Americathon, Animal House, Chief Dan George, Elvis Costello, Firesign Theatre, Fred Willard, Harvey Korman, Howard Hesseman, Jay Leno, John Ritter, Meat Loaf, Nancy Morgan, Neil Israel, Peter Bergman, Peter Riegert, Phil Proctor, Terry McGovern, Three's Company, Tommy LaSorda, Tunnel Vision, Zane Buzby
“Ah, a documentary!” laughs Jeremy at Lost Weekend Video when I bring Americathon, today’s selection, up to the counter.
Well, maybe not exactly, but yeah, with the debt limit ceiling about to crash on all our heads, it seems like a good time to revisit this broad political satire. Made in 1979 during the middle of an oil crisis, it was set in 1998 in a world where there was only enough energy left to power televisions. People live in their now immobile cars and the United States is flat broke. President Chet Roosevelt (a Three’s Company-era John Ritter) – a California-bred doofus descendant of Teddy and FDR who governs from a condo in Marina Del Rey – first tries to raise money with such schemes as auctioning a date with the Secretary of Agriculture and a National Marijuana Smoke-Off. When that doesn’t work, he borrows $400 billion from tycoon Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), who threatens to foreclose on the whole country when the loan isn’t paid back.
What’s a broke nation to do? Why hold a telethon, of course, hosted by drug-guzzling, fading TV sitcom actor Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman) who looks at the show as a comeback vehicle. But while marketing whiz Eric McMurkin (Peter Riegert, fresh from Animal House) diligently attempts to cobble together a winning show from an array of acts that is overly populated by ventriloquists, other forces are working to bring the country down.
That’s not so different when you think about it from what’s going on now, except there is nothing so entertaining as “Family In-Fighting” – a boxing match between Larry Miller a/k/a “Poopy Butt” (Jay Leno) and his mom – on the horizon and those that would bring this country to its knees are self-styled “patriots” not the United Hebrab Republic. (In the world of Americathon, the Israelis and the Arabs have joined together in a quest for world domination and England is the 57th state, complete with a theme park that occupies Buckingham Palace.)
When Americathon was released in August 1979, it was to dismal reviews. Roger Ebert gave it one star in the Chicago Sun-Times. The Chicago Reader‘s Dave Kehr thought the funniest thing about it was that it was financed by German tax shelter money. Janet Maslin in the New York Times was kinder. She thought buried within was a good 15-minute sketch.
Adapted from a play by the Firesign Theatre’s Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman and helmed by Tunnel Vision director Neil Israel, the movie is one of those sketch comedies that replaces plotting with a series of episodes. The cast that includes Ritter, Korman, Riegert, Leno, Fred Willard, Nancy Morgan, Zane Buzby, Howard Hesseman, Terry McGovern, then L.A. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, and Meat Loaf (as well as Elvis Costello in a singing cameo) is game. There is a let’s-put-on-a-show cheesiness that’s charming and a shamelessness that’s appealing. A lot of the jokes didn’t work then and don’t work now, but there’s something disarming in the audacity of simply letting jokes fly hit or miss.
In a couple of places the movie is spookily prescient. Maybe Vietnam has not evolved into an alternative to the French Riviera, but Westerners do enjoy vacationing there. And, as a matter of fact, China has emerged as an economic powerhouse. Then again, North Dakota is not the country’s first all-gay state. Also, we don’t all live in our cars, just in houses with underwater mortgages.
As I write this, members of Congress seems hellbent on continuing with their scheme to bring this country to its knees as they play a game of chicken with the debt ceiling. We can all panic about it or mourn the country that once was or simply hide under the covers until the crisis passes (we might be cowering there for a long time). Or we can laugh. Americathon is not a work of genius, but it is suddenly topical and good for a few giggles. – Pam Grady
Americathon is part of the Warner Bros. Home Archive Collection. It can be purchased from wbshop.com or Amazon or rented from independent video stores such as San Francisco’s Lost Weekend. Don’t even bother looking for it on Netflix or iTunes. You won’t find it.