In the 70’s disaster films were big box office. By 1980 the genre was ripe for parody which led to the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker hit Airplane! However, four years earlier there was another film that was not a success but which skewered the disaster genre with a comedic style similar to that which the ZAZ team would later perfect. Directed by James Frawley, the man who helmed The Muppet Movie, it’s 1976’s The Big Bus.
As our story begins, Coyote Bus Lines is putting the finishing touches on The Cyclops, a jumbo nuclear-powered bus that will carry over 100 passengers on a luxurious non-stop trip from New York to Denver. Someone is not keen for this advancement in bus travel to happen, however, which leads to a bomb going off in the lab. The bus is unharmed, but the lead scientist, Professor Baxter (Harold Gould), is seriously injured while the driver and co-driver end up dead. This leaves Baxter’s daughter, Kitty (Stockard Channing), to find a new driver. Kitty turns to a former lover, Dan Torrance (Joseph Bologna), to take over as driver. Dan has been shunned by the bus driver community after he crashed his bus on Mount Diablo and all the passengers ended up eaten before the rescue came. For what it’s worth, Dan insists that his co-driver ate the passengers, while Dan survived on the seats (accidentally eating a foot at one point).
Dan accepts the job and recruits “Shoulders” O’Brien (John Beck), who he doesn’t know is narcoleptic, to be co-driver. The bus departs New York to much fanfare. Among the passengers are a wild assortment of characters played the likes of Lynn Redgrave, Richard Mulligan, Sally Kellerman, Rene Auberjonois, and Ruth Gordon. The Cyclops is a real work of art, complete with a bar (with Murphy Dunne as lounge singer), bowling alley, and captain’s dining room. However, the bus also has a bomb on board and is soon careening out of control as it makes its way across the country.
The Big Bus hits many of its marks when it comes to parodying the disaster genre. I love that, just like many disaster picks, it has a huge star-studded cast. Many of these people are just the sort of actors you’d expect to see in a legitimate example of catastrophe cinema. Beyond the folks I’ve already mentioned we get performers like Ned Beatty, Larry Hagman, Bob Dishy, Jose Ferrer, and Howard Hesseman. The entire cast proves to be exceptional comedic performers. Joseph Bologna is perfect as the heroic captain of the bus. Honestly, Bologna is an actor I rarely enjoy as I find his style resorts to wild-eyed screaming too often. However, this role is a perfect fit for him. Stockard Channing also brings a wonderful comedic energy to her performance.
This is an especially interesting film to look at given what we would see in Airplane! a few years later. After seeing just a few of the film’s jokes, I started to wonder if I had missed the names Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker in the opening credits. From what I can tell, though, the trio had no involvement in this film. Strangely enough, a car featuring the radio station call letters of WZAZ appears in the film’s first scene (these same call letters were used in Airplane! and, duh, are the initials of that film’s directors). The gags are very similar to the ZAZ style. To give you an idea, in a bar room brawl scene one character smashes a milk carton and threatens the others with its jagged cardboard edges. I won’t claim that all the jokes work, or that they come with the speed and precision that they do in films like Airplane! or The Naked Gun. However, the success ratio is still very high and one can’t help but think that the ZAZ boys may have been somewhat inspired by this film.
It is a little bit disappointing that the film sort of fizzles out at the end and doesn’t really have a solid ending. It was also a bit distracting for this Coloradan that through much of the film the bus was east of Denver, yet driving through a mountainous landscape. Yup, all those mountains in Iowa and Nebraska. I’m willing to overlook this, though, considering how much fun I had with the rest of movie. In my book, The Big Bus deserves a place right alongside Airplane! as a great disaster movie parody.