Recently, it was announced the Weird Al Yankovic biopic would be released in November on the Roku Channel. Daniel Radcliffe is playing the legendary musician and comic. I had almost forgotten that Yankovic made his only starring feature role in UHF that was released this month in 1989.
Unfortunately for Yankovic, the movie came and went so fast during the summer of 1989, it just barely broke even on a $5 million budget with grossing $6.1 million. It was a hard summer. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had come out in May. Lethal Weapon 2 had hit theaters earlier in July of that year. And the summer of 1989 was the summer of Batman. The Tim Burton-directed movie starring Michael Keaton had been hyped to the max and it delivered. So, why would people spend their time seeing a movie like UHF when they could go see Batman again.
It’s hard to compare both movies because they’re both equally good. UHF has Yankovic playing George Newman, a loveable but aimless person who is fired from another job, this time at Burger World for daydreaming too much on the job. The movie opens with a parody of the ancient temple scene at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This way of life has put a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend, Teri Campbell (Victoria Jackson), but his friend, roommate and co-worker Bob Steckler (David Bowe) seems to stick by him. Bob makes a comment that George owes him money.
One night while taking Teri to a party where his uncle and aunt, Harvey and Esther Bilchik (Stanley Brock and Sue Ann Langdon), are also attending, it’s revealed Harvey, a compulsive gambler, has won the rights to a UHF channel 62 on the outskirts of town in a card game. It’s never really mentioned where most of the movie takes place. I think it’s supposed to be implied it’s a smaller Midwestern city. It was filmed in Tulsa which is perfect because it’s not really the Midwest, nor is it the south or the southwest or even the plains.
Esther, who really favors George, talks Harvey into putting him in charge as the program director. However, when George and Teri take a drive out there, the building looks almost dilapidated and it’s isolated with the strange character, Philo (Anthony Geary), who says he’s the station engineer. Philo says he works and basically lives there. Philo has a secret that is revealed at the end.
With George and Bob heading into work, they find out the station’s administrative assistant, Pamela Finklestein (Fran Drescher), is frustated because the station is constantly overturning with its ownership and she wants to be an on-air reporter. When she is given that task, the only field camerman they have is Noodles MacIntosh (Billy Barty) whose dwarf size makes any camera angle hard to follow.
George and especially Pamela and Noodles find themselves at odds with R.J. Flectcher (Kevin McCarthy), owner of Channel 8, a major network affiliate, whose son, R.J. Fletcher Jr. (John Paragon) is a reporter and causes Noodles to trip at a press conference hurting his arm, before telling Pamela that “Broads don’t believe in broadcasting.” R.J., who functions as the movie’s antagonist, has also fired Stanley Spadowski (Michael Richards), a janitor when he thinks Stanley threw away a report he wanted. George hires Stanley to work for him.
Unfortunately, George tries to do good initially at Channel 62, but he embarrasses Teri by making an announcement of his love and affection over the TV broadcast. When he tries to host his own live children’s show, the kids are bored and on-air mistakes happen as Bob tries to be Bobbo the Clown but gets hurt when hit with a frying pan and then accidentally eats dog treats until he gets sick.
Teri dumps George when he misses a dinner with her parents. Upset, George gives Stanley the hosting duty of the kids’ show and decides to go tell his uncle and aunt he can’t do it. But surprisingly, Stanley’s version of the show becomes a hit, attracting new sponsors, increased ratings and new ideas. George and Bob realize they can create new program, such as Strip Solitaire, Wheel of Fish and a daytime talk show Town Talk in the vein of Geraldo Rivera and Morton Downey Jr., where George is hit over the head with a chair resulting in appearing in bandages just like what happened to Geraldo.
They even get a crazy show featuring Raul Hernandez (Trinidad Silva) who does crazy things with animals like sticking turtles on the ceiling and throwing poodles out the window to see if they can fly. Silva, sadly, was killed in a car wreck during production and only appears in two scenes. It was supposed to be revealed that the dogs survived. But I think it works either way as neither George nor Bob know who hired him or why he’s on the air, yet leave him on.
They begin to show outrageous movies like Gandhi II, featuring director Jay Levey portraying the political figure as a machine-gun toting action hero fighting crime. This reminds me of the Family Guy episode where Mel Gibson has directed a sequel to The Passion of the Christ in the vein of an action/buddy cop movie. Mike Judge was also a fan and had made Beavis and Butt-head work at a fast-food restaurant called Burger World.
Yankovic does add some of his famous music parody to the movie. During a scene where George is doing paperwork but trying to stay awake, he notices a rerun of The Beverly Hillbillies and then images a music video similar to the Dire Strait’s “Money for Nothing.” It was reported that Mark Knopfler only agreed to allow Yankovic to parody it as long as he got to play guitar.
Along with parodying music videos and TV and movies, Yankovic and Levey also parody TV commercials, most notably Spatula City, a store that only sells spatulas and throws a joke about the famous Remington electric shaver ad where Victor Kiam said he liked the product so much he bought the company. But in this case, you can clearly see it’s someone reading something for the first time. While filming in Tulsa, it was reported that a Spatula City billboard was erected along the Broken Arrow Expressway in Tulsa that angered local businesses because people actually thought it was real. So, people in the vicinity of said billboard were having people stop by to ask where Spatula City was.
Some of the jokes are hard to catch unless you’re aware of what they’re parodying. That might have been why some audiences turned away from it. While UHF didn’t get good reviews on its initial release, it was later discovered on home video and ironically cable viewings. Yankovic never really wanted to call the movie UHF. He preferred The Vidiot instead. And that was a good reason, UHF bandwidth stations were phasing out by 1989 as cable was becoming more popular. People were doing away with the TV antennas. Some of the target audiences probably didn’t know much about what UHF meant.
What is crazy is how absurd the fake TV shows and movies seemed in 1989 now almost seem plausible with cable and satellite TV still popular and the need to keep airwaves broadcasting 24/7. In the olden days, TV stations would run public domain movies and shows rather than going off air. With a network devoted to just game shows, the likelihood of Strip Solitaire or Wheel of Fish might seem possible.
Also always, Yankovic has managed to keep a very clean material. He doesn’t result to using profanity or vulgar gags. He most notably appeared in the “Fuck 2016” segment on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and made it sound like he was going to drop the F-bomb but didn’t. He was reportedly not too happy with the MPAA giving UHF a PG-13 rating. It’s been reported one scene in which Conan the Librarian slices a person in half, even comical, was the deciding factor, as well as the scene with the poodles, even though they’re clearly fake. Another scene contributing to the rating involves Emo Phillips playing a school shop class instructor who accidentally slices a finger off by using a power saw. But this was edited just not enough for a PG rating. Incidentally, Phillips later said he received a residual check less than the price of postage at the time that he kept and framed.
Because UHF wasn’t a big success, Yankovic went into a slump for the next three years only appearing in a blink and you’ll miss it cameo as a gunman who is knocked out when hit with an door being opened by Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) in The Naked Gun 2 and 1/2: The Smell of Fear in 1991. He would return to the recording studio in 1992 and record “Smells Like Nirvana,” a parody on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He continued to make parody albums and music videos in ther 1990s and 2000s turning to the Internet to release his music videos when MTV stopped showing music videos. He found big success with his parody “White and Nerdy.”
In the third season of Stranger Things, his first hit song, “My Bologna” was used giving him some more success. He was just a college student then when he recorded that in 1979. Now, he turns 63 in October. It sucks that UHF is his only starring role in a movie. Maybe he’s afraid of failure again. Success in one medium doesn’t translate to success in another. A lot of people have hit TV shows but their movies bomb. Or a comic may be great on stage but their materiak doesn’t translate to a TV show or movie.
That’s not to say that Yankovic is ready to hang up the accordion. According to his website, he’s our a tour right now that began in late April and is scheduled to run through October. So, if you can’t make a tour date or you can’t wait till November, check out UHF.
What do you think? Please comment.