American Vidiot: 'Weird Al' Yankovic's UHF, 30 Years Later

Fran Drescher and "Weird Al" Yankovic in UHF.
Fran Drescher and "Weird Al" Yankovic in UHF. Orion Pictures/Cinecorp
Like any great drummer or comedian, "Weird Al" Yankovic has been blessed with good timing. He polkaed his way into pop culture at exactly the right time.

His career as a comedic tunesmith blossomed during the heyday of the music video. If he had strapped on his accordion a decade earlier, he probably still would have built up a cult following via The Dr. Demento Show, but it was his music videos that turned the man into a geeky star. Putting him in a fat suit was almost beside the point: “Weird Al” was already capital-I Iconic.

Yankovic also had the good fortune (and tireless work ethic) to build his career before the advent of the internet. Long before everyone and their kid sister pivoted to making comedy videos, Yankovic established the template of being a musical parody artist — modern music comedy heavyweights like The Lonely Island and Flight of the Conchords owe just as much to Granddaddy Yankovic as they do to This Is Spinal Tap or the Bonzo Dog Band.

While many established acts struggle to remain financially stable and relevant in the digital age, Yankovic has reaped the benefits of cultivating a devoted fan base by putting on a series of innovative tours — like the orchestral Strings Attached Tour he’s bringing to Comerica Theatre on Saturday, August 3.

There’s only one instance where that devil’s luck failed him: his big-screen debut.

Like fellow musical icons Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Vanilla Ice, Yankovic had achieved enough fame and fortune in the ’80s to do his own movie. Yankovic and his manager, Jay Levey (who wound up directing the film), came up with the premise: "Weird Al" would play a Walter Mitty-esque dreamer who manages an Ultra High-Frequency station and finds success after letting local community members hijack the programming and go wild.

It’s a threadbare plot, the kind of thin skeleton The Marx Brothers would use to hang pounds of comedic flesh on. It's an excuse to string together a bunch of nonsequitur sketches, pop culture parodies, and goofy jokes.

What Yankovic and Levey were aiming for wasn’t an arty weird showcase like Masked and Anonymous or sub-moronic James Dean posturing a la Cool As Ice: They were using this pop star movie project to make something you could slot comfortably in between Duck Soup and Airplane!.

On paper, UHF (which Yankovic wanted to call The Vidiot) was a pretty big gamble. Levey hadn’t directed a feature film, nor had he and Yankovic written a project this ambitious before. The musician had suddenly graduated to a leading man with lines and a romantic subplot with SNL star and future right-wing crackpot Victoria Jackson.

But their relative inexperience didn’t deter Orion Pictures. When the film ended up going over big with audiences during early test screenings, the studio decided that they had a huge hit on their hands.

Unfortunately for everyone involved in the film, Orion picked the absolute worst possible summer to release the film: UHF came out at the same time as Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Do the Right Thing, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Not only did the film do poorly at the box office, but it also got the one-star curb-stomp treatment from the late Roger Ebert. The film critic said of Yankovic's comedic stylings: “His best comic distance is about two minutes.”

Ebert saw in UHF the same thing that many of us see in most films based on SNL sketches: thin comedic premises stretched beyond their breaking points. “The movie alternates uneasily between the storyline, which involves the fate of the station, and a lot of self-contained parodies that do not share the same reality as the rest of the film,” Ebert added.

Reading Ebert’s critical pan in light of UHF’s cult film status is illuminating because many of the bugs he points out about the film are actually its strongest features.

The fact that UHF can’t decide if it’s a plucky-underdogs-save-their-jobs story or a parade of parodies is part of the film’s anarchic, goofy charm. The story’s reality, continuity, and characters never get in the way of the joke. The film refuses to take itself seriously enough to commit to anything other than delivering one groan-inducing, occasionally brilliant gag after another. In many ways, UHF is a precursor to the cutaway humor of shows like Family Guy and The Critic.

As station manager George Newman, Yankovic is the film’s straight man. His stage name might be "Weird," but he may well be one of the sanest people in UHF’s universe. His Newman takes a backseat to a platoon of memorable characters: Gedde Watanabe as Wheel of Fish host Kuni, whose delight in screaming “YOU’RE SO STUPID” at contestants who pick the wrong prize is infectious; Conan the Librarian, whose dedication to the Dewey Decimal System is as hard and unyielding as his sword; Emo Philips' accident-prone shop teacher, spraying blood like an out of control science-fair volcano; and Raul, an animal expert who teaches kids that turtles are nature’s suction cups.

Part of the enduring charm of UHF is that it’s a time capsule and tribute to the era of public access TV.

UHF captures the joy of channel-surfing late at night and stumbling on something utterly batshit crazy happening in your own backyard. Though you can still get a bit of that rubbernecking thrill with YouTube videos (or watching Lerner & Rowe commercials), it doesn’t have the subversive thrill that comes from watching local eccentrics appear on actual TV. UHF dials this inmates-are-running-the-asylum sensation up to 11, bombarding the viewer with a steady stream of ridiculous commercials, game shows, and crazy news bits.

There are aspects of the film that have aged poorly.

Some of the parodies (like the film’s opening riff on Raiders of the Lost Ark) are about as fresh as a freezer-burned taquito. Watanabe’s Kuni would be a hard sell in the social justice age, as would Levey putting on Indian-face to play Gandhi (in the still absolutely hysterical blaxploitation-style Gandhi II trailer). And considering Michael Richards’ fall from grace post-Seinfeld, it’s not hard to imagine some viewers casting a bit of side-eye towards his take on janitor/children’s show host Stanley “YOU GET TO DRINK FROM THE FIREHOSE” Spadowski (which is a shame: Spadowski is far and away the funniest character in the film).

UHF embodies many of the qualities that make "Weird Al" such an appealing figure: the way his comedy writing bounces from clever to dad-joke levels of dumb; the dedication to painstakingly recreating the subjects he parodies; the good-natured spirit that permeates the project.

What little contempt the film has is reserved for the TV CEO villain trying to take the community's station off the air. None of the weirdos in UHF are meant to be condemned or ridiculed. They are absurd, but lovable in their absurdity. It's an almost utopian vision of how much more fun life can be if everyone made their own entertainment instead of sitting around waiting for someone to beam it into their homes for them.

Much like The Lonely Island’s criminally slept-on box office bomb Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, it took a few years before people started to appreciate the zany genius of UHF. It’s only fitting that The Lonely Island followed in Yankovic’s footsteps on-screen and off: They share his dedication to committing to the bit.

While Roger Ebert had many harsh things to say about Yankovic's one-and-done feature film career, he did say something prescient in his take-down: "Somewhere there is an audience for UHF, I have no doubt." The audience wasn't there for UHF in 1989, but over the last 30 years, vidiots of all ages have discovered the joys of Spatula City and Raul's Wild Kingdom for themselves.

"Weird Al" Yankovic. 8 p.m. Saturday, August 3, at Comerica Theatre, 400 West Washington Street; Tickets are still available from $38.50 to $307 via Live Nation.
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Ashley Naftule