The mood of our country and perhaps the world in 1979 doesn’t seem to be all too different than what we’ve got going on now. From an American Ambassador being killed by Muslim extremists, to commercial airliner tragedies, to news reporters being killed, to US backed governments being toppled by radicals, to gay rights topping social headlines, to rising energy prices and plummeting Presidential approval ratings (President Carter’s rating in June of ‘79 sat at a cool 28%), present day is more like “second verse – same as the first.”
That’s why watching this slapstick comedy released in August of ‘79 is more fascinating than humorous. Co-written and directed by Neal Israel, the camp king behind some of my favorite movies of my teenage years – Police Academy, Bachelor Party and the awesome Real Genius – Americathon presents a cavalcade of some of the 70’s best B-list comics and personalities like John Ritter, Harvey Korman, Fred Willard and Jay Leno. With cameo’s by Meat Loaf, Elvis Costello (singing “Crawling to the USA”) and Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda spattered about the film will keep you guessing who’s gonna show up next. Listen up for George Carlin.
The story takes place in the “near future” of 1998. Carter has left the country in near disarray and because of the energy crisis, there is no more gasoline or oil – it’s way too expensive – so cars are a thing of the past and everyone travels around on bicycles (Portland, OR and Santa Monica, CA cry tears of joy). After a couple of more horrible successors to Carter, John Ritter portrays President Chet Roosevelt (a distant relative certainly) who is elected by the people based on one simple platform “I am not a schmuck.” And like most politicians before him, he can’t even seem to keep that one promise. Ritter’s performance offers up in my mind what a Joe Biden presidency would look like. Especially when President Roosevelt passes a group of Chinese tourists on a tour of the Western White House in Marina Del Ray and tells them how much he just loves Chinese Food. He even concludes his addresses to the nation with “I’m your president, and I love you.”
The biggest issue of the young president’s presidency – besides keeping his hot wife hot for him – is that the country is about to default on it’s $400,000,000,000 loan (if only) from a wealthy American-Indian tycoon, Sam Birdwater. Birdwater has given America 30 days to come up with the money and pay him back or else he’s going to repossess the country. After contemplating a number of money raising ideas, like throwing a big dance and charging every American $5 to attend or holding a raffle to auction off the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it’s decided that a 30 day telethon broadcast 24/7 across the country is the best way to raise the 400 billion dollars. Why? Because Americans love nothing more than watching TV. I know, it’s kind of painful to see how far we haven’t come.
Harvey Korman’s character, a pill popping TV star named Monty Rushmore (see, the puns fly at you a mile a minute) is hired to be the host of the telethon. He’s chosen over a popular game show host, 70’s TV legend Chuck Barris, who’s latest game show is having people guess the size of each other’s genitals. (America, whatta country!) Rushmore is the star of a hit tv sit-com where he plays a widower raising a young son. Aww, I know. Both father and son are cross-dressers too.
Things are so bad (or so good) in this not so distant future, everything from a ride in an elevator to receiving a phone call requires a coin deposit. A homeless man asks for $25 for a cup of coffee. North Dakota is now the country’s first official Gay State. Not sure if this is meant to be a good thing or bad thing – did the gay community claim it or were they all sent there. Also confusing things is when the filmmakers show a picture that’s supposed to represent North Dakota, it’s a picture of Mount Rushmore, which is in South Dakota. By 1998, China also defeated Russia on it’s own and is now a big capitalist country. Vietnam became the French Riviera of the 90’s and the Arabs and Jews have finally made peace by finding common ground – they both love blonde babes and have renamed their new nation the United Hebrab Republic. The humor in this film is like a junk drawer full of “that would be a funny bit” jokes.
Over the course of the telethon the audience is treated to one horrible performance after the other and slowly audiences start complaining. The government official in charge of booking the performers, Fred Willard, delivers what is the best line of the film when he declares that what’s wrong with the show isn’t the entertainers because “they are all government approved.” Host Monty Rushmore knows what the audience wants and it’s blood – literally. In a slight comparison to the brilliant cult classic Death Race 2000 (1975) it’s now apparent that when the world is on fire, Americans look to violence, mayhem, and death for entertainment. At least that’s what the mirrors these filmmakers hold up tell us. When Meat Loaf appears on stage and destroys a car with a sledgehammer, the donations come pouring in. The next big money maker is a no-holds barred boxing match between an overbearing mother and her adult son, played by Jay Leno. By the final day of the telethon it’s clear the only thing that will entice the citizenry to donate enough money to topple the 400 billion dollar goal is that someone must be killed on stage.
If you are like me and enjoy watching these old forgotten films that shed light on what our culture was really focused on without the filter of a media approved Time-Life commemorative book version on [insert your favorite decade here], then spend a few bucks over at Amazon OnDemand and rent it sometime. (link also allows you to watch first few minutes.)