In the early 1980’s “Weird Al” Yankovic sold millions of albums and on occasion infuriated a famous musician or two with his quotable (and often superior) parodies of the most popular songs of the day. He made countless appearances on hit late night talk shows and MTV, and as his fan base grew Yankovic’s music began to make its way onto the rare movie soundtrack (the title track from his 1985 release Dare to Be Stupid received a prominent placement in the following year’s Transformers: The Movie).
Short of writing his autobiography and inventing the Internet years before anyone else, the only obstacle preventing Yankovic from becoming the King of All Media (eat it Stern) was his very own big screen comedy motion picture.
With a doable budget of $5 million – a fortune to most but peanuts in the era of high concept blockbusters – and virtual carte blanche from struggling indie studio Orion Pictures – Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey went to work scripting a film that would serve as the perfect vehicle for the music industry funnyman’s specialized brand of pop culture skewering, while giving Orion a surefire summer hit they so desperately craved. Yankovic would star and record an entire soundtrack of all-new songs to be released at the same time as the movie, while Levey, who had also made several of Al’s funniest music videos, took the director’s chair.
Despite having one of the best test screenings in the studio’s history, UHF was thrown headfirst into theaters on July 21, 1989 on the heels of a virtually non-existent marketing campaign and landed flat on its ass as box office dollars were being hoarded by the likes of Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and When Harry Met Sally (the latter having opened the previous weekend). The movie vanished from nearly every theater in the U.S. within a month and would now have to rely on the home video market to provide the fruits of Yankovic and Levey’s labor with the open-minded audience they were denied at first.
That’s where I first received my chance to watch UHF. When the movie first opened in theaters I had no idea it even existed. Outside of a music video for the soundtrack’s title cut getting heavy rotation on MTV (insert your own snide “back when they actually showed music videos” remark here), Orion’s advertising division ensured that the comedy-loving crowds they needed to make the movie a hit were going to have more important plans on opening weekend. I actually owned the UHF soundtrack months before the movie was released on VHS in early 1990. When I was finally able to watch it I didn’t find it to be an eye-opening experience akin to a religious tent revival or ingesting hallucinogenic drugs, but I did think it was funny. Very funny. In fact it was probably the funniest movie I had seen at my age.
I was ten years old. The classic irreverent comedies of the past century were either elusive or unknown to me. No one in my family was about to point me towards any example of legendary screen hilarity (though, to be fair, my first viewing of Young Frankenstein came about thanks to my father). The youth-oriented schlock I was compelled to watch “for my own good” didn’t have a lasting impact and only elicited at best a few stray chuckles. Almost two years prior to watching UHF for the first time I received a cassette player as a present for my ninth birthday. One of the first tapes that I bought was Yankovic’s 1986 release Polka Party!, his fourth at the time, and I just about wore it out replaying his parodies of James Brown’s uber-patriotic “Living in America” (“Living with a Hernia”), Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” (“Addicted to Spuds”), and Mick Jagger’s “Ruthless People” (“Toothless People”). The album’s closing track, “Christmas at Ground Zero,” became a caustic yuletide classic in my youth, and I break it out every Christmas just for old time’s sake.
With UHF I expected nothing more than the cinematic equivalent of one of Yankovic’s best albums, a wild compendium of goofball spoofs and deranged original material that hit more than it missed. That’s exactly what I got, and from my initial viewing the movie never let me down. The plot, which is little more than the mile-long assemblage of worn shoelaces stringing the various skits together, centered around Yankovic’s character George Newman, a Walter Mitty-like daydreamer forced to work one dead end job after the other because his fevered imagination keeps getting him fired. When his gambler uncle wins the deed to a rat trap UHF television station in a poker game he hands management duties to George and the perennial escapist finally has an outlet for his outsized fantasies. He hires a spastic geek named Stanley, played by a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards, to be the station’s janitor at first, but soon after Stanley proves to be a resounding success as the host of a kids’ program, giving George his first bona fide smash.
Trouble arises when a slicker, better-financed rival station overseen hostile to any scrappy competitor that threatens its stranglehold on the ratings plots to destroy George’s station by any devious mean necessary, necessitating a third act that manages to cram together a Little Rascals-style “Let’s put on a show” telethon to save the station, a kidnapping subplot (complete with Rambo parody, pictured above), and a finale with the entire town coming together in the manner of a Frank Capra film to help George save the day. There are also spoofs of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Conan the Barbarian, crappy afternoon game shows (Wheel of Fish!), and the kind of cheap wildlife programming that Animal Planet considers its specialty.
Oh, and did I mention that UHF has one of the greatest inspirational speech scenes in the history of cinema? Behold…
Levey’s direction is very workmanlike in its execution, but he fills each scene with enough weird detail and comedic activity to keep the viewer interested, aided by some bright, dandy cinematography from David Lewis (Night of the Demons). Yankovic isn’t the most charismatic leading man the screen has ever produced, and not only is he fully aware of this but he actually proves to be the ideal person to provide the lunacy with a frequently calm and mature center. Of course that’s only when he isn’t engaging in his own share of shrieking and bug-eyed mugging. If there is a truly inspired comic performance in UHF it’s from Michael Richards, who goes all-in on the dim-witted but sweet Stanley’s kooky, childlike behavior and wins you over through sheer force of will. From the moment he first walks on screen Richards is committed to doing anything for a laugh, from swinging a mop like a lightsaber to blasting little children with a fire hose, and it works beautifully.
The movie is rounded off by smaller but no less winning performances from Victoria Jackson as George’s girlfriend, Fran Drescher as the UHF station’s long-suffering receptionist who harbors dreams of being an on-air reporter, Billy Barty as her cameraman Noodles MacIntosh, Gedde Watanabe as a possibly insane karate instructor (“STUPID! YOU’RE SO STUPID!!!!”), and the late Kevin McCarthy as the movie’s sneering villain. Yankovic and Levey’s script is loaded with quotable dialogue and the original songs written and performed by Yankovic mesh splendidly with a very ’80s original score created by Modern Romance trumpeter-turned-composer John Du Prez (A Fish Called Wanda, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies).
The highlight of the new Yankovic soundtrack – only a few songs of which appear in the movie – is a spoof of Dire Straits’ 1985 hit “Money for Nothing” rewritten as an ode to The Beverly Hillbillies, and the music video within the movie accurately replicates the original “Money” video’s tinted live concert footage and primitive computer graphics. Yankovic had so many fans in the music industry at the time that he was able to get Dire Straits’ songwriter and guitarist Mark Knopfler to play guitar on the track!
Swamped with competition and deprived a good marketing campaign or strong word of mouth to fight back with, UHF grossed a little over $6 million at the summer 1989 box office. Most of the cast went on to have careers of varying degrees of success in film and television. Levey directed several more “Weird Al’ videos in the years that followed, but not another feature film. On the other hand, while Yankovic may have failed in his quest for movie stardom, he still has his massive success as a recording artist as great comfort. Over the years he has had his own short-lived series on CBS and MTV, directed several music videos, and made guest appearances on live-action and animated shows such as The Simpsons, Robot Chicken, 30 Rock, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Adventure Time, Childrens Hospital, and Drunk History. He’s also written a children’s book and popped up briefly in all three Naked Gun movies and Rob Zombie’s Halloween II.
Lousy box office and reviews didn’t stop UHF from finding a more appreciative audience through video rentals and sales and sporadic cable airings. A movie like this works better as a home viewing experience anyway because there are so many hilarious bits that demand your finger always be in position on your remote control to catch them countless more times. UHF has the sunny energy of a community theater talent show where everyone is performing simply out of love for the unbeatable power of quality entertainment and enough priceless verbal and visual gags and quirky goodwill to carry it through the occasional rough patches. Plus it remains refreshing to this day to see a movie made in one of the most cynical decades imaginable not resort to meandering, unfunny gross-out gags for comedic value.
You can own UHF on a great DVD released by MGM in 2002 that includes some nifty bonus features mostly assembled by Yankovic himself. The soundtrack is also available for purchase on CD and MP3. The movie may one day see a release on Blu-ray and now that Yankovic’s career is hotter than ever thanks to the success of his latest album Mandatory Fun it wouldn’t be inconceivable for a company like Shout! Factory to distribute an HD edition.
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