In a long essay in Friday’s New York Post, Zucker – marking the 40th anniversary of the release of Airplane! – claimed Paramount Pictures actually “discussed withholding the re-release over feared backlash for scenes that today would be deemed “insensitive.”
The scenes include one in which two Black characters speak entirely in a jive dialect so unintelligible that it has to be subtitled. “I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said to me, “You couldn’t do that scene today,” Zucker wrote.
“But I always wonder, why not? Half the gags in that joke were aimed at white people, given that the translation for “s- -t” is “golly” — and the whole gag is topped off by the whitest lady on the planet, the actress who played the mom on “Leave It to Beaver,” translating.
The bit was evenhanded because we made fun of both points of view. No one ended up being offended by that scene, and all audiences loved it. They still do.”
Zucker said Michael Eisner, then the president of Paramount, “didn’t feel that he had to censor, take apart or micromanage the jokes in the Airplane! script, even the ones he didn’t understand. Eisner somehow knew that comedy requires a certain amount of recklessness and that comedy writers and directors need to experiment until they hit that perfect note where a joke can illuminate uncomfortable subjects by giving us permission to laugh at them.”
Humor happens “when you go against what’s expected and surprise people with something they’re not anticipating,” Zucker argued, “like the New York Jets winning a game. But to find this surprise funny, people have to be willing to suppress the literal interpretations of jokes.”
The fear of audience retaliation is not unwarranted, Zucker acknowledges.
“I admit that their fear of audience retaliation is not entirely unwarranted. There is a very vocal, though I believe small, percentage of the population that can’t differentiate between Glue Sniffing Joke and Glue Sniffing Drug Problem. It is these people whom studio executives fear when they think twice about rereleasing “Airplane!” on its 40th anniversary, when they put disclaimers in front of “Blazing Saddles,” or when they pressure writers to remove jokes that are otherwise perfectly offensive.
Zucker said some of the best contemporary comedy minds are moving on.
Phillips summed up the general plight: “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it. So you just go, ‘I’m out.’