Wednesday 12 May 2010

Obscurity Files #6 - UHF

SLACKER Obscurity Files aims to put the spotlight onto a series of films that time and audiences have otherwise forgot. Today, for no real reason at all, it's UHF.
More after the jump...

Preferring to spend his time daydreaming rather than face up to his responsibilities, George Newman finds himself put in charge of his Uncle Harvey's local TV station, U62. Failing to turn around its fortunes and as a last ditch effort, he decides to take a chance by giving the janitor Stanley his own kids entertainment show. Suddenly George has got a hit on his hands, and the whole station becomes popular. Threatened by their success, the owner of the nearby network affiliate decides to buy out the station and turn it into a laundromat. Can George and his friends raise enough money in time to buy it first and save U62?

This 1989 comedy was designed as a vehicle for its star 'Weird Al' Yankovic. Co-written by him and directed by his manager Jay Levey, it aimed to showcase the musical parody and goofy charm that had made him white-hot in popularity in the late 80's. I've always been aware of Weird Al and remember seeing the videos for 'Eat it' and 'Fat' when I was a kid. Every now and then I hear of a new hit parody song like 'White and Nerdy' from 2006, but I've never been 100% on who Weird Al is. I recognise his curly do and little moustache all brought together by a loud Hawaiian shirt (known as Weird Al's classic look. He used it till 1999), but I knew him more from his brief appearances in The Naked Gun and Spy Hard.

Yankovic got his big break after sending a tape of his songs about popular culture to comedy radio broadcaster Dr. Demento, giving him a small cult following. From there he was included on a Dr. Demento touring show which attracted wider attention, leading to a recording contract. It was 1984's video for his Michael Jackson parody 'Eat it' that gave Weird Al his biggest leap in popularity, and it was only a matter of time before someone gave this crazy character his own movie.

UHF is definitely off the wall, but Weird Al as George Newman is kind of the straight man in his own movie. Sure, there's lots of madness going on around him, but he's far surpassed in weirdness by Stanley Spadowski (played by Obscurity File regular Michael Richards), the station janitor who just wants his favourite mop back. Not to get too deep with this, but the sweet lanky Stanley really is the heart of UHF and he gets to deliver the Network inspired key speech of the movie.

Michael Richards is once again the scene-stealer, showing us another idiot man-child who you can't help but like. As a side note, UHF was made in the same year that Richards' perfected his manic persona and starred in the pilot for a little show called Seinfeld.

Being famous for his musical parodies it would have been stupid of Yankovic not to include at least one sequence, but showing restraint he kept it to this one video for 'The Ballad of Jed Clampett'.

Of course, when Weird Al moved onto film he was going to have to expand his parodies beyond just music, the highlights being the Indiana Jones inspired opening credit sequence and the extended Rambo parody close to the end of the movie.

More closely matching Weird Al's style are the films occasional surreal flights of fancy. There are plenty of short, nonsensical detours away from the story that are among the film's best bits.

UHF is great fun, and it's a shame that it wasn't able to compete at the cinemas when it was released in 1989. Its distributor Orion was going through a lot of financial difficulties and was really banking on UHF's success, but releasing it in a summer that also included Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Batman, coupled with the companies other recent flops like Erik the Viking and Valmont pretty much ended Orion.

But Weird Al can't really be blamed for any of that. For a guy who was famous for short music videos, he managed to transport his persona over to film fairly successfully, avoiding over exposure and managing to continue his career to the present day. He never made another film, and that's a shame, but at least he's been busy and had continued popularity. The videos on his YouTube channel have had nearly 90 million views.

As you may have noticed i've been able to include a lot of videos for this article, because Yankovic's style of comedy does work well in short sharp bursts. In many ways he was of his time and ahead of his time, sending up the videos of the 1980's MTV phenomenon and finding himself ahead of the curve with YouTube and viral videos. It's no surprise that he's still doing it now.

Save from obscurity? YES

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