UHF Blu-ray Review: Constant Parodying, Semi-Constant Laughter

“Weird Al” seems to be perpetually “coming back”. It’s surprising to see, in a world where all careers have peaks and valleys, and some valleys never rise into a peak again, that a “novelty act” has stayed fresh, interesting, fun and popular while basically just doing the same thing for 30-plus years. With a combination of pop-culture references, absurdist humor, and not-too biting parody (which only, as Al explains himself on the Comic Con panel available on the Blu-ray features, occasionally ventures into satire when it directly comments on the work) “Weird Al” seeks, above all, to amuse. Not so much to comment, or to pick out foibles. His words aren’t going to change your life, but for many people his sensibilities and style of humor already have.

This sensibility is one completely at odds with what makes a narrative feature film work, so UHF is less a culmination of artistic strategy than an artifact of what it meant to be popular in the 20th century. If an act was big enough, they got a movie. Since “Weird Al”‘s music is funny, it at least gives it a much stronger foundation in cinema than, say, Vanilla Ice’s oeuvre provided for his own star vehicle, Cool As Ice.

“Weird Al” is a parodist, and so with collaborator and manager Jay Levey, uses the basic story of a down-on-his-luck guy taking over management of a down-on-its luck TV station as a medium for pumping out parody after parody. Some of these are direct take-offs of movies (Conan the Librarian, Ghandi II), others parody genres (Wheel of Fish is a game show, Raul’s Wild Kingdom is a nature show that takes place in the disreputable apartment of a very disreputable Raul). Roped around all of this is a story with some (as “Weird A”l admits in the commentary available on the disc several times) cookie-cutter story beats that exist to create the illusion of a narrative. It doesn’t really work, and there’s a lot of dead space in the movie where story happens.

“Weird Al”, playing George Newman as a daydreamer who has elaborate, expensive-looking dream sequences that get him regularly fired, really wants to prove to his long-suffering girlfriend Teri (Victoria Jackson in the humorless, thankless and obligatory girlfriend role) that he wasn’t a worthless layabout. There are complications. Across town the manager of the network affiliate is evil and hates people, and especially hates UHF 62, a collection of eccentrics and weirdos even before “Weird Al” meets and brings over Stanley Spadowski (Michael Richards), a janitor and not mentally all there guy, who, inexplicably, becomes the biggest hit on TV.

How inexplicable this is depends entirely on how funny one finds Michael Richards. A lot of his scenes, especially when he takes over a kiddie TV show from George, are clearly improvised. These leave me entirely cold. As does Kevin McCarthy’s gigantic scenery-chewing performance as the manager of the network affiliate. It would make no sense to complain the performances aren’t “realistic” because, even when it isn’t in parody or dream-sequence mode, UHF does not take place in anything like reality. They just do not make me laugh.

But a lot of UHF does, especially Emo Phillips scene as a shop teacher who lops off his own thumb, but manages to continue to be Emo Phillips, with his sing-songy voice. Anthony Geary’s complete deadpan performance as station engineer Philo is fun, too. The Rambo parody near the end of the film pulls off the trick of going so far it starts kind of funny, becomes tedious, and somehow comes around to funny again.

What’s missing is more music. There’s the theme song which plays over the end credits, the “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies” mashup (from before there were mashups) and one blues song barely audible over a transistor radio for a scene of George’s uncle floating in a pool. “Weird Al” the comic sensibility is the star of UHF, not “Weird Al” the songwriter, and that’s a shame – a few more fun songs would be feathers in the movie’s cap, and could not possibly make more disjointed what is already a severely disjointed movie, where characters appear and disappear without much relevance to the narrative.

It’s easy to feel affection for this ramshackle movie, while still wishing it had been a little more thought out, in terms of narrative. Of course, careful planning and thematic coherence and tight structural storytelling have no place in the anarchic absurdist comic world of “Weird Al”. A UHF that was more successful as a “real movie” might not be UHF at all. Still, watching this movie all the way through for the first time in maybe 25 years (I saw it opening weekend in the theater – one of the few) I have the same impression now as I did then – there were lots of funny parts when it wasn’t just boring.

The Blu-ray, on the other hand, offers pretty much what any fan of the movie could hope for – any fan who was satisfied with the extras on the DVD and just wants a visual/audio upgrade. Those extras include a fine commentary by Al and Jay Leavey (with occasional guests), and a deleted-scenes reel with intros by “Weird Al” explaining that these deleted scenes are terrible. The new extra on the Blu-ray is a panel from San Diego Comic Con 2014, where Al is interviewed by Jonah Ray and answers questions from the audience. It touches on UHF only briefly, but is a pleasant as ever interview with the unflappably amiable Al.

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Kent Conrad

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