Generally speaking, one can find a rationale for every film that’s in Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. It’s pretty obvious what Mike’s tastes in movies run to (especially since they’re listed on the back cover of the book): science fiction, surfing, rock ‘n’ roll, bikers, cave women, ax murderers, crazed farmers…you get the idea. So I’m having a really tough time figuring out why he put Americathon in as one of the entries. In his write-up, he does mention that John Carradine was supposed to have been in Americathon, but the footage featuring him was cut out. That’s a really tenuous rationale for inclusion, especially when Carradine was also cut out of The Long Riders, and that’s not given an entry. In fact, maybe Weldon has something against westerns in general, as John Carradine DID appear in The McMasters, The Gatling Gun, The Shootist, and several other westerns, but there’s no mention of any of those in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia, either. Whatever the case, Americathon made it in, and I’ve got to find a way to come to grips with it.
The plot goes something like this: In 1998, America has run out of oil, gas, and money. Desperate to keep the country afloat, President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) has borrowed 400 billion dollars from Native American Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), but now Birdwater wants his money back or he’ll foreclose on the country. To raise the funds to pay him back, the government hosts an “Americathon,” a 30-day non-stop telethon hosted by Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman) and featuring some of the worst entertainers in the history of recorded media.
Truth be told, this could be a workable premise for a comedy, yet Americathon manages to botch nearly every single chance for a laugh. All of the blame for this has to be placed squarely on the writers’ heads, and it’s even more perplexing that the film went so awry when there were five (!) reasonably-respected writers involved: Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman were from the Firesign Theater; Michael Mislove was a member of the Ace Trucking Company, another early ‘70s comedy group; Neal Israel had just written Tunnelvision with Mislove and went on to write the first Police Academy movie and Bachelor Party, starring Tom Hanks; and last, but possibly the best of the bunch, was Monica Johnson, who started her writing career in television (writing episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Laverne and Shirley) before becoming a close collaborator with Albert Brooks, co-writing five of the seven features that he’s directed. And out of that pool of talent, we got this appallingly unfunny, inert mass of celluloid.
The actors do what they can with it, but that’s not a whole lot. Keep in mind that there are some very funny actors involved, too: Harvey Korman, John Ritter, Fred Willard, and Richard Schall–all known primarily for their comedic roles. Also in the mix are the absolutely insane Zane Buzby as a very strange Vietnamese singer, Nancy Morgan (Mrs. John Ritter in real life), and Peter Riegert, fresh off of playing “Boon” in Animal House. And then there are the cameos. Here’s just a few of the people you’ll see popping up, some of them for mere seconds: Dorothy Stratten, Jay Leno, Meatloaf, Howard Hesseman, Peter Marshall, Allan Arbus, John Lone, George Memmoli, Cybil Shephard (supposedly), the Del Rubio Triplets, Jake Steinfeld (billed as Jake Steinfeldt) (aka “that ‘Body by Jake’ guy”), and George Carlin as the narrator.
Probably the best thing about Americathon is its soundtrack, which features a couple of tunes from Eddie Money, one of which (“Get a Move On”) made it all the way up to #46 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. There’s also an insidiously catchy Beach Boys song (“It’s a Beautiful Day”) that sounds like it was a leftover from the LA (Light Album) sessions. The previously-mentioned Meatloaf appears in the film, but he doesn’t contribute a song. Elvis Costello appears in the film singing pieces of two songs, but he’s awful at the lip-synching game and his performance is pretty much a stink-bomb of embarrassment.
I know it sounds like I’m trying to convince you to actually watch the film by listing all of these actors and singers, but, honestly, it’s the last thing I’d want you to waste an hour and a half of your life on. Luckily, Americathon doesn’t show up in heavy rotation on cable, so your chances of stumbling across it by accident are pretty slim. However, for those of you with a masochistic bent, you can buy the movie on a DVD-R at the Warner Archive site.
I think that Zane Buzby’s character in the film, Mouling Jackson, best sums up my attitude toward Americathon and everyone involved with it, when she says, “Hey, ya know somethin’? You guys suck!”
You know a comedy movie is bad when you can’t get three minutes of funny stuff out of it for a trailer, as proven here: