Rediscovering Danny DeVito’s Long-Lost Directorial Debut

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If I had a dollar for every article I’ve tried to write about a piece of comedy that is lost forever due to time, or the constraints of live television, or just plain and simple negligence, I’d be a rich man. For just a few examples off the top of my head, The Marx Brothers, Ernie Kovacs, Monty Python, Jackie Gleason, Johnny Carson all have gaps in their comedy history that will probably never be filled, and those are just the big names. That’s why when something comes out of the woodwork like the Graham Chapman pilot from a few weeks ago, or the script for the never produced Johnny Carson comeback special in some ways it feels like a bullet has been dodged. A piece of our comedy history gets to live on.

Today we look at an original Pay-TV comedy film that premiered back in 1984 called The Ratings Game, that was produced and written by the same team that brought you that Carson comeback script as well as a number of innovative pay-cable comedy projects that I covered here several months back. The Ratings Game, which starred Danny DeVito & Rhea Perlman, represented a number of show-biz firsts. It was Danny DeVito’s first time directing a feature length project. It was Showtime Networks first original made-for-pay film as well as their first bona fide publicity bonanza. Upon its premiere the film received positive reviews from critics, some who compared it not just to their chief competitor HBO’s fare but to classic comedy features such as Tootsie and Network. It was also the first film to ever deal with the concept of rigging the sacred TV ratings system.

The film was shown exclusively on Showtime and its sister network The Movie Channel but after its initial run (and a minor release on Beta and VHS) the hoopla was over and that was it. Showtime was not yet in the business of selling its original programming elsewhere so after several administration changes at the network the film was basically forgotten about. That is until now. But let’s back up a little bit.

In 1981-83, producer David Jablin had been working on his HBO/Cimemax comedy anthology series, Likely Stories, which served as an early playground for names that would become comedy luminaries like Chris Guest, Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer, and Danny DeVito. Peter Chernin, then the head of Showtime, met with David and suggested expanding the premise of one of those Likely Stories shorts (whose star and director was Danny DeVito) into an original movie for them. But Jablin did him one better: he pitched a brand new idea he concocted with writers Jim Mulholland and Michal Barrie that Chernin couldn’t refuse.

Jablin proposed the question “what would happen if someone was able to fix the almighty Nielsen ratings?” And what if that someone was Vic DeSalvo, an uber-rich New Jersey trucking magnate whose lifelong obsession has been to make it big in show business despite the fact he has no real talent? Devito would star and direct and his wife Rhea Perlman (Cheers) would play his love interest, Francine Kester, a “Jersey girl” who works as a disgruntled and overlooked statistician for the TV ratings company. The idea was a perfect fit. Chernin was looking for “something that the broadcast networks would never touch,” and a satire about corruption in the world of broadcast ratings was exactly that.

As part of a Producers-style scheme, DeSalvo utilizes his vast network of tough guy truckers to “take care of” 100 key households in the ratings system, and then put on his insipid TV pilot “Sittin’ Pretty,” a pitch perfect parody of garbage sitcoms of the 80s. This involves sending those families (including one husband, George Wendt) on a “free cruise” and then sending “his boys” (including a young Michael Richards) into their houses to turn on Vic’s tacky show. His teamsters quickly redecorate a cargo ship and Vic hires the retired beloved kiddie show host, Captain Andy (Ronny Graham) to reprise his role onboard. The scheme works and Vic’s show trounces the opening game of the World Series making him the hottest thing in Hollywood in spite of what the network executives (like the one played by Jerry Seinfeld) told him when he started his journey.

Some of the stand-out sequences of the film are a series of sadly accurate parodies of television in the early eighties which include “Wacked Out,” a M*A*S*H/Bosom Buddies mash-up, The Dawn Patrol a Hills Street Blues style show about rag-tag sanitation workers “who toil while we sleep,” and a Saturday morning cartoon about some crazy mobbed-up calamari, The Goombas. It was these precise parodies of bad network programming that contributed to the screenwriters winning the Writer’s Guild Award for their script later that year. They were also one of the key elements that Carson cited when he developed The Johnny Carson (I’m Not Even Sure I Want To) Return To TV Special with Jablin and his favorite writers Barrie and Mulholland.

For the last 30 years, there was no way to see this movie unless you knew the filmmakers or hunted down an old Beta or VHS copy on eBay. Luckily, for comedy and satire fans this has changed. This week, Olive Films, a distributor of independent and classic films will release the movie for the first time ever on DVD and Blu-Ray. It has been lovingly restored by the filmmakers in full HD from the only print in existence (that Danny kept in storage all these years). The discs will also include some rare extras. In addition to the requisite deleted scenes and a making of featurette that was made back then, the discs will also include a complete collection of the four short films that Danny DeVito directed prior to The Ratings Game (inclusive of the Likely Stories segment that got Chernin’s attention).

When I spoke with producer David Jablin he said, “It’s been fun and nostalgic for Danny and I to revisit this project after all this time. The film was truly a labor of love for us and actually still is.” Olive Films is giving this release a real Criterion Collection-like treatment. The premium package will also include a 32 page collector’s booklet that gives an in-depth look at the film’s background, with liner notes, photos, and art from the film.

I’m very glad to say that we can now move one more piece of comedy history out of the “lost” column and into the “found,” with the added benefit that the film looks better now than it did when it was originally aired on cable TV. The Ratings Game provides a scary what-if scenario in which one man dominates the airwaves and fills it with garbage. Thankfully, we live in a world where this hasn’t happened, as long as you don’t count the election coverage.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” featuring Chris Elliott!

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