Blazing Saddles.” So it seems reasonable that someone decided that a similarly farcical approach to the disaster genre would also be successful. “The Big Bus” would attempt to riff comically on a blockbuster trend that was only beginning to loose its luster with audiences. Audiences, however, were not all that interested. The film flopped in 1976. However, thanks to numerous television airings over the years, it has found something of a cult following.
Coyote Industries presents the latest and greatest breakthrough in bus technology. The Cyclops is a massive, articulated, double-decker bus. It's outfitted with such amenities as a swimming pool and a showroom. High-tech gizmos allow its tires to be changed or its surface washed while driving. Oh yeah, it's also powered by a nuclear reactor. The bus' maiden voyage is a non-stop trip from New York to Denver. However, the trip is fraught with danger. A spy, working for the oil industry, attempts to sabotage the bus. The driver, Dan Torrence, is a last minute replacement with a troubled history. The passengers have their own problems. It's not long before the Cyclops faces calamity.
Jack talking to his dad's tombstone, only to be interrupted by everyone else in the cemetery having one-sided conversations with other tombstones. Or Jose Ferrer's iron-lung trapped villain revealing his girlfriend inside the device with him. However, even these moments tend to have too much attention paid to them, draining the gags of their spontaneity. The obnoxious piano player, who over-zealously turns every conversation around him into a song, might've been funny if delivered with a little more subtly. The same goes for an early bit where someone manually adjusts a radioactive isotope with their hand. Comedy is, after all, mostly timing. And the timing is serially off throughout “The Big Bus.”
As a parody of disaster flicks, “The Big Bus” is fairly on point. The film is observant of the genre's cliches. Aboard the bus is an about-to-divorce married couple. They cycle through all the stages of passion, separation, and reunion multiple times. Among the passengers are a disgraced veterinarian, a man dying of cancer, a priest having a crisis of faith, and a mouthy old lady. You'll recognize these as stock characters for the genre. The hero is troubled too. In a somewhat tasteless (but sort of funny) reference to the 1972 Andes disaster, Captain Torrence is repeatedly accused of cannibalism. A lot of these parts are well cast. Rene Auberjonois, previously of “The Hindenburg,” is amusing as the priest. Ruth Gordon gets some solid laughs as the old lady. Joseph Bolonga doesn't mug too much as Dan, Stockard Channing is a decent straight woman, and John Beck is fitfully funny as Dan's narcoleptic co-pilot.
The titular bus is a ridiculous creation. It looks silly from the outside. The interior set design is enormously garish, in a way that was either intentional or just indicative of the seventies. There are several explosions throughout. One results in Harold Gould's scientist getting a chain embedded in his chest, leading to the film's most painfully unfunny running gag. After a family of hillbillies crash their pick-up truck into the bus – another very lame gag – the Cyclops ends up dangling off the edge of the cliff. There's also a room flooded with soda pop. Two of the film's funniest bits are last minute, when an earthquake happens in the wrong place and the bus malfunctioning right before the credits start rolling.
You could say “The Big Bus” flopped because audiences weren't ready to laugh at disaster movies yet. The film's defenders would probably say that. I'd say it's because “The Big Bus” is pretty lame as a comedy, getting few consistent laughs and never being as funny as it wants to be. Interestingly, the Zuckers Brothers did some uncredited rewrites on the movie, proceeding their far more successful stab at spoofing disaster movies. Director James Frawley would go onto greater success with his next outing, “The Muppet Movie,” a far smoother combination of special effects and comedy. Weirdly, the movie also predicted something else. The next year, someone in Germany actually did build a giant, double-decker, articulated, luxury bus. As far as I know, no disasters, comical or otherwise, befell that one. [5/10]
[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 6 outta 10]
[X] Awards Bait Ballad*
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
 Destruction of Famous Landmarks
 Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
 Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
 Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast
*Parodied by the dumb-ass piano player