Inside the Actors’ Studio: ‘Airplane!’
April 28th, 2015

This AV Club oral history of Airplane! is great for a lot of reasons, but to my mind, the best part is the story behind the “I speak jive” bit. This might be the best gag in a movie full of fantastic gags, and it turns out that–like with a lot of wonderful things that look effortless–a bunch of work went into it.

So the ZAZ guys had an idea for the bit–two guys speak jive, and it gets interpreted by a woman who looks like she’s a ’60s sitcom mom–which is inspired. But it was the actors, Al White and Norman Gibbs, who honed the joke to make it immortal:

Al White (“Second Jive Dude”): I went in for my first audition, and then when I came in for the callback, that’s when I met Norman [Gibbs, a.k.a. “First Jive Dude”]. We basically met while we were waiting, and it was just a matter of both of us seeing what the other was doing and feeding off each other. He seemed to be doing all the talking, and I just started thinking, “You know, if we both try and talk at the same time, it’ll just get in the way of what should be accomplished with two people working together.” So I just pulled back and fed off of him and responded, and then I jumped in when I could. And I guess we blew ’em away, ’cause we got the part!

D. Zucker: When they did it for us in the reading, we cracked up. We just thought they were great. There was no question that we were going to cast them.

J. Zucker: In the original script, we just wrote, “Mo fo, shi’ man, wha’ fo’.” I mean, it was just nothing. And when Al and Norman came in, we apologized profusely and explained that that was the best that three Jewish guys from Milwaukee could do.

White: I looked at the script and couldn’t make hide nor hair of the actual verbiage. [Laughs.] But I got a sense of what they wanted. They wanted jive as a language, which it is not: It’s a word here and a phrase there, originated by the jazz musicians back in the 1920s. So we had to first understand what they wanted, and then Norman and I tried to work together on it, but we couldn’t seem to gel on what we each wanted to do, so I said, “Well, okay, you work on yours and I’ll work on mine.” So what I did was, I went and got a couple of books—one was on black English by J.L. Dillard, and another was on black language—and I just saw what they had in standard English and tried to come up with what I felt was jive. I tried to jive it down, if you know what I mean, using actual words and actual meaning. So what we ended up saying does mean something. It’s not a bunch of gibberish or whatever. It did actually mean something.

Just to give you an example, in one of the scenes I say, “Mack herself a pro, slick! That gray matter back, lotta performers down, not take TCB-in’, man!” So “Mack” was taken from one of these books—the black English book, I think—and means to “to speak.” “Mack herself a pro,” she said she was a pro, or professional. “Slick,” that was his name I gave him. “Gray matter back,” I needed a word to jive down the word “remember,” but I didn’t find it in either of the books, so I said, “Well, let me see: ‘gray matter,’ that’s the thinking part of the brain, and ‘back’ for remember back. “Gray matter back.” And from there I’m just saying that a lot of performers stayed down and weren’t taking care of business on the technical side… man! [Laughs.]

When we got to the set and sat down, I said, “Okay, what do you have?” And Norman went over exactly what he had, and I went over what I had, and then I said, “Oh, okay, well, when you get to that part where it says, ‘See a broad a booty yak ’em,’ I’ll come in with, ‘Lay ’ down and smack ’em, yak ’em!’” So we gelled it together right there, just before we shot. Jerry came over and said, “You guys ready?” or something to that effect, and we said, “Yeah!” So we shot it, and he came back and said, “Can you throw a ‘man’ in there or something?” We said, “Yeah, we’ll throw a ‘man’ in there.” [Laughs.] Jerry was the only one who spoke to us, because David and Jim were in the back, watching on the monitor. But after every take, Jerry would go back and confer with David and Jim, and then he’d come back and give us whatever notes all three of them had come up with. So a lot of work went into it, but if it came off like it was easy to come up with it, then we did our job!

There’s all sorts of lessons in there about writing, acting, and life.

(Another great part of the piece is that Peter Graves didn’t really want to do the movie. But once he committed, he committed–and the result is gold.)

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