“Tunnel Vision”: This sometimes crude, highly satirical low-budget NSFW parody was “the funniest film of 1985″ when it came out in 1976

By on March 23, 2016

“Good morning. It’s June 1st, 1985. TunnelVision — the People’s Network — begins another broadcast day and signs on the air. And now, our National Anthem… ” These are the first words we hear — from veteran TV broadcaster and voice actor Dick Tufeld — on a videotape being played for a Senate sub-committee who are investigating a popular TV channel’s obscene and often tasteless programming. Tunnel Vision is one of the featured titles you can watch right now on our new Night Flight Plus channel!

Night Flight spoke to Neal Israel by phone today, here in Los Angeles, and he told us about some of his memories, including why there were two directors — Israel and Bradley Swirnoff — for Tunnel Vision, first released in U.S. theaters in March, 1976:

“There were two directors because we wanted the commercials to look like real commercials, and that’s what Bradley was doing at the time, and so that’s why the commercials looked the way they did, which was like actual commercials.”

“I worked in television — I was at CBS — so I knew what was going on in television, and I knew what was funny and what worked. We saw so much unrelatable and dumb stuff on TV that was ripe for parody, and we wanted to break away from the comedy of the time, which was like the Carol Burnett variety show type of humor. We spoke to people who were young, and the networks hadn’t really gotten there yet. We were shooting about six months before ‘Saturday Night Live’ went on the air, and then the film opened about six months after it had been on the air. In between there we premiered the film at the L.A. Film Festival.”

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Tunnel Vision is set ten years in the future, at a time when TunnelVision’s successful programming has essentially killed off the other three big networks, and we also learn that one of the reasons TunnelVision has become the most-watched channel in television history is because a new Bill of Rights (written in 1983) has eliminated censorship, making it possible for them to broadcast pretty much anything, no matter how raunchy or ribald it might be.

In this sometimes crude, highly satirical low-budget and occasionally NSFW parody-laced film, we learn — during a cold open, pre-credits — that Tunnel Vision is actually not just the title, it’s also the name of futuristic network channel (usually seen onscreen as one word, while the movie title is two, so that’s how we’ll keep them separate here) and what we’ll be seeing for the next 70 minutes is essentially the evidence being presented as the reason for an increase in nationwide crime, unemployment and an overall slacker attitude among the American populace.

It was also a clever idea which also essentially allowed the filmmakers to not only lampoon lame network TV programming or what they think might be coming in the not-too-far-off future, but also meant they could do or say whatever they wanted, which ultimately earned the film an R-rating for gratuitous nudity, depictions of drug use and profane language.

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We open on some kind of political hearing, which turns out to be a senate sub-committee investigating TunnelVision’s programming, led by an irate Senator McMannus, who is so outraged by the vulgarity of the network’s content that he wants to shut it down. He’s played by Howard Hesseman, “WKRP”‘s Johnny Fever, although at the time was best known as a member of the comedy troupe The Committee and for his many television and film appearances although he wasn’t yet a big star.

MacMannus already believes that the channel’s programming is having a widespread negative effect on the U.S. population and they’re seriously considering shutting down TunnelVision before it’s too late (and remember, this film came out decades before other futuristic films depicting a similar society, like Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, to name just one example).

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Senator McMannus is seen grilling the channel’s president and founder, Christian A. Broder (Firesign Theatre’s Phil Proctor), who defends his network’s programming by presenting to them a videotape, which is then shown to the sub-committee and the gathered public crowd, which is an edited excerpted piece depicting what was seen on a typical day of the channel’s broadcasting (in this case June 1, 1985), which he hopes will show that TunnelVision isn’t subjecting their viewers to anything obscene.

Broder — who says that Tunnelvision is popular due to the fact that “freedom is popular” — wants the channel to remain on the air, “uncensored and free.”

TunnelVision — which is referred to as the “no-bullshit network” — also has a brilliant and memorable logo, showing an eyeball in a woman’s mouth, which was designed by John Leprovost.

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The comedic screenwriters who wrote Tunnel Vision — Michael Mislove, a founding member of the improvisational comedy troupe The Ace Trucking Company (which also featured Fred Willard), and co-director Neal Israel — relied on the then-popular omnibus-style comedy anthology format to lampoon where they believed television would be heading in the not too distant future (the first movie poster also featured a tagline calling it “The funniest film of 1985″).

Neal Israel:TunnelVision is really cable. No holds barred television. Some of these shows we did as parodies actually became real shows later… even the style of newscasting that we did, the parody of real news, that’s the kind of news that Jon Stewart and people were doing decades later.”

You have to remember as you’re watching Tunnel Vision — and at 70 minutes, it’s barely long enough to be called a feature film — that everything onscreen is taking place not too long after the American public had been able to watch the televised Watergate hearings on TV, and at the time the country was still reeling from Nixon’s resignation after the revelation of his involvement in the scandal, not to mention we were also trying to heal after our government’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

The film also takes precise jabs at how corporations like Exxon (parodied here as Axxon) who everyone knew in the 70s was polluting the world and getting away with ecological murder. They still are!

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The population were also feeling the heavy burden of a major economic recession too, and these all presented easy targets for parody and cynicism-laced satire — people just needed to laugh at the predicament that everyone were finding themselves in; we could say the same about our current predicament too, as we could still use a good laugh to take our minds off what’s going on in the world today.

As you can see in the film’s trailer — narrated by Paul Thomas Anderson’s dad, Ernie Anderson, who was then an announcer for for an actual TV network, ABC, and he also appears in several skits in Tunnel Vision — we’re essentially presented with a series of short comedy bits, skits and mocking parodies of TV commercials, morning shows, cop shows, news broadcasts, and a couple of sexually-liberated send-ups of Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore sitcoms too.

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Today, all of this might seem rather out-dated or certainly not anything groundbreaking, but at the time, this parody TV skit-style presentation — which skewered the blandness of most of TV’s awful network programming while being as naughty and puerile as possible while doing it — was still a relatively new concept.

Essentially the screenwriters simply imagined that the futuristic mid-80s TV shows might be nothing more than profane parodies of the bawdiest shows and promos that existed in the mid-70s.

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Frankly, though, we can’t imagine a time when we’d ever imagine seeing a row of men’s naked butts in a TV ad for a proctology school, that idea wouldn’t have ever occurred to us. Then again, we still laughed about it when we first saw the film during the mid-70s, but we were also sixteen years old at the time it came out and a lot of stuff seems pretty funny when you’re high on Acapulco Gold or whatever it was that we were smoking at the time.

There’s a reason the film was released with the tagline “Laugh or get off the pot,” even though the “pot” in this case is represented not by a joint, but by a toilet (we recommend that you don’t bogart either one).

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Speaking of the marijuana, there’s also a fake commercial here with two bearded actors portraying rock legends Leon Russell and Bob Dylan, who are promoting a “Western Unyon MarijuanaGram,” and we admit that it’s a pretty accurate looking send-up of something we could still be seeing in our not-too-distant future, so maybe some of the humor here was prescient but actually decades ahead of its time? We personally would love to receive a MarijuanaGram, which can be wrapped as a Christmas present (it comes with the slogan “Say High for the Holidays” — someone working in marketing for a dispensary should probably steal that outright if it hasn’t been stolen already.)

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Tunnel Vision wasn’t the first feature to use this format — The Groove Tube had come out earlier, in 1974 — but Israel and Swirnoff’s film turned out to be profitable for everyone involved. It was made for somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000, grossed around $17 million dollars, which certainly meant that the similar films that followed it, like Kentucky Fried Movie and Amazon Women on the Moon to name just two examples, were likely greenlit based on the fact that it seemed like these types of comedies were something audiences wanted to pay to see.

One of the reasons it was was a fairly inexpensive investment was that it was shot on video and edited, television-style, then released on 35mm film for its theatrical debut.

The comic stuff begins as soon as the “typical’ day of programming begins, as we’re shown TunnelVision’s morning sign-on, which begins with the National Anthem being sung — punctuated by montage footage of the launching of nuclear missiles and photos of American presidents showing that three additional presidents have been elected since Jimmy Carter.

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These include paralyzed former Alabama governor George Wallace, an African-American woman named Washington (our first black president!) and David Eisenhower, the grandson of the real life president Dwight D. Eisenhower (he was also shown as a former President in 1997 in Americathon, the very next film directed by Neal Israel, which we told you about here, and which also featured Howard Hesseman in another cameo appearance).

Tunnel Vision was distributed by International Harmony, the company founded by Night Flight’s very own Stuart S. Shapiro.

“The humor didn’t really connect with a lot of distributors,” Neal Israels tells Night Flight. “People were so unaware of what we were doing that we couldn’t get a major distributor — then, Stuart came in and gave me the money to finish it and set up the distribution deal. He recognized what it was… “

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The film’s comedic bits don’t always work and, as we said, might seem a bit dated — and you’ll just have to remember that what comedy writers often found funny in the 70s was often fairly loaded with racism, prejudice, chauvinism, sexism and homophobia that it certainly doesn’t stand the the test of time and certainly doesn’t reflect our more politically correct sensibilities today and is likely to offend at least some of the viewers who want comedy to play nicey-nice — but nevertheless TunnelVision benefits from sharp, and often very clever screenwriting reflecting a mid-70s cynical and satirical comedic style which we frankly wish would make a comeback.

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One of the main reasons the film is so infinitely watchable is because nearly everyone involved here would later go on to become some of our favorite comedians and TV performers, many of them veterans of L.A.’s Groundling Theatre, and the Second City Television comedy school (spawning TV’s “SCTV”) and “Saturday Night Live,” both of which hadn’t yet aired when Tunnel Vision was released into theaters in March 1976.

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Sometimes their onscreen appearance amounts to little more than a cameo appearance, but nevertheless it’s still pretty fun to see all of these celebs doing their part to make with the funny stuff.

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In addition to Hesseman and Proctor, you’ll no doubt recognize John Candy, who appears briefly in buddy-cop drama called “Get Head!” — Candy (who doesn’t speak a word) is shown as a crime-fighter whose partner is a disembodied bald head. Some of the other skits and bits include a trailer for “Charlie’s Girls,” a family comedy about serial killer Charles Manson and his family; a public service announcement for Axxon oil company, which has discovered that fish cause cardiopulmonary thrombosis and therefore the company has dumped billions of gallons of oil into the ocean to kill the “sea pests; “Secret Camera,” a “Candid Camera”-style parody supposedly presented by the CIA; “Ramon and Sonja,” an “All In The Family”-style sitcom parody containing many racial and ethnic stereotypes and starring Laraine Newman; “Police Comic,” a cop show starring a comedian who uses his routine to take down a sniper; a film trailer for “The Pregnant Man” TV movie; and, “The King of TV,” an insider’s joke about the president of a troubled network who listens to pitches for terrible shows.

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Tunnel Vision also stars Ron Silver (who has his own sketch playing a disreputable Spanish language teacher with greased-back hair), and the SNL comedy duo of Franken and Davis, (Tom Davis and future senator Al Franken — they’re both billed as part of the “creative staff”), who appear in a faked-up TV commercial where Davis offers his friend Franken a Heavy Changes personality spray which will aid in him being able to pick up women — all he needs to do is spray on a new personality type, such as “Mama’s Boy,” “Biker” or even “Certified Public Accountant.”

Also featured in one memorable skit is Betty Thomas — a graduate of Chicago’s Second City company who would appear later in a small role in the often-overlooked comedy feature film Used Cars before going dramatic in a much bigger part on TV’s “Hill Street Blues” and then eventually becoming a successful film and TV director — who is seen here along with Joe Flaherty (credited as Joseph O’Flaherty, his actual birth name), who would later join Candy as a member of the “SCTV” cast.

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If she’s reading this, Betty Thomas would likely not want us to remind everyone that she was nearly naked (her nipples are covered, and she’s wearing teeny tiny panties) and the gist of the skit is a raunchy game show during which she’ll have audibly fart on camera in order to win the grand prize, predicting the kinds of wacky TV game shows that would eventually clog the airwaves for real.

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A photo of Chevy Chase — who is seen for less than a minute, appearing as himself — was later used in the marketing of the film, and he was given top billing after his meteoric rise to fame with “Saturday Night Live” made him practically a household name, even appearing on a VHS tape cover.

Neal Israel: “The movie was a launching pad for a lot of talent, which is pretty interesting. We drew from the great improv groups — the Groundlings in L.A., and Second City, and the people in New York — who were all at their peak at that point… I knew Chevy before the film, he was a writer on ‘The Smothers Brothers Show’, and he was also a part of ‘Channel One’, which I saw in a theatre in New York in 1968, and that was what eventually became the movie ‘The Groove Tube‘, which he’s in also. By the time the movie came out, ours and ‘Groove Tube’, he was very popular on TV with ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and so he was annoyed that his name was being in the publicity, but I really had nothing to do with it. Suddenly he was propelled into stardom, and here his photo was being used to promote these films which he was barely in. He’s in ‘Tunnel Vision’ for like a minute.”

Ironically, character actor Roger Bowen was the most famous actor at the time of the film’s release and was initially given the film’s top billing. His portrayal of then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in skit called the “Young Peoples After School Press Conference” — Kissinger appears on a childrens’ show and is upstaged by a foul-mouthed puppet — has frequently been singled out as one of the better impressions and parodies of Kissinger.

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The film also features several tracks penned for the film by L.A.-based songwriter Dennis Lambert and his writing partner Brian Potter, two of them (“TunnelVision”/”The People’s Network”) released on a single credited to The Space Cadets. Lamber had originally met Potter, a British-born songwriter, when he was in London, back in 1969.

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Their songwriting partnership would flourish, and they’d write a ton of hit songs, including Coven’s “One Tin Soldier,” the hit theme song for the soundtrack to Billy Jack, which incidentally had featured Howard Hesseman in a small role.

By 1971, Lambert and Potter were working at ABC-Dunhill Records, where they wrote and produced hits for The Grass Roots, Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds, Gayle McCormick, the Four Tops, Dusty Springfield and Richard Harris, often working with A&R chief/producer Steve Barri.

They had also written songs for Glen Campbell, receiving a Grammy nomination for their production on Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, which was released in July 1975, almost a year prior to Tunnel Vision‘s theatrical debut, and we’re big fans here at Night Flight of their television promo campaigns for the ABC TV network, which we told you about here.

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Co-director and occasional actor Neal Israel, who had a job as director of on-air promotion at CBS at the time, later said that the writing of Tunnel Vision was prompted by his anger at the television industry’s emphasis on successful ratings no matter the cost, without regard to integrity.

In an interview he did with Variety, he later clamed that he was fired by CBS because of his involvement in Tunnel Vision (CBS, meanwhile, claimed it was for other reasons).

Neal Israel: “I’d signed a contract when I was at CBS that whatever I worked on belonged to them, and so they technically thought they would own it. They were not pleased.”

Israel would go on later to direct Americathon (1979), but he’s probably best remembered, however, for directing the 1984 Tom Hanks-starring Bachelor Party (which he also co-wrote — he also co-wrote scripts for Police Academy (1984) and Real Genius (1985) — as well as Breaking the Rules (1992), and Surf Ninjas (1993), which are just a handful of the films he’s directed since Tunnel Vision. He’s had quite a career, as you can see on his IMDB page.

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Swirnoff, meanwhile, would direct American Raspberry (released in 1977), which is also known as both Prime Time and Funny America. Like Tunnel Vision, it also lampoons 70s films and depicts what happens when an unexplained event takes place and unknown sources hijack the TV airwaves, replacing “normal” programs with different shows which are rude, crude, and politically incorrect. We’ll probably end up doing a Night Flight post about that one someday too.

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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://www.jointfilms.com/ Hide Your Sheep

    I loved these “sketch” movies back in the VHS 80s. This, Groove Tube, Prime Time, Loose Shoes, Kentucky Fried Movie, etc. But the weirdest thing was I had a copy of this and watched it one day and it nearly freaked me out because it WAS June 1, 1985 like in the movie. I know most of these really don’t hold up that well but they were such a big deal to me back in the 80s. Thanks of this article.

  • http://sobieniak.blogspot.com/ Chris Sobieniak

    It was made for somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000, grossed around $17 million dollars, which certainly meant that the similar films that followed it, like Kentucky Fried Movie and Amazon Women on the Moon to name just two examples, were likely greenlit based on the fact that it seemed like these types of comedies were something audiences wanted to pay to see.

    The only other film that comes to my mind, and one I think USA Network even showed late nights in the 80’s was Chuck Vincent’s “American Tickler”. That film did have my favorite moment at the start of a widower bitching about her dead husband while the credits roll.

    Tunnel Vision was distributed by International Harmony, the company founded by Night Flight’s very own Stuart S. Shapiro.

    Didn’t know that! I think they also distributed Belgian animator Picha’s “Shame of the Jungle” I think.

    It’s true the humor in Tunnelvision is dated to heck and back (I felt that way when I first saw it through any one of its constant VHS releases in the 80’s and 90’s, people must’ve thought it was Public Domain the way it was circulated then), many of those tapes would often put those names like Chevy Chase or John Candy very giant on the cover even though their roles were so short to begin with. I did love the theme song though, and glad to see it got a 45rpm record out of the deal. There was also a promo record of sorts that was produced that featured audio clips from the movie on one side in mono while the theme song in stereo was on the other. Might have to look for either one of these days. I know a pal who has the whole film on 35mm in his collection too! I do have the movie poster personally, worth picking up!
    https://selmanaires.wordpress.com/2009/12/09/tunnelvision/
    http://showcase.thebluebus.nl/soundtrack-of-my-life/february-2010/ipad

  • http://sobieniak.blogspot.com/ Chris Sobieniak

    It’s fun to think it took a decade before America finally got a FOURTH network again after this film came out. Of course we know how that went!

  • http://www.jointfilms.com/ Hide Your Sheep

    True it was always amusing how the boxes practically shouted out that Chevy was in them when he shows up for very little screen time in both Tunnelvision and the Groove Tube.