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The gravitas of "Airplane!"

At the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, which each year announces a new list of “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films," a work becomes eligible after 10 years.

One decade isn't a very long time for a film to settle comfortably into the role of "classic." Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame won't nominate people until 25 years after the release of their first album. There's a reason for that. The passage of time, among other things, gives a movie its worth.

Take the movie "Airplane!" -- please!

But seriously, when that disaster-movie spoof came out in 1980, it seemed to set a new standard in comedy. Written and directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, "Airplane!" was a giant cream pie made from the freshest comedic ingredients -- namely, National Lampoon and MAD magazines, plus the sketch television shows "Saturday Night Live" and "Second City Television," all known for sharp and fearless cultural satire.

"Airplane!" didn't just make jokes about movies (notably the "Airport" franchise and Irwin Allen extravaganzas like "The Towering Inferno"). It made jokes about archetypes, establishments, values, attitudes, norms. Everything and everyone took that cream pie in the face: the child-molesting pilot (Peter Graves), the hero with a literal drinking problem (Robert Hays), the virginal heroine (Julie Hagerty, puffing a cig after frolicking with a blow-up doll).

Jill Whelan, better known as Capt. Stubing's daughter on "The Love Boat," sent up her own cutie-pie image as a sick girl; she was serenaded by a clueless nun (soft-rocker Maureen McGovern, of "The Morning After"), who accidentally knocked out her IV tube. Barbara Billingsley, skewered her image as the mother of Beaver Cleaver by not only speaking to a couple of black passengers (gasp!) but by using their native language of "jive."

Of course it was Leslie Nielsen, in the role that launched his second and better-known career, who became the face of "Airplane!" A hunk in the 1950s, he deftly made fun of his own image and the squaresville decade that created him. He enjoyed a terrific run in the 1980s and early 1990s with the brilliant "Police Squad!" television series and the broad-humored "Naked Gun" films, though none of those satires hit as many bull's-eyes as "Airplane!"

Upon its release, "Airplane!" struck many as simply a stupid, lowbrow comedy, which of course it was. But over time, it launched a thousand imitators ("Scary Movie," "Date Movie," "Vampires Suck") and seemed to influence its influences, particularly "Saturday Night Live." You might argue that MAD magazine and National Lampoon were both rendered moot by "Airplane!" and the culture of satire it wrought. They floundered through the 1980s and never recovered.

On Tuesday, the National Film Registry put "Airplane!" in its list of treasured cinematic artefacts, right up there with "The Birth of a Nation" and "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca." Now, that's funny.

And for the heck of it, here's the National Registry's complete list of 25 films for 2010:

 1) AIRPLANE! (1980)

2) ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976)

3) BARGAIN, THE (1914)

4) CRY OF JAZZ (1959)

5) ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB (1967)

6) EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, THE (1980)

7) EXORCIST, THE (1973)

8) FRONT PAGE, THE (1931)

9) GREY GARDENS (1976)

10) I AM JOAQUIN (1969)

11) IT'S A GIFT (1934)

12) LET THERE BE LIGHT (1946)

13) LONESOME (1928)

14) MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937)

15) MALCOLM X (1992)

16) MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971)

17) NEWARK ATHLETE (1891)

18) OUR LADY OF THE SPHERE (1969)

19) THE PINK PANTHER (1964)

20) PRESERVATION OF THE SIGN LANGUAGE (1913)

21) SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)

22) STUDY OF A RIVER (1996)

23) TARANTELLA (1940)

24) TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, A (1945)

25) TRIP DOWN MARKET STREET, A (1906)

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