Picture it: July 21, 1989, Southern California. The hottest movies in the country are Lethal Weapon 2, Batman, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. If you turn on the radio, you hear Milli Vanilli, Fine Young Cannibals, Paula Abdul, and then the sound of your own ears bursting into flames. Out in the real world, the Tiananmen Square Massacre is fresh in people's minds, the Detroit Pistons have recently won their first NBA championship, and though Laurence Olivier has just died, his replacement, Daniel Radcliffe, will be born in a mere two days.
But to me, a nerd who was about to turn 15, the most important news on July 21, 1989, was that this was the day I could finally see "Weird Al" Yankovic's UHF.
Weird Al (I am enough of a fan that I don't have to use the quotation marks) was my idol, my role model, my hero. Since discovering his accordion-flavored brand of zaniness a few years earlier, I had listened to the 55 songs on his five albums countless times, in many cases creating elaborate lip-sync routines to accompany them, which I would perform in my bedroom for an audience of no one. I'd practically memorized The Compleat Al, a 1985 VHS biography that included all of his music videos up to that point, as well as the 1986 half-hour pre-Grammy special that he'd done for the CBS affiliate in L.A., which we taped off TV and which included a polka medley of the five Record of the Year nominees. (Only the Weird Al fans in Southern California ever got to see it! But it's on YouTube now.)
Until I was 14, those five Weird Al albums (Weird Albums?) were the only music I owned. In eighth grade, when we had to make a collage representing our hobbies and interests, I included the art from Weird Al's self-titled first album. My teacher laughed and said incredulously, "But he's not your overall favorite musical artist, right?" And I said something like, "No, ha, no, I just ... just for funny music, he's my favorite. I like some regular bands, too." I cannot recall whether I was able to name one.
I wasn't into sports or girls, so most of the elaborate daydreams that occupied my waking hoursin those days centered around my life being turned into a sitcom. One of my concepts was a show where Weird Al was my dad. This made no sense—my real dad was devoted and loving, I had no need to fantasize about having a different one, and Mr. Yankovic was only 15 years older than I was—so I retooled it into some convoluted thing where for some reason Weird Al adopted me. Maybe my parents and relatives all died? I don't remember. The point was, I got to live and hang out with Weird Al. You will agree that as far as sitcom premises go, this is no dumber than Two and a Half Men.
I knew, as all serious Weird Al fans know, that he'd gotten his start as a teenager sending songs to the Dr. Demento Show, an L.A.-based syndicated radio program dedicated to (in the words of the good Doctor himself) "mad music and crazy comedy." I was a Dr. Demento fan too, of course, tuning in to 94.7 KMET each Sunday night to hear songs, skits, and stand-up by Weird Al, Tom Lehrer, Spike Jones, Stan Freberg, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Cheech and Chong, and the various artists behind such hits as "Fish Heads," "Dead Puppies," "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!," "Pencil-Neck Geek," and "Star Trekkin'."
Inspired by Weird Al's success in this department, and influenced by the wide variety of comedy styles I was hearing, I'd been recording musical bits and humorous sketches of my own and submitting them to Dr. Demento since I was 13. I'd sent in around 50 by this point, most of them short, grating, and genuinely unlistenable. My voice was changing, sometimes mid-song. I was thrilled beyond belief when Dr. Demento actually played a couple of them—me, on the radio! On the very same program from whose nurturing loins Weird Al had sprung! Following his example in all things, I called myself "Eccentric Eric" D. Among certain of my aunts, my parody of Tone Loc's "Funky Cold Medina," entitled "Chunky Ballerina," remains a favorite to this day.
So I felt not only admiration and respect for Weird Al, but a certain kinship, too. We were in the same club, kind of! I wouldn't have said we were colleagues or equals or anything like that—heavens, no. But we had both been played on the Dr. Demento Show. In fact, I was even a little younger than Al had been. I'm just saying.
It was in this context that I saw UHF at the first screening on the first day it played in theaters. I was spending part of the summer with my grandparents and maiden aunts, and one of the aunts, a fellow Weird Al and Dr. Demento devotee, accompanied me. Oh, how we laughed! UHF was everything I could have hoped for in a "Weird Al" Yankovic movie, full of parodies, spoofs, absurdity, food-based jokes, and even a Dr. Demento cameo (he's the bearded guy in the TV audience who gets a mouth full of whipped cream).
When we got back to my grandparents' house, I called my mom to tell her how great the movie had been and to find out what Roger Ebert, whose reviews were syndicated in our local paper but not the one my grandparents subscribed to, had said about it. I didn't know yet then that I was going to be a movie critic when I grew up, but I knew enough to be interested in what the big-time critics (well, Roger Ebert was the only one I'd heard of) thought about movies I'd seen. I asked Mom to read me the review.
"OK," she said. "But I don't think you're going to like it."
I braced myself.
"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.... This is the dreariest comedy in many a month, a depressing slog through recycled comic formulas. Those who laugh at UHF should inspire our admiration; in these dreary times we must treasure the easily amused.'
I was outraged.
How dare you, sir? HOW DARE YOU! "Someone" may laugh at this movie? Yeah, someone named ME AND MY AUNT! The other five or six people in the audience with us, they laughed too, I think. As for "easily amused," sure I'm easily amused—especially when you show me a HILARIOUS MOVIE like UHF!
Well, Ebert was far from alone in his dismissal of this particular film, and audiences stayed away, too. UHF tanked, landing in 11th place that weekend even though it was one of only two new films opening (the other was the '60s-set teen comedy Shag: The Movie), and ultimately earning a measly $6.1 million over its short lifetime.
Not that any of this mattered to me. As soon as UHF was released on VHS, it became a staple in the Snider house, my siblings and I watching and quoting it repeatedly over the next few years, until I left for college. They probably kept watching it after that, too, but it's important to note that the last time I saw it was when I was about 18.
Though my interests and tastes expanded over time (I do have other favorite bands now), I have continued to buy and enjoy each subsequent Weird Al release. But I've gradually found him less and less funny than I did as a teenager. This is partly due to repetition—there's a finite number of times that "I Want a New Duck" is going to make anyone laugh, and I passed that number sometime in the early 1990s—but even his new stuff has tended to be more "amusing" to me than "laugh-out-loud funny."
I know I'm the one who has changed, not Al. (Have you seen him lately? He hasn't even aged.) There are few things that a 15-year-old, 30-year-old, and 40-year-old would find equally funny, even if they are the 15-, 30-, and 40-year-old versions of the same person. Farts and crotch-kicks, that's about it.
As UHF's 25th anniversary approached and I realized I hadn't seen it in a couple decades, I began to wonder anxiously whether I would still like it today. I think I'd been subconsciously avoiding it for that very reason. I'm almost 40 now, comfortably within the average age range for cranky movie critics. Goodness knows I've been one of those critics at times, declaring a comedy worthless and unfunny only to hear from people much younger than myself telling me how wrong I was.
If UHF came out today, would it be one of those movies? Would I be one of those critics? Is it possible I had outgrown Weird Al? The mere thought made me feel as though I'd betrayed my childhood hero. But as a scientist, I had to explore. I had to watch it again.
I'll spare you the suspense: It was OK.
UHF uses what Ebert called "recycled comic formulas" but which I'll call "time-honored plot devices." This story of a Walter Mitty-like dreamer who revitalizes a moribund TV station with off-the-wall programming ultimately has the same plot as the musicals of yesteryear: We gotta put on a show to save the theater!
So there's a succession of oddball supporting characters, a hammy villain who will be undone by his own hubris, and a love interest whose faith in her man will be restored. In the places where a musical would have songs, UHF has TV and movie parodies randomly sprinkled throughout. Most of them are pretty toothless ("Wheel of Fish," "Conan the Librarian," "Gandhi II"); rarely is Weird Al's work described as "scathing." But they're generally funny, or at least not aggressively unfunny.
The film critic in me (or maybe just the person in me who has seen a lot more movies since he was 15) can't help but notice the continuity errors and plot holes. The two-day telethon, Stanley's kidnapping, and Teri's personal appeal to R.J. Fletcher all seem to happen simultaneously in the same locations; the UHF station's studio is full of people but the parking lot is desolate; the Weird Al character's best friend, Bob, basically disappears in the second half, his function in the story having been taken over by Stanley the janitor.
As a side note, between Victoria Jackson and Fran Drescher, this is not a good movie for pleasant female voices.
It's true that Al doesn't have much screen presence. But he almost doesn't have to: he's the straight man, playing an ordinary character with an ordinary name (George Newman), surrounded by nuts. It is one of the paradoxes of life that in this movie and elsewhere, "Weird Al" Yankovic isn't really all that weird.
But then there's Michael Richards as Stanley, a man-child who may actually be mentally handicapped. From the moment he first appears, Richards is a brilliant ball of curious energy, easily carrying the movie on his jittery shoulders. He also appeared on a little sitcom called Seinfeld, which premiered 16 days before UHF opened and barely made a dent in the ratings. In July 1989, America had no idea how much Michael Richards was about to rock its world.
As an adult, I'm more fascinated by the movie's throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to comedy than I was as a teenager (when I didn't really notice it). There are Airplane!-style sight gags, dream sequences, exaggerated violence, surrealism (remember when George's aunt pinches his cheek and it stretches out several inches?), references that the target audience of young Weird Al fans wouldn't have understood ("We don't need no stinking badgers"; Network's "mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" speech), and, sure, why not, a character who turns out to be an alien.
If that jumbled mixture of comedy styles sounds familiar, perhaps you've seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon or a Marx Bros. film. UHF may not be as good as those classics, but its cheerful willy-nilly attitude is in keeping with that tradition. Rigor and discipline are important in comedy, but hey, if you have a funny idea, you run with it, whether it fits or not.
Nostalgia aside, UHF is at least half-decent as a comedy, and I suspect today's 15-year-olds would find it about as entertaining as the 15-year-olds of 1989 did. Totally devoid of sex and profanity, it has a squeaky-clean wholesomeness that's also kind of endearing.
Finally, it benefits from this inescapable fact: Alfred Matthew Yankovic is just a really nice, friendly guy. It comes through in his music, which is never mean-spirited, and in his personal appearances, which are unfailingly chipper. Even when he does dark humor (e.g., "The Day Santa Went Crazy" or "Generic Blues"), it feels detached, like you can tell he doesn't really mean it. There's no cynicism in Weird Al.
So what does it matter if, as an almost-40-year-old man, I don't laugh as much at Weird Al's new material (and that extends to his latest album, Mandatory Fun) as I once did? So what if there are other parody artists doing work that's more incisive or hilarious? Al is still the genre's benevolent king, earning our loyalty with his humility, longevity, and inexhaustible optimism.
"Outgrow" Weird Al? You might just as well claim to have outgrown sunshine and puppies. Even if it's true, it's says more about you than him.
Eric D. Snider is a freelance film journalist and comedy writer. He tweets here.