It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Comedy Gold

SURELY YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS: The True Story of “Airplane!,” by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. Read by the authors with a supporting cast.

“You ever seen a grown man naked?”As Captain Oveur in “Airplane!,”the handsome, stone-faced Peter Graves delivers to a starry-eyed child an immortal line in movie history, one of many in the 1980 classic that would be unthinkable in 2024. David Zucker, one-third of its writing and directing team along with Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, has a standard answer for reporters who ask if the movie could be made today: “Sure, just without the jokes.”

Do yourself a favor: Watch “Airplane!” (and perhaps throw in their “Kentucky Fried Movie”as well), then spend a few hours with the audio of their new book, “Surely You Can’t Be Serious,” a meandering oral history of three nice Jewish boys who grew up in Milwaukee and didn’t know the first thing about moviemaking, but did it anyway. It’s funny and weirdly inspirational, and will satisfy both the comedy obsessive and the merely curious.

But more than anything, you’ll begin to understand what makes the movie genius: the fact that no one in it seems to realize they’re making a comedy. That, and the sheer silliness that saves so many scenes from being offensive. (Barbara Billingsley, a.k.a. Beaver Cleaver’s mom, as a jive-talk translator?)

In the audiobook, you’ll have the pleasure of hearing firsthand not only from various members of the original cast, but also from surprising people who auditioned (like David Letterman, who was deeply relieved that everyone agreed he couldn’t act) and acolytes (Sarah Silverman, Trey Parker, Matt Stone) whose work has been profoundly influenced by the Zucker brothers and Abrahams.

Perhaps no one’s style has been more obviously affected than the actor Bill Hader’s. Hearing him repeat Robert Stack’s iconic lines in his deadpan basso — “Municipal bonds, Ted” — you can believe him when he says the ZAZ oeuvre (which also included movies like the “Naked Gun” series, “Top Secret!” and “Ruthless People”) “changed the world of comedy, and possibly my DNA as well.”

“You can tell it’s just three guys trying to make themselves laugh,” Hader says of the film at one point. “Which is always where the best comedy comes from.”

SURELY YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS: The True Story of “Airplane!” | By David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker | Read by the authors with a supporting cast. | Macmillan Audio | 7 hours, 53 minutes

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