The passing of Barbara Billingsley (1915-2010), Peter Graves (1926-2010) and Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010)
Bob Hope, at his peak, was considered one of the funniest men on the planet. But show his performances to someone from the generations who have come after him and they may not elicit a lot of laughs. It’s not because Bob Hope wasn’t a good comedian, but because his humor was so dependent upon the time, place and circumstances in which the jokes were told. Consequently, if the time, place and circumstances are removed from the equation, the humor being conveyed loses most — if not all — of its impact.
I mention this because 30 years after the film’s release, Airplane! remains one of the funniest movies ever made. Gag after gag is packed into this film like a carry-on bag stuffed with three weeks worth of clothes. Even if you happen to catch it halfway through on some cable channel late at night, it won’t be five minutes before you’ll begin chuckling.
The first time I saw the movie I was in the 7th grade, so even though I thought it was hysterical I, of course, missed the significance of half of the jokes. One of the reasons I missed the significance of the jokes was because I didn’t recognize the actors from their previous work. Peter Graves looked vaguely familiar, but I had never caught enough Mission: Impossibleepisodes to place him. Leslie Nielsen was a B-movie actor who had never done anything that big before, and it was still years before he would reach pop-culture popularity with The Naked Gun series. And because I had never caught Leave It To Beaver in syndication growing up, I had no idea who Barbara Billingsley was, although I thought that I might have seen her on a game show or two.
As I would find out in later years, the jokes were all the funnier because of who these people were. While Peter Graves’ irreverent questions to the boy visiting the cockpit are funny in and of themselves, they’re even funnier because it was the cool, together spy who defended America against the Communists that was the person asking them. In his previous work, Leslie Nielsen played similar roles as the stoic leading man, a persona he played to the hilt for laughs aboard the doomed airplane. And while the idea of a little old lady speaking jive is hysterical, the fact that it was Mrs. Cleaver doing so in 1980 was comic genius.
By their very presence in the movie, these three actors were purposely breaking from the personas that had so defined them up until this point, personas that harkened back to an era when understandings of who leading men and domesticated women were supposed to be were much more accessible than they are today. In fact, I would argue that their appearances in this crazy movie helped to break some of those understandings that had solidified over the years. No, I don’t mean to place Leslie Nielsen on the same podium as Jackie Robinson, but I do think we all related to elderly housewives a little differently after Barbara Billingsley served as a… (ahem)… cross-cultural ambassador.
In many ways, we in the younger generations are living in a world this film partially helped create. After all, Gen X and Y did not grow up in a world in which those roles were defined but rather one in which those roles had already been smashed by Airplane! and a host of other films. This is not to say that they didn’t need to be smashed; many people from those older generations would probably tell you just how oppressive those roles could be for everyone involved. But I also sometimes wonder if something also got lost in the iconoclasm. After all, those who saw Airplane! when it came out largely understood the irony of a hapless Peter Graves; following generations might have understood that the humor was being ironic, but I’m not sure we completely understand what that film and those like it are being ironic about.
Which makes the passing this year of Barbara Billingsley, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen all the more poignant. In their hysterical movie, they stood across the divide that separates two worlds. The first world contained the easily defined social roles of the 50s and 60s, a world very strongly represented by Bob Hope. The other world was (and is) the one in which those roles either were smashed or have evolved into something new. I can’t help but feel some of the wisdom of both worlds has gone away with their passing. One of the true gifts they gave us is that they were able to make us laugh throughout these changes in understanding… even thirty years later.