Back in 1992 comedies were still being written and marketed for adults, not just for kids and teenagers. That allowed for something like Stay Tuned to be produced that was definitely meant to appeal to an older audience. So with the movie celebrating its 25th anniversary today, it’s a good time to look back at how it was sold to audiences at the time.
The movie follows Roy and Helen Knable (John Ritter and Pam Dawber), a married couple that’s still happy but definitely having issues, especially around how much TV he watches on a daily basis. After she smashes the family TV in frustration a mysterious figure named Spike (Jeffrey Jones) appears and offers Roy a brand new, high-end unit. He takes it but the couple are quickly sucked into the set, forced to bounce from one hellish, twisted program to the next. Escaping, of course, brings them closer together, but they have to get past Spike and the devilish contract Roy signed first.
Right off the bat you can see a concept that has far more resonance for older audiences than it does for kids. It goes without saying that both Ritter and Dawber were major TV stars on classic shows, so putting them in a story that revolves around the world of television generates some knowing chuckles in and of itself.
The theatrical poster sells the premise in great fashion, still on the “artistic” side of the key art design divide that was opening at the top. So the painted image shows the Knables sitting in some sort of contraption, clearly in peril within the confines of the television set and looking panicked. Their kids – as well as the family dog – are on the outside looking in and just as worried.
There’s quite a bit of copy on the poster. That starts at the top with “Something weird’s on the air.” Next is “The Knables signed up for a cable system that’s out of this world.” Finally, at the bottom we’re told the movie is “A comedy on the wrong side of the screen.” All that combines to clearly tell the audience that the story will involve the world of television in some way that’s kooky and unexpected, a message that’s hammered home by the presence of Dawber and Ritter.
The trailer starts well into the story, skipping much of the setup of the relationship between Roy and Helen. Instead, we join it as Spike is delivering the TV to Roy. After some initial shock, it cuts to the main selling point, which is the crazy, homicidal shows that are broadcast on this particular TV, a world that Helen and Roy soon find themselves in the middle of. That includes variations of “Wayne’s World,” exercise programs, popular movies and more. It’s explained that Spike is basically the devil and this is part of his plan to claim their souls and that the Knables’ kids are trying to keep track of them from the real world. All the craziness ends with one of the more obvious jokes, where Ritter’s Roy winds up in a show that looks suspiciously like “Three’s Company,” allowing him to poke a little fun at himself.
What’s surprising in retrospect is how heavily the trailer leans on the premise, particularly the spoofs of the various shows, and not the stars. Neither Ritter nor Dawber were established as movie stars, though, so their casting was kind of “stunt” in nature, TV stars in a movie that revolves around TV. Now, years after his passing, Ritter is widely lauded as a comedy genius and this could have been a big turning point for Dawber though it didn’t turn out like that. Still, the focus is so squarely on the concept and the various goofiness of the demonic TV land the couple finds themselves in, there’s little room for either actor’s charm and charisma to come through.
Even more than that, the trailer shows where pop culture was in 1992 by highlighting the kind of programming that gets spoofed. “Wayne’s World,” Driving Miss Daisy, Jane Fonda-esque exercise programs, “Tom and Jerry” cartoons…that’s what the studio felt would resonate with audiences. That didn’t necessarily pan out as it only made about $10m at the box-office, but it lives on as a movie that, even if it hasn’t quite achieved “cult” status, is still fondly remembered by those of us who saw it back then.