Non-Union Films: The Big Bus


Midmost Coast podcast episode 035 | Non-Union Films: The Big Bus

In 1976 a team of specialists finished a two year project to build a giant bus. Then they stayed up all night writing the script for a movie based around it.

Though definitively a Hollywood production, The Big Bus has lost its rightful place in movie history as an obvious precursor to future parody films such as the 1980 film Airplane!

It’s The Big Bus!

Show Summary


  • We welcome special guest panelist and known millennial Anna
  • Previous bonus episodes used to torture Sean included Dawson’s Creek or One Tree Hill, this film is his revenge
  • It’s The Big Bus!
  • “Non-Union Films” can mean non-union or just “Hollywood outcast”
  • Though this film was very “Hollywood” it’s been cast out of film comedy history
  • The Big Bus has not achieved cult film status… yet
  • Airplane! steals thunder from The Big Bus

Big Bus Basics

  • Stockard Channing of Grease fame
  • Joseph Bologna, acclaimed playwright
  • A cast mostly known for television roles
  • Produced and released by Paramount Studios
  • The film follows a string of high profile disaster flicks
  • The movie mocks plot material from many sources
  • René Auberjonois (Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), is a connection to King Kong
  • James Frawley, of The Muppet Movie, directs
  • John Landis noticed Murphy Dune in this movie looking for a lounge singer for The Blues Brothers
  • Ruth Gordon, life-long “old lady” character actress
  • Lynn Redgrave, sister of Vanessa Redgrave
  • Larry Hagman, who will play J.R. in Dallas, appears as evil henchman

A Bus-Driven Movie Production

  • The bus is the star
  • The actual working bus was built, but apparently scale models were not
  • The bus is actually teetered over a cliff
  • The busgineers were given free reign to built a giant atomic-powered double-decker bus
  • Built-in carwash and automatic tire-changer
  • Two heavily modified trucks were attached together, with two stunt drivers
  • Cockpit shots were clearly keyed out while driving
  • The bowling alley and the pool were not actually on the bus, were soundstage shots
  • The bus cost $250,000 in 1976 dollars
  • A lot of behind the scenes information is not available or hard to find

The “Plot”

  • Hilarious bar fight scene
  • Was this a wise use of nuclear power?
  • A very different “Iron Man” appears in this film as an evil oil baron
  • Scotty and the nuclear reactor scene
  • Some “jokes” required research or speculation
  • Cannibal humor
  • The buses have “pilots”
  • The milk carton bit is the arguably a high point
  • “Iron Man” is using henchmen to sabotage the bus because of its alternate energy source
  • The scientist who can’t be moved because a chain is embedded in his chest

The Fate of the Bus

  • was curious about the fate of the bus
  • “Bus World,” a real magazine, had a writeup on the making of the bus
  • The actual bus was used in most if not all shots depicting the bus
  • A strange legacy: how The Big Bus inspired a TV show called Supertrain and almost killed NBC
  • The comedic style of The Big Bus clearly runs through culture, passing through Airplane!
  • We overview the highlights of parody in film starting with The Little Train Robbery in 1905

Film Highlights

  • The hot dog stand scene
  • Bomb disarming humor
  • The zen-like lounge singer stole the show
  • “Hyper-disciplined ground crew”
  • A poor coyote
  • 1970’s sexism
  • Drowning in soda
  • The state room and the captain’s table
  • A missed opportunity on the ending
  • “Vehicular comedy”
  • The film suffered for not having scale models available for effects shots

The WZAZ Connection

  • Does the WZAZ “easter egg” refer to Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker?
  • The callsign WZAZ does appear in Airplane!
  • But WZAZ is used in other films and television shows prior to The Big Bus
  • It seems coincidental, but we have questions on how much The Big Bus was copied by others, and how much it itself copied
  • “ZAZ” did start Kentucky Fried Theater, their comedy group, in 1971, and Kentucky Fried Movie released in 1977

The Long Legacy of Parody Movies

  • Precursor: The Pink Panther, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Contemporaries: Murder by Death and Kentucky Fried Movie
  • Airplane! comes out in 1980
  • The Creature Wasn’t Nice and Leslie Nielsen
  • Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Meaning of Life, Johnny Dangerously and This is Spinal Tap
  • Spaceballs in 1987, a famous Star Wars parody
  • The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad! in 1988
  • Robin Hood: Men in Tights in 1993, with Loaded Weapon and Fatal Instinct
  • Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood in 1996
  • Sleeper hit Austin Powers is released in 1997
  • Galaxy Quest, a Star Trek parody, in 1999
  • Scary Movie is popular in 2000 following on the heals of Scream
  • Not Another Teen Movie in 2001
  • Shaun of the Dead in 2004 is a unique spin on a zombie movie
  • Meet the Spartans is a movie that exists
  • Black Dynamite, blacksploitation parody film in 2009
  • This is the End and The World’s End both in 2013
  • A Million Days to Die in the West in 2014
  • Sausage Party makes waves in 2016 as an R-rated Pixar-like parody

Final Confessions


The blog “Movie Locations and More” visits The Big Bus.

The Big Bus on IMDb.

The Guardian has a staff member who is comfortable revealing that he considers The Big Bus to be a guilty pleasure.

Wonder how to pronounce the last name “Bologna”? Wonder no more.

Clips from the disastrous NBC show Supertrain.

How Supertrain almost derailed NBC.

The Big Bus currently has a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes.

“The Movie Vigilante” blog loves The Big Bus too.

An archived article by The New York Times on The Big Bus in 1976 near its release.

Jalopnik has a few articles in which they discuss the fate of the “Cyclops,” and the discovery of the article in “Bus World” on the bus in The Big Bus.

The Dissolve reviews The Big Bus.

The book The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love briefly mentions The Big Bus.

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