose. In his spare time, he liked to play the occasional game of basketball.
Now: Abdul-Jabbar made numerous appearances on 1980s and '90s sitcoms, mostly playing himself. Among the general public, he is best known for his starring role in 1995's 'Slam Dunk Ernest' with Jim Varney.
Best quote: "I'm out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes."
Then: Originally written by ZAZ after seeing, but not understanding, 'Shaft,' these roles were given to the first two actors who auditioned for them: childhood friends Norman Gibbs (pictured, far left) and Al White (near right), who had prepared an entire script of jive language. Cracking the directors up, the men got the parts on the spot.
Now: Gibbs and White each have credits on a string of high-profile television shows, and both actors made appearances on 'NYPD Blue.' While Gibbs has retired from acting, White soldiers on, appearing in the upcoming 'A Night at the Silent Movie Theater.'
Best Quote(s): Gibbs: "See a broad to get dat booty yak 'em." White: Leg 'er down a smack 'em yak 'em!"
Role: Jive Lady
Then: In her role as June Cleaver on the massively popular 1950s and '60s sitcom 'Leave It to Beaver,' Billingsley established the archetypal ideal mother, embodying the role so completely that "June Cleaver" continues to be an euphemism for "perfect, orderly mom" to this day. After the show was canceled, Billingsley spent over 15 years away from the camera before resurfacing in this film to spoof herself as a jive interpreter.
Now: After the film was released, Billingsley began to receive as much fan mail for her brief scenes as she did for June Cleaver. She continued to star in various iterations of the Beav, including 'The New Leave It To Beaver' television show, before passing away in 2010 at the age of 94.
Best Quote: "Jus' hang loose, blood. She gonna catch ya up on da' rebound on da' med side."
Watch the "Stewardess, I speak jive" scene from 'Airplane!':
Role: Johnny Henshaw-Jacobs
Then: Stucker's relationship with ZAZ began with 1977's 'Kentucky Fried Movie,' playing the cross-dressing stenographer in one of the film's funniest scenes. He appeared in 'Cracking Up' with Fred Willard, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer before becoming the most incompetent air traffic controller in cinematic history.
Now: Stucker appeared in small roles in 'Airplane II: The Sequel' and 'Trading Places.' He was one of the first actors to announce to the public that he had HIV; he died of complications in 1986 at the age of 38.
Best Quote: Q: "Johnny, what can you make out of this?" A: "This? Why, I can make a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl."
Then: Ross Harris had already appeared in over 100 commercials before landing the role of Joey, Peter Graves' pre-pubescent muse and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's antagonist. His naïveté serves as the perfect counterbalance to Graves' leering, bizarre questioning.
Now: Harris continued to act in a number of television shows post-'Airplane!,' but would earn success later primarily in music. He formed the electronic-tinged act Sukia, dabbled in photography (he shot Beck's first two album covers), and worked as music-video director (he did Elliott Smith's video for "Miss Misery.") He currently works as an editor, cameraman and director, most notably for the children's show 'Yo Gabba Gabba!'
Best Quote: (to Kareem) "And he says that lots of times, you don't even run down court. And that you don't really try ... except during the playoffs."
Role: Lisa Davis
Then: Whelan had appeared in numerous commercials before she was cast as Lisa Davis, aka the "sick girl," in her debut film, at the age of 11. Before and after 'Airplane!,' the actress could be found on 'The Love Boat' playing Captain Stubing's daughter, Vicki.
Now: Whelan has acted sporadically since the 1980s, appearing on 'The Young and the Restless' and a number of off-Broadway plays. She currently hosts a radio show in Philadelphia.
Best Quote: She doesn't have any, but the scene where her I.V. gets ripped out is surely comic gold. (But yeah, don't call her Shirley.)
Then: Otto beat out 400 other applicants to win the role of the Automatic Pilot that saves the plane from crashing after the primary crew is stricken with food poisoning.
Now: Having been typecast as an inflatable airline pilot in various television shows and movies, Otto gave up acting to form the successful "Automatic Pilot" sex doll business. Facebook fondly remembers him.