John Ritter is a real couch potato. Once a motivated and attentive husband, his obsession with watching television has fractured his marriage to wife Pam Dawber. She’s had enough of his boob tube watching and is all set to leave him.
Just before she gets the chance, Ritter receives a visit from a mysterious salesman (Jeffrey Jones), who offers him a hi-tech satellite dish and state-of-the-art television that has 666 channels all with special programs regular TVs can’t get. Well, Ritter can’t turn down the free trial offer!
That big dish ends up transporting Ritter and Dawber into ‘Hellevision’ and the couple jump into one horrifying show after another. It turns out Jones is collecting souls for Satan and is using this TV as the trap. If the candidates can survive being part of the nightmarish and bizarre programming for 24 hours they’ve earned their freedom. If they get killed while starring on this television network, they lose their souls!
Casting television sitcom stars Ritter and Dawber in Stay Tuned was inspired casting. Their presence alone is a sly self-referential joke bringing their recognized television personas to the film that’s all about warped television shows. They work well together too and make a charming onscreen couple.
Ritter is really the true star of Stay Tuned. Even in such a nonsense, nutty movie he again proves just how talented and funny he could be. He’s as likable and funny as ever, as he panics, stumbles and runs through a maze of bizarre TV programming. He manages to sell the jokes better in some scenes than the actual design and premise of them.
I wouldn’t describe Stay Tuned as a witty satiric look at TV obsession in the 1990s. It has broad jokes, silly ones and feeble misses. Most of the parody programs Ritter and Dawber find themselves falling into on Hellevision don’t offer much more than a quick visual laugh with a silly ‘evil’ pun title to it. The scenarios that unfold once they find themselves on a show or movie aren’t as good Ritter’s performance.
An old Clint Eastwood western, a wrestling contest, an old film noir, a historical drama about the French Revolution. When the couple pop into the scenes, a lot of times after the surprise wears off and we see the costumes they’re now wearing, the scenes don’t really have many clever spins or unexpected turns to take.
Yes, it’s amusing to see a cameo by Captain Lou Albano or a game show called ‘You Can’t Win’, but most of the time the longer they stay on a channel, the less funny it becomes. The joke plays out and Ritter and Dawber frantically try to escape and move onto the next channel.
As the couple zips from one show to another we get a taste of some of the other evil-themed shows that are dotting the dial. They are all evil/hellish plays on popular television shows during the ’90s era. Which makes Stay Tuned something of an interesting time capsule that reminds us what TV shows we were all watching at the time and now find on syndication or buried on some streamer somewhere.
This was still a time when everyone was watching the same television shows and famous tv commercials became an indelible part of pop culture. Yes, kids, there was a time when television viewers had to sit and watch through an entire commercial break. There was no ‘skipping’ option or fast forwarding through your favorite program. You want to talk about hell!
So the Hellevision programming consists of devilish spoofs of popular shows like Northern Overexposure, Sadistic Hidden Videos, Three Men and Rosemary’s Baby, Beverly Hills 90666, The Golden Ghouls, Murder She Likes, Facts of Life Support, 30 Something to Life, Fresh Prince of Darkness, Unmarried with Children, David Dukes of Hazard. I think you get the idea right?
At one point there’s a commercial for ‘Autopsies of the Rich and Famous’. It’s an ok joke, but what makes it much funnier seeing that 1992 joke today, is that show has become an ACUTAL REAL SHOW I see on REELZ Channel! It’s called something else (Celebrity Autopsy) and is not as visually graphic as the parody teases, but basically that joke has become a reality!
The television satirizing the film does is not very sophisticated and it doesn’t have much in the way of really clever spins stamped on a lot of the programs. There was more comic potential with the premise of the film than what ends up happening. Had there been more creative and better ideas for each switch of the remote control, the film could have been a very entertaining series of laugh-worthy moments.
Instead the results are very hit and miss – and more leaning on ‘miss’. Ritter finds himself in Duane’s Underworld on ‘Saturday Nite Dead’, where the hosts and audience are zombies – get it. Ritter screams in horror and manages to escape to the next channel.
Towards the end of the movie there’s an extended sequence of Ritter and Jones fighting in a Salt-n-Pepa music video, which begins to drag and isn’t really funny. I suppose the filmmakers and studio were eager to get a hit song on the soundtrack and just decided to let the entire song play within the movie, but it would have been nice had they had some funny business take place while the music is playing. Stay Tuned is meant to be a comedy. So, the scene just gets tedious and doesn’t build to any real comedic payoff.
But there are a few winners mixed into all the channel surfing. When Ritter finds himself in ‘Driving Over Miss Daisy’, it’s hard for me not to chuckle that they even decided to go there with such a grim, adolescent joke. And again, Ritter’s reactions make it even funnier.
The one segment that has always been praised is an animated excursion where Ritter and Dawber find themselves as cartoon mice trying to escape a robot cat.
It’s a very well done sequence that captures the look and tone of an old classic Saturday morning cartoon, which when you learn it was done by animation legend Chuck Jones you can understand why.
It’s has all the timing and feel of an old Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry cartoon. It also looks better made and energized than a lot of the other sequences in the movie. It’s a real highlight in the film.
There is also one standout joke in the film that makes everyone laugh. A very meta moment when Ritter finds himself thrust back onto the set of Three’s Company. It’s a short hysterical gag where once the old theme song kicks in Ritter screams in despair at the camera before clicking the remote control. I don’t feel bad revealing the joke, since the original trailers and commercials for the film used it to promote the film. They knew exactly how great a gag it was.
Jones is the devilish villain and he’s fine. I don’t think he’s as much fun or memorable as he was in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or as dark and sinister as in Howard the Duck (despite how you might feel about that movie, he was a pretty dastardly and effective bad guy).
Eugene Levy plays a disgruntled worker at Jones’ Hell Studio and pops in to explain the predicament Ritter and Dawber in, but he doesn’t add much to the comedy. There’s a subplot of a corporate takeover happening at the control room that is quite forgettable. I barely can remember anything about it. As for the two kids who are back home trying to keep up with their parents on the idiot box – well, they’re just standard movie kids. All the fun is happening within the television.
Throughout this wild televised adventure, Ritter comes to realizes that all his TV watching has been a distraction to what is really important in his life – his wife, kids and his goals in life. It just took this wacky journey through this television purgatory to learn that lesson.
Probably the most surprising thing for me about Stay Tuned is that it was directed by Peter Hyams. The director behind Capricorn One, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Running Scared, Time Cop and Sudden Death.
This zany comedy always seemed like an odd entry in his resume and I always forget that he directed this. It doesn’t have any distinct style and looks like it could have been a TV movie on the Disney Channel back in the day. According to IMDB, Hyams “had been so captivated by the script that he repeatedly badgered Morgan Creek executives until they agreed to let him direct the movie”.
So apparently the script really caught his interest. I know he’s had a very eclectic career, but still, Stay Tuned always stood out to me as an unusual choice for him.
Supposedly, originally Tim Burton was offered the film, but turned it down. I can imagine a much more entertaining surreal adventure had it been placed in Burton’s hands or Joe Dante. The film could have used more of a stronger unique perspective to bring many of the channel spoofing to life.
Between Stay Tuned and UHF, ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic’s comedy about a wacky low-budget cable station, I would take Weird Al’s bizarre channel surfing comedy all day long! Gandhi 2, Spatula City, Wheel of Fish – such funny bits! For me, UHF deserves its ‘cult’ status. Stay Tuned….not so much.
Stay Tuned arrived and left theaters very quickly and quietly, not really making much of a splash. Nearly thirty years after its release, this small movie had gotten some attention again with the announcement that a new TV series adaption based on the film was being planned by AMC. It was kind of unexpected news.
I’m not sure how Stay Tuned could be an ongoing series. Maybe it would be something similar to Quantum Leap, with the lead characters dropping into a different television show parody every week. That’s the only thing I can think of. I also imagine the landscape of streaming platforms would be a target of parody. So far, no news has come out about this proposed ‘Stay Tuned TV Show’ since that announcement in 2020.
So, Stay Tuned is a harmless silly comedy. It could have been much more enjoyable than how it turned out. It’s not a film I’ve revisited until now or have thought much about since it was first released. Other than a few funny moments, it passes across the screen and doesn’t leave much of a mark.
It’s a film that is sort of in the same vein of fantastical comedy films that entertained kids during the early ’90s, like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Mom and Dad Save the World, Problem Child. I imagine the kids who grew up watching it having a strong nostalgic affection for it, but for me it’s not worth remembering much of.
Other than a being a reminder of how great a performer Ritter was and that hysterical fourth wall breaking joke!
Here’s the trailer – see how they end it on the best joke from the movie