The Birth of Jive

On the occasion of the 35th anniversary of Airplane!, the funniest movie ever made, the A.V. Club brings us an oral history of the movie from the people who made it happen. A sample:

Al White [“Second Jive Dude”]: 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 [Gibbs, “First Jive Dude”] 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!

Read the whole thing to learn about Leslie Nielsen’s fart machine, and the special bond that developed between Barbara Billingsley and Second Jive Dude.

Leave a Reply