When people remember the immortal Joey, played by then nine year old Rossie Harris, of Team ZAZ's stone cold classic "Airplane!", they remember his innuendo-laden cockpit encounters with Captain Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves). In Will Harris's oral history of "Airplane!" for The AV Club from 2015, Rossie Harris admitted that in playing the part he was unaware of the scene's actual overtones. "I think that that worked to the directors' advantage," Harris explained, "because I really was not reacting to it because I really had no idea what was going on." In contrast, Graves, Harris said, "was very cognizant of the subtleties and the undertones or actual overt overtones of the script, so he was very, very wary. I think he had to be talked into doing it at all. Really, between scenes, he did not want any untoward contact with me and stuff. So he was a bit standoffish."
That description is exactly how it plays on screen. Graves seems like he's in his own world, drifting into some past we want absolutely nothing to do with, while Harris seems like he's in his own world too, all blissfully unaware big eyes. The era into which "Airplane!" arrived was different too. It was 1980, the tail-end of the so-called Golden Age, which sounds weird and wrong, of Skyjacking. Airlines were finally getting around to making it more difficult to board planes with weapons. Still, airline security was not necessarily what it is now, which is underlined, perhaps unintentionally, by a background moment of incredible hilarity.
This moment arrives after Joey has already been stewarded into the cockpit by the flight attendant, presumably gone back to his seat and now decided to return to the pilots' lair. We know he has returned because as Captain Oveur is busy at the controls, we see Joey enter the cockpit all on his lonesome, without any supervision.
This is incredible. This is hilarious. This is some little kid just wandering back and forth from cockpit to cabin to cockpit of an in-flight Boeing 707 at his leisure. And notice how Frank Ashmore, playing navigator Victor - "What's our vector, Victor?" - has a small smile, which is left over from when he actually sees Joey just walk right on in without even knocking, like it's sweet as opposed to a potential security breach.
If "Airplane!" were a sitcom I think this would be the sort of moment that would not have even earned a guffaw from the laugh track. I think it would have just slipped right on by. To that point, a few years ago The Telegraph reported on some panel of subscribers to some movie-watching service called Lovefilm that determined "Airplane!" was had the most laughs per minute of any movie (or, the most laughs per minute of the Top 10 comedies chosen by LoveFilm members) coming in at three laughs per minutes. The dubiousness of this research aside, it speaks to the intent of "Airplane!", to pack its run time so full of laughs that if something doesn't land, something else will, or if you miss a laugh, you might see it years later and howl.
It's an important laugh to remember. After all, ten years later, John McClane himself, hero of Nakatomi Tower, would be forcefully escorted out of the tower at Dulles Airport for not having clearance. So let us be sure never to forget "Airplane's!"swift, comical immortalization of a forgotten moment in time when a nine year old could simply waltz into a jetliner's cockpit like it was a hotel lobby.