By Matt Fleming. This is RETROGRADING, where we don’t need no stinking badgers.
THE FILM: UHF
THE TIME: 1989, the peak of MTV and the dawn of a new wave of pop-culture-reference humor. The days of biting satire like Network and Max Headroom were gone, replaced by fourth-wave sitcoms and the burgeoning cult of celebrity. Enter “Weird Al” Yankovic.
RECOLLECTIONS: The time seemed ripe for a “Weird Al” movie. After all, the musician had captivated crowds with his witty song parodies, and the music videos that accompanied were often better than the originals they were lampooning; plus, this was at a time where fictional character Pee-Wee Herman could carry both a feature film and a Saturday morning bizarro-tv outlet. So why not Alfred?
After quite a long development period, Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey had finally honed a strange hybrid of absurdist anthology comedies (think Airplane! or Kentucky Fried Movie) fully imbued with the comedian/musician’s unique sense of humor. Then they threw an obligatory plot in for good measure, and just… did it. They made the most “Weird Al” movie they could ever possibly make, filled with parody, 1980’s pop-culture, and a heaping helping of the artist’s own signature goofiness.
Unfortunately, aside from the stunning Beverly Hillbillies parody of Dire Straits’ biggest MTV hit, nothing about UHF particularly connected with audiences. Of course later, thanks to such classic bits as “Wheel Of Fish,” “Spatula City,” and the endearing presence of Stanley Spadowski, the film found that elusive, better-late-than-never cult following on home video.
THE DIRECTOR: Jay Levey is not a filmmaker. Yankovic’s longtime manager and professional guru may have helped the musician artfully weave his way through such hits as “Like A Surgeon,” “Eat It,” and “Fat,” but often he found himself pitch-hitting for “Weird Al” when it came time to do the real work. Essentially, Levey took on the roles Al just didn’t feel confident tackling, such as storyboarding his own videos, and when it came time to make UHF, Levey just kinda fell into the director’s chair, doing everything he could to realize Yankovic’s absurd vision.
Truly, UHF is a collaboration between an artist who wasn’t quite prepared to take on the daunting task of filmmaking, and a friend who is only too happy to help him through it. Yankovic would later shine directing videos for his own songs such as “White And Nerdy” and 2014’s “Handy,” as well as videos for artists like Ben Folds Five and *cringe* Jeff Foxworthy. Thankfully, Levey manages Yankovic to this day, proving that some collaborations can survive even the biggest flops.
THE CAST: The cast of UHF features enough familiar faces from television to leave a new viewer squealing, “Wait, she’s in this?! Freakin’ Kramer’s in this?!” The presence of notable actors definitely dates the movie, which includes certain problematic figures who would later find their stars rise and fade pretty rapidly. Victoria Jackson, a staple of early-nineties SNL, is featured as George’s love interest Teri. (These days, Jackson is a featured player on the right-wing has-beens circuit headlined by also-rans like Ted Nugent.)
Fran Drescher makes a pre-Nanny appearance as U-62’s lone field reporter, whereas now she resides in the purgatory reserved for Hollywood actresses who have been horribly typecast. Most notably, UHF features Michael Richards in between his Fridays pseudo-success and his breakout role in Seinfeld, and although he shines here as Stanley Spadowsky, it would seem his legendarily poor disposition will keep him from any sort of comeback.
The rest of the supporting cast is pretty spectacular: Gedde Watanabe (Sixteen Candles), Billy Barty (Willow), Anthony Geary (TV’s General Hospital), and film veteran Kevin McCarthy (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers) round out an entertaining crew of bizarre characters that make this flick tick. Trinidad Silva, fondly remembered as Raul the Animal Wrangler, died in a tragic car accident before filming was completed, and the movie was dedicated to his memory, (although his finest tribute will always be his homage to Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and Blazing Saddles).
Ultimately, it’s Al Yankovic in his feature film debut who provides the humor and heart that make this movie lovable beyond its C-Grade production values. We could have, and should have, built a franchise upon his lovable and goofy charisma. He’s no Olivier, but he certainly fares better than Adam Sandler does these days.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? If you’re a fan of the whimsical, cheesy, and often absurd humor of “Weird Al” Yankovic, this movie is a veritable goldmine. Parodies like “Conan The Librarian” and Raul’s “Wild Kingdom” are still as entertaining as anything aspiring sketch troupes could concoct. But, if you like your jokes more on the nose and less “culturally-appropriate-to-the-Eighties,” UHF might strike you as some kind of fever dream that Tim and Eric had before they decided to funnel their id into lampooning the deep-end of public TV. It’s easy to see that those two avant-garde yucksters would have never had a chance if not for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s risky leap into the deep end. For those who dare to be stupid, UHF is a highlight from the MTV Generation.
RETROGRADE: 5 out of 10