“Weird Al” Yankovic has had a pretty unimpeachable career. He is, essentially, the only parody artist to have a successful, sustained career. In terms of comedic musicians, he’s on top of the heap. Hell, just in terms of humorists, there are few that have been as good for as long as “Weird Al.” He’s released 14 albums, won four Grammys, and still puts on popular concerts worldwide. When it comes to music, Yankovic has had few, if any, failures. The odd thing is, outside of music, the opposite has mostly been true, and it is especially true in regards to his one feature film, UHF. It was a bold, new venture for Yankovic, and it flopped. Hard. Everybody knows that the failure of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s movie career is a real shame. What this piece presupposes is, maybe it isn’t?
Now, when we say “failure,” this is not speaking critically, but commercially. Weird Al’s kid’s program The Weird Al Show, had its moments, and the subject of this piece, UHF, is really good. However, the TV show lasted only 13 episodes and UHF was a flop that basically ended any notion of “Weird Al” Yankovic, movie star. This is somewhat strange, because Yankovic is a comedian who works in the medium of music, as opposed to a musician who dabbles in humor, so you would think people would have followed him over to these other projects. People love his music videos, after all. Then, he made a movie in his vision, starring himself, and it made just over $6 million.
The overarching premise of UHF involves Yankovic’s character, George Newman, taking over a struggling UHF station that his uncle won in a poker game. Ownership of a TV station, naturally gave Weird Al a chance to work all sorts of different program ideas into the story, providing something of a “sketch” feel. This was bolstered by some dream sequences for George, and some movie parodies. It skewers pop culture, like so much of Yankovic’s music, and there is also a little music in the movie, namely his mashup of the Beverly Hillbillies theme and Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” The movie is devoted and dedicated to skewering pop culture as we know it. It fits perfectly into Yankovic’s world view.
There is a perfunctory bit of plot, sure. George’s station only becomes popular when janitor Stanley Spadowski, played by a pre-fame (and pre-infamy) Michael Richards. There’s an evil network owner trying to shutdown George’s station who goes as far as to kidnap Stanley in the middle of a telethon to save the station. Also, there’s a character who is an alien, and a tacked on love story involving Yankovic and a character played by Victoria Jackson.
To describe the plot so pithily perhaps does it a disservice. It’s not bad, necessarily. It’s slight, sure, and it does seem to mostly serve to set up Yankovic’s pop culture riffs, but it holds the film together as a coherent, singular story. There is some dynamism and craft to it. It’s just not why UHF has become a cult classic. The people who love it love it because of the stuff that is so intrinsically “Weird Al” Yankovic. Stuff like the Wheel of Fish and Spatula City and Conan the Librarian. This is what makes the movie funny and worthwhile. It’s an oddball movie, yes, and one that perhaps unsurprisingly failed to get a wide audience back in 1989. If you are on its wavelength, though, it’s delightfully bizarre and very funny.
So yes, though UHF is a good film, it was a flop. That’s a shame, but, in truth, maybe it’s not as much of a shame as you might think. This is not to say we wish Al any sort of ill will. “Weird Al” Yankovic is great, and he should be in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. However, in truth, upon watching Yankovic as an actor, it feels fairly clear that Yankovic is best served being, first and foremost, a musician. Furthermore, while UHF is funny, it does not feel like the first film of many. It sort of feels like a one-time thing, or something that was served best as a one-time thing. In other words, has Yankovic gotten the attempt to make a second film, it could have been his Airplane II.
Yankovic’s performance as George is passable, but calling it anything more would be a bit much. When he’s turning up the “Weird Al” of it all, like when he freaks out introducing a Roadrunner cartoon, he’s in his element. That’s only a small part of the movie, though. He is too singular a performer to carry a movie in any traditional way. This was less of an issue in his kid’s show, because there he got to be “Weird Al,” but could you really make a movie where Yankovic is just “Weird Al?” Not to put these two into the same camp, talent wise, but that would be kind of like a Larry the Cable Guy movie, which is not a good thing no matter how you slice it.
On top of that, the sketch nature of the film would probably have had to have been used in further “Weird Al” adventures. This takes as read the notion that Yankovic just starring in somebody else’s film not written in his voice doesn’t really track. Maybe Yankovic could have, and probably would have, grown as a writer, but he’s been making music for over 30 years and his sensibilities are easy to track. Anything beyond a pop culture pastiche would be an altogether new thing for Yankovic. Had he kept making movies, he would have to keep coming up with new riffs on pop culture and new film parodies and so on and so forth. You can do that and have success, but as anybody who has watched Saturday Night Live can tell you, the hit-or-miss nature of sketch writing can be a harsh mistress. Failure was almost inevitable for Yankovic in the film world.
Which, again, is fine, because his music career since 1989 has been great. Mandatory Fun, his most recent album, was his first album to reach No. 1 on the charts. He could have made movies and made music, but you have to assume that a movie career would have hindered his music career, at least in terms of output if not in terms of quality (but that’s not a given), and that would have been unfortunate. Making music, and writing funny songs, is what made “Weird Al” Yankovic into a household name, and it’s what he does best. Plus, had he been making movies, that would have definitely limited his touring, and as anybody who has seen one of his shows can tell you, there’s few people who put on a show as impressive as Weird Al.
Since “Weird Al” Yankovic has such a devoted fan base, it’s not surprising people have come to the defense of UHF, and lamented the loss of potential future films for Yankovic. However, we really didn’t lose anything. We got UHF, which is very good but probably not repeatable, and we got a bunch of music, much of it good. Weird Al’s career continued apace. He was also destined to be a cult filmmaker, it would seem. You can’t have it all, no matter what the song promises.