The Big Bus (1976)

Director: James Frawley

Starring: Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, John Beck, Rene Auberjonois, Ned Beatty, Bob Dishy, Jose Ferrer, Ruth Gordon

Written by: Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen

Running Time: 88 mins

Original UK Cert: A

Original US Release: 23rd June 1976

Many people would consider that Airplane is the Godfather of spoof comedies. It certainly has stood the test of time and is still one of the funniest films ever made. It wasn’t the first. Hidden away between Mel Brooks’ spoofs and the Abrahams/Zucker Brothers classic, is a small yet perfectly formed spoof of disaster movies, The Big Bus. While it might not be as laugh a minute as the 1980 airline disaster comedy, it manages to hold its own and still raises a smile, something that modern spoof films have failed to do.

Cyclops is the first nuclear-powered bus, a massive two leveled vehicle going Non-stop from New York to Denver. Someone, however, wants to sabotage the journey and days before its maiden voyage, the bus is driverless and the daughter of the designer, Kitty Baxter, has to turn to an old flame, a run-down driver accused of cannibalism, Dan Torrance, to take control. As the rag-tag passengers enter for the first trip, the journey is plagued with disasters and the question is, will they reach their destination in one piece?

The Big Bus works because it understands the subject matter it is spoofing. At the time of its release, cinemas were filled with a variety of disaster movies from The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and, of course, The Towering Inferno, as well as the Airport films, from which this does take its major elements. A man with a history in charge of the beast, a collection of miss-matched passengers, a love interest and plenty of events to fill the running time. Writers Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen were obvious fans of the genre.

here most modern spoof films fail is that they rely too heavily on pop culture references which, seen only a few years later, are either tired or you have forgotten why they were referenced in the first place. What makes The Big Bus work is that it doesn’t have to mention things happening in the world of celebrity at the time, it just leans on good, old-fashioned silliness.

It is very silly indeed. We get a fight in which the protagonists use broken milk cartons and candles. We have a character with a watch imbedded in his chest (cue chain gags) and, more successfully, a piano player who doesn’t know the meaning of the word, subtle. In fact, the film lifts every time he even opens his mouth, making up songs about having six months to live. This scene stealing performance comes courtesy of Murphy Dunne, one of the Blues Brothers Band.

The film is littered with top-named character actors of the time, so they know how to deliver a punchline. So we might not know their names but we would certainly recognise them from countless appearance in huge 70s films. It doesn’t have to rely on big superstars to grab the attention. So we get a pre-Grease Stockard Channing as Kitty, Larry Hagman pops up as an inept doctor. Ned Beatty, Ruth Gordon, Sally Kellerman, every one is a face you’d remember.

As for the humour, it is a hit and miss affair but each gag is delivered completely dead-pan and with plenty of energy. It might not hit the laugh factor as high as Airplane does but it leaves you with a smile on your face and a sense that you’ve spent a dizzy 90 minutes in a very silly yet fun film. It does run out of steam by the end and it has the impression that the writers didn’t know how to end it, so they just…end it.

If you are a fan of spoof comedies, then I’d recommend you check this out. It might not be perfect but compared to the likes of Scary Movie 5 and all those other so-called comedies of recent years, it sits high above them, looking down.


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