Whichever the case, professionally-crafted musical jokes became his entire career, and he reached stardom in the late 1980s with songs such as “Eat It” (set to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”), “This Song is Just Six Words Long” (set to George Harrison’s “I Got My Mind Set On You”), and original songs like “Stuck in a Closet with Vanna White.” His music videos follow the same pattern, mimicking their source material deftly while inserting rubber guitars, break-dancing janitors, and other instances of goofiness. Yankovic has continued his work into the new millennium, setting “Amish Paradise” to “Gangsta’s Paradise,” “Smells Like Nirvana” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and releasing albums with names like “Running with Scissors” and “Bad Hair Day.”
Yankovic’s career has followed a pattern typical of many pop musicians, both good and bad, serious and novelty. There is rising fame, then a two-to-five year plateau of mainstream acceptance and enormous popularity. This is followed by a slight downward slope and a steady career supported by a cult following, in which he will probably never regain that period when the every radio listener had heard of him. Yankovic’s recent albums tend to appear on the Billboard Top Ten for one week only—the first week of their release, as his loyal fans buy their copies—and then drop off the radar.
At the height of his career, Yankovic co-wrote and starred in his own feature film entitled “UHF,” which is essentially the cinematic equivalent of one of his records. The movie is a string of movie and television parodies (not satires, mind you), each of them about two minutes long, and as cheerfully absurd as any of his songs. The plot connecting these sequences is mostly uninspired and negligible, save a few bits featuring Michael Richards of “Seinfeld” fame, as a sort of embryonic Kramer. Fans of “UHF” know the movie by heart, watch it together, laugh at the parodies, and usually go to the fridge or the bathroom during the plot.
The “plot,” if you can call it that, stars Yankovic as an unemployable loser whose uncle wins a low-budget television station in a card game. Like all these movies, Yankovic has a best friend (David Bowe) with whom he shares a nearly symbiotic relationship. When one of them messes up at the fastfood restaurant where we find them at the beginning, they both get fired; then they go home to their ratty apartment; and when Yankovic becomes the general manager at Channel 67, it’s assumed without discussion that Bowe will be his assistant. Yankovic’s station soon becomes enormously popular by airing non-stop goofiness. This attracts the attention of the local network affiliate, played by Kevin McCarthy of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in overacting overdrive, ranting, raving, yelling, slapping his subordinates, and having a terrific time. He launches a diabolical plan against Channel 67’s first hit, a kiddie show hosted by the station’s spastic janitor (Michael Richards).
Richards gives the movie’s best performance, as a well-meaning and enthusiastic man-child, excited by the toys in cereal boxes, subjecting children to hoses full of gravy, and riding around on TV in a go-cart and swim goggles. All this eventually leads to Yankovic making an open plea to the town to support the station financially, in one of those awful scenes in which all the townspeople are gathered to cheer the hero on. I can just imagine the president of PBS watching this and saying, yeah, that’ll happen.
But the spoofs of movies and television are the big draw for “UHF.” On Yankovic’s station we get programs like “The Wonderful World of Phlegm,” commercials for stores like Spatula City, and talk shows that are all chair-throwing. The DVD features, among its cut scenes, a program entitled “Those Darn Homosexuals.” Movies spoofs include “Gandhi II: No More Passive Resistance,” “Conan the Librarian,” and a Rambo parody in which Yankovic catches bullets in his mouth, chews them up, and spits them out as machine gun fire.
Earlier I mentioned that Yankovic’s songs are spoofs and not satires. More often than not, he makes us laugh at things but not re-examine them. “UHF” is equally devoid of any pretensions of prescience, but as I watched it again recently, I began to realize that I had seen real programs in more-or-less the same spirit as the ones shown on Channel 67. I hadn’t seen them on television, but on the internet. While no television station has become popular using Channel 67’s methods, the internet certainly has.
Inexplicably, “UHF” is rated PG13. The movie’s grade school humor hardly warrants this, and Yankovic is about as physically interested in his girlfriend (a thankless performance by Victoria Jackson) as an eight-year-old would be. I don’t think a word of profanity is uttered during the entire film, especially when words like “snot” and “doo-doo” are at Yankovic’s disposal.
There are too many characters who are meant to be quirky but aren’t consistent (Billy Barty as the midget cameraman, Anthony Geary as the mad scientist who operates the station, Fran Drescher as the whiny reporter). Director Jay Levey tries to keep things moving at a decent clip, and, as a veteran of many of Weird Al’s videos, the little parodies are when he excels. They shine, in their absurd, anarchist way, and one day you’ll probably find yourself saying “don’t you know the Dewey decimal system?” in a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger voice. “UHF” isn’t really a good movie, but it can be a fun one.
Finished June 1st, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Friday & Saturday Night
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