Arts

Director David Zucker talks “Airplane!”, comedy, getting his start on campus

UW-Madison Alumnus David Zucker directed the comedy classic, “Airplane!”

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Surely you’ve seen, or at least heard of, David Zucker’s movies. The 1971 UW-Madison alumnus is a giant in the film industry. He directed “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun,” and helped start the careers of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker as well as “Dumb and Dumber” directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly. In town for a campus tour with his son, I sat down with Zucker to talk about his time at UW-Madison and everything that followed.

Were you studying film when you were here?

I probably took my first film class when I was a junior. I think it was called ‘Introduction to Radio, TV & Film.’ The major was speech, and I specialized in film.

Did you know that’s what you wanted to do when you were coming to Madison, or did you just kind of find it?

I didn’t know. I had no idea they even had a major in film. But I was interested in film. I was fooling around with cameras all through high school, and I thought in high school that I’d like to eventually write and direct television commercials. When you grow up in Milwaukee, you don’t really think that you’re ever going to become a movie director. That’s not really in the cards. It just turned out that way.

So I went to Wisconsin, and I took this course, and I was hooked. I loved the professor, whose name was Richard Sherman. I did a 10-minute short for that class, and I showed it in my study section, and everybody laughed. I was the only one who did anything funny. Everything was pretty artsy then.

So the TA showed it to the professor, and he asked me to show it for the whole 600-student lecture hall, and we showed that. I did it with my brother, who was a freshman, and it got big laughs, so we thought “Hey, we could probably make people laugh.”

Do you think your time on campus at Madison changed your interest in comedy, or the type of comedy you wanted to pursue?

I think it did. It had a big influence because we were exposed in both the film courses I took, and there were these film societies. They’d show movies, and this [was] before you could stream [movies], or whatever you get now. But the only way you could see an old movie was to go to these film societies, and they would show movies in … these huge lecture halls. And that’s where I saw “Duck Soup,” and “A Night at the Opera.” That’s where I was exposed to the Marx brothers. And I think that had a big influence on me.

And it was a crazy time when you were on campus, too.

It was a very serious time. Everybody was protesting the Vietnam War, but I think my brother and I, even through all that, saw the humor in it. I don’t think we took it all that seriously.

One thing we’ve been able to do is kind of see the humor in everything. I remember, around 1967, in the heat of all the demonstrations and the marches and the riots, that was the first year they instituted student photo IDs. And so a bunch of my friends and I, everybody said, well, they’re just trying to do this so they can identify us in the demonstrations. And so everybody says, ‘we’re not going to do it.’

And of course, they all caved, except me. So this was my University of Wisconsin ID.

Zucker shows me a picture of his student ID. He’s dressed up in a head scarf, sunglasses and a fake mustache.

They let you take it like that?

Yeah, and I spoke in an accent. It was ridiculous.

I was reading about how, in the middle of all these protests, you and your brother were doing practical jokes in Memorial Library.

Well, we started Kentucky Fried Theater here on campus with our pal Jim Abrahams, who went to high school with us, and Dick Chudnow. And they were four years older than we were, and they were the ones who did these pranks at the library.

Jim would be studying in the library, and would open up a briefcase, and would take out a tablecloth and put it over the library table, and then take out plates, and a whole table setting, candles, lit the candles. And by this time, everybody was watching. And then Chudnow came in dressed as a waiter with this silver pot and delivered it, and it was a McDonald’s hamburger, and Jim would eat it.

Another time, Jim would walk in the library with crutches carrying a load of books. Chudnow went by and kicked the crutch out so he fell down, and people were just outraged.

So can you tell me a little more about the origins of the Kentucky Fried Theater?

I had graduated already, and I went around applying for jobs at television stations. I couldn’t get any work, so I worked for my dad as a construction expeditor for a couple of buildings he was building in Milwaukee.

Months went by, and I went down to Chicago and saw this show called ‘Void Where Prohibited by Law,’ which was a videotape show. At one end was a TV monitor, and at the other end was a Coke machine, and in the middle was a gigantic waterbed. And we all sat on the waterbed and we watched this fifty-minute videoshow, and I laughed hysterically. And I thought “we could do this, that’s what we could do.”

So I drove right back up to Madison, and told Jerry “this is what we’re going to do,” and then we recruited Jim Abrahams and Dick Chudnow. And what we did was combine the videoshow with live sketches, and that became the Kentucky Fried Theater, which we opened here in Madison on Regent Street.

Did it go well at the beginning?

Yeah, we put up flyers on campus and word got out instantly, and we were packed for a year.

How long did you do Kentucky Fried Theater?

We did a year in Madison. We could only charge a dollar a ticket. We were so successful, we knew it was funny. We saw what was on “The Tonight Show,” for instance, and those were the days when Johnny Carson was doing “The Tonight Show.” He had this sketch group playing, and we thought we were better than they were, so we moved out to L.A., started our Kentucky Fried Theater in West L.A., and we got on “The Tonight Show.” And we were on twice, but we weren’t really going to be a TV group, so we started writing movies. We started writing “Airplane!” in 1975.

So you wrote “Airplane!” before “Kentucky Fried Movie” came out.

Well, we wrote “Airplane!”, but when you do stuff that’s that different, you can’t get financing right away. It’s just hard to raise money. It was easier to raise money for “Kentucky Fried Movie.”

It’s crazy to me that “Airplane!” was top five box office for its year, because I look at it now and it’s all superhero movies and sequels. Do you think something like “Airplane!” could do as well if you did it today?

It would do well, it would be a hit, but I don’t know if we could raise the money for it. I’ve got scripts that are funny, but it’s hard to raise money. I’d like to do these movies, but… Hollywood’s just terrible. The movies are terrible, and the comedies are terrible.

What comedies do you like today?

The last movie comedy that I liked was “Bad Grandpa.” I laughed at that, and “Bridesmaids” I thought was funny. But not much else since then. Those were original movies. I’m just not interested in seeing retreads that were conceived in a studio executive board room. The good stuff comes from guys that are writing stuff in their garages.

What are some of the ways you think comedy movies have changed since you first started?

Spoof has changed quite a lot. It was kind of bastardized. It started out as this pure form with “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun,” and those ideas get played out, so you have to find a new approach, and you have to be able to reinvent yourself. The genre has kind of died out. It needs to be reinvented.

Why do you think “Airplane!”, as a spoof, holds up more than thirty years later?

For one, it was the first. And it had a great story. The most important thing was the story. And I think the first “Naked Gun” holds up really well, because that’s a great story. But there was no story better than “Airplane!”, because we got it from an existing movie called “Zero Hour.”

Everything just came together. It was a classic. I don’t think we’ve done a better movie since then.

It’s an interesting movie because it’s the first movie my dad ever showed me when I was old enough to watch, I guess, inappropriate movies. And it was really funny when I was 13, and it’s still just as funny now.

That’s the other reason why it’s held up, it’s still funny. It’s not dated. We never did topical humor. Well, there’s some.

There’s a Ronald Reagan reference.

Yeah, and I regret those. Those are cheap, stupid topical references. But it’s ok. I forgive us.

Are you working on anything else right now?

Actually, we’re working on a script to “Naked Gun 4.” Since studios only do franchises, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Pat Proft and I—he was my writing partner for the “Naked Gun”s and the “Scary Movie”s—we’re putting together a plot with Frank Drebin’s son.

So for students who are thinking about going into film, do you have any words of advice from things over the years?

Oh yeah, I would say quit now, you’ll never make it {laughs}. Because I don’t want to be responsible for getting anybody into the business. I don’t encourage my own son. I just wouldn’t even advise anybody to get into this.

We were lucky. I hesitate to give advice, but I can give opinions. And my opinion is, probably the way to do something is to just do it. Because it’s much easier now to make a video. You can put something on YouTube, and if it’s really good it’ll get seen. But there’s a lot of people out there doing that. So there’s more competition. I don’t know how anybody gets started.

It’s probably not a good idea to worship anything, or admire anything too much. Because then you’re overshadowed by that, and then you can’t get out from under it. We admired Woody Allen, he was our idol, or Mel Brooks to a lesser extent. But it wasn’t such an admiration that we wanted to emulate what they were doing. We had our own style, and what made us laugh, and we didn’t care what people thought. We didn’t write things so that the kids will like it, we wrote things so that we liked it. But to advise anybody to get into this business, it’s pretty ridiculous.

Is there anything you wish you had done that you haven’t had the opportunity to do?

I wish I would’ve done another Leslie Nielsen-style movie in the mid-’90s, I think that would’ve been an opportunity. But I was already tired of that, I always wanted to do something new. I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing. I always wanted to find something new to do, even though it wasn’t always the most lucrative thing to do.

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