UHF

UHFSynopsis: “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kevin McCarthy (Innerspace), Michael Richards (Seinfeld), David Bowe (The Cable Guy), Victoria Jackson (Saturday Night Live) and Fran Drescher (The Nanny) star in this inspired comedy about an offbeat guy who turns a deadbeat TV station into a raging success! Broadcasting Weird Al’s unique brand of humor, UHF is a place you’ll want to visit- with increasing frequency.

George Newman (Weird Al) is a daydreamer whose hyperactive imagination keeps him from holding a steady job… until his uncle hires him to manage Channel 62, a station that’s losing money and viewers fast. But when George replaces the station’s reruns with bizarre programs like “Wheel of Fish” and “Raul’s Wild Kingdom” (where poodles fly from third-story windows), ratings begin to soar! Can George find the money he needs to stay on the air? Stay tuned!

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UHF 7.75

eyelights: its irreverant humour. its pop culture references.
eyesores: some of the acting. the tired plot.

“We’ll make a couch potato out of you…on UHF”

When ‘UHF’ was released, in 1989, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic seemed to be omnipresent. Since 1983, he had released five full-length studio albums, and had had a few monster hit singles with his parodies of Michael Jackson and Madonna. In fact, his then-most recent album, ‘Even Worse’, whose cover spoofed Michael Jackson’s album ‘Bad’, had been his biggest hit yet. By that point, it was only natural for him to transition to the silver screen.

Orion Pictures backed his film, which he and his manager, Jay Levey, wrote together. The studio were struggling financially, and saw Yankovic as a sure-fire hit that would help reposition them at the box office. Sadly, they made one big mistake: they decided to release the picture at the same time as 1989’s largest blockbusters were unleashed on the world. Despite enthusiastic previews, ‘UHF’ died a quick death at the box office.

It would be Yankovic’s first and final big screen vehicle. And Orion Pictures? They were bankrupt only two years later.

‘UHF’ barely registered on my radar at the time. Despite being a moderate fan of Yankovic (I had ‘Dare to Be Stupid’, ‘In 3-D’ and ‘Even Worse’), it seemed to me as though we weren’t even given a chance to see it. Even on home video. It would be years before I got the chance to watch it with some buddies – and, by the then, I wasn’t all that interested in Yankovic, and had pretty much quashed my sense of humour. So I didn’t like it.

I’ve since reconsidered my opinion.

When it was released on DVD in 2002, I had already reconciled with Yankovic. He had recently released a few excellent albums and I was starting to be pretty impressed with his lyrical acrobatics and his ability to reproduce or emulate familiar music. He was craftier than I once imagined and, when he was “on”, he was jaw-droppingly good: Who else could have told the whole story of ‘The Phantom Menace’ over “American Pie”?

Needless to say, I devoured that DVD the moment I could get my hands on it – figuratively-speaking, mind you (although… with a saucy side-order of bologna taco soup, it wouldn’t be indigestible). I not only watched the movie, but savoured every special feature (of which there were many) and hidden “Easter eggs”. I was a convert, and I proceeded to watch the darned thing many times over after that; it became a late-night staple.

‘UHF’ has a simple, and predictable plot: George (Yankovic) is a young daydreamer who lucks out when his uncle wins a UHF television station in a poker bet and decides to let him run it. Once near-unemployable and struggling to keep his relationship alive, George is empowered by this new opportunity and, through a variety of circumstances, revives the station and draws the attention of a local cable station manager – who will do anything to get rid of the competition.

Bereft of plot originality or subtle (or even superb) comedic performances, ‘UHF’ rides entirely on its zaniness and satire. It’s a vehicle for exactly the brand of humour that made ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s songs and music videos so wickedly fun in the first place: it’s so outrageously ridiculous that one can’t help but laugh, and the satire can be extremely clever at highlighting the absurdity of its source material – weaving comedy gold in the process.

Right from the start, ‘UHF’ tears a huge hole into ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, and then promptly follows it up with ‘Conan the Barbarian’, ‘Geraldo’, ‘Gandhi‘, ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’, ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and many others. It’s not all great, but ‘Gandhi II’ is an inspired jab at Hollywood sequelitis, the ‘Rambo’ rescue sequence enhances what was already ridiculous in the original, and ‘Wheel of Fish’ is too patently weird to keep a straight face.

But they don’t call him ‘Weird Al’ for nothing: Yankovic indulges in tastes that are especially unconventional (see his culinary masterpiece, the Twinkie Dog, as reference). But that’s also part of his charm, because his weirdness is usually totally inoffensive, like that of a Muppet or a Warner Brothers cartoon character. Watching him drive around in that miniscule car is nearly endearing, for instance, because we know that it’s not just for show – he actually means it.

(it is, in fact, his avowed favourite car)

Which doesn’t mean that his delivery is convincing. In fact, ‘Weird Al’ is no one’s idea of a thespian: he’s got just about as naturalistic a screen presence as Madonna. He isn’t always bad, but he’s not great and you often get the impression he’s trying to conceal a smirk when he should be playing it straight. Even simple moments like when he guiltily tells his friend Bob to “take this crowbar and… just bash my head right in! Go ahead. Really. Please! Just BASH it right in!” ring false.

But they’re funny.

Less funny, however, is his paramour, Teri, played by Victoria Jackson, best  known for her stint on ‘Saturday Night Live’ from 1986 to 1992. Frankly, she’s f-ing horrible, and can’t deliver a line worth her life – plus she is limp and whiny. She makes Yankovic look like Sir Lawrence Olivier in comparison (and maybe that was the intention). It was extremely painful to watch the scenes that they had together: they had ZERO chemistry. Thankfully, there were very few of those.

Strangely enough, even though it’s Yankovic’s picture, Michael Richards roundly steals the show with his character, Stanley Spadowski. A janitor, and a secondary character, his moronic playfulness attracts the attention of local viewers and rockets him into the spotlight, making him an instant draw for the fledgling UHF station. Richards a lot more material to work with: his character is an idiot,and he does a great job of making a cartoon of him.

At one point, Stanley is kidnapped, but he’s such a maroon that he doesn’t seem to mind much. He’s having fun but he’s so annoying (singing songs, asking quiz questions, …etc.) that he’s driving his captors crazy. He’s such a dunce that he even tells them when his blindfold falls off. His show, Stanley’s Clubhouse, is a kid’s show, but it’s completely insane. For instance, there’s a competition where kids hunt a marble in a big vat of oatmeal, getting a drink from the firehose if they find it.

Another terrific cartoon character is Kuni, as played by seriously typecasted Gedde Watanabe. He’s George’s neighbour, and runs a karate school. Poorly. His students keep dropping out of the second floor window, to which he berates them with screams: STUUUUUPIIIIID!!! He doesn’t have much screen time, but he’s unforgettable – as is Kevin McCarthy (from ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘ fame), as the evil station manager, chewing the scenery with utter glee.

But the picture would have no redeeming value if it wasn’t stocked to the brim with crazy ideas, such as  Emo Philips as an accident-prone shop teacher, Secrets of the Universe (with their weird techie Philo), Raul’s Wild Kingdom, Bowling for Burgers, Strip Solitaire and Town Talk with George (a satire of Geraldo, complete with fights, and absurd topics and questions). Just a glance at the Fall schedule that they’ve designed should have most viewers in stitches.

It also features odd TV adverts such as a car dealer who threatens to club baby seals, Spatula City and Plots R Us (the sight of limbs sticking out of ground at cemetery is unforgettable, as is their special offer of a salad bar). And when George and Bob get around to doing a fundraiser to save the station, the acts that they attract are so unbelievably lame that it’s side-splittingly hilarious. ‘UHF’, for all its faults, is ripe with absurd humour.

I’m a fan. It took years for it to grow on me, but it’s become a guilty pleasure of mine. Oh, sure, I will never claim that it’s a good movie. Technically, it isn’t: it was made on a low budget, the plot is trite, and the performances are anything but subtle. But it’s a goofy movie, in that good way: it’s brimming with all sorts of madcap ideas that could only be found in a ‘Weird Al’ movie. Late at night, when you need break from the dailies, you could do a heck of a lot worse.

So, forget about your job, crank up the volume, and yank off the knob. You’ll get it all on ‘UHF’.

Post scriptum:  The DVD was one of the most complete releases at the time. It’s filled with all sorts of yummy features including Easter Eggs and menus with then-newly filmed footage of Yankovic being… weird… silly. It’s as good as it gets. Now if only they would re-release ‘The Compleat Al’ at some point…

Dates of viewings: May 8+9, 2014

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