1989 saw the release of the film UHF, which is funny and very quotable, but was not a commercial success. It starts “Weird Al” Yankovic as George Newman, a ne’er-do-well dreamer who finds himself managing a small television station, and comes up with creative low-budget shows that become huge hits. In addition to Al himself, it stars Michael Richards as the janitor who becomes popular as the host of a kids’ show, Kevin McCarthy as the villain, Fran Drescher as the station news anchor, and Victoria Jackson as George’s girlfriend. I know Al and Jackson were friends for a while, and I have to wonder if they still are since she’s come out as a right-wing extremist. Al usually avoids politics, but the few times he has made political statements they seemed fairly left-wing. Not that people with opposing political views can’t be friends, but Jackson apparently doesn’t talk about anything else these days. She’s like Ann Coulter with a whinier voice. Yahoo Answers insists that they had a fight, but who knows whether there’s any truth to this? Anyway, the soundtrack album was called UHF: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff, and in terms of track count it’s mostly Other Stuff. There is a little more thematic unity to the songs than on Al’s previous albums, though.
Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies – Sometimes called by the even more unwieldy title “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies Parody,” the name was apparently a legal requirement. Al had earlier sung the lyrics to a television theme to the tune of a popular song with “The Brady Bunch,” and had even taken on the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies with the tune of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You.” I understand that Al had been considering doing this parody to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” but was unable to get permission (Prince was notorious for turning Al down several times). So he went with Dire Straits instead, and Mark Knopfler said it was all right as long as he could play guitar on the song. In the context of the movie, George dreams of this song and video when he falls asleep watching a Beverly Hillbillies rerun.
Gandhi II – This movie trailer from UHF basically mixes Gandhi with Shaft. Interestingly, I’ve come across Violent Gandhi jokes in other places as well. I guess it’s just incongruous enough to be popular. Another fake trailer from UHF, that for Conan the Librarian is not included on the soundtrack, probably because too much of the humor relies on the visual of Conan cutting a guy with an overdue library book in half with his sword. It does make me wonder how, if the premise of UHF was that George got his friends to put on cheap but imaginative shows that ended up being hits, they’d have these weird movies to show as well. Did George produce those as well, or were they old movies that Channel 62 brought back? Not that it’s really important, just something to think about.
Attack of the Radioactive Hamsters from a Planet Near Mars – While this one isn’t in the film, you can tell that Al’s mind was on B-movies when he wrote it. I wonder if there’s actually a science fiction film about giant hamsters. I did watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 take on The Killer Shrews, which is at least kind of similar. While the title is pretty funny, the song itself kind of comes across as a less interesting repeat of “Slime Creatures from Outer Space,” and without that song’s gimmick of actually sounding like a sci-fi soundtrack. Still, it’s all right. By the way, what planet is “near Mars” that the hamsters could come from other than Earth? Maybe they’re from Ceres, the dwarf planet between Mars and Jupiter.
Isle Thing – While “Twister” was Al’s first rap style parody, this was his first direct parody of a rap song, specifically Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing.” It also references another Tone Loc hit of the same time, “Funky Cold Medina.” This is another one that wasn’t in the movie but fits the theme, being about Gilligan’s Island. A lot of the jokes are pretty typical (“How come the Professor could build all this amazing stuff, but not a raft?”), but adding in the hip-hop lingo gives them a new twist.
The Hot Rocks Polka – Hooray, the polka medley is back! And this time it’s all of one artist, which he’s never done since, unless you count the single-song “Bohemian Polka.” I’ve seen rumors of his proposing Led Zeppelin and U2 polka medleys, but presumably nothing came of them. As he does the Stones here, you’d think the Beatles would be an obvious next step, but I know he’s had trouble getting permission for Beatles parodies (“Pac-Man” and “Gee, I’m a Nerd”) in the past. There are some good transitions in this medley, and I especially like the way he sings “Shattered.” Mind you, this is probably partially because it’s so rare to hear Al sing the word “sex” even once, let alone four times in a row, and he really seems to ham it up when he does here.
UHF – The theme song for the movie, as played over the end credits, is a song that I’d say is pretty catchy without being all that comedic. I mean, the lyrics are on the funny side, but there isn’t really an overlying joke. I guess Al makes up for this with the video, which includes both clips from the film and brief spoofs of other music videos. The version used for the single and the video has a shorter intro and guitar solo than the one in the movie and on the soundtrack.
Let Me Be Your Hog – There’s a scene in the movie where Uncle Harvey is listening to the radio in the pool, and Al says he originally wanted to use “Kung Fu Fighting” as the song that was playing, but he couldn’t get the rights. So instead he recorded this goofy little seventeen-second song. Harvey turns off the radio in the film, while on the album it ends with with the sound of the needle being removed from the record.
She Drives Like Crazy – While turning the Fine Young Cannibals song into one actually about driving is pretty clever, its lyrical structure doesn’t really lend itself that well to parody. Also, the vocals are a little hard to understand, and while that’s true of the original as well, it makes more of a difference when the lyrics are the crux of the comedy.
Generic Blues – Described by Al as his attempt to write the ultimate blues song, there are a lot of different kinds of humor in here, including mockery of blues clichés (“I woke up this morning, then I went back to bed”), absurdity (“My brothers and sisters all hated me, ’cause I was an only child”), rambling asides, and puns (“Make it talk! Okay, now make it shut up.”) I also have to say it helped alleviate my depression somewhat by letting me see the humorous side of it. And while “Don’t Wear Those Shoes” had a railroad spike driven through the narrator’s head, here he wishes for someone to stick a pitchfork in his brain. B.B. King notably said that this was one of his favorite blues songs.
Spatula City – Another bit from the movie, this is a commercial for a wholesale outlet that sells nothing but spatulas. Aside from the sheer ridiculousness of the premise, it does a good job of spoofing local commercials, with cheesy music and bad acting. The company president being unable to muster any enthusiasm for one line is true to form.
Fun Zone – Written a few years earlier for a never-aired pilot called Welcome to the Fun Zone, proposed as a replacement for Saturday Night Live, he reused it as the theme for Richards’ UHF character Stanley Spadowski. It’s the only instrumental to appear on one of Al’s albums, and it’s always played before his concerts. True to the title, it’s fun, and has a sound verging on surf rock.
Spam – It’s another food song, so I can’t say it’s too original in that department. Spam is kind of inherently funny, though (partially thanks to Monty Python, I’m sure); and Al does a good reproduction of the sound of the REM original. I also like the replacements for the word “direction” and the idea that leftover spam can be used for spackle or bathroom grout.
The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota – I’ve mentioned Al’s tendency to make epic songs about mundane and/or bizarre topics, and this was probably the most ambitious of these for a while. Spoofing the rambling narrative style of folk musicians like Harry Chapin and Gordon Lightfoot and inspired by a book of kitschy tourist attractions called Roadside America, it tells the story of a family taking a road trip to see the titular twine ball in Darwin, Minnesota. While I believe it was the world’s largest ball of twine at the time the song was written, it’s since had some competition, and now is just the largest twine ball assembled by a single person. Mind you, the song only says it’s the biggest in Minnesota, and there’s no debate on that point. I don’t think Al had actually visited the ball when he wrote this, but he did later on.
While there’s no motel associated with the attraction, a nearby store did take the name “Twine Ball Inn” after the song lyric, although I believe it’s since closed down. It’s somewhat odd that the song gives the weight of the ball as 21,140 pounds when it’s apparently actually only 17,400 pounds. Why use such a specific number when it isn’t accurate? Did it just scan better? Was he purposely courting letters from geeks who would point out the mistake? Or did it just seem like a good idea at the time? I enjoy the running gag about pickled wieners, the bit about the car windows being completely covered with decals, and how the hitchhiker Bernie disappears from the song for about four minutes before reappearing to steal the narrator’s camera. The name Bernie seems to be a favorite of Al’s, by the way. There’s also another appearance of the number twenty-seven. This was Al’s longest song for about a decade, with “Albuquerque” eventually unseating this record.
Next time, we’ll go off the deep end. Until then, crank up the volume and yank off the knob. If you still have a TV set with a volume knob on it, that is, which you probably don’t.