In the late seventies/early-eighties, one of my favorite hobbies was exploring record stores and keeping myself familiar with what music was out there. Besides checking in on favorite bands and perusing the cut-out bin, I frequently looked through the soundtrack sections. I guess I wanted to see photos and poster artwork for movies that looked interesting. What surprised me was seeing the same soundtrack albums over and over in each record store, despite never having heard of the movies. This was true of films that eventually became favorites like Top Secret, Repo Man, Forbidden Zone, and Rock ‘N’ Roll High School. These films had found audiences via cable TV or home video release. One film from that stack of mystery soundtracks was mostly relegated to the occasional late-night TV broadcast before receding into obscurity. That film is the 1979 curiosity, Americathon (aka Americathon 1998).
I haven’t actually seen the album cover in years, but I can still remember why it attracted my attention: the poster art on the front cover was a back view of Uncle Sam flashing an audience, surrounded by the names of the main cast, which included Harvey Korman, John Ritter, and Fred Willard, familiar faces from TV’s "The Carol Burnett Show," "Three’s Company," and "Real People," respectively. George Carlin was the narrator. Despite what you might think of him now, at that time, Carlin was (still) famous for his pro-drug, anti-authority comedy. The back cover listed more credits, plus photos from the movie. Meatloaf was listed as part of the cast. At that point, as far as I knew, Meatloaf was just the heavy-set guy in a sweaty tuxedo shirt who performed sappy Top 40 love songs a couple of times on "Saturday Night Live" (his name also appeared on the album cover to yet another intriguing soundtrack for a film I had not yet seen, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and another one the following year, Roadie). Elvis Costello was also in the cast. He was still grouped in with the not-very-old British new wave rock scene and was far from a household name, or even a commercial radio staple, so I saw him as an interesting casting choice. I had no idea what this movie was about, but between the album cover and the cast, I really wanted to see Americathon! I eventually got the chance when the film finally aired on late-night TV in my area. I set the VCR, and recorded a tape that I ultimately kept for years, occasionally showing it to friends with similar interests in cheesy humor and pop culture, but rarely finding anyone else as amused as I was with it until decades later.
Based on a play by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergmantwo members of the legendary comedy troupe, Firesign Theatre as well as hosts of a syndicated series of daily skits that aired on rock radio stations around the same time as the film’s releaseAmericathon was directed by Neal Israel who had previously directed Tunnel Vision, and went on to direct Bachelor Party, Moving Violations, and a slew of TV shows. The cast was made up mostly of television personalities: the previously mentioned Korman, Ritter, and Willard, plus Peter Marshall, Howard Hesseman, Richard Schaal, Terry McGovern, Allan Arbus, and John Carradine (whose scenes only show up in certain rare cuts of the film). The film features many cameos from up-and-comers, like Jay Leno (pre-"The Tonight Show"), Cybill Shepherd (pre-"Moonlighting"), The Del Rubio Triplets (pre-"Hal Gurney Network Time-Wasters" on "Late Night with David Lettermen," pre-"Pee Wee’s Playhouse" guests), and Dorothy Stratten (pre-murder). At the time, Ritter had many years’ experience in TV and movies, but Americathon was his first lead role in a theatrical feature since achieving notoriety through his role on "Three’s Company," though it was his lead role in Hero at Large that saw him become a box office draw a year later.
Americathon takes place in the far-off year of 1998. The planet has run out of oil, so cars are permanently parked and being used as homes arranged in similar fashion to trailer parks. People walk, jog, cycle, or skate to get around. Everyone wears exercise outfits and is addicted to watching television. The current president, Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter), is a trendy cosmic idiot with a thing for the ladies. He was elected on the familiarity of his last name, and for his campaign promise: "I am not a schmuck." This new Roosevelt administration has moved the White House to a sublet condo in California, where the President lives with his "old lady," Lucy (Nancy Morgan, Ritter’s real-life wife at the time). As is to be expected, the country is in serious debt. America’s wealthiest citizen, Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), is an American Indian who runs the National Indian Knitting Enterprise (NIKE), which made a fortune in the ’80s by selling hip clown shoes and high-fashion roller skates, and now seems to supply the country’s entire wardrobe. Birdwater has bailed the country out to the tune of $400 billion, and now he wants his money back... in thirty days, or he’ll foreclose. The President’s assistant, Vincent Vanderhoof (Fred Willard), brings in media expert Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert, fresh from his success in Animal House), to produce a telethonor an Americathonthat will raise enough money to save the country.
What McMerkin doesn’t realize is Vanderhoof is secretly sabotaging the telethon in order to broker a deal between Birdwater and the United Hebrab Republic, a new country comprised of Israel and their Arab neighbors. To host the telethon, Vanderhoof approves of Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman), a pill-popping has-been movie star, currently starring as a cross-dressing single parent in the sitcom, "Both Father and Mother." For the rest of the show, McMerkin is only allowed to hire acts that are not on any government blacklist, which leaves mostly out-of-work ventriloquists, jugglers, cheesy musical numbers and bad novelty acts. The Del Rubio Triplets pop up in one scene, providing background patriotic music while body builders flex their muscles. Zane Buzby shows up as Ho Chi Minh "puke rock" sensation, Mouling Jackson. Cybill Shepherd shows up as the vapid all-American "Gold Girl." When the money doesn’t come pouring in as expected and ratings drop off, McMerkin overrides Vanderhoof by creating new acts that people will want to see. One act is a battle-to-the-death, pitting America’s last working car against America’s greatest daredevil, Oklahoma Roy Budnitz (Meatloaf). Another act is Family In-Fighting, a boxing match between a son (Jay Leno) and his mother (May Boss). The sudden new success of the Americathon causes the Hebrabs to initiate a terrorist attack on the TV studio, and kidnapping the President. The man-versus-car battle, the mother-versus-son fight, and the terrorist attack make it apparent that America wants blood and that blood equals money. Oklahoma Roy Budnitz returns to donate his own blood (assisted by an un-credited Dorothy Stratten), and the idea of an actual on-air murder gets tossed around. In the end, no one dies and the Americathon is unsuccessful in generating the proper amount of money until Birdwater donates the difference. The President is rescued, America learns a valuable lesson and most of the cast lives happily ever after.
A lot of details have been left out of the preceding synopsis. The film is chock full of funny updates on what is happening on planet Earth in 1998 and makes plenty of interesting predictions on how things got to be that way. The opening consists of some Ray Harryhausen-esque dinosaurs battling to the death on what will become downtown Pittsburgh, which ties in with the gas crisis of the late ’70s, which sparks an execution of President Jimmy Carter and his cabinet, which throws the country into an economic depression (albeit not a very depressing one, since everyone looks healthy, active and clean), which brings us to 1998 and the Americathon. By that point, nothing is free (including elevator rides), Vietnam is a tourist destination for "Beautiful People," China leads the world in capitalism; North Dakota is the U.S.’s first all-gay state (as exemplified by the heads of Mount Rushmore now wearing earringshow they moved Mount Rushmore to North Dakota is never explained); England is the 57th state; and the President’s libido gets him in serious trouble. Obviously, some of the film’s predictions are accurate.
Sure, it’s a corny movie and probably not the proudest moment in the careers of anyone involved, but it stands as a fun time capsule of the late ’70s (despite being set in the late ‘90s), and an interesting commentary on the direction of the United States economy. There are some real laugh-out-loud moments and great comic performances (mostly from Ritter and Korman). With so many details in the background, moving by too quickly to catch, Americathon is the sort of movie you need to watch with the remote "pause" and "rewind" buttons handy.