The Nostalgia Files: ‘Stay Tuned’ (1992)
Written by Tom. S. Parker, Jim Jennewain, and Richard Siegel
Directed by Peter Hyams
In 2003 the world lost a true comedic treasure; a man so funny that he was dubbed “The greatest physical comedian on the planet” by actor Don Knotts. Knotts was referring to the late, great Mr. John Ritter. With a career spanning nearly four decades in film, TV, and the stage, Ritter was an extremely talented and likable actor. He gave the world many memorable performances, most notably in the delightfully zany sitcom Three’s Company and in the ridiculously warped Problem Child films. With so many roles on his resume, Ritter became a household name for audiences worldwide. He starred in many films over the years, some notable, some not so notable. One picture that slipped through the cracks was 1992’s fantasy/comedy Stay Tuned, a wacky adventure which saw Ritter as an unlikely hero.
Meet Roy Knable (Ritter), he is a struggling plumbing salesman who seems to be in a bit of a funk. His wife Helen (Pam Dawber) is thriving in her corporate job and their kids Darryl (David Tom) and Diane (Heather McComb) think he’s a bit of a joke. The only solace Roy finds is in his television set; a machine which not only comforts him but provides him with a much needed escape. One night, Roy and Helen are fighting over Roy’s couch potato lifestyle which results in Helen destroying the TV. Soon after, Mr. Spike (Jeffrey Jones) shows up at their front door with a most desirable offer: a new TV/cable system. The only catch is that the TV and programming are designed by Satan! Roy and Helen soon get sucked into a hellish TV world and are pursued by Spike whose sole mission is to kill them and collect their souls for the “man downstairs”. Once inside Hellvision, Roy and Helen must survive random TV shows which all present dangerous scenarios designed to eliminate its participants.
Stay Tuned is a film that not too many people know about. It was released in the early 90s when family comedies with larger than life premises dominated the screen. It is a movie that feels right at home on cable on a sleepy Saturday afternoon and the ludicrous premise alone makes for one hell of a ride. One of the highlights of the film is the wealth of TV show spoofs that Hellvision programming has to offer. Some examples are Duane’s Underworld, Three Men and Rosemary’s Baby, Driving Over Miss Daisy, Murder She Likes, and I Love Lucifer, and the list goes on. There’s even a hilarious little nod to Ritter’s work on Three’s Company.
The cast in Stay Tuned is probably the film’s best aspect. John Ritter is hilarious as the couch potato turned hero destined to rescue his wife and reclaim the respect of his kids. His comic timing is impeccable and you really root for him. Pam Dawber (Mork & Mindy) is adequate as his wife who makes it a habit throughout the film to nag Roy. The two teenage actors who play the Knable kids could have been played by any child actors at the time. Their performances are forgettable and don’t really add much to the proceedings.
The once great Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Beetlejuice) is awesome as Spike, Satan’s helper and programmer at Hellvision. His off-beat style and creepy charisma really make for a solid villain. His performance is strong and he definitely makes a lasting impression on the viewer. The same can be said about Eugene Levy (the American Pie films, Splash), who has a supporting role as Crowley, Spike’s employee who gets sent into “the field” along with the Knables. Levy adds some additional comic relief and it is very welcome. The tension between him and Spike provides for a very strange employer/employee relationship and gives a humorous look at the devilish office politics.
Among the slew of TV show spoofs is a delightful animated sequence which features the Knables as animated mice chased by a psychotic robot cat. This sequence was actually animated by Chuck Jones, who made a name for himself with Looney Tunes. This sequence is brilliant and obviously sticks out from the rest of the live-action film. Each program, Roy and Helen zap into, there is something hazardous waiting for them. With this rapid channel-changing, the Knables fall into plot after plot with many genres and environments. This is what makes Stay Tuned such a fun movie. It keeps you guessing and throws surprises at you left and right.
The film’s score is equally fun and bouncy. Composed by Bruce Broughton (the Homeward Bound films, Silverado), the score is adventurous and exciting. There is a heroic theme for Roy, an endearing family theme for the Knables, some ominous music for Spike and his minions at Hellvision, plus plenty of playful Mickey Mousing for filler score.
Director Peter Hyams has a had a pretty eclectic career with a filmography which includes Time Cop, The Relic, Sudden Death, and 2010: The Year We Make Contact. With a healthy mix of science fiction and action, Hyams knows exactly how to squeeze excitement out of a film. Stay Tuned is no different and blending fantasy action with family comedy in a slim 88 minute running time.
Stay Tuned is a truly underrated gem. The performances and direction are notable and while the screenplay is a bit cartoonish it holds up well. This is a film that encompasses many styles and keeps you guessing from one moment to the next. Most importantly the film is a great showcase for John Ritter, who may be gone now but with brilliant performances like this one he will surely be remembered. With a clean DVD transfer, Stay Tuned should grace your home entertainment system at least once in this lifetime. Just make sure your cable TV hookup wasn’t done by one of Satan’s helpers…