Looking back at Stay Tuned

Stay Tuned is one the most unfairly overlooked family movies of the 1990s. Here's why we love it, and why it stands the test of time...

Spoilers for Stay Tuneed lie ahead.

What would you say dates a film or TV show?

Is it computers? Maybe, although once you get past the crazy notion of having to attach your landline receiver to a modem the size of a cereal box, WarGames still functions as a decent techno-thriller. Last year this site wrote about hacker-centric caper movie Sneakers and noted that it has actually aged rather well.

Phones perhaps? There’s a moment in Lethal Weapon where Murtaugh stops to make a call on his ‘mobile’. He gets out of his car on a bridge (an elevated point for a good signal I suppose) and has to lug a heavy looking briefcase containing the battery with him (presumably while muttering something about being too old for this kind of lark). But that doesn’t ever detract from Martin and Roger’s action packed hi-jinks.

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Others would say fashion, but do you really notice the backcombed hair and oversized shoulder-pads of, say, Working Girl, or the flared trousers flapping around in Carrie once the action gets going?

I’d argue that what dates a work of pop culture is the other works of pop culture it references. Which brings me to our featured movie. 1992’s fantasy comedy Stay Tuned is a film which absolutely relies on the pop culture of the late 80s and early 90s. I’d happily wager that you haven’t given a thought to some or all of multitude of references in a good long while: Northern Exposure, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Salt-N-Pepa, The Golden Girls, Married… With Children, Beverly Hills 90210, and Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous to name just a tiny fraction.

Roy Knable, a former fencing champion, is disillusioned with his dead-end job as a plumbing supplies salesman. In his slump he has become addicted to television, as a means of escape from his humdrum life. His wife Helen’s frustration at this, as well as her burgeoning career, is a source of tension in their marriage and their teenage children think he is a rather pathetic figure.

When a sinister salesman called Spike knocks at the door offering a free trial of a gargantuan satellite TV system with 666 channels Roy can’t sign the contract fast enough. While Helen berates Roy over his lack of drive, the satellite dish sucks the bickering couple into an evil TV network designed to entertain Old Nick himself. The only chance they have to save both their souls and their marriage is to work together to survive for 24 hours against in an array of warped versions of our favourite TV shows.

This was a favourite of mine while I was younger when it first came out on VHS, so watching it back for the first time in a good few years made it feel rather like a nostalgia piece – which it very much isn’t! While it does refer back to some much older shows (e.g. Leave It To Beaver, I Love Lucy) the stuff I listed above was supposed to make it feel very current. And at the time, it did! But the years have not been kind to Stay Tuned and it has aged quite, quite badly. In fact, it had already done so by the late 90s!

But that’s not to say it’s a bad film. Not at all. It was included it in this site’s Top 25 underappreciated films of 1992 because it has an awful lot going for it.

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The cast and crew

During its inception Stay Tuned was plagued by rejections. Production company Morgan Creek (funded by Warner Bros) had eyes on Tim Burton to direct. However, Warner had declined to stump up the cash for Burton’s earlier pet project Edward Scissorhands, regarding it as too personal and risky. Due to this and their well publicised interference during the Batman production, Burton’s relationship with Warner was already rocky. When they invited him to helm Stay Tuned he said that only a Batman sequel, over which he had full creative control, would lure him back.

As luck would have it Peter Hyams (director of Capricorn One and Timecop), had been badgering Morgan Creek to give him the reins, having read and fallen in love with the script. Stay Tuned was written by Jim Jennewein and Tom S. Parker – their first film together. They would go on to pen the live action Richie Rich and Flintstones movies before quitting the film industry to write fantasy novels together.

The Saturday Nite Dead section was set to feature the real life Wayne’s World stars Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. Unfortunately they had recently finished principal filming on the actual Wayne’s World movie and were deeply involved in post production, reshoots and promotion of the film (as well as a well documented feud between Myers and director Penelope Spheeris) so had to pass on it.

Instead, voice over artist Michael P. Hogan stood in as ‘Duane’ with Jimi Defilippis, who had previously been playing Beetlejuice at the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, taking on ‘Garf’. While Hogan’s attempts at Wayne’s mannerisms are mixed at best, Defilippis’ impression of Garth is uncanny!

On top of all that, the proposed lead actor, Dan Aykroyd, also turned the project down as he was committed to numerous projects at the time including Chaplin and Sneakers. In a really smart move the lead was then offered to the sadly departed John Ritter. His comic timing, perfected by working in sitcoms for almost two decades made him a great fit for the film.

But he should be applauded for more than his comedic skills. When watching I truly believed that here was a man on the verge depression due to his deathly boring job and indifferent family. The gradual change from slob, to bemused participant in various twisted TV shows, to action hero, to loving husband and father, is masterfully handled.

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Stay Tuned showed a wider audience how well the very likeable Ritter exemplified the ‘everyman’ character. Had he focussed more on films than stage and TV, then nowadays he would probably mentioned in the same sentence as Martin Freeman, Tom Hanks, Jimmy Stewart or Jack Lemmon (I’d have happily accepted him as an American Arthur Dent). His tragic and untimely death in 2003 while filming the second season of 8 Simple Rules is very much the viewing public’s loss.

Another sitcom veteran, Pam Dawber of Mork & Mindy and My Sister Sam holds her own, making sure that her co-stars don’t steal the limelight. She plays Helen Knable as strong willed, yet sensible and fair. Even when she’s threatened with becoming the stereotypical damsel in distress, she plays against type acting more annoyed at her predicament than genuinely dismayed.

And she sparks off Ritter. Their obvious chemistry makes the relationship believable and we root for them not just to save the day but to find a way forward in their marriage. That is largely down to Dawber’s strong performance.

Although difficult to write about, it’s impossible to talk about Stay Tuned without mentioning its other star, Jeffrey Jones. He plays Spike, the Head Demon who is tasked with collecting souls in a sadistic and entertaining manner by ‘Him Downstairs’. He puts in as memorable a performance as he did playing villains in Howard The Duck and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (in fact, his inevitable comeuppance is a splendid FBDO inspired in-joke). Although Spike is largely played for laughs, Jones’ immense stature, especially when sharing the screen with the diminutive Ritter, makes him a formidable and domineering presence. Sadly, his serious misdemeanours make it difficult to enjoy the scenes he appears in, which this otherwise charming film (and its exemplary cast) does not deserve.

Rounding off the four main adult characters is the wonderful Eugene Levy as Crowley, Spike’s put upon second-in-command. Prior to Stay Tuned, his highest profile roles had been as the mermaid hunting Dr. Kornbluth in Splash and as John Candy’s sidekick Norman in Armed & Dangerous – unless you count his bill topping role in 1973’s indie horror comedy Cannibal Girls! Of course he would later own every moment that he’s on the screen in the American Pie movies – but he does a pretty good job here with the scene larceny.

The Knables’ children, Darryl (David Tom) and Diane (Heather McComb), considering they are supposed to be disrespectful of Roy, are surprisingly watchable at a time when child sidekicks were becoming increasingly obnoxious.

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The beginning is very similar to Ghostbusters

I almost wrote ‘It rips off the opening scene from Ghostbusters’ but then I realised – of course it does. It rips off as many things as it can possibly get away with, and shamelessly! Nay, gleefully! You learn early on that Stay Tuned’s bread and butter is lampoonery of beloved properties!

It features a remarkable animated section

Filming for Stay Tuned began in October 1991 and wrapped just three months later in January 1992 – quite an impressive feat given the massive variety of locations, sets, extras, make-up and costumes involved. The two minute long Duane’s Underworld section alone has an entire TV studio audience made up as zombies, ghouls and vampires, not to mention a detail-perfect recreation of Wayne’s basement from the show.

However, one particular sequence had already been in production for six months by the time principal photography started. Hyams personally approached legendary animator Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame to work on an ambitious six minute sequence in which Roy and Helen find themselves inside a cartoon (in mouse form, no less).

Thinking they’re safe because “cartoons are for kids” they let their guard down, but we’ve all seen these old animated shorts and have a pretty good idea what’s coming. The homeowner (who, of course, we only see from the knees down) has bought a new hybrid cat/terminator to rid the house of its rodent infestation. What ensues is a superbly animated, uproariously funny, ultra-violent, literal cat-and-mouse chase which stands up perfectly well on its own as an example of the kind of cartoon it was parodying (Looney Tunes, Disney, Tom & Jerry).

Jones was used to writing his own scripts so it was something of a new challenge for him, working with prepared material. He threw himself into the task, providing over three hundred drawings and and character designs.

He co-directed with the film’s animation supervisor Jeff DeGrandis, of whom he spoke in a later interview: “I think it’s important to help the younger generation of animators. If you care about the art, I think you’re obliged to help those who will follow”. He further praised his young colleague saying “He’s a brilliant guy and a good story man”. DeGrandis became a producer working on the wildly popular Dora The Explorer.

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There’s a lovely little self referential moment in this section. Mouse Roy writes and posts a letter (to the Acme Company of course) and the stamp on the envelope is actually a self portrait of Chuck Jones himself!

There’s a fantastic meta joke…

That’s quite a bold statement considering the whole film is one long string of meta jokes. But one in particular is a stonker. The final act of the film really picks up the pace as Roy hurtles towards his final confrontation with Spike having worked out how to change between shows without having to see them though to the end.

A chase sequence through a number of twisted TV shows ensues. Roy eventually leaps into a familiar, cosy seventies style sitting room and trips over a familiar looking couch. He notices that he is wearing familiar clothing when a familiar piece of music kicks in (“Come and knock on our door. We’ll be waiting for you…”). He gawps around in confusion as two familiar young ladies enter the room and say in unison “Where have you been?”. In an appropriate fourth-wall-breaking moment, he looks into the camera and screams in existential terror, leaping channels again as quick as he can.

As with many of the gags in Stay Tuned if you’re not familiar with the source material, you don’t get the joke. But this one is really quite special if you’re in on it. There’s nothing sinister or parodic here. It’s a perfect recreation of the living room set from the long running 70s/80s sitcom Three’s Company which, of course, starred a young John Ritter in his breakthrough role as Jack Tripper.

…and an even better Star Trek TNG sight gag

At the start of the chase sequence Roy finds himself in a beige leather chair in a circular room with a huge viewscreen at one end, wearing a red and black jumpsuit, surrounded by similarly attired personnel who suddenly turn on him. However, Captain Roy’s deadly predicament (“Phasers on… hmmm… torture!”) appears to be secondary in his list of concerns. It’s testament to Ritter’s comic acting that he perfectly conveys how one might feel if they suddenly and unexpected found themself to be bald. His reaction as he paws at his newly depilated dome is priceless.

Holy Shatner, indeed!

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It’s loaded with Chekov’s Guns

A few years ago Emma Coats of Pixar tweeted her now famous ‘22 rules of Storytelling’, a list of guidelines she had learned from her time working there. Number 19 stated “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating”. Almost 20 years earlier Stay Tuned adhered quite strictly to this rule. There is no Deus Ex Machina here – every single thing Roy and Helen require to save themselves is available right from the start. For what seems like a bit of a throwaway, popcorn movie there’s a lot going on, especially in the first ten minutes or so. Very little of what is shown or mentioned is innocuous or unimportant.

You can see why Peter Hyams fell in love with the screenplay.

And of course, it has parodies aplently

Aside from Duane’s Underworld there are plenty more darkly funny pastiches, some of which we only ever see a brief snippet of, including:

Driving Over Miss Daisy – In which a gleeful Spike repeated drives a car back and forth over a sweet little old lady while Roy helplessly looks on in horror.

Thirtysomething-to-life – Long term prison inmates talk about their feelings and colour swatches for their cells.

The Exorcisist – An aerobics workout which includes such classic moves as star-jumps, squat thrusts and 360° head spins.

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The Fresh Prince Of Darkness – I’d pay good money for this to be made into a real show.

Unmarried… With Children – Such a subtle, yet funny gag which only appears on the screen for a split second.

Three Men And Rosemary’s Baby – You try singing Goodnight Sweetheart while the devil’s offspring spits pea soup at you!

And my particular favourite – Murder She Likes.

Before we close down for the night…

A recent Rotten Tomatoes editorial bemoaned Stay Tuned’s wasted potential, saying that for a film about television, it somehow manages to say nothing about television or pop culture. But I think to say that is to fundamentally misunderstand the film. Despite appearances, deep down it’s not really about television at all; it’s about love, trust and fulfilling one’s potential.

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Where Stay Tuned’s strength lies, and the reason I will continue to watch and enjoy it despite the ever advancing years of its references, is in the well rounded characters and their relationships with one another.

Stay Tuned was a critical and commercial failure on its initial release, making back less than half of its $25m budget, with poor to middling reviews. However, it did find a modicum of success on home video, becoming something of a cult classic. Sadly, the VHS and DVD copies of it have long been deleted. There was a Region 1 release in that half-cardboard, half-plastic case that Warner loved so much around the turn of the century but copies are highly sought after and have been known to fetch upwards of $100 on auction sites.

Perhaps it’s quite fitting that if you act more like Roy Knable your best chance of seeing this again is to endlessly flick through the channels on your TV. You might be lucky and find a showing. Just don’t get addicted! And beware of a knock at your door…