Airplane! and the English Teacher Problem

In what now feels like looking for needles in a comedic haystack, I’ve been trying to find older comedic works that in some way engage with mental health, in either a funny or serious light. I’m also trying to primarily find older works, because for my project, I want to see an evolution of portrayals, and how different afflictions were treated in comedy. The problem that I’m running into with these older works is what I like to call the “English teacher problem.” The English teacher problem is the overanalysis of fiction, or anything really, to the point of huge jumps to conclusions. The quintessential example is something like “the curtains were blue to represent the main character’s sadness,” when in reality, the curtains being blue could just be an extraneous detail. I write all that essentially to say that its harder than I’d hoped to go back and pluck out good primary sources from obscurity, because of this problem of interpretation.

All that is to say, however, that I think I’ve got a good one this week (although truth be told even this feels like a stretch). Today, I present to you all Ted Stryker, and the fantastically hilarious 1980 comedy movie Airplane! as this week’s focus. In Airplane!, Ted Stryker is a former fighter pilot, who is suffering from PTSD after fighting in “the war,” and because of this, suffers from a “drinking problem,” and has a pathological fear of flying. As many wacky things occur on the titular airplane, Ted is forced to face his trauma, and land the plane after the pilot is incapacitated. While I’d venture to guess that this is not the most accurate depiction of PTSD in media, I think we can learn something about how PTSD was seen in the 1970s and 80s from how his trauma is addressed episodically, and how it is (relatively) easily resolved in crisis.

Maybe I’m grasping at straws, but whether I am or I’m right on the money, if you haven’t seen Airplane! before, this is your sign to watch it, because it is absolutely hilarious.

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