What is a movie scene that you have memorized? Not just the dialogue, but the sound effects, the music cues, the exact physical gestures and delivery of the actors? A scene that if, gun to your head, and your life depended on reenacting it on the spot, you think you could pull off? Mine comes from UHF. It involves a contestant on the game show Wheel of Fish agonizing over whether or not to go home with the red snapper she won or else trade what the host has already described as a “very tasty fish” for the unknown contents of a white box. “You took the box,” says the host (who is also a karate instructor, dressed for his day job). “Now let’s see what’s in the box ... Nothing! Absolutely nothing! Stupid! You’re so stupid!”
The operative word here is “stupid,” and few have ever Dared to Be Stupid (see what I did there?) like “Weird Al” Yankovic, the California-born accordionist who, somewhere in between sending homemade cassettes to the Dr. Demento radio show as a teenager and debuting at no. 1 on the Billboard charts at the age of 55, staked his claim as one of the reigning figures of postmodern comedy. Here was a pastiche specialist whose songs doubled as a running inventory of Top 40 tastes across four decades and a showcase for virtuoso skills that some of his more serious peers would envy. His particular form of musical jiujitsu was to use the singalong recognizability of his targets against them, to weaponize their catchiness into a delivery device for incongruous nonsense. Sometimes, the results weren’t worth more than a chuckle, and sometimes, the pod-person-perfect sonic imitations of Yankovic and his band unlocked something revelatory about the original model, as in “Smells Like Nirvana,” a merciless (and Kurt-approved) expunging of grunge attitudes. At his best, he wasn’t just a jester, but a genuine absurdist, with more commercial traction than any of his late-’80s peers other than David Lynch.
“Can’t stand Twin Peaks / Wish they’d Lynch those doughnut-eating freaks,” rapped Al on 1992’s “I Can’t Watch This,” a send-up of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” that lamented the dire straits of the prime-time television wasteland. “I Can’t Watch This” still betrays a formidable, multileveled complexity, mobilizing Hammer’s sound only to juxtapose it with the sentiment of Bruce Springsteen’s embittered media critique “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On).” To top it off, the song even gets personal, aiming a well-placed, Public Enemy–style diss at “those Siskel and Ebert bums / [they] ought to stay home and just sit on their thumbs.”
Those thumbs were pointing downward when UHF was released in July 1989, with Siskel, admittedly a harder case than Ebert but hardly a stringent critic, carping that “never has a comedy tried so hard and failed so often to be funny.” Humor is naturally subjective, and Siskel and Ebert—and, in truth, virtually every other working film critic in America—were well within their rights to find Yankovic’s custom-tooled star vehicle, which concerns a Walter Mitty–style daydreamer who ends up catapulting a dilapidated broadband television station to prominence by swapping reruns for a slate of ingeniously silly original programming, a tough slog (or maybe an empty box without a fish). But timing also had something to do with it.
Besides serving as the backdrop for Bat-mania, 1989 was the summer of sequels, with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier taking up the majority of available multiplex space. UHF—a small, scrappy, slapstick trifle backed by a failing studio (Orion) and fronted by a semi-star who was, to say the least, an acquired taste—didn’t have the heft of an Event Movie. Nor did it boast even the stupid-clever pedigree of The Naked Gun, which had been a hit one year earlier. There, Yankovic had cameoed as himself being greeted at the airport by a throng of adoring fans; after UHF bombed at the box office, that tableaux of “Weird Al” as conquering hero looked even more like a punch line.
In a phenomenally detailed 2015 oral history of UHF compiled by Sean O’Neal for The A.V. Club, director and cowriter Jay Levey cites another Zucker-Abrams-Zucker classic as having been front of mind when he and Yankovic conceived UHF, albeit not exactly as an inspiration. “Airplane! is one of Al’s favorite movies of all time, and if we had just consciously set out to do simply that—a string of parodies with no story to hang it on—he probably would have been just as happy or happier doing that.”
Whether or not Airplane! would pass the contemporary politically correct smell test, its monolithic reputation as the Citizen Kane of parody comedies is well-deserved. And yet, as Levey suggests, UHF was trying to do something slightly to the side of that. Where Airplane! had hijacked the bare-bones narrative of the ’50s potboiler Zero Hour! and used it as a pretense for send-ups that had little if anything to do with the main narrative, UHF’s concept of a station manager trying to fill time slots on a budget was specifically conducive to a blackout-sketch ethos.
In terms of its satirical approach, UHF plays pretty much like the cinematic equivalent of one of Yankovic’s albums, toggling between rigorously specific spoofs and a more generalized mode of “style parody” that lampoons familiar tropes more than specific titles. The film’s entire story line is an example of the latter, playing on ancient and well-worn screwball comedy situations in which a gang of underdogs has to band together to save a beloved, financially endangered institution—in this case, Channel 62, gifted to George Newman (Yankovic) by his uncle and desired by an unscrupulous cable baron (Kevin McCarthy) trying to monopolize the local television landscape.
At first, George’s eccentric concepts fail to convince audiences to tune in, but after hiring the station’s janitor (Michael Richards) to host a children’s show, ratings soar and he looks like a visionary. For reasons that truly don’t matter, the story boils down to a telethon that will either raise enough money to keep Channel 62 in George’s hands or else force a forfeit to the bad guy. And after a deus ex machina featuring an angelic homeless man out of Frank Capra, all’s well that ends well.
Suffice to say that if UHF is a cult classic, it’s not because of its plot, although there is a cunning self-reflexivity in the idea of George—who is, for all intents and purposes, meant to be Yankovic if he’d gone into TV rather than music—achieving success by creatively leeching off of the mainstream entertainment he can’t compete with. Coming at the end of a decade when Hollywood became increasingly defined by easily pitched, high-concept blockbusters, the film’s mix of reverence and ridicule for the industry’s excesses was welcome and revelatory, if less pointed than Joe Dante’s impending and razor-sharp Gremlins 2.
Because he’s an inherently good-natured prankster (who has always made a habit of asking artists for permission for his song parodies), Yankovic’s skewering of hard-bodied hits like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Rambo (both evoked via George’s daydreaming) don’t cut all that deep. But elsewhere, UHF embraces strangeness, and its star’s non-sequitur sensibility achieves liftoff, whether in the cognitive dissonance of the blaxploitation-scored trailer for Gandhi II (“he’s one bad mother you don’t want to mess with”); the cheerful inanity of the commercial for “Spatula City” (“we sell spatulas and that’s all”); the manic energy of Richards as the meteorically popular Stanley Spadowski (who, for no reason at all, rewards members of his live studio audience with a drink from the fire hose); and, obviously, “Wheel of Fish,” with its ersatz Vanna White stand-in and quasi-Dadaist rallying cry: “Stupid! You’re so stupid!”
What Levey and Yankovic understood, and what keeps UHF hugely enjoyable today, was a concept as old as Shakespeare and as new as YouTube: Brevity is the soul of wit. Even as its main narrative drags and wheezes, especially whenever George is disappointing his long-suffering girlfriend Teri (Victoria Jackson, then a star on Saturday Night Live) in typical man-child, rom-com hero fashion, the individual, self-contained segments keep whizzing by. Like so many cult items of the late 20th century, UHF found its audience on VHS, a format that may actually have been better suited to the implicitly hit-or-miss nature of its comedy. That’s where I saw it, and over the course of what must have been a hundred rewatches, its shameless, unrepentant goofiness—the try-hard-ishness alluded to by Siskel—fused with my brain cells at a subatomic level. “You’re so stupid!” the movie seemed to be saying. That means you get it.
There is, of course, a fine line between stupid and clever. That’s what the guitarist from Spinal Tap said, and at its best, UHF blurs it. There’s something brilliant about how the Stanley Spadowski subplot enfolds two of the 20th century’s most important and enduring media satires, starting out like A Face in the Crowd, with Richards as a hipster-doofus variation of Lonesome Rhodes and building to a wonderful riff on Network that uses the character’s cruddy old mop as a metaphor for alienation under late capitalism (“these floors are dirty as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”).
Airplane! and, especially, The Naked Gun, are joke machines that deconstruct moldy old genres from the inside out, but ultimately they’re about nothing more than their own exquisite contempt for their targets. UHF’s set-up of a threadbare impresario taking on corporate villains is very much a Reagan-era cliché, but its conviction about the necessity of a more variegated entertainment landscape rings true. As a critique and a casualty of the kind of pop-cultural conglomeration that’s inflated to terrifying size 30 years later—the comparative marginalization of any movie not attached to a preexisting intellectual property—UHF deserves to be remembered, and maybe even memorized. I can think of stupider ways to spend my time.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated which anniversary it is for UHF.