You don’t see a whole lot of telethons anymore. That’s probably a good thing. Though I don’t doubt the amount of good that some of these charity events did in raising funds for needy organizations, they often represented television at its worst. As they dragged on into the wee hours of the night they often became bizarre showcases for celebrities who were either sleep deprived, drunk, or both. When today’s film was released, telethons were still very much a TV staple. It paints a picture of a time when a telethon is employed to raise money for a needy organization…America itself. Get out your checkbooks for 1979’s Americathon.
The film takes place in the far off future of 1998. The energy crisis of the 70’s has led to a world in which the USA has run out of oil. Old cars are used a residences for the less fortunate and everyone either bikes or jogs to everyplace they go. Unfortunately, the country had to borrow billions upon billions of dollars from the world’s richest man, a Native American billionaire named Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), just to get by. Now Birdwater has grown tired of waiting for his money back and demands payment in thirty days or he’ll foreclose. President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) first plans to raffle off the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but media expert Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert) suggest holding a telethon instead. The event will run 30 days and is dubbed “Americathon.”
A former movie star turned drugged up sitcom star named Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman) is brought in to host the show. Things start strong, but the show starts to lose viewers, and donations, as it deteriorates into a stream of second rate ventriloquist acts. Truth is, the acts are being booked by one of the President’s assistants, Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard), who is working on behalf of the United Hebrab Republic, who plan to purchase the US after the foreclosure.
Things don’t look good for the Americathon, until McMerkin has a brilliant idea. He starts bringing in more violent and edgy acts. He begins with a daredevil played by Meat Loaf who fights with a car gladiator style. Another act features a man (Jay Leno) who boxes his own mother. Donations start pouring in, but trouble comes when the President is kidnapped by the Hebrab terrorists, who demand a ransom. In addition to Leno and Mr. Loaf, there are several other unusual cameos along the way, including Cybill Shepherd, Tommy Lasorda, Willie Tyler and Lester, and Elvis Costello.
The thing that really jumps out about Americathon, watching it 37 years after its release, is how strangely prophetic it is. Not only does it predict events like America’s rising debt, the fall of the Soviet Union, and China becoming an economic superpower, but it even seems to forecast the creation of reality TV. We also get a womanizing, somewhat Clinton-esqe President who has an affair with a bizarre Vietnamese singer who bears more than a slight resemblance to Lady Gaga. The makers of this film never could’ve imagined that these strange coincidences would serve as some of the film’s most amusing moments when watching it nearly 40 years after it was made.
All that aside, the film does still have some relatively funny moments. Some of the best laughs comes via the narration provided by George Carlin as a further in the future version of Peter Riegert’s character. I especially loved the moment where we’re told that one of the big fashion trends of the 80’s was the wearing of clown shoes. Now that’s one prediction I wish really had come true.
Most of the primary cast members also contribute some funny moments, though none of them is really given the chance to take command of the film. Harvey Korman is an inspired choice to play a washed up celebrity reduced to hosting a 30 day telethon. He’s got just the right touch of smarminess in his performance. John Ritter also makes a wonderfully sleazy president and I also got a kick out of Zane Buzby, who plays his love interest, “puke rock” singer Mouling Jackson. I’ve gotta say, though, that I just didn’t get Peter Riegert’s role in all this, as his character stands around doing next to nothing most of the time. I take it that he’s supposed to be the central character. After all, he sets the whole thing in motion and his character is the narrator…as played by Carlin. But Riegert seems half asleep through most of the film…can’t really blame him, though, since he’s given nothing to do. If you’re going to have George Carlin play the part of McMerkin the narrator, why not just have him play the part in the whole film?
Americathon was directed by Neal Israel, who had a hand in many goofy comedies, including Bachelor Party, Police Academy, and Real Genius. This film certainly has a respectable share of funny moments. It’s far from being brilliant, but it does deliver some laughs. Though, the greatest amusement this absurd little film provides comes in realizing that it got more predictions of the future right than the Back to the Future series did.