“Americathon”: The prescient 1979 absurd comedy that predicted America’s unfunny future

By on September 3, 2015

Based on a wonderfully absurd play by Firesign Theatre-alumni and Night Flight faves Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, written at the end of President Jimmy Carter’s presidency, in 1979, when the American economy was circling in the toilet, Americathon seems today to have been a satirically silly movie that — like Mike Judge’s Idiocracy and a handful of other similar movies that have followed — actually predicted the unfunny future that we find ourselves living today.

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Americathon (also known as Americathon 1998) is a 1979 American comedy, the first release for the newly-formed Lorimar Pictures company, distributed by United Artists. It was directed by Neal Israel, who is also one of the five co-writers of the screenplay, along with Proctor and Bergman, both credited with adaptating their play (the two additional screenwriters were Michael Mislove and Monica McGowan Johnson, who has been a frequent collaborator with Albert Brooks on many of his films).

Israel is probably better remembered, however, for co-writing the 1984 Tom Hanks-starring Bachelor Party (which he also directed), Police Academy and Real Genius. We also love his work here at Night Flight because he was one of the two directors on Tunnel Vision (along with Brad Swirnoff; Mislove was also a Tunnel Vision writer, as was Israel), which was distributed by International Harmony in 1976 (it’s the company founded by Night Flight’s very own Stuart S. Shapiro).

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The movie stars John Ritter, Fred Willard, Peter Riegert, Harvey Korman, and Nancy Morgan, and features narration by George Carlin. The impressive ensemble cast of supporting characters and cameos appearances includes those by Jay Leno, Meat Loaf, former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, Zane Busby, Allan Arbus, TV game show host Peter Marshall, Chief Dan George, Richard Schaal (a veteran of several MTM sitcoms and Valerie Harper’s former husband, appearing here as the vice president), Cybill Shepherd, Zelda Rubenstein, Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong-Torres, and Howard Hesseman, to name just a few.

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John Carradine was to have played “Uncle Sam” in this film, but his scenes did not make the final cut edit, but Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten — Playboy’s Playmate of the Month for August 1979 and Playmate of the Year for 1980 — does appear in the film, in a brief uncredited non-speaking role, wearing a Playboy bunny-ish outfit during a scene where Meat Loaf’s character is donating blood.

The director himself, Neal Israel even has a quick cameo as a protesting Rabbi holding a picket sign reading “The President Is A Yutz.”

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Elvis Costello makes a musical appearance too, sneering his way through “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea” and “Crawling to the U.S.A.” The soundtrack also includes tunes by the Beach Boys (“It’s A Beautiful Day”) and Eddie Money (“Get A Move On”). The Del Rubio Triplets can be seen performing “America the Beautiful” behind several posing bodybuilders. Tom Scott provides the musical score.

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The setting is an imagined America from the not-too-far-off in the distant future of 1998. The film’s official coming attractions trailer includes this great quote: “…see Americathon at your local theater before you see it happening in your own front yard!”

The nation’s leader is President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter),a “cosmically inspired” former governor of California who doesn’t seem to have anything in common with either Teddy Roosevelt or FDR other than his last name. His administration is housed not in Washington D.C. but in “The Western White House,” a sub-leased run-down condominium in Marina del Rey, California.

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The overly-optimistic Roosevelt is into EST and Scientology, and quotes positive affirmation slogans, all of which endear him to U.S. population. This is a not-too-carefully-hidden jab at Jerry Brown, actually, who had run for president unsuccessfully in 1976, and had along the way earned the nickname “Governor Moonbeam.” (At the time of the movie’s release, Brown was the 34th governor of California, already into his second term after winning re-election in 1978).

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Overall, the situation is pretty dire for the entire country in 1998: because there’s no more oil, many Americans are literally living in their (now stationary) cars and they either jog or ride bicycles or skate around on rollerskates to get from one place to another. Many Americans wear tracksuits and sweatsuits (which at the time the film was made wasn’t something that people actually did).

Obviously, Proctor, Bergman and the movie’s screenwriters didn’t think that the U.S. was going to redesign or fix their crumbling infrastructure any time soon (we still have a problem with that, don’t we?), or fix their energy policy by moving to solar or something else instead of oil (uh, this too), and people therefore haven’t made any changes to their modes of transportation, or they’ve been forced to, since there’s no more gas for their cars.

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Consequently, the U.S. government is near bankruptcy and in danger of being foreclosed on by its richest citizen, Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), who is about to call in the debt: $400 billion dollars.

Birdwater — who made his billions as a roller rink entrepreneur — is the head of powerful Native American cartel, who are in control of the NIKE corporation — which has been renamed “National Indian Knitting Enterprise.”

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Interestingly, in 1979, NIKE was just a small shoe company in the Pacific northwest that hadn’t gone public yet and they hadn’t even aired a single national TV commercial (their “Tailwind” running shoe was just starting to gain popularity, but Proctor/Bergman could see that they’d be a powerful conglomerate in the future — okay, maybe they picked the wrong shoe company, but still….)

President Roosevelt has decided that the best way to finance the debt repayment is to hold a 30-day TV telethon, and he hires a young television consultant Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert) to help produce a national raffle. Instead, they decide that the only way enough money can be raised to save America is to run a telethon, and hire a former film star Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman) to host it. Rushmore currently has a successful transvestite TV sitcom called “Both Mother and Father,” where he plays a cross-dressing gay father who works as a female impersonator.

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Meanwhile, Presidential adviser Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard) is secretly plotting to have the telethon fail so that representatives of the Hebrabs, the United Hebrab Republic (formed by the merger of Israel and Palestine), can purchase what is left of the country when Birdwater forecloses in thirty-days time.

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By setting the story twenty years into the future, Proctor and Bergman’s satirical play, and the film’s screenplay, feature so many creatively prescient ideas about what they imagined could have happened by 1998 (some of it for comic effect, naturally), but the movie can also be viewed for its predictions about the future, and even though they were written with implausibility in mind, it’s really amazing how many of them have actually come true.

For instance, here are just a few predictions made by the movie:

On the global front, we have the prediction of the demise of the Soviet Union, the rise of People’s Republic of China, embracing capitalism and becoming a global economic superpower, and our one-time enemy Vietnam becoming a major tourist attraction among Asia’s wealthy and powerful (this was also predicted in Back to the Future Part II, as seen on billboards and on TV commercials within the movie, with the airline that takes most Americans to Vietnam being US Air). There’s also, curiously, a tastelessly androgynous Vietnamese rock band who perform at the telethon.

Closer to home, there’s the prediction of the depletion of U.S.-manufactured crude oil and the peak production of oil extraction (which, according to Hubbert’s Peak theory, was already underway for several years at the time the film was made; Hubbert estimated in 1956 that the peak year in the U.S. would have been be 1970).

There’s also a devalued U.S. dollar and the country appears heavily in debt to foreign lenders, which is something we’re currently dealing with. Also, the movie seems to predict a great increase in homelessness (homelessness began to greatly increase in major U.S. cities during the recession of 1982 and the simultaneous cutting of the Section 8 program by the Reagan Administration).

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Culturally, particularly the way it’s viewed on TV, there’s the prediction of the ascendancy of absolutely batshit crazy reality TV programming (the telethon includes a boxing match between a mother and son — a character named Larry Miller, but nicknamed Poopy Butt, and played by talk show host and at-the-time still up-and-coming stand-up comedian Jay Leno — and the discussion of previously taboo topics normally (not something you saw a lot of on TV in the late 70s). Not to mention that there’s a game show called “The Schlong Show,” where contestants are judged by their reproductive organs.

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There’s also the prediction of the casualness of American fashion trends (jogging suits and comfortable clothing typically used for exercising in weren’t yet fashionable attire for most people), and an overall country-wide ban on smoking. OK, so that one doesn’t work.

Overall, the movie seems to predict that the entire country had adopted the self-obsessed, lackadaisical, jogging suit-clad SoCal airhead mentality, which we think is pretty apparent these days, don’t you?

Socio-politically, there’s a prediction of the relative acceptance of alternative lifestyles, particularly as they’re presented in popular culture, (they missed the mark with North Dakota as the first all gay state, we’re pretty sure about that).

Financially, there’s the prediction that in the future Native Americans would become wealthy (although in reality much of their wealth would come from the gaming industry, mostly from tribal casinos), and the rise of gold being sold on TV shows as an alternative way to secure wealth, and, finally, the sale of public assets to the private sector (a trend starting shortly after the film’s release.)

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One of the best things about the movie seems to be the story of Ted Coombs, who roller-skated across the country and back to promote Americathon for United Artists/Lorimar and, curiously, to protest the 1979 energy crisis. He’s listed in Wikipedia as a “technology author, futurist, artist, and scientist,” but they seem to have left off software developer and “person,” both of which are included on Coombs’s own impressive website.

In early 1979, the then-25 year old laser engineer was living and working in the Hermosa Beach Animal Hospital in Hermosa Beach, California. One evening, while practicing roller-skating, he had the idea that he would like to roller skate across the U.S. to protest the long gasoline lines and gas rationing. He contacted KZLA Radio in Los Angeles, then an adult contemporary format station, and told them about his idea, and they got in touch with United Artists, who were then preparing for the marketing of Americathon.

With their support, on May 31, 1979, Coombs roller-skated away from a Hollywood gas station — converted to appear like a restaurant attended by stars from the movie, including Harvey Korman — and he began his adventure, followed by a van driven by his friend, musician Brian Douglas, which also carried Coombs’s pet monkey, Tim Bob.

He had almost immediate trouble, as you might expect, crossing the southwestern desert, encountering unbearable heat and even rattlesnakes. His feet blistered and his monkey Tim Bob died of heat prostration in Arizona, but Coombs kept skating right along.

Coombs actually set records as he made his way across the country, including for the miles skated non-stop in one day on roller-skate (120 miles, 139.121 kilometers) from Breckenridge, Texas into Dallas, Texas. He skated 50 miles a day every day, except for a two-day layover in El Paso, Texas, because of illness, making his way north, where he was given a parade in Chicago — and followed by Playboy Bunnies skating in costume — on his way to greet Chicago’s mayor, Jane Byrne.

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Coombs sustained minor injuries in a bad fall on a dangerous curve in front of a Pennsylvania restaurant, Noah’s Ark, on a hill where you can view several U.S. states, but he soldiered on, to Washington D.C., where he spent the day with Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, presenting him with a pair of roller skates.

In New York, the New York Tunnel Commission closed the Lincoln Tunnel — he was the first person ever to roller-skate through the closed tunnel — and he was the guest of honor at a Central Park concert given by Eddie Money. The movie was then premiered in New York City, on August 10, 1979.

In New Jersey, Coombs was robbed of $63 at gunpoint but he continued on, even though he was done with his part in the movie’s promotion, skating to Richmond, Virginia and then west into Missouri, where on September 13, 1979 he broke the World Distance record in the small town of Mt. Sterling.

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Unfortunately, the van — driven by someone other than Douglas, who had perhaps wisely dropped off by that point — was stolen, and that act left Coombs stranded for awhile in Missouri (whee he was chased by a pack of bloodthirsty dogs), until roller skate rink owners in Missouri and Leavenworth, Kansas, hheld skate-a-thons and raised money to finance his continued trip.

Coombs continued on alone for another 241 miles before shedding his skates for good in Yates Center, Kansas where he stopped his trip, having skated 5,193 miles (8,375.33 kilometers), handily setting a new Guinness record. He then took a bus to Las Vegas in order to retrieve the stolen van and then returned to his home in Hermosa Beach.

As you might expect, Americathon didn’t fare too well at the box office and pretty much disappeared, although there were certainly attempts to promote the film, including a “Fotonovel,” also released in 1979, and soundtrack album released on both vinyl and audiocassette by Lorimar records.

Americathon was made available on VHS and laserdisc in the 1980s by Lorimar Home Video, both of which are now out of print. The home video rights passed to Warner Bros. in the late 1980s as part of their purchase of Lorimar. Warner Home Video made the film available in January 2011 on DVD in widescreen (1.85:1) format as part of their Warner Archive Manufacture-on-demand collection.

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Critics were merciless about how much they hated the movie. In her August 10, 1979 review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote: “The premise is strong enough to sustain a 15-minute skit, but the movie has the ill fortune to drag on for an hour and a half.”

In a February 1980 interview with Hollywood columnist Marilyn Beck, John Ritter said: “It seemed like a funny idea when I read the script. But when I saw it, I remember I was smiling during the opening credits, then the smile faded, pretty soon my mouth was down to my chin, my shoulders were hunched, and, well, it taught me a lesson. I really think getting smashed in the face with that film has made me more careful about accepting future projects.”

Even one of the supporting players, Jay Leno, said Americathon was so terrible I had to leave the theater” (quoting an August 1987 Boston Globe article). But, you know, he was playing a boxer named Poopy Butt, so there’s that to consider.

By the way, if you enjoyed reading about Americathon, check out our post on The Phynx.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • http://uglyradio.wordpress.com/ Richard Vachel Lindsay

    I loved this movie. You can sort of see remains of Proctor and Bergman’s humor poke out of the ruins of the screenplay from time to time. It would make a great double bill with the equally wobbly Idiocracy.
    BTW: the earlier – probably rejected – poster artwork showed Uncle Sam as a bum in an alley. I would give my eyeteeth for a high rez image of that but it’s mighty elusive.