The film: UHF (1989)
The Principals: “Weird Al” Yankovic (George Newman), Michael Richards (Stanley Spadowski), Kevin McCarthy (R.J. Fletcher), Victoria Jackson (Teri), David Bowe (Bob), Fran Drescher (Pamela Finklestein), Billy Barty (Noodles MacIntosh), Gedde Watanabe (Kuni). Directed by Jay Levey
The Premise: George Newman has a wild imagination that he can’t control and an affinity for movies and TV. Unfortunately, his constant zoning makes it difficult to hold down a stable job – much to the chagrin of his best friend Bob and his girlfriend Teri. When his gambling uncle manages to win a local UHF station in a poker game, George’s aunt convinces her husband to let George run it.
This doesn’t go too well. Lack of money, workforce, and show ideas quickly send the station into the red… until George acquires Stanley Spadowski. Stanley is a simple man who used to be the janitor for local network affiliate channel eight, until he was unfairly terminated by the station’s vile and evil (anagrams!) owner – R.J. Fletcher. What was channel 8’s loss becomes U-sixty-two’s gain, as Stanley instantly becomes the station’s breakaway hit with his kid’s show Stanley Spadowski’s Funhouse.
Soon after, the channel that viewers forgot becomes a ratings success – knocking channel eight off its long-running stint at number one. This infuriates the cruel and ruthless Fletcher, who will stop at nothing to destroy the little station that could and regain superiority of the televised air waves once again. Attempting to buy out the deed from George’s uncle and eventually resorting to kidnapping, Fletcher’s dirty machinations prove to be futile when the U-62 crew manage to raise the money – telethon-style – to buy the deed themselves.
Is It Good? UHF is unique in that the answer to this question just isn’t that simple. That’s because at the end of the day this movie was built for a specific audience (even though I don’t think it was intended to be). So, your answer to the question depends on your relationship and familiarity with the source auteur. For the layman, Mr. Yankovic (not Yankovich as many insist upon) is simply “that parody song guy”. And at the simplest level, that’s exactly what he is. That “Eat It” guy. The “Fat” guy. That odd chap who sports the big glasses, seedy mustache and fro and makes up his own lyrics to popular songs. Unfortunately, the kind of folk who remain on that fringe and only see him in that regard are most likely not going to enjoy the kind of humour on display here. At best, this movie will just come off as a goofy flick with dumb, childish jokes from a guy who sings about food.
But for those of us who grew up on the musical stylings of the man with the coil-coif, this movie is a different entity entirely. The thing about “Weird Al” that most people may not know is this – secretly the man is a genius. While most people are only familiar with his direct parodies of songs, in recent years he’s become more proficient and more well-known by the fan base for his original songs and style parodies. What Strange Albert has been able to hone skill-wise over the course of his thirty-year-plus career (outlasting quite a few of the people he’s parodied, I might add) is the ability to break down the artists he satirizes and nail their musical styles and influences, while at the same time present what could be considered a solid, original work. What UHF represents to fans is Al’s first attempt to take those talents and apply them to film, TV, commercials, and (as an extension of where he comes from) music videos. And for a first attempt, it’s a pretty solid effort.
With UHF, Yankovic blends several different comedic styles – sight gags, slapstick, word play, parody, satire, and absurdist humour. Normally that kind of mixture might result in a mess, but due to the nature of the plot, Ex-Mustachio is able to make it work. There are a few gags here and there that fall short, but for the most part the jokes land where they should. All in all, this is a pretty funny film – the sight gags are on par with anything the Zucker brothers would put out in films like Airplane or Top Secret. The word play is clever. The slapstick is visual eye-candy. And the absurdist humour is just so… “Weird”. It’s also important to note that some of the humour can even get quite dark. There are moments in the film where thumbs get cut off, spurting blood everywhere, poodles get launched out of windows, and muscle-bound Cimmerians slice folks in half for overdue library books. But anyone familiar with Al’s body of work knows his songs often utilize black humour. And it works just as well here.
The parodies in the film are where Yankovic shines. From his opening Raiders of the Lost Ark send-up to his TV show Conan the Librarian and even during his rescue sequence done in Rambo-vision – Al breaks down the components of each property, isolates details that are either universally recognized as absurd or moments we wouldn’t give a second thought to and puts just the right spin on them to make them hilarious.
And of course, it wouldn’t be “Weird Al” unless you had a music parody thrown in for good measure – complete with music video. Once again, UHF’s plot structure is perfectly suited to allow this to happen without it breaking the flow of the film or feeling completely out of place. With the help of Mark Knoffler himself on guitar, the song “Beverly Hillbillies” (played to the tune of “Money for Nothing”) is a worthy inclusion to the song library of Dr. Demento’s protégé, while the video sequence for it was a perfect replication of the source video – complete with some great visual gags.
By far, one of the best attributes UHF has going for it is – and just stay with me on this one – Michael Richards. Ever since Kramer ruined his career with a tirade of N-bombs a few years ago during a stand-up fiasco, most folks have forgotten that once upon a time he was funny. A great talent when it comes to physical comedy, Richards’ Stanley Spadowski is probably one of the funniest aspects of the movie. His timing and dedication to the joke are spot on, and he generally gets some of the best material to have fun with. As a result, Richards’ presence is enough to raise this from just a good film to a better film.
The other great performance this movie has going for it is Kevin McCarthy. A veteran of film going all the way back to the original Invasion of the body Snatchers, McCarthy brings the same kind of nefarious fun and villainous glee that he brought to his character in Innerspace. He plays the bad guy here with a full array of hot dog condiments, savouring every line of dialogue and chewing every bit of scenery that dares share the set with him as he demonstrates his ability to perform outrageous treachery on everyone – even his own son. The only thing missing was a twirling mustache and constant hand-wringing.
Despite all the things this movie has going for it, there is a bit of corn mixed in with the performances. The worst offenders are probably Jackson and the parodical son himself. Now, in Al’s case, that’s simply his personality being worn on his equally loud Hawaiian shirt. It isn’t really an issue for those of us in his fan club, but for non-believers this could be enough to give them a pass on what was already an off-putting flick. Jackson’s performance, on the other hand, just simply comes off as bland and lifeless – which is odd considering her Saturday Night Live gig at the time. I think part of it is simply that her character is underwritten. She has hardly anything to do here aside from serving as George’s girlfriend at the beginning, breaking up with him thirty minutes into the film, and then taking him back at the end. Luckily enough, the lack of writing for her character also means she isn’t in the film long enough for this to be a problem.
All that aside, I think the strengths outweigh the weaknesses when it comes to UHF – moreso if you’re a fan. But even if you’re not, I think non-fans can find this movie enjoyable – especially if they enjoy similar far like Airplane and Amazon Women on the Moon.
Is It Worth a Look? I believe it is, but again – I think this all depends on where you stand. If you aren’t a fan of the Weird one, this movie will most likely not appeal to you – unless you have a special love for goofy/dark humour or enjoy the comedic offerings of folks like the Zucker brothers. Otherwise, the only way I could recommend it would be through stages – the first being to get you introduced to Mr. Albert Yankovic’s musical library. But, I think it’s worth the effort.
For the rest of you who worship at the altar of Harvey the Wonder Hamster, you’ve already seen it and know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t… what’s wrong with you? Go fix that immediately. You call yourself a fan…
Random Anecdotes: When UHF was originally released on VHS, the company that held the license to distribute cut costs by recording the film onto the cassettes in Extended Play (EP) mode. This meant the film was compressed to use up less tape. This allowed folks to squeeze in that Skinemax movie they were looking forward to recording on Friday nights.
John Paragon, who plays R.J. Fletcher’s son Richard, was also the actor who performed as the disembodied head of Jambi the Genie on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Oddly, his career never saw the uptick that that Larry Fishburne guy enjoyed.
According to Yankovic, UHF had one of the most successful test screenings in history for Orion Pictures. Take that Batman, Ghostbusters II, and the rest of you summer blockbusters!
Cinematic Soulmates: Kentucky Fried Movie, The Naked Gun, The Groove Tube, Be Kind Rewind, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure