This past week we were blessed with the arrival of new album by Weird Al Yankovic and the debut of 8 new music videos by the reigning king of the parody song. For over 3 decades, Weird Al has been churning out parodies of the day’s top songs, often times his parodies having a longer shelf life than the source material. In my younger days, my schoolyard chums and myself would trade Weird Al tapes like other kids traded baseball cards. I never cared for Michael Jackson or Madonna, but I knew all the words to Eat It and Like a Surgeon. In July 1989, Weird Al would make his feature film debut with UHF, a sprawling parody of film, television, and music. However, the film was critical and commercial bomb. Lost in the fog of ’89, UHF was sandwiched between such monster films as Batman, Ghostbusters II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Lethal Weapon 2 amongst others. Though the film came and went from theaters in a flash, the film has found its cult audience over the intervening quarter century.
Yankovic plays George Newman, a daydreamer who drifts in and out consciousness and between crummy jobs. George’s lack of career-minded ambition leaves him in trouble with his girlfriend Teri (Victoria Jackson). After being fired from his last job with his best friend Bob (David Bowe – yes, B-O-W-E – we’ve been over this before), George is handed the reins to a low-rent UHF station, U-62, by his Aunt Esther (Sue Ane Langdon) and Uncle Harvey (Stanley Brock), the uncle being compulsive gambler who won the channel in a card game. Though U-62 has been teetering on bankruptcy for years, George is able to turn the little station around when he stumbles upon the onscreen charisma of Stanley Spadowski (a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards). But the success of U-62 has drawn the ire of Channel 8, the local network affiliate run by the malicious R.J. Fletcher (Kevin McCarthy). Soon Uncle Harvey’s gambling debts accumulate to $75,000, and George must raise the money to prevent the station being sold to Fletcher.
Like the music of Weird Al, UHF isn’t mean-spirited or obscene at all. I can’t think of a single four-letter word used. Also like a Weird Al album, UHF blends specific parodies with broader stylistic parodies. The film opens with a specific parody of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and throughout the film there are other specific gags related to the Rambo and Conan series of films. One of the more inspired gags is the evolution of Town Talk. At first a sleepy little public access forum, Town Talk devolves into a Jerry Springer-esque orgy of debauchery. Though taking his inspiration for Geraldo Rivera, Weird Al shows that we were teetering close to the nadir of daytime talk well before Jerry Springer was a household name. Another gag that is seared into my memory is the apartment-based animal show Raul’s Wild Kingdom, a riff on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where an enthusiastic Raul attempts to teach poodles how to fly by tossing them out the window. The rest of the films play out like a filmed version of an issue of Mad Magazine featuring gags like Gandhi 2.
Directing and co-writing with Weird Al is Jay Levey, who acted as director on most of Weird Al’s music videos. Even before taking on their first and only feature film, the duo had years of experience in working in the visual medium. Levey’s direction isn’t Earth-shattering, but it represents a noticeable upgrade over modern comedy direction, which is dominated by simplistic shot/reverse shot.
As the leads, Yankovic and Jackson show they’re not the greatest of thespians – Weird Al has one shocked expression and he uses quite a few times here, though it does work. Aside from the pre-Kramer Michael Richards, UHF also features a pre-Nanny Fran Drescher as Pamela Finklestein, a secretary who desires to be a newscaster. And aside from Kevin McCarthy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame, the film also has B-movie legend Billy Barty as Noodle MacIntosh, the little person cameraman. According to the IMDB trivia page for UHF, Weird Al had intended the role of Philo, the alien station engineer, for his friend Joel Hodgson, better known as the creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000. As it happens, though, the role would be played by Anthony Geary.
If there’s an overarching message to this film it’s be yourself and the rest will follow. George Newman may fall into his position at U-62, but his oddball sensibilities are what makes it a success. Though the corporate goons want to squash him, the people his work has reached won’t allow it and stand between R.J. Fletcher and the destruction of the station. The audience of U-62 don’t laugh at Stanley, they laugh with him, admiring him as a child-like goofball. Even when providing the film’s bad guys with their comeuppance, it’s nothing more than a face in the mud or knee to the groin. Weird Al’s sensibilities as someone who sees the best in people is embodied in the bum that wanders around the station. When he first encounters George, he asks for change. George, taken back by the man’s disheveled look, sticks his hand out with change. The bum counts a dollar’s worth of change from George’s hand and replaces it with a moldy but spendable dollar bill. Later, the bum is given a penny by R.J. Fletcher. As Fletcher walks away disgusted, the bum is ecstatic, jumping for joy. As we later find out, the bum had found a rare coin and cashed it in for thousands of dollars. Like all of UHF’s oddballs, he remained true to himself, followed his passion, and found success.
This week UHF turns 25 years-old. Like its star and co-writer, UHF has barely aged. Though technology, music, and television have all changed drastically in the quarter century that passed, Weird Al is constant. It’s not often that an act has been active for over 30 years and experience their greatest success as is happening for Weird Al, but his good natured humor and positive outlook make it all but impossible to root against him. Sure, he only made one movie, but that one movie features everything there is to love about Weird Al, right down to the Dr. Demento cameo. Kick off your shoes, pull up a chair, grab a Twinkie wiener sandwich, and watch UHF. For those that don’t, this is for you.