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Looking Back: UHF (1989)

Twenty-five years ago, “Weekend at Bernie’s,” “Young Einstein” and “UHF” were all playing in theaters. Well, “Bernie’s” actually played for a while, as the other two only briefly made the rounds before becoming favorites on videocassette. Of the three, “Bernie’s” was the most financially successful and is arguably the one containing the most “edge,” which is like saying “Police Academy 2” is “grittier” than “The Naked Gun.””Young Einstein” mostly faded into obscurity (aside from the occasional question of Whatever Happened to Yahoo Serious?) and “Bernie’s” remains more of a pop culture talking point than a truly beloved movie.

“UHF” is the cult comedy of the three that has gained the most traction as a fan favorite, a missed-it-the-first-time classic and a secret handshake among those who adore the gonzo brilliance of Sir “Weird” Al Yankovic (yes, I just Knighted him. Don’t worry, he deserves it).

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In what is likely the only major studio release to ever star Yankovic, The Weird One plays an outcast whose string of bad luck leads him to becoming a programmer for a small, suffering TV station. A resurgence in audience loyalty comes by broadcasting anything at all, employing questionable, arguably insane personalities as TV personalities and making the network a go-to place for around-the-clock, enthusiastically produced tastelessness.

To state the obvious and, perhaps, give the movie more credit than it really deserves, “UHF” is “Network” for children. The notion of bad TV as entertainment was already happening in the late 80’s (as the film’s Geraldo reference reminds us), though it seems the screenplay was somehow aware of the “Reality TV” idiocies that would await us in the coming decades. “Stanley Spadowski’s Funhouse” today looks like it could play in between re-runs of “Keeping Up with The Kardashians”, “The Bachelor,” Jerry Springer and “Duck Dynasty.” Concepts like “Wheel of Fish” are no more desperate than any current incarnation of “American Idol” and even giving a show to professional weirdo Emo Phillips makes perfect sense today.

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Like “The Truman Show,” “UHF” is one of those cinematic sign posts that showed us our fears of how bad TV can get. We’re addicts to Garbage TV, defenders of it and total pop culture slaves to it. Ironically, the same can be said for fans of this movie. It’s not out of the question for dedicated fans of Yankovic to admit that, really, this is a stupid, over-plotted, over-populated movie. Much of the time, the parodies are quite funny but, like a clown car where the clowns won’t stop emerging, the “wackiness” is often applied with too heavy a hand.

If you’re not already indoctrinated into all things Al, you might wonder who let an aloha shirt wearing goofball carry a movie. If you go with it, he’s The Every Geek, before nerdom was cool.

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The colorful supporting cast boasts good sports like Victoria Jackson, Kevin McCarthy and, as the aforementioned Spadowski, there’s Michael Richards at his most Michael Richards-ist.

Yankovic’s work as a professional satirist, multi-talented musician and writer far outshines this movie. His CD’s are far more clever and display more comic durability than this pleasantly silly movie, which may not be the definitive cinematic extension of his music act, as some fans claim. Still, if any movie can be a tailor-made vehicle for a man whose first name is “Weird,” it’s this one.

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Speaking of “weird,” here’s a final thing to address: Over the years, I’ve had many tell me they couldn’t spot David Bowie in the movie. That’s because he’s not in it. The credits promote actor David Bowe, not David Bowie.

 

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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