Thursday, December 16, 2010

Culture Shock 12.16.10: It's not just a telethon; it's an 'Americathon'

As the "great recession" lingers on, it's hard to imagine a time when things were, in some ways, even worse.

Sure, the Great Depression was worse. Everyone knows that. But I'm talking about the 1970s, when, apart from the music and the movies, everything pretty much sucked.

Kids today, you think you've got it bad, but at least you're not waiting in line for gasoline. Now that was bad. OK, maybe I didn't wait in line for gasoline, but my parents did. And I had to listen to them complain, which was almost as bad. And between Watergate, the hangover from Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, stagflation and polyester fashions, it seemed like the United States was on its last legs.

The whole country was in the dumps, and if you didn't think so, President Jimmy Carter was there to remind you.

So, in 1979, along came a movie that seemed to sum up how the country felt about itself. It was a screwball comedy called "Americathon," written by Firesign Theatre's Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman.

Forgotten since the 1980s, "Americathon" is back and available as a manufacture-on-demand DVD from Warner Archive, online at And it seems just as relevant now as when it was in theaters.

Set in the then future year of 1998, "Americathon" depicts the United States as flat broke, and the mortgage is coming due.

No one can afford a house, so everyone lives in their cars. But that's OK, because no one can afford gasoline, either, and everyone rides bicycles or jogs to work. (Conveniently, everyone also wears track suits, because riding a bike in slacks is just asking for trouble.)

The dollar is worthless, and everyone has to pay for everything — including phone calls — in gold. (Ron Paul called to say, "I told you so.") Meanwhile, the Chinese have become successful capitalists, Vietnam is a vacation and entertainment hot spot, and the Jews and Arabs have put aside their differences to create one huge country, the United Hebrab Republic.

You know, apart from that last bit about the Jews and Arabs, none of it seems that farfetched now, does it?

Presiding over America's decline is President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter), a former California governor apparently based on once and future California Gov. Jerry "Governor Moonbeam" Brown. Needless to say, President Roosevelt got elected solely due to name recognition, and his solution to the country's fiscal woes is to spout New Age platitudes and raffle off the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He's already moved the White House into a Los Angeles condo.

Time, however, is running out, because the president got a $400 billion emergency loan from Native American billionaire Sam Birdwater, played by the late, great Chief Dan George ("The Outlaw Josey Wales").

And Sam wants his money back in 30 days or he'll foreclose.

Frankly, I think we could do a lot worse than Chief Dan George running the country, but nobody asked me.

Anyway, the president's new media adviser (Peter Riegert) has an idea that just might work: a telethon. So, they recruit pill-popping actor Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman) to act as emcee, and the Americathon takes off.

Unfortunately, some of the acts are a lot like the opening round of "American Idol."

Can the Americathon succeed? Who are the shady characters working behind the scenes to sabotage it? Is that really a young Jay Leno in a boxing match with his mom? (Hey, I'll fork over a donation if it means I get to see Leno beat up by his mother.)

With 30 years' hindsight, "Americathon" is probably funnier now than it was in 1979. Plus, it's always great to see what amounts to an all-star cast of '70s television stars — Ritter, Korman and Fred Willard — in the sort of roles they do best.

And George Carlin narrates the whole thing, which is appropriate, because he spent the last decade of his life telling us all just how doomed we are.

In summation: "Americathon." It's funny, and maybe you should order a copy. Just do it while your money is still worth something.

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