The Simpsons Decade

Why Stay Tuned Is A Dated Artifact of 1990s Comedy Done Wrong

Peter Hyams' dark comedy squandered its good ideas and creative potential on a meaningless, poorly executed trifle.

by | April 4, 2017 | Comments

I worked as a video store clerk at Blockbuster as a teenager, and I have a weirdly vivid memory of the 1992 dark comedy Stay Tuned. Despite its sizable critical and commercial failure during its theatrical run, it was always checked out and the subject of intense interest. Then again, Stay Tuned’s popularity at the video store made sense. It was a film that was practically custom-designed for home video rather than the multiplex.

The reason for its small screen appeal is that it’s a movie about television — and our insatiable addiction to it. Yet despite such juicy subject matter, Stay Tuned somehow manages not to say anything about television, pop-culture, or desperation. Instead, it’s 88 minutes of squandered potential and good ideas dying agonizing deaths, with the notable exception of an animated sequence from the great Chuck Jones that manages to squeeze a little heart and old-fashioned artistry into what is otherwise a creative black hole.

The good ideas begin with the casting of the dearly missed John Ritter as Roy Knable, a struggling plumbing equipment salesman whose defining characteristic is his unhealthy addiction to television. Ritter was more than just just an unusually beloved TV actor like Ted Danson or Michael J. Fox; he came close to being the medium’s living embodiment. He was one of the uncontested geniuses of television comedy, an achievement made more remarkable when you consider he developed his richly merited reputation as a peerless physical comedian on Three’s Company, a show just as rightfully reviled for representing a sad nadir in sleazy, exploitative T&A and moronic formula. Late in the film, there’s a typically clumsy nod to his star-making turn on the ABC sitcom: as the Three’s Company theme song kicks in, Ritter lets out a howl of existential despair that would be an appropriate response to both the indignities Roy Knable faces and the parallel humiliations of the actor playing him.

It’s 88 minutes of squandered potential and good ideas dying agonizing deaths.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing Ritter can do to redeem Stay Tuned, and any movie incapable of getting audiences to like and identify with a character played by an icon as innately lovable as he is has a problem. The metaphysical redemption comedy subgenre calls for a protagonist to begin their spiritual journey from a place of selfishness and immaturity so they have plenty of room for spiritual growth. Stay Tuned digs itself into a hole so deep it can never recover by making Roy Knable not just a loser with a dead end job, but also a self-absorbed schmuck who ignores his wife and children so he can mindlessly consume reruns and baseball games. But it’s worse than that, astonishingly. Roy also deeply resents and envies his more successful wife Helen (fellow television veteran Pam Dawber of Mork & Mindy and My Sister Sam), who isn’t exactly overjoyed with the loser she’s married to, either. And that’s even before Roy gets involved with some sinister Satanic juju courtesy of a malevolent figure known as Mr. Spike, played by Jeffrey Jones.

Spike offers the gullible TV lover an offer that was irresistible in 1992 but would be perversely unappealing today: a 44-inch television screen (44 inches!) complete with a nifty satellite dish and 666 channels. That’s because Spike is a demon whose sinister machinations result in Roy and Helen being sucked into an underworld realm called Hell Vision, where the familiar television fodder of yesteryear is twisted in ways that are supposed to be comical and macabre but are instead punishing and brutally unfunny.

Early in their misadventures, Roy and Helen find themselves in a parody of a sadistic game show called You Can’t Win. That title has a nicely existential edge to it, but did the world really need another game show parody in 1992? Does the world ever need another game show parody, for that matter? Did it also need parodies of Driving Miss Daisy, thirtysomething, or other well-worn pop culture fodder that was already hopelessly dated by the time Stay Tuned flopped?

1992 also saw the release of Wayne’s World, a brilliant, giddily meta post-modern meditation on our love-hate relationship with television. Accordingly, Stay Tuned devotes what feels like several hours’ worth of screen time to our hapless heroes visiting the set of Duane’s Underworld, a punnily titled spoof that’s exactly what you imagine it would be: Wayne’s World, only with demons. And like every demonic version of popular favorites, it delivers its one joke with joyless efficiency.

The Simpsons Decade has been about our complicated relationship with pop culture and nostalgia in general and with television specifically. Stay Tuned should be a particularly pure and resonant representation of this dynamic, given its plot. Yet the film fails to convey, on any level, the pleasure and joy and escape that television can provide.

Roy and Helen seem more poignantly, authentically human and real as animated mice than they do as live-action human beings.

Roy isn’t a fragile dreamer who hides from the world inside a comforting cocoon of television. He’s just an insensitive schmuck who watches TV because he’s got nothing else going on. Stay Tuned depicts television as vulgar, tacky, and evil, and it’s all of those things, of course, but it’s so much more. The best 1990s entertainment that I’ve covered in this column understand the value of pop culture even at its silliest and how a lot of what gives us pleasure, both as Americans and as human beings, is television. To deny that is to deny something essential about the American character. This film’s dishonesty extends to giving Roy and Helen an annoyingly precocious little boy with Sally Jesse Raphael glasses who’s a technological wiz but is completely uninterested in television. An American boy who doesn’t love television? That’s way more implausible than a boob tube-addicted everyman getting sucked into an evil TV underworld alongside his more impressive wife.

This isn’t to say that Stay Tuned lacks an emotional component. The film tries to generate pathos and authentic emotional stakes by making the future of Roy and Helen’s marriage, as well as the fate of Roy’s eternal soul, dependent upon the couple making it through 24 hours inside Hell Vision.

At one point in their bogus journey, Roy and Helen are transformed into meek little mice pursued by an evil robotic cat in an animated sequence overseen by the great Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones. Jones was always the cutest of the classic Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies gang, and it’s a testament to Jones’ genius — and the awfulness of the rest of the film — that Roy and Helen seem more poignantly, authentically human and real as animated mice than they do as live-action human beings.

Morgan Creek Productions, the studio behind the film, reportedly wanted former animator Tim Burton, fresh off the success of Batman and Edward Scissorhands, to direct Stay Tuned, but he wisely chose to go with a sure-fire blockbuster in Batman Returns. At the time, he was a quintessential auteur. It’s understandable why the studio wanted him, just as it’s easy to see why he passed. I’m not sure even Burton in his prime could have done anything with the script, but I like to imagine a scenario where he has the it re-written from scratch by someone like Batman Returns screenwriter Daniel Waters as a funky, hip, and distinctive horror-comedy in the vein of Beetlejuice.

Indeed, Hell Vision, at its best, recalls the brilliantly realized afterworld bureaucracy of Beetlejuice. And casting-wise, it’d be impossible to imagine a better early 1990s television demon than Beetlejuice alum Jeffrey Jones (who would reunite fruitfully with Burton in Ed Wood) or Eugene Levy, who co-stars here as one of Satan’s minions.

But instead of an auteur with a clear, bold vision perfectly aligned with the movie Stay Tuned wanted to be, the film ended up with 2010 director and cinematographer Peter Hyams, who can charitably be deemed a craftsman or, less charitably, a hack. To offer a sense of how wrong Hyams was for the gig, he followed Stay Tuned with a pair of Jean Claude Van Damme vehicles more in his wheelhouse: Sudden Death and Timecop. Hyams apparently found the script hilarious and aggressively campaigned for the directing job, which speaks volumes about his poor judgement.

Stay Tuned isn’t enjoyed so much as it is endured.

As Stay Tuned ground sweatily to a close, I was overcome with concern for John Ritter’s battered dignity. Near the end of the film, Spike and Roy enter the set of a Salt-N-Pepa music video that, like seemingly all music videos from the early 1990s, appears to take place in an abandoned factory somewhere. Roy trades in his regular duds for the canary yellow ensemble and head wrap of a proud black woman in 1992, or, alternately, Prince circa Diamonds & Pearls — Roy seems to be in drag, but he also inexplicably sports a cartoon hobo’s painted-on five-o’-clock shadow.

Spike, meanwhile, maintains his signature Satanic scowl as he takes on the Spinderella role of DJ. Jones and Ritter aren’t in blackface, technically, but the vibe is disconcertingly similar. Ritter wears a look of complete mortification that seems only partially attributable to the character that he’s playing.

Stay Tuned isn’t enjoyed so much as it is endured. Yet the film has attracted a strange cult all the same, rooted in the intense relationship we tend to have with the pop culture of our youth, regardless of quality. Gen-Xers have a nostalgic fondness for Stay Tuned because it was something that was on television a lot growing up, and just as importantly, it was about television and starred one of the medium’s true legends.

Because the horror-comedy realizes almost none of its extraordinary potential, Stay Tuned deserves to be remade for a generation that has not yet been let down by it. It was remade, in a way, by YouTube sketch comedy wisenheimers Smosh for their first cinematic vehicle. The plot of 2015’s Smosh: The Movie found the titular duo traveling through a magical portal that allows them to skip manically through Youtube perennials like make-up tutorials and first-person video game commentaries the same way Roy and Helen gallivanted through the channels of Hell Vision.

Stay Tuned is astonishingly difficult to track down these days. It isn’t available for streaming on Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes, and its DVD went out of print ages ago. I had to pay a pretty penny for an ancient DVD; I doubt Criterion is working on a Blu-ray release. But in a strange way, the film’s unavailability makes sense: Stay Tuned was a movie people loved because it was always on cable and they rented it on videotape from Blockbuster. Considering how relentlessly rooted the film is in the technology and pop culture of 1992, it’s poetically apt that Stay Tuned seems stuck forever in the VCR era.

Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

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