A Bomb in the Lasagna: “Weird Al” at the Movies

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At the time of this writing, the Internet is in the final days of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 8 Videos in 8 Days campaign in support of his new—and allegedly final—album Mandatory Fun*. In honor of this unprecedented video marathon, I’m taking a look at the Weird One’s first and only stab at the silver screen: the strange, hilarious UHF on the 25th anniversary of its release date.

UHF (1989)

-Source

Orion Pictures

The Plot: George Newman (“Weird Al” Yankovic) is a spacey, but imaginative dreamer who is unable to hold down a steady job due to his aforementioned spacey, imaginative dreaming, much to the chagrin of best friend Bob (David Bowe) and George’s long-suffering girlfriend Terri (Victoria Jackson). George is given a second-chance at a steady job when he is named the manager of a run-down TV station his uncle wins in a poker game. The station flounders until George finds an audience airing bizarre, ridiculous programming headlined by the station’s eccentric janitor Stanley Spadowski (Michael Richards). But the success of the underdog UHF station is endangered when evil network station owner R.J. Fletcher (Kevin McCarthy) seeks to crush his rival for stealing away his viewership by buying the station and destroying it. George & co. are forced to overcome insurmountable evil-rich-guy-odds and come up with $75,000 in two days to save their beloved station from becoming a parking lot.

UHF is a textbook example of a cult classic. Initially met with mixed reviews, the film was lost in a summer awash with massive blockbusters. It perhaps didn’t help that this opened less than a month after a certain vastly overrated film that doesn’t hold up as well as you might remember I reviewed a few weeks back. UHF has been kept alive by a devout fan base through viewings on VHS, DVD, and odd theater screening. As such, it can be hard to give an objective review of a film that is loved primarily in subjective terms, especially if you happen to find yourself a part the film’s fan-base, but I’m going to give I my best shot.

If the above synopsis is any indication, UHF’s greatest strength isn’t a daring, original plot. At its core, it’s a standard “save the theater/community center/breakdance academy” plot audiences have become so wearily familiar with, the only way most can stomach it in modern film is through the self-reference and subversion of films like The Muppets (2011). As soon as R.J. Fletcher unveils his plan to bury his competition, you’ll probably be able to guess where this film is going to end up. UHF, written by Yankovic and director/Yankovic’s manager Jay Levey, is clearly more interested gags than story. A few of the film’s funniest moments have only the most tenuous connection to the plot; a parody of the video for Dire Strait’s “Money For Nothing” set to the lyrics of the Beverly Hillbillies theme (which actually feature’s Dire Strait’s Mark Knopfler on guitar) is triggered by George falling asleep in his office watching a Beverly Hillbillies re-run that just happens to be playing in the background. Other gags emerge in the form of commercials airing on George’s channel, punctuating scenes with bits of humor that call to mind the channel-surfing cuts of Robot Chicken or the cut-away gags of Family Guy.I usually balk when critics call a film a “living cartoon”, as it usually implies that animation is somehow a lower or less complex art form than live action cinema, but in this case of UHF, it’s not an inaccurate description, at least to the extent that jokes and humor take precedent over plot in a manner that suggests animated comedy.

A more helpful analogue for the film’s structure, perhaps, is Monty Python. Like the legendary British comedy troupe, UHF trades in the absurd, using parody and bizarre humor to satirize 80s culture and entertainment. An in-film trailer for Gandhi II reimagines the champion of civil disobedience as a gun-toting, hard partying badass in the style of 70s and 80s action movies. “Town Talk with George”, pokes fun at the sensationalist news talk shows of the era, outdoing the Jerry Springer Show two years before it came on the air. The result is a funhouse mirror reflection of the cultural landscape of the time, where a warehouse selling spatulas and spatulas alone can evoke highs of consumer joy and eager game show contestants vie with a karate instructor for seafood. Timeliness has always been key to Yankovic’s brand of humor, and era specific references are to be expected; so while parodies of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Rambo seem a little dated, these gags about cultural touchstones still retain their humor. “Weird Al” in molded rubber muscles screaming and blowing up landmarks in a helicopter is still funny for anyone whose seen a summer blockbuster in the last decade or so.

Orion Pictures I'll let you know if this ever stops being funny.

Orion Pictures
I’ll let you know if this ever stops being funny.

Surprisingly, Al’s George is not the engine of the film’s strangest humor. While David Bowe plays the grumpy straight-man to George’s clown, George looks like a joyless accountant when compared to Michael Richards as Stanley. In what I presume is his last film role before pubic consciousness knew him as Cosmo Kramer, Richards channels the same manic energy he brought to his most famous character. Stanley, whose childlike enthusiasm and eccentricity strikes a little too close to caricature of mental impairment at times, acts as the foundation on which the TV channel, and with it, the film, is built. Almost all of Richards’ lines are improvised, allowing the actor free reign to do what he does best. This can be hit or miss in terms of laughs, but when it hits, such as with his phenomenal “mop speech”, it is truly something to behold. A lot of your enjoyment of the movie is ultimately going to come down to whether or not you find Richards’ antics funny or grating.

 

If Richards is the comedic force at the center, the supporting cast certainly match is quirkiness and energy. Kevin McCarthy’s R.J. Fletcher has a certain C. Montgomery Burns-grade villainous business mogul appeal to him, making his wide-eyed, face reddening outbursts funnier than they are intimidating. Victoria Jackson serves to chide George, but her underwritten role is masked by the energy of the Channel 62 staff, including a secretary cum weatherwoman played by Fran Drescher and a Dwarf cameraman played by vaudeville star Billy Barty. These characters and others provide effective gags between the bigger comedy pieces that keep the movie rolling along.

UHF lives by its sweetly strange humor and its collection of oddball characters. As such, the film appeals to a certain type of comedy fan. If parody and wacky, non sequitur humor aren’t your thing, you’ll probably want to avoid UHF. But if you like your comedy with more than a hint of the ridiculous, you’ll find a lot to like here.

Look for UHF on iTunes or in 1980s videostores.

*If you haven’t watched any of these new videos yet, you really need to be doing that right now. This isn’t a suggestion. Go. I’ll be here when you’re finished.

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