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UHF (1989)

by on 2011/04/11

“What better way to say I love you than with the gift of a spatula?”

* * * *

I first heard someone attempting to sing “Eat It” on a swing set in their back yard. I thought parody was The Thing To Do and promptly conjured “Puttin’ on the Weight” based on a recent Taco hit.

Shortly after, my family got ahold of an “Eat It” single on 45 RPM vinyl. (We were kind of cool that way.)

Finally, another friend played me a cassette called In 3-D. It was “Weird Al” Yankovic, the same artist who parodied Michael Jackson. Now he was singing about The Brady Bunch, Jeopardy, and Rocky.

I was hooked.

That was nearly thirty years ago. Since then, I’ve never stopped following him. I lust after a DVD release of The Compleat Al. (Not literally, mind you.) I followed him through Polka Party. I even bought — and enjoyed — Peter and the Wolf. Of course, his career continues well past that point but in 1989 he delivered my favourite one-two combo yet: a movie and a soundtrack called UHF.

In his only feature film to date, Yankovic stars as George Newman, a struggling Joe-jobber whose sole talent is an escapist imagination. Through a series of accidents he becomes the manager of an equally struggling UHF channel, U62.

While Newman plays old reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies, Mr. Ed, and Road Runner cartoons, he also creates original shows and commercials. With a little help from his friends, he makes the station successful enough to attract the hostile interest of an industry rival, Channel 8, and its menacing owner, R.J. Fletcher (Kevin McCarthy).

The cast includes Billy Barty, David Bowe, Vance Colvig Jr., Fran Drescher, Anthony Geary, Victoria Jackson, Emo Phillips, Michael Richards, and Gedde Watanabe, and is dedicated to Trinidad Silva, the host of Raul’s Wild Kingdom, who died in mid-production. For me, however, the players became familiar because of UHF, not the other way around; they weren’t my reason for seeing it.

Neither was I particularly drawn by the routine storyline. As with Airplane!, it serves largely as a frame to support the humour, albeit more postmodern, with the movie itself resembling televised segments. Like The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, Off Beat Cinema, and Wayne’s World, it’s infused with a certain underground appeal.

Despite the device of an antiquated broadcaster I thought, as I watched, it felt like MTV doing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. Its mix of parodies and references range from the now relatively obscure (“Badgers? We don’t need no stinking badgers!”) to the popular (the Rambo series).

Although I’m tempted to list the varied references, discovering them is part of the fun of it all. I’ll just say UHF provides the kind of experience forgotten “comedies” like Stay Tuned failed to deliver, even with the benefit of hindsight. Nobody will confuse it with a Great Film Classic, but it’s a rare enough pleasure, and well worth seeking out.

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Rated PG13 (America) / 14A (Canada) for violence

97 minutes

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