Z To A: UHF (1989)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

Plot Synopsis: George Newman (“Weird Al” Yankovic) is a daydreamer whose hyperactive imagination keeps him from holding a steady job. His gambling uncle, Harvey Bilchik, wins the deed to Channel 62, a bankrupt UHF television station, in a poker game, and prodded by his wife, gives control of the station to George. Throughout the film, there are cutaway scenes that are comic homages to popular shows of the time, through either George’s imagination or shows specifically for Channel 62.

– From UHF‘s wikipedia page

And now we have a wild card.

It’s strange when people realize I own films by Von Trier, Haneke and Cocteau then a movie starring “Weird Al” Yankovic. In following Z To A thus far, the placement of UHF doesn’t link to any of the previous films in this series.

Why? Because UHF is ridiculous.

The first time I saw this movie was probably fifteen years ago. It was funny back then, and I’m surprised that its absurd brand of humor still holds up. I think absurdity and randomness are key to understanding what I find funny. The less likely something is to happen, the funnier I think it is. UHF is chock-full of these scenarios. If you want to see a kid drinking from a fire hose or a man giving poodles “flying lessons” then UHF is the place to be.

What’s interesting is that the movie was considered a financial and critical failure when it was released. This isn’t surprising since Yankovic isn’t mainstream fare and his work isn’t exactly “critic-friendly.” Both Yankovic and director Jay Levey are quite open about this, particularly on their DVD commentary. The failure hit them hard, and some of the reviews were unforgettably cruel and personal. Yankovic recalled a quote from Newsweek, which said his face was “a baby’s bottom to which wire-rimmed glasses and a caterpillar had been attached.”

Despite this UHF has achieved its own cult status. It isn’t meant to be taken seriously, and in realizing that you can embrace its unintentional brilliance. Every scene is an exercise in bizarreness. You have scenes where characters are sawing off their own fingers or comparing themselves to “a bag of moldy tangerines.” There is even a sequence where a child spits in Yankovic’s face (this is 100% real). Shortly after, Yankovic feeds another character dog treats after hitting him in the face with a frying pan (also 100% real).

I know, it kind of sounds like a Harmony Korine film. But let me assure you, it’s not. UHF could easily be lumped in with other ’80s comedies, it’s just that it’s… different. Of course, it features some excellent Yankovic parodies, which are his usual bread and butter (he takes on Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Conan The Barbarian and Gone With The Wind, to name a few). One of the best parodies are of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), in which an stoic, muscle-y Yankovic shoots his enemies so hard they literally explode.

The rest of the cast helps to round out the insanity, whether playing it straight or playing crazy: Michael Richards, David Bowe, Anthony Geary, Trinidad Silva, Fran Drescher, Gedde Watanabe, Emo Phillips and Victoria Jackson (I suppose before she actually went crazy). Kevin McCarthy is a particular standout as Yankovic’s nemesis, Channel 8 owner R.J. Fletcher, and has one of my favorite lines in the movie. Upon meeting the spastic, guffawing Stanley Spadowski (Richards), he spitefully observes, “People like that should be put to sleep.”

That line is priceless.

In conclusion, I don’t feel any shame in owning this movie, although it seems out of place. UHF is one of the hallmarks of my childhood, along with Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) or episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Is it strange to see it on my shelf, sandwiched between Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) and La Vie En Rose (2007)?

Yeah, sure it is. But I make no apologies.

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