'Weird Al' Yankovic's "UHF" Remains A Cult Favorite
Famed pop parody artist 'Weird Al' Yankovic at the height of his fame in the 1980s when "UHF" was released in the summer of 1989 as his first starring vehicle. Known for his comedic song compositions and music video parodies, 'Weird Al' was a cultural phenomenon, whose curly hair, big glasses, and mustache was in contrast to the image-based musical talent of that decade. In the beginning of his career, 'Weird Al' armed himself with an accordion and broke through on Dr. Demento's radio program. Thanks to early hits like "Eat It" and "Like a Surgeon" that parodied pop icons Michael Jackson and Madonna, Yankovic was able to channel his humor into visual form with the then-young music video format on MTV. In a matter of years, every hit song was expected to be parodied by Yankovic. Primed for a feature length film, Al and his manager Jay Levey wrote and produced their first feature length film "UHF." In the spirit of the Zucker Brothers' "Airplane" and "The Naked Gun (where Yankovic makes a cameo)," "UHF" was a gag-a-minute send up of movies, television and popular culture.
The opening sequence is an obvious parody of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," with George Newman (Yankovic) seeking out the elusive Academy Award statuette. A self-deprecating jab that the film had no chance in winning any acclaim. This day dream transitions to George in a daze while watching a hamburger fry on a grill at a meaningless fast-food job. George is a man without ambition. Various gigs that gets him fired due to incompetency but he yields an active wacky imagination.
His Uncle Harvey wins over the deed to a UHF station in a poker game and gives his out-of-work nephew the job as manager. In an attempt to create a healthy relationship with his network affiliate competition, George is bullied by station owner R.J. Fletcher (veteran character actor Kevin McCarthy). Michael Richards plays the dimwitted janitor Stanley Spadowski, who was recently fired by Fletcher. George sympathizes and offers him a job.
As his UHF station is off to a bad start with low budget mediocre programming (including the children’s program “Uncle Nutzy’s Clubhouse”), George falls asleep late at night and fantasizes about being in his own music video. Cut to the the Dire Straits music video parody that’s a tie-in for the movie’s soundtrack. Audiences expected a music parody by Yankovic in this film and they got it.
George and his best friend Bob (David Bowe) struggle to gain an audience and the station is in near financial ruin. George is caught up in trying to save the station while his relationship with his girlfriend Teri (SNL’s Victoria Jackson) goes sour as she grows tired of his lack of ambition and lack of commitment to her. In an act of desperation, George allows Stanley to take over his children’s show. An unlikely star, Stanley soon grows a following amongst kids and adults. Renamed “Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse,” the show becomes the flagship programming of the newly saved UHF station. Inspired, George creates a number of wacky programming, including the game show parody “Wheel of Fish,” “Raul’s Wild Kingdom” and “Conan the Librarian.” In addition are a series of commercial parodies. The station’s success is due to the absurdity of its programming.
The film represents the exact sense of humor audiences came to expect with 'Weird Al.' As a pop culture figure, Yankovic was able to create an enjoyable full length feature that still holds up today. While Michael Richards’ post-”Seinfeld” career is characterized by a single unfortunate performance at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles in 2006, he’s always proved to be a master of slapstick. “UHF” was just a preview of what Richards was able to later perfect in the nine seasons as Cosmo Kramer on “Seinfeld.”
Released in the summer of 1989, "UHF" was a box office failure. Due to positive test screenings, the film was the last bastion of hope for the struggling Orion Pictures. However, a summer cramped with blockbusters such as Tim Burton's "Batman," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," and "Lethal Weapon 2," "UHF" went unnoticed. Yet, according to the ‘Weird Al’ episode of VH-1's "Behind the Music," the film has gained a cult status. Given its absurd humor, it makes perfect sense that this film has developed a niche audience. I would even go so far as saying it's a precursor to the attraction towards the Adult Swim series "Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Good Job!" (another show Yankovic has appeared on).
For such an unlikely career in the music business, 'Weird Al' remains strong, embracing new music and pop culture trends. His latest album, "Alpocalypse," was recently released and reminds audiences of his lasting impression. Spoof films nowadays, particularly those made by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer ("Epic Movie" & "Meet the Spartans"), are unfunny comparisons to the spirit of the Zucker brothers. While "UHF" may seem outdated in terms of its source of references, the slapstick and jokes remain universally funny.