Americathon (1979) -**½
On June 15th, 1979, Jimmy Carter gave yet another televised address on the energy crisis, then in its sixth more or less uninterrupted year. That speech was a little different from all the others, however, for in it, Carter diagnosed a second, parallel crisis which he blamed for thwarting the nation’s efforts to deal with the first. This piggyback crisis, he said, was one of confidence, born of policy failure abroad, social strife at home, and self-inflicted moral wounds all over the place. Later, Carter would eat a lot of shit for the Malaise Speech (as it came to be called), especially during the election fight against Ronald Reagan and John Anderson the following year, but it was received much more favorably at the time. That’s because he was right. The humiliating defeat in Vietnam, the bloody endgame to the Civil Rights struggle, the wave of high-profile political assassinations throughout the 1960’s, the exploding crime rates in American cities, the slow but undeniable decline of American manufacturing industries— it all added up to a people half-convinced that they and their institutions could no longer do anything right, or at least not anything that mattered. Ineffectual government responses to new challenges like the aforementioned energy shortage, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and especially the Iranian hostage crisis only served to confirm the impression of national impotence. Practically all of contemporary US pop culture reveals some taint of that bilious zeitgeist if you know what to look for, but the most efficient way to get a fix on it, curiously enough, might be to watch a corny B-movie satire that was seen by barely anyone and forgotten by practically everybody. Silly and trifling though it is, Americathon is like an 86-minute crash course in popular self-loathing.
In the timeline of Americathon, the Carter administration came to an even bleaker end than in the real world, with the president and all his senior advisors lynched by an angry mob. Not that that solved any of the country’s problems, you understand. The federal government was still bankrupt, there was still no gasoline to be had, and the whole American economy was still in free fall. Nor was the situation any less hectic abroad. Western Europe was broke, too, and the Soviet Union lost a catastrophic nuclear war against China. In the aftermath, the Chinese threw away their Little Red Books and became the world’s arch-capitalists. Meanwhile, Israel and its Arab neighbors buried the hatchet, and the unified Hebrab Republic became so prosperous that it was able to buy all of Europe plus most of the smoking ruins of Russia.
Back in the USA, there was at least one apparently healthy company in operation. It was called NIKE— that’s National Indian Knitting Enterprises— and its pre-capitalist, pre-industrial business model could function just fine in an environment without banks or petroleum. Indeed, NIKE CEO Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George) soon became the richest man in the whole country. Eventually, Birdwater stepped in to arrest the crash, loaning $400 billion to the federal government. Collateral for the loan was the United States of America itself, but the people running the nation in those days literally could not afford to worry about that. As it happened, though, all that NIKE money provided only the wherewithal to stop things from getting any worse. It’s 1998 as Americathon opens, and with the due date for repaying Birdwater drawing nigh, President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter, from It and The Other) and his cabinet ministers have reached the horrifying realization that they simply don’t have the money.
Actually, maybe it would be better to say that the president’s chief of staff, Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard, from Salem’s Lot and Idle Hands), and the cabinet ministers have reached that horrifying realization. Chet Roosevelt embodies H. L. Mencken’s old adage about the president reflecting the soul of the American people; he may not be a downright moron, but he surely is a superb specimen of Homo septuagintorum, the Man of the 70’s. A narcissistic devotee of every self-help fad this side of Psychoplasmics, Roosevelt believes in not sweating the small stuff— and in remembering that it’s all small stuff. He believes in the power of positive thinking and in doing his own thing. Most of all, he’s far more interested in flirting with his secretary, Lucy Beth (The Nest’s Nancy Morgan), than he is in running what’s left of the country. So when Roosevelt sort of blunders upon the notion of a national charity raffle (with prizes like the Statue of Liberty and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), it’s Vanderhoff who brings in television producer Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert, of The Runestone and The Stranger—except in the nigh-constant voiceover narration, where he’s George Carlin instead) to hammer the president’s amorphous idea into something practicable. McMerkin counsels Roosevelt and the cabinet to forget about a raffle. This is the modern age they’re living in—what America needs is a telethon!
A quick aside for the benefit of my younger readers: Telethons were the mass-panhandling strategy of the 70’s and 80’s, before hundred-channel digital cable rendered them functionally obsolete. Imagine an issue-oriented version of pledge week on PBS, and you’re basically halfway there. The half that you’ll be missing is important, though, and Americathon won’t make a bit of sense without it. You see, in its most highly developed form, a telethon was basically a variety show for a cause. The host standing in front of all the blonde ladies with terrible perms pretending to answer phone calls from the viewers would be some washed-up B-list celebrity, and instead of merely intruding into the spaces within the programming schedule that might otherwise have been given over to commercials for tampons and toothpaste, a telethon would preempt hours’ worth of your favorite shows at a stretch. In their place would come a dizzying parade of entertainers whose agents told them it would be good to be seen publicly caring about starving Ethiopians, children with muscular dystrophy, or refugees from the latest Third World earthquake or disease outbreak— many of those entertainers not doing the things for which they were famous and successful. On a telethon, you’d get actors trying to sing, singers trying to dance, football players trying to act in skits alongside the Muppets. An especially misbegotten telethon would feature audience-participation stunts, too, “Gong Show”-worthy displays of non-talent from ordinary viewers just like you. And through it all, that omnipresent has-been would be there on the studio stage, exhorting everyone to call the number on their screens right now, because every little bit helps.
To be the beggar-in-chief of Americathon, Vanderhoff selects Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman, from Munchies and The Star Wars Holiday Special), coke-addled star of the transvestite sitcom “Both Father and Mother.” That’s because Vanderhoff is secretly in league with Moishe Weitzman (Alan Arbus, of Coffy and Damien: The Omen II) and Abdul Mohammed (David Opatoshu, from Beyond Evil and Conspiracy of Terror), who wish to buy the United States on behalf of the Hebrab Republic once Birdwater forecloses on his loan. If Vanderhoff is to get what promises to be a substantial commission on the sale, Americathon will simply have to fail. That’s why the list of approved performers that Vanderhoff gives to McMerkin contains barely anything but ventriloquists. That’s why Vietnamese puke rock singer Mouling Jackson (Zane Buzby) gets a primo timeslot early in week one of the month-long telethon. That’s why none of McMerkin’s or Rushmore’s ideas for invigorating Americathon— which is running $70 billion behind schedule at the end of the first week— ever make it to President Roosevelt’s ears. But because no one else in the White House is in on the con, Vanderhoff suffers a setback when producer and host go over his head and speak with Roosevelt directly. Once Americathon starts serving up attractions like renowned daredevil Oklahoma Roy Budnitz (Meat Loaf, from Bloodrayne and To Catch a Yeti) in single combat with the last functioning automobile in the country, viewership begins to rise, and Vanderhoff’s sure thing doesn’t look so sure anymore. If the chief of staff can’t step up his sabotage game, it may become necessary for the Hebrabs to send in the crack assassination squad they’ve brought with them as a hedge against outcomes not to their liking.
Americathon is a weird and uneasy mix of sophomoric and biting, witless and charming, dated and eerily prescient. It’ll crack a fossilized Borscht Belt one-liner one minute, then follow up with an unexpectedly incisive comic riff on the coarsening of American culture or the distressing enfeeblement of the nation’s social and political institutions. The more successful gags include Meat Loaf’s battle with a Pontiac Trans-Am, the boxing match between a young doofus and his mother (in which the former is played by a not-yet-famous Jay Leno), and the running bit about the kid skateboarding cross-country who ultimately raises the inspiring sum of $42.50. Also of note are the clips from “Both Father and Mother” and a throwaway line about North Dakota becoming the first all-gay state, which fall into the category of “so stupid it’s almost brilliant.” Harvey Korman and Peter Riegert are both much funnier than I expected, especially since they get the thankless job of delivering the broadest and most antediluvian jokes. The clumsy swipe at punk rock is rendered palatable by Zane Buzby’s spot-on Wendy O. Williams impersonation, and although the film sometimes goes overboard with the notion of a self-help president, the premise itself is sound enough to support a weak bit here and there. Sam Birdwater and the Hebrab representatives are less successful as satirical characterizations. The transgressive-in-a-good-way shock of their against-type roles in the story isn’t quite enough to counterbalance the distasteful ethnic shtick driving the portrayals of all three men. The most remarkable thing of all about Americathon, though, is that its futurism turns out to be most prophetic when shooting for sheer ridiculousness. This is literally the only film of its era I’ve ever seen that had the nerve to posit the fall of the Soviet Union within a non-apocalyptic context, for one thing. Meanwhile, on what imaginable basis would anyone have predicted in 1979 the transformation of Maoist China into a burgeoning hypercapitalist power, except the way it’s done here, as an absurdist joke? And depressing as it is to contemplate, even a cursory glance around you will reveal a real-world culture as boorish in many ways as this fictional one. So watch Americathon, and then let’s all go sit in the corner, and think about what we’ve done.