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In the awesome 1980 comedy Airplane!, there are two jokes that make no sense and I've never been able to find an adequate explanation for them. Is anyone able to shed some light?

Near the end of the film, Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) arrives at the control tower to help Ted Striker (Robert Hays) land Trans-American Airlines' endangered flight 209. Kramer confers with Lloyd McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) and, while they're discussing the situation, they have the following exchange:

McCroskey: Right now, things aren't so good.

Kramer: Let me tell you something, Steve. Ted Striker was a top notch squadron leader. A long time ago.

At that moment, a spear whizzes across the room and into a nearby bulletin board. Without referencing the projectile, the conversation continues:

McCroskey: I want you to get on the horn and talk that guy down. Now you're going to have to let him get the feel of that airplane on the way and you'll have to talk him onto the approach. So help me, you'll have to talk him right down to the ground.

At this point, a watermelon drops from above and smashes onto the corner of a desk in the background. It is not acknowledged by either character.

Everything else in the movie is crystal clear, but these two gags have always confounded me. Surely somebody must know!

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    BCdotWEB: Table lamps are being dumped onto the runway because someone says, "Let's get some lights on the field" or something like that. The crew playing musical instruments in a quick cutaway is because of someone's line, "That's impossible. They're on instruments." Funny isn't just stupid shit for no reason, unless you're watching "Scary Movie" or similar garbage. Although I think your explanation for the spear may be correct.
    – freeling10
    Jan 17, 2017 at 13:38
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    I always thought that the spear represented "a long time ago" like a hunting spear that would be used a long time ago...as for the watermelon, I always interpreted that as just dropping something heavy "right down to the ground" I believe that McCroskey slams his hand on the desk as well when he's saying it. Great question, btw! Love the fact that you added "surely" in your question! Haha! Jan 17, 2017 at 13:53
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    @steelersquirrel [Watermelon] My thoughts exactly :)
    – Walt
    Jan 17, 2017 at 14:35
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    When we left the theater, my Mom remarked that she didn’t realize it was going to be a comedy. Dad pointed to the “knot” poster in response.
    – JDługosz
    Jan 18, 2017 at 5:56

3 Answers 3

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My take

Overall: These are visuals meant to exaggerate the chaos in a disaster movie's control room much like the various people panicking in it as well as literal s#!% hitting a literal fan. But more specifically:

The Spear: As commented above, I always felt this was also a callback to the stock-footage indians that were chasing Kramer in the end of this previous scene:

The Watermelon: I always felt this was a comical visualization of McCroskey words (note that it falls when he says 'right down to the ground' and matches his gesture) and a juxtaposition suggesting that the plane will crash in a splat, rather than land, on the ground.

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    Native American arn't well known for using spears. And had none in the scene you post.
    – cde
    Jan 17, 2017 at 17:39
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    @cde how not? I found several resources (some apparently by native american tribes) that seem to disagree with you, here's one: warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-indian-weapons-tools/spears.htm
    – Paul
    Jan 17, 2017 at 18:39
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    The spear likely made a bit more sense (or less sense in the proper funny way) to audiences in 1980 who had recently seen Zulu Dawn from the year before. In that movie the protagonists got overrun and badly defeated by the spear-wielding Zulu army. So, in a cross universe way, it would have been reinforcing that their situation was hopeless, and a grisly death awaited nearly everyone.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 17, 2017 at 19:34
  • (upvoted, and if you think any of the above has value in the answer feel free to add it).
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 17, 2017 at 19:47
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    I'm pretty sure they re-used the watermelon gag in Airplane II with a "we'll get 'em down. And down safe!" joke (a safe falls out of the sky). Jan 18, 2017 at 0:36
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It's possible to overthink the gag - they are both just cynical 'peanut gallery' jokes. The spear is suggesting that Kramer meant a REALLY long time ago. And the watermelon is a suggestion of how 'talking him down to the ground' is going to go - a big smash and lots of red everywhere.

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I don't know if this will satisfy you, but it's about as official an answer as you're going to get.

TL;DR: They're just bizarre jokes.

On the DVD commentary, the writers and producer talk about scenes with Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, and they mention that the jokes don't always have anything to do with the action (these are my best guesses as to who's speaking):

David Zucker: He was a really nice guy, Bob Stack... He really understood it, too. One of the first read-throughs, Lloyd Bridges had a lot of questions about the script. He said, "Now why would my character say this? And why...?"

Jon Davison: He was actually trying to make sense of his dialogue.

David Zucker: Stack just laughs and he said, "Lloyd, there's a watermelon hitting the desk behind us and a spear flying into the wall. Just talk, nobody's paying attention to us."

Jerry Zucker: I also remember him telling Lloyd, he said, "Lloyd, we are the joke. Just keep going."

Jim Abrahams: Stack was so right on, he got it totally.

They confirm this later with another gag that has no setup:

Jim Abrahams: This is the famous mirror scene. I don't know if anybody really got it. It didn't get a laugh but it was bizarre. And so we decided to take that concept and expand it into Top Secret! and do a movie full of bizarre jokes.

And another pointless gag:

(Rex Kramer tosses a cigarette out the window and something explodes.)

David Zucker: Look—here's another joke we always thought was funny. The audience really didn't laugh, but we were hysterical the day we filmed that, we just thought "that's the funniest joke in the movie."

Jon Davison: And the watermelon, and the spear.

David Zucker: That's right, nobody laughed at that, either. But we left it in.

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