Before the behemoth that was Airplane! (and to a lesser extent its sequel), disaster movie comedy was few and far between. The Big Bus was Hollywood’s first attempt at merging the genres in a send-up comedic way. Whilst a lot of the jokes rely on understanding the source material and pop culture of the time, there is still something to be found inside this ridiculous concept.
The disasters faced
A big bus, an evil overlord, earthquakes, bad driving, narcolepsy at the wheel, radiation and driving off a giant cliff!
America loves convenience and nothing shouts that more than a non-stop bus ride from New York to Denver. To manage this? The bus is powered by nuclear energy so it can blast its way across the country. The bus is full of all kinds of things, including a piano lounge, bowling alley and swimming pool. Cue visual gags galore.
The Oil Company have other ideas. They’d like to blow it up and stop it in its tracks from completing its first journey. Kitty, the designer is on board with her ex-boyfriend and down on his luck Dan as the driver. His co-driver Shoulders passes out as soon as any pressure is applied to a situation. Other send up characters include an old stowaway lady (direct from Airport), Sybil and Claude whom are awaiting their divorce but can’t stop getting rampant and a couple of priests. If you can follow where each character is being borrowed from, you’ll enjoy The Big Bus a lot more but I highly recommend having watched the Airport series before you tackle this film.
The Oil Company are your quintessential Bond villains. Ironman stays in his iron lung for the entire movie barking orders and attempting to entertain women. It is a great nod to the silliness of that time and the old Batman TV series.
Whilst various problems occur during the journey, the crew work to solve them – including one sugary moment when Kitty gets stuck in a kitchen filling up with cola! This all boils down to the final act where the bus is sent out of control off the side of a cliff and let hanging off it. Too much movement and it will topple killing everyone on it. How will our team of passengers deal with it?
Why is it worth watching?
I found it fascinating to see how slapstick observational comedy was put together before the Zucker brothers redefined it. The Big Bus has many of the Zucker brothers ideas and feel to it but it doesn’t have their pace. I really feel like Airplane and then the Naked Gun films really honed that quickfire whit over time. The Big Bus chooses a more structured send-up.
There is also an awful lot of 70s humour. I was born in the 80s personally so a fair few references and jokes went over my head but if you love your 70s pop culture then I’m sure you’ll get an extra kick out of it.
The bus itself is a great gag as more and more things seem to come out of it. The self-cleaning car wash, the extra rooms, the piano man who hurls abuse at you – plenty of fun is milked out of the titular vehicle. Similarly, the cast seems like they are having a great time. Between the stunts, the visual comedy and the over the top nature of everything – it feels like a Carry On movie on steroids minus the butt slapping and tsking.
It is also worth noting that there is a decent budget behind things too. There are explosion and stunts peppered throughout with may be lost on the first watch but I really appreciated that not all the budget was spent on the cast.
The bus itself is two busses stuck joined together with giant rocket thrusters on. There is a giant explosion at the beginning of the movie and some undercranked moving vehicle shots too. Many stunts take place around the bus I didn’t see any really terrible background video effects where they’ve filmed on stage with rolling video behind. Overall, The Big Bus does well with what it offers.
Alongside the premise and visual gags, it is the characters that hold the film together. My particular favourites are Sybil and Claude as they shout ‘I love you I hate you I love you!’ and then make out across the dinner table. The casting is superb too with even smaller roles filled by big shoes. Larry Hagman and Ned Beatty are only in a few scenes for example. Lynn Redgrave works are sexy charms as a parody of her family name and Bob Dishy as a doctor slowly deciding to just not do good anymore has some great comical moments too.
‘You eat one lousy foot and they call you a cannibal!’
Three memorable moments
- Kitty almost drowning in soda
- Discovering all the activities you can do on the bus as it goes along
- Sybil declaring she is the daughter of the man who made poison gas
The obligatory weird moment
Its a comedy – there are plenty. What has made me laugh more is that I’ve found lots of people nitpicking the fact that the bus itself doesn’t have a proper weight distribution to be able to run nor enough wheels. When the bus splits in half at the end, the rear end has no steering so it couldn’t turn. For a movie like this, people who decide to nitpick things like this shouldn’t be allowed to watch a visual comedy where these things are part of the joke. The more interesting thing is that the movie is mostly shot in Los Angeles – not Denver or New York. What kind of detour were they taking?
My favourite weird moment is in the credits. Spot the reference “Paramount Pictures thanks Trailways for their help and technical assistance in making this impossible picture possible” as they scroll.
The drinking game
Every time this film sends up something from the Airport series. Both Airport and Airport 75 get poked at. What is more fun is that it came out before Airport 77 and Airport 79 Concorde and yet still feels like it is taking the mickey out of them too.
Whilst some of the movie has dated, The Big Bus at its core is still a good send-up of the disaster movie genre. It doesn’t quite have the legs of Airplane! or its sequel but it has fun doing its own thing. A farce and a half of spoof shenanigans.
Rating: 3 / 5 Good
If you liked The Big Bus then you may like…
- Airplane! – The much-loved comedy that sends up the genre perfectly
- Speed – When a bus disaster is done seriously
- Airplane 2 The Sequel – Also in a similar vibe to The Big Bus’ comedy style