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Entries in UHF [1989] (1)

Saturday
Jun062015

UHF (1989)

We Got It All

One of the best things you can do for yourself as a human being is to watch UHF on the big screen with a crowd of "Weird Al" Yankovic fans. For optimal results: make sure the film is a pristine, recently unearthed 35mm print from the UCLA vault; see it at Chicago's Music Box Theatre; and stick around for a Q&A by Yankovic and co-writer/director Jay Levey afterwards. This rarest of rare unicorn experiences happened to me a couple weeks ago; the experience was like Josh Baskin's trip through the Zoltar machine, crossed with a rock concert, crossed with sharing an ice cream with Jesus.

It's easy to understand why UHF got trampled at the summer box office in 1989 by the likes of Batman, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and The Abyss. Yankovic and Levey had a fraction of their competitors' budget, and their screenplay's reliance on gags and goofiness to bridge several of-the-moment TV-show and movie parodies virtually sealed the time capsule on "Weird Al's" brand of so-80s juvenilia. Time has been kind to UHF, though; not only did pop culture finally catch up with its Airplane!-meets-MAD Magazine sensibilities, the film now plays like a roadmap for the YouTube generation's ultra-connected, DIY-entertainment landscape.*

Consider our sad-sack protagonist, George Newman (Yankovic), an overgrown pop-culture kid who fantasizes about being Indiana Jones when he should be paying attention to whatever mundane job he has this week. He's so frustrated with the world's inability to appreciate his untapped creative genius that he finds himself perpetually late, perpetually in debt, and perpetually unsatisfied. His beleaguered best friend (David Bowe) and fed-up girlfriend (Victoria Jackson) struggle to keep up (and keep up a front) as George turns a side of mashed potatoes into a Close Encounters homage or perfects the barely edible Twinkie Wiener Sandwich. Just as everyone reaches the end of their rope, George's Uncle Harvey (Stanley Brock) hands him the deed to U-62, a failing local TV station at the edge of town.

With the help of a dim-witted janitor named Stanley (Michael Richards), George transforms the channel nobody watches into outrageous appointment television. Before long, shows like Wheel of Fish, Conan the Librarian, and Raul's Wild Kingdom (starring Trinidad Silva as a guy who hosts low-rent nature specials from his apartment) place U-62 at the top of the ratings heap--raising the ire of cranky network-affiliate president R.J. Fletcher (Kevin McCarthy, deftly spinning movie-villain magic out of a nothing part). Fletcher plots to bring the station down, using Uncle Harvey's not-so-secret gambling addiction as leverage.

In the post-screening Q&A, Yankovic said that he concentrated on the parody bits, while Levey (whose sole screenplay experience involved reading a Robert McKee book just prior to filming) handled the structure. It shows. UHF is a straightforward save-the-crumbling-institution-with-a-telethon/concert/bake-sale story that we've seen a hundred times before and since. What sets it apart (besides the local Tulsa talent recruited for the telethon and a raucous Rambo satire that's aged like a fine wine in the Expendables era) is the filmmakers' triumphant, can-do spirit. 

Today, the film's parody segments aren't one-joke novelties, they're the foundation for a generation of creative thinkers whose finger-tip access to filmmaking technology (and the whole of entertainment history) has foretold big-money-entertainment's demise. Sure, there are still such things as TV networks, movie studios, and cable providers--but they're all eating and acquiring each other in a mammoth orgy of desperation. Meanwhile, twenty-year-old Joe Blow is populating his own YouTube channel with original content and gaining enough fan-based momentum to earn bona fide sponsorship money. In three years' time, the letters "NBC" will stand for "Nobody Buys Cable".

And what is George Newman's idea for telethon donations that equate to U-62 stock, if not the quarter-century-old seeds of crowd-funding? By getting the community involved in supporting content they not only believe in, but also have a stake in, our scrappy heroes guarantee a bottomless well of both ideas and customers.

Of course, you can appreciate UHF on several other levels, like pre-fame appearances from Richards and Fran Drescher (and a brilliant already-famous-and-completely-against-type performance by General Hospital's Anthony Geary); or its highly quotable, politically incorrect supporting characters--like Raoul or Gedde Wattanabe's zero-tolerance martial arts instructor; or the infinitely re-watchable sight-gag tapestry that plays like a live-action Sergio Aragonés drawing; or even just as a legit deconstruction of all the bad mainstream entertainment that permeated the decade's landscape (I can still recite Newman's Geraldo-esque Town Talk teaser in my sleep).

But seeing the movie on the big screen with a diverse crowd of fans old and new solidified my appreciation for what Yankovic and Levey did here. George Newman's struggles and victories belong to any creative person who's ever sought an audience with whom to share their vision. Similar to their characters, the filmmakers had to contend with the moneyed gatekeepers of taste who, in turn, bowed to voter turnout in the form of opening-weekend dollars. That model persists today, within the bubble of folks whose livelihoods depend on its continued existence. But thanks to blogs, pop-up restaurants, Audacity, and myriad other free (or at least relatively inexpensive) innovations at our fingertips, a global audience of millions is just a bright idea and a tweet away. Who would have expected such Delphic insights from a silly movie featuring a crime-fighting, gun-crazed Gandhi?

*Robert Townsend put a similar stamp on comedy a couple years earlier, with Hollywood Shuffle. But his film had both a social conscious and a less absurdist approach to the connective tissue between pop culture send-ups.

**One could also draw parallels between Newman and Andrew McCarthy's character from Mannequin, an unemployable artist who finds inspiration (and an accidental) creating outrageous department-store window displays after hours.