Robin’s Underrated Gems: UHF (1989)


Since we just recorded a Shouts From the Back Row podcast about our favourite childhood TV shows, a lot of my postings at The Back Row this week are going to brimming with nostalgia. And when I think of 1980s childhood nostalgia, one of the first entertainment figures that pops into my mind is Weird Al Yankovic. I have to confess that I’ve never been a huge music fan at any point in my life, but I do have a great appreciation for parodies, so when I was a kid, I made it a point to pick up every Weird Al Yankovic cassette tape (yes, I’m that old!) that was released. Of course, I was also a huge fan of Weird Al’s movie, UHF, but as I got older, I was surprised to find out that it was considered a major commercial and critical failure when it was originally released. Apparently, the film had some terrific test screenings, but was crushed at the box office in the summer of 1989 by very stiff competition, which included Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. However, UHF still built up a very devoted cult following, as MGM found out when they acquired the entire catalogue of movies which were made by the now-defunct Orion Pictures. Even though MGM now had a new selection of renowned classics in their vault, such as Platoon, Dances With Wolves and The Silence of the Lambs, they were surprised to discover that the title which received the highest number of requests from fans for a Special Edition DVD release was UHF! I still remember seeing the original teaser for the film in theatres and being fooled into thinking that it was a trailer for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade until, much to my delight and surprise, Weird Al Yankovic popped up on-screen!

It goes without saying that UHF received very negative reviews from critics when it was released, many of whom probably had never even heard of Weird Al Yankovic before they watched the film and just did not appreciate his brand of humour. Roger Ebert pretty much confirmed this when he gave the movie a very negative one-star review that contained some of the snobbiest lines he’s ever written: “Somewhere there is an audience for UHF, I have no doubt, and somewhere this weekend someone may laugh at some of its attempts at humor. Those who laugh at UHF should inspire our admiration; in these dreary times we must treasure the easily amused”. Weird Al actually read these excerpts on the film’s DVD commentary track and replied with: “Gee, thanks, Roger! Did I run over your dog or something?!”. Well, if Ebert is right, then I guess I am easily amused because I found UHF hilarious when it was originally released, and I still find it pretty funny today. It’s possible that some of our younger readers may not even know the meaning of the film’s title, but the term “UHF” stands for “ultra high frequency”, which is how TV and radio signals were transmitted in the days before cable, satellite and digital television. In this film, Weird Al Yankovic plays an energetic young man named George Newman, who drifts aimlessly from job to job because he’s got a very hyperactive imagination which prevents him from concentrating on his work (nowadays, they’d call it ADHD, but never mind). However, George finally gets himself an ideal job when his uncle wins the deed to the television station, Channel 62, in a poker game and lets George manage the place. Unfortunately, Channel 62 is a bankrupt, bottom-of-the-barrel UHF station whose main sponsor is a used car salesmen who likes to club baby seals.

Channel 62’s main rival is Channel 8, the biggest network in town, which is run by the evil R.J. Fletcher (the late, great Kevin McCarthy). Channel 62 is on the verge of going out of business forever, but wind up striking gold because of a dim-witted janitor named Stanley Spadowski (Michael Richards), who was fired from his job at Channel 8 before being hired by George. One day, George just decides to let Stanley host Channel 62’s low-budget kids’ show, “Uncle Nutsy’s Clubhouse” but, to his shock, discovers that audiences seem to absolutely love Stanley’s persona. Soon, the newly retitled “Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse” becomes a ratings phenomenon and, combined with some other hit shows that George is able to dream up, turns Channel 62 into the highest rated TV station in town. Of course, R.J. Fletcher is none-too-pleased by this and hatches a diabolical plan to destroy Channel 62. I’m not going to try and pretend that the storyline for UHF isn’t as simplistic and predictable as it gets. The only thing that matters is if it makes the viewer laugh consistently and, in spite of what its detractors may say, I’d say UHF does just that. Yankovic does a lot of hilarious parodies and sketches throughout the course of the film, one of my personal favourites being this spoof of Rambo.

One of the most common complaints about sketch comedy movies like this is that it’s very difficult to sustain this style of humour for the entire running time of a feature film. The reason most of the movies based on Saturday Night Live sketches fail so miserably is because the material is only suited for short, five-minute segments. Weird Al Yankovic’s career has always been built on comedy sketches that are only a few minutes long, but he does manage to sustain a solid comic momentum in UHF from start to finish. Admittedly, some of the jokes don’t always work, but you know you won’t have to wait very long before seeing something that makes you laugh again. Weird Al will be the first to admit he isn’t the greatest actor in the world and is essentially playing himself in UHF, but he’s still incredibly likable here and does a decent enough job at carrying the film along. Kevin McCarthy is also loads of fun as an evil cartoonish villain who’s one step away from twirling his moustache, but the real star of UHF is Michael Richards. UHF came out in theatres at almost the exact same time that Seinfeld went on the air and it’s quite interesting to watch Richards’ performance here as Stanley Spadowski. You can already see a lot of the same physical mannerisms and slapstick comic timing that Richards would use to turn Cosmo Kramer into a television icon. The difference between the two characters is that Stanley is a lovable child-like innocent who enjoys being a janitor so much that he still wants to keep the job even after becoming a famous celebrity. I’m not sure UHF would work at all if the character of Stanley didn’t work, but Richards manages to make him into such an endearing individual that you can almost believe that audiences would become enamoured with this guy.

In Ebert’s review, he also mentioned that he did not hear one single laugh at the press screening he attended, but I would wager that this was a case of critics not wanting to lose credibility with their peers by laughing at such “juvenile” material. However, those who are fans of Weird Al Yankovic’s satirical, whacked-out sense of humour should find plenty to laugh at here. There are far too many memorable bits for me to post clips of all of them here, but some of the other great sketches include “Wheel of Fish”, “Gandhi II”, “Raul’s Wild Kingdom”, “Town Talk”, “Spatula City” and “Conan the Librarian”. UHF is a mostly harmless and good-natured film, but like most of Weird Al’s material, it does contain many moments of incredibly bizarre, off-the-wall humour that gives the material an extra edge. Even though I don’t believe there is one word of profanity in the entire film, UHF wound up being released with a PG-13 rating because of a few edgy moments that the MPAA simply wasn’t comfortable with, such as poodles being thrown out of a window in attempt to teach them how to fly and Conan the Librarian slicing a guy in half for returning some overdue books. Not surprisingly, these “uncomfortable” moments wind up being some of the funniest in the movie. In the end, if you’re a Weird Al Yankovic fan, I’m sure you don’t need anyone to defend the merits of UHF, but it still remains a highly underrated comedy. It may be an acquired taste, as most of the original reviews of the film have indicated, but it is a damn hilarious one, and thank God that cult comedies like this have such devoted fans to keep their memory alive.

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