Airplane! is one of my favorite movies. I am not an unreconstructed ZAZ fan; I think The Naked Gun is overrated and there are parts of Police Squad! that could have been improved upon, but Airplane! remains in my mind one of the most consistently funny movies of the last thirty years. You know how one of the reasons everyone loved 30 Rock so much was the astonishing rate of jokes per minute? That’s Airplane!, but with the added benefit of Robert Stack. It’s one of the first in a rash of zany, anarchic free-for-all comedies that cropped up in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and it’s one of the best. Chances are that you’ve seen it (here I will succumb to gender essentialism and wager that you have seen it at least once with your father) and can recite what the white zone is for without prompting.
One of the best–and coincidentally, most radical–aspects in the movie is Johnny the air traffic controller, played by the brilliant Stephen Stucker. Johnny is part of that time-honored band, the movie sissy, and he’s one of the most magnificently unrepentant faggots to ever grace the screen in the entire 1980s. Here’s a few of his best moments:
He prances. He pirouettes. He bats his eyelashes. He growls. He sings out facts about Barbara Stanwyck from his desk. At one point he wraps himself in a set of telephone cords and starts screaming about twisters and Auntie Em, making himself a very public, very literal friend of Dorothy’s. He takes over press conferences and rolls his eyes and tickles serious men and turns a weather report into a sensational brooch (and a hat, to say nothing of a pterodactyl).
“Johnny, how about some more coffee?” Lloyd Bridges’ Steve McCrosky asks gruffly. “No, thanks!” Johnny sings out as he steps lightly across the room. It’s glorious.
But unlike his sissy predecessors, Edward Everett Horton (he of the “Oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear“):
and Peter Lorre:
Johnny is never slapped, pushed out of the way, humiliated, sidelined, mocked, or verbally bested by any of the grizzled, chain-smoking, heterosexual manly men running through the control tower with him. Not once in the entire movie is Johnny the target of a joke (he’s too busy making them himself), which is fairly remarkable, given the treatment gay and sissy characters usually got in most mainstream comedies at the time. There’s nobody else like him.
Incidentally, the actor who played Johnny, Stephen Stucker, was one of the first people in Hollywood to publicly announce that he had AIDs. He died in 1986; there was no one else quite like him.
There are a few brief, lazy fag jokes in Caddyshack, like when Chevy Chase talks about how he avoided the Vietnam draft. Revenge of the Nerds had Lamar, but he was just as often the joke as he was making them.
“Wait ’til you see Lamar’s throw…he designed the javelin to go along with Lamar’s limp-wristed throwing style.” There’s nothing like that in Airplane! Johnny’s wrists are as limp as they come, of course, but you’re not going to catch anyone else pointing that out to us. When Steve McCroskey, Rex Kramer, and Johnny read a series of newspaper headlines and exclaim, “Passengers certain to die!” “Airline negligent!” “There’s a sale at Penney’s!” you’d better believe that the joke is on the boring stiffs, not on him.
The whole point of a movie like Airplane! is to poke fun at the serious and staid world of Zero Hour! and Airport! and the other disaster films of the 1970s, and who’s less serious and staid than a sissy air traffic controller? When the terrified wife of an almost-certainly-dead pilot is brought up to the tower, a perfect picture of permissible heterosexual grief, Johnny immediately and delightedly reduces her to tears: “Where did you get that dress? It’s awful. And those shoes and that coat, jeeeeez!”
He even gets one of the last laughs of the movie, exiting triumphantly and unpunished–just as the airplane is about to touch down, the landing strip goes dark, and the camera pans to Johnny, who waggles his eyebrows suggestively and plugs the lights back in.
“Just kidding,” he says, and he smiles, and no one stops him.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.