Starring “Weird Al” Yankovic, Victoria Jackson, Michael Richards, David Bowe, Fran Drescher
Directed by Jay Levey
How is it that a spoof on television can expose the worst foibles of the movie industry? One need look no further than UHF to answer that question. Musical comedian “Weird Al” Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey (who directed the film) wrote a spoof of the type of television you used to find on low-rent independent stations on the UHF band of your TV dial – bad movies, reruns, and “colorful” local programming and advertising. (For you kids that are too young to remember those days, think TV Land crossed with public access, and you’re on the right track.) The plot was intentionally paper-thin, as it was intended as little more than a framework to hold up the often very funny gags and parodies – always Al’s strong suit. In short, a Kentucky Fried Movie, Amazon Women on the Moon, or Zucker/Abrahms/Zucker-type flick with a little bit of plot.
After a couple of years of trying, Yankovic and Levy got Orion Pictures to put up $5 million to make the movie – a very modest budget, even in the late ’80s. Al and co. go off and make their movie, and then the studio puts it through the usual test screenings to get a feel for how it will fare in the marketplace. Great news! It gets one of the best test audience reactions in Orion history – the best since Robocop!
And that’s where the trouble begins. Orion saw the test screening results and dollar signs started exploding behind its execs’ eyes. And instead of doing what they should have done, and releasing the film in the quiet spring or fall when it isn’t facing any competition, they decide UHF is their tentpole summer release. And they put it out right smack dab in the middle of the summer. Of 1989.
Those of you with long memories will recall that the summer of 1989 was one of Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster summers. UHF was released just in time to compete with such small, quiet, surprise successes as Batman, Ghostbusters II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Dead Poet’s Society, Star Trek V• you get the picture. Simply put, UHF was lost in the stampede, and quietly disregarded as a flop (though it did make more than its budget, thus showing a profit). It was released on video right before Orion went bankrupt (gee, how could THAT have happened?), so the video went out of print quickly, but was a popular rental title.
For years, Al’s fans have been clamoring for a re-release, and the clamor only went up in volume with the advent of the DVD format. Finally, someone at MGM (who got the rights to most of Orion’s library after the bankruptcy) got smart, and now this cult classic has FINALLY come to DVD! Whoo hoo!
As if to make up for the shoddy past treatment, the UHF DVD offers a treasure trove of material at a negligible price (you should be able to pick this up for ten bucks or less at your favorite online retailer or discount chain). The double-sided disc includes both widescreen and pan-and-scan versions of the full film, behind the scenes footage, a full commentary with Yankovic, Levey, and some surprise guests, deleted scenes (hilariously narrated by Al), the “UHF” music video, stills, promo materials, and Easter Eggs. Heck, the commentary alone makes this one more than worth the purchase price – it’s nearly as funny as the film, and loaded with all kinds of interesting trivia (most interesting note: the role of Philo – which eventually went to General Hospital’s Anthony Geary – was offered to Joel Hodgson, but he turned it down as he was thinking about getting out of show biz; instead, he created Mystery Science Theater 3000). Al even reads some of the atrocious reviews the film got over the closing credits.
The film mostly ages well, though there are some things a younger audience (say, under 20) just won’t get – like the basic concept, since the old-school UHF programming parodied all but vanished a few years after the theatrical release. But the film and TV parodies hold up well, from Gandhi II and Conan The Librarian to Al’s dream sequences as Indiana Jones and Rambo. And the characters are all still irresistible. Michael Richards’ brilliant comic performance as Stanley Spadowski (predating his rise to stardom as Kramer on Seinfeld) is still a major highlight, of course, but there is strong ensemble work from such instantly familiar, veteran character actors as Fran Drescher (who thanks to UHF and This is Spinal Tap will always be cool in my eyes, bad sitcom or no), Billy Barty, Gedde Watanabe, and Victoria Jackson.
For under ten bucks, there’s no excuse not to pick this one up. UHF is sure to please any “Weird Al” fan, or anyone else that likes a good spoof.