BOOB TUBE: UHF (1989)

November 11, 2014

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UHF was released to apoplectic critics and an apathetic public on July 21st, 1989. Its opening weekend box office put it in eleventh place, behind the nearly month-old run of Weekend at Bernie’s. It would disappear from theaters a few weeks later. Today it comes out in a “25th Anniversary Edition” Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, having etched itself into the nostalgia nodes of thirty-something weirdos. I count myself among them. During those awkward pre-teen years (before “tween” made the age period sound appealing) “Weird Al” Yankovic was something of a secular god, his mild pop-culture subversiveness a convenient way to channel my milquetoast angst. In 1979 Yankovic changed The Knack’s “My Sharona” into “My Bologna” and netted a recording contract, those albums introducing the possibility of oppositional thinking into my half-formed brain. Plus he dressed funny and had polka breaks in between tunes. No downside! His crossover moment occurred on the album Even Worse (1988), which spawned the MTV music video staple “Fat”, a nearly shot-for-shot parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. With the success of the album (it was his first to reach platinum) and the ubiquitous video, the brave souls at the now-defunct Orion Pictures gave him the chance to make a movie. Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey conceived UHF as a delivery system for parodies, along the lines of Kentucky Fried Movie. It turned out to be something more like a combo of SCTV and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but whatever it was, people hated it. Roger Ebert called it “routine, predictable and dumb — real dumb”, while Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “awful by any standard”. But though I no longer listen to Yankovic’s albums, I still find UHF to be uproarious.

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The movie presents “Weird Al” as a sad sack dreamer named George. He’s introduced with a fantasy of himself as Indiana Jones, stealing an Oscar from a booby-trapped ancient temple. At the end of it he’s flattened by a boulder, and there’s a cut from his rubberized body to a hamburger on a skillet. He’s a fry jockey at Big Edna’s Burger World, a position from which he and his trusted doofus friend Bob (David Bowe) will be fired. He’s doomed to more hot dog-in-a-Twinkie dinners until his degenerate gambler uncle Harvey (Stanley Brock) wins a dilapidated UHF television station in a poker game. Harvey taps George to be station manager, and right before George runs the place further into the ground, their janitor Stanley Spadowski (Michael Richards) becomes a variety show sensation and shoots them to the top of the ratings. This attracts the attention of  villainous network affiliate head R.J. Fletcher (a jowl-shaking Kevin McCarthy), who unloads all of his dirty tricks to put George out of business.

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The antics to save the station are constantly interrupted by commercials and clips, a series of non sequiturs that are the raison d’etre of the film. These include ads for used car salesman Crazy Ernie (“I’m gonna club a baby seal to make a deal”) and highly specialized department store Spatula City (We sell spatulas/And that’s all!”). These are absurdist miniatures that work as well in isolation as they do in the movie. If released on YouTube today, they would light up aggregators as much as Adult Swim’s Too Many Cooks did earlier this week. Each sketch takes a different approach, from the magnificent bad punning of Conan the Librarian (who slices a late book returner in half) to the more direct parody of Geraldo Rivera with George’s apocalyptic Town Talk. Viewing it for the nth time last week, however, I was most amused by the shows that we never see. There is one scene where George is planning the schedule, padding things out around Spadowski’s runaway hit. There are the gross-out moves like “Name That Stain” or “The Wonderful World of Phlegm”, and then the more surreal items like the Friday night quartet of “Druids on Parade”, “The Volcano Worshipers Hour”, “Underwater Bingo for Teens” and “Fun With Dirt”. We don’t see a frame of these shows, but the movie manages to parody the mania for reality television a decade before it happens. Their station’s entire success is based on cheap “reality” programming, whether it’s Spadowski’s in-the-moment spazzing or competitive shows like “Bowling for Burgers” or “Strip Solitaire”.

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What cannot be ignored today, though, is its reductive depiction of race. One of George’s neighbors and friends is the martial arts instructor Kuni (Gedde Watanabe), whose humor is supposed to come from his heavily accented English and karate poses. Then there’s “Raul’s Wild Kingdom”, featuring the only Hispanic member of the cast. Speaking like Speedy Gonzalez, he lives in a hovel overrun with animals where he teaches poodles how to fly. It’s, as the kids like to say, problematic. If you can look past it, the film has wonderful performances, and I even found Yankovic to be an appealing presence, though Ebert disagrees:

his physical presence is undermined by bad posture and an indistinct speaking voice. He needs to practice throwing back his shoulders and strutting; he creates a dispirited vacuum at the center of many scenes.

I find this “indistinctness” to be interesting. He is mostly recessive until moments of extreme self-doubt, when he lashes out in violence. He screams at Bob to hit him in the face with a crowbar, and is prone to slamming his head on countertops when depressed. It’s an unstable performance, his slacker schizo something that Adam Sandler might have taken inspiration from for his weirder, more interesting comedies (Zohan, That’s My Boy). Michael Richards exhibits the physical elasticity that made him a star, though he elicits more pity than laughter in this one. His character is something of a tragic one, a lonesome mentally deficient janitor whose best friend is a mop. The true star of the film is Kevin McCarthy, who is clearly having a ball as the red meat villain R.J. Fletcher. He is sexist, sadistic and mean to people from all races and religions. McCarthy works on every variation of scowl, his mouth muscles permanently strained downward. Through all his huffing and puffing and bad mouthing, McCarthy walks away with the movie, his blustering in disbelief that “A UHF station!” beat them in the ratings a line reading whose tenor and bluster is permanently embedded in my synapses.

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But then, I cannot be objective about this movie. Some of my fondest memories involve listening to a cassette tape of the UHF soundtrack with my brother. We heard the movie before we saw it, imagining the jokes in our heads. On certain long afternoons in the early 1990s, “Weird Al”‘s twenty second blast  of cock rock “Let Me Be Your Hog” was the funniest thing in the world. Divorced of its context (Uncle Harvey listening to it on the radio), it was just a strange man making pig noises and screaming to a soaring guitar riff. It was nonsense, it was bliss.

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