In the depressed town of Eagle Rock, Iowa, the Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) spearheads his community's effort to rise to the Cold Turkey challenge. In a campaign devised by public-relations expert Merwin Wren (Bob Newhart), the Valiant Tobacco Company has promised a $25-million cash prize to any town in America that can quit smoking completely for 30 days. So Brooks leads the charge in this "Battle of the Butt", hoping to become a local hero in the process. However, when Wren shows up to undermine his efforts, and well-known TV newscasters (all played by Bob & Ray) turn the spotlight of celebrity on the town and its citizens, this wicked comedy kicks into high gear.
Notable for featuring the first movie score written by Randy Newman.
This film provides examples of:
- The Alcoholic: Edgar Stopworth, who claims that he needs to smoke in order to drink and thus is encouraged to leave town for the month."My drinking is directly connected to my smoking. Now, when I say 'directly', I mean there's a thing—a physical thing—that is directly connected from my liquor buds to the smoke pouch in my lungs. If you want me to quit smoking, you're gonna have to cut— [starts sobbing] I mean, you're gonna have to physically cut that thing! And when you do, my head's gonna fall off! You understand, Reverman? [*sniff*] The booze bone's connected to the smoke bone. And the smoke bone is connected to the head bone. And that's the word of the Lord."
- As the Good Book Says...: Brooks, naturally. To his displeasure, his wife quotes a relevant passage herself when she thinks that things are getting out of hand: "What profit it a man if he gain the world and lose his soul?"
- Background Halo: Parodying "the most trusted man in America", Walter Chronic is introduced this way, with one of the clinic's lights forming a halo.
- Bittersweet Ending: The film ends with the town celebrating their victory, oblivious to the fact that Reverend Brooks, Dr. Proctor, and Merwin Wren have all just been shot and are calling for help. And Eagle Rock is "saved" by the arrival of a defense plant that soon enshrouds the entire town in the pollution belched from its giant, cigarette-shaped smokestacks.
- Chekhov's Gun: Odie Turman constantly tries to get her hands on Amos Bush's gun. She eventually does, and it ends up shooting three people.
- Cold Turkeys Everywhere: Invoked especially when the townspeople criticize Brooks, a some-years-former smoker, for not understanding their pain. He takes it up again so that he'll be suffering in solidarity.
- Creator Cameo: During a sequence showing various Eagle Rock residents coming unglued from nicotine withdrawal, Norman Lear can briefly be glimpsed as a man sitting on a park bench and sobbing.
- Dying Town: Eagle Rock has lost many of its townsfolk and most of its economy since the closing of the nearby military base.
- Everytown, America: Eagle Rock, although as mentioned above, it's in a bad way.
- The Faceless: President Richard Nixon supposedly arrives in Eagle Rock during the climax, but we never get a clear view of his face.
- Going Cold Turkey: Well, yeah. Much of the film chronicles the various ways in which the town tries to cope with the lack of cigarettes as their desperation increases.
- Kick the Dog: Done quite literally by one withdrawal-angered Eagle Rockian.
- Loads and Loads of Roles: For Bob and Ray.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Famous newscasters such as Walter Chronic show up to cover the town, and the Christopher Mott Society is an obvious parody of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society.
- Never Mess with Granny: Odie, whenever she grabs Amos' gun. "Don't you move, now. With my palsy, you're in enough trouble just standing there."
- Overly Long Gag: The Mayor and Reverend Brooks waiting for the news story to come on with The Mayor's wife sneezing in the background.
- Precision F-Strike: Newsman David Chetley repeatedly attempts to interview a rival tobacco-company executive, who keeps telling him to "leave me the (bleep) alone!"
- Putting on the Reich: Played for Laughs with the Christopher Mott Society, who take it upon themselves to enforce the cigarette ban and set up checkpoints to stop smuggling.
- Slowly Slipping Into Evil: Brooks, whose motive goes from religious calling to being seen as a hero once Eagle Rock starts attracting national attention.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Amos Bush, head of the Christopher Mott Society.
- Springtime for Hitler: Merwin Wren convinces Valiant to hold the contest in the firm belief that no town will even be able to unanimously sign the pledge, never mind last the month. In fact, Eagle Rock is the only one that does, but it only takes one...
- Toilet Humor:
- The opening credit sequence shows a dog walking forlornly down a road leading into Eagle Rock, past signs for various shuttered or departed businesses and the entrance to an abandoned army base. At last the pooch stops at a welcome sign from the town's churches, which he promptly lifts his leg and pees on.
- With the contest deadline approaching and Eagle Rock holding fast, Merwin Wren is in a car with Mr. Grayson and some other Valiant executives, reassuring him that his plan to get the townspeople smoking again before midnight can't possibly fail. He tells them, "Repeat after me: 'In Wren we trust.' ... 'In Wren we trust.' ... 'In Wren—'"... Cue Mr. Grayson loudly breaking wind.
- The Voiceless: Hiram C. Grayson, the elderly, wheelchair-bound Valiant Tobacco founder (played by veteran character actor Edward Everett Horton in his final screen role).