How 2010 does this sound? Fear of a gay takeover, talk of an oil shortage, people forced to live in cars and tents because of money woes, terrorist demands, pot legalization, and worries of nationwide bankruptcy. And yet “Americathon” was made in 1979, during the Carter administration. Many brickbats have been lobbed its way since the comedy’s ill-fated release, but “eerily prescient” was never one of them. It couldn’t be, until now.
The satire imagines that Carter has been lynched, and with the world in a dire energy crisis and the United States literally broke, without “a pot to piss in,” the stoner-esque Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) has been elected president. He reigns from “the Western White House,” a crowded California condo.
Needing to raise $400 billion in 30 days or lose the country altogether, he and his advisers decide to stage a month-long telethon. They really, really want your gold, and aren’t above selling off San Diego to get it. To be their Jerry Lewis, they hire Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman), a pill-popping actor best known for the transvestite sitcom “Both Mother and Father.”
Monty headlines the chintzy, cheesy proceedings, which are televised 24/7. It’s heavy on ventriloquists and pint-sized tap dancers, but the more desperate they are to raise cash, the crazier the acts they put in front of the camera: mother/son boxing (with Jay Leno), daredevil Oklahoma Roy (Meat Loaf) destroying a car, the Del Rubio Triplets, and a Vietnamese pop singer (Zane Busby in a terrifying “nails, meet chalkboard” performance) whom Roosevelt wishes to, um, veto.
With Peter Riegert and Fred Willard around for support and Elvis Costello lip-synching one of his songs, “Americathon” is not the laugh riot it thinks it is, but it is smarter than your average comedy. It carries the same spirit of the era’s “National Lampoon” movies, albeit stripped of the raunch (it’s rated PG). As a kid, I hadn’t realized this film sprung from the minds behind Firesign Theatre, but now it all makes sense.
“Americathon” is also a reminder of how the movies never quite knew what to do with Ritter. A gifted comedian on television, he never comfortably transitioned to the big screen, despite numerous tries. Ironically, he fits perfectly in Roosevelt’s skin, yet the film bombed. Making it even more bittersweet, Ritter plays opposite his then-real-life wife, Nancy Morgan, who shines as his wide-eyed, air-headed assistant. —Rod Lott