“Weird Al” Yankovic has always been as much video as radio star, as familiar a face during the heyday of MTV as the many stars he was parodying. So naturally, it seems like it would be an easy transition to movie stardom—yet history simply hasn’t borne that out. While Yankovic has headlined his own TV shows, appeared in dozens of other people’s films, and crafted a showreel of comedy that would make scores of actors jealous—not to mention picking up millions of album sales and Grammys in along the way—he’s been the focus of exactly one movie: 1989’s UHF, a legendary box-office flop that was seemingly enough to keep him from trying again, even as it became a massive cult favorite.
Yankovic wrote UHF with his longtime manager Jay Levey, who also directed, and their personal stamp ensured that their film was “Weird Al” distilled. Filled with random movie parodies and song spoofs—many of which appear as the daydreams of Yankovic’s goofball George Newman—and revolving around the low-budget carnival that is a local television station, UHF is surreal, satirical, and slapstick in equal measure. It’s also incredibly sweet, boasting a genuine affection for its underdogs—from Michael Richards’ gangly janitor-turned-children’s show host to Billy Barty’s tiny cameraman Noodles—and it’s been reciprocated by the fans who embraced UHF long after it sank in theaters.
In honor of the film’s recent 25th anniversary, The A.V. Club is hosting two special screenings of UHF with Yankovic and Levey in attendance on May 27. And in anticipation of that, we assembled nearly everyone we could find from the production to reflect on the film, including producers Gene Kirkwood and Gray Frederickson; cast members Michael Richards, David Bowe, Tony Geary, Emo Philips, Gedde Watanabe, Roger Callard, and Bob Hungerford; and, of course, Yankovic and Levey themselves. And then we asked them to tell the story of UHF from beginning to end (and beyond) in their own words. Read it straight through, or use the section guide on the right to flip around.
“You gotta grab life by the lips and yank as hard as you can!”
“Weird Al” Yankovic (“George Newman”/Co-writer): My manager Jay Levey and I started conceptualizing the movie in ’85. You know, at that point I’d had a couple fairly popular albums, and as managers do, he was thinking, “Well, what’s the next big step?” And the consensus was, “Well, it’s time for a Weird Al movie.”
Jay Levey (Director/Co-writer): I don’t think it was much longer after the second album hit, and Al’s popularity really mushroomed. Amongst many projects we were looking at, one of them was to see if we could do a movie.
The A.V. Club: You guys had done several music videos by then, but what made you think you were ready to make the jump to movies?
Yankovic: Well, that’s a big part of my life—doing things that I’m not prepared to do. [Laughs.] Doing things that I don’t know how to do, and keep doing them until I get good at them. I always try to put myself out of my comfort zone and out of my depth, and hopefully somewhere along the line I’ll catch up.
Levey: I don’t know that I would put a lot of stock in this, but I believe we were approached by New Line to develop a film and to do a script. And so we did.
Yankovic: We sat around for, I want to say, eight months, and we knocked out the first draft. The idea was that I was known for doing parodies, so we wanted to do a movie that was lousy with parodies—TV commercial parodies, movie trailer parodies, and obviously TV show parodies—and we hung them on a plot line that seemed like the thing to go well with that basic concept. Namely, that I would be the general manager for a small UHF TV station, which, again, would allow for all those parodies.
AVC: Considering there’d been several comedies before that, like Kentucky Fried Movie or Amazon Women On The Moon, where it’s just a bunch of random spoofs strung together, did you ever think of ditching a main storyline and doing something more like that?
Levey: The other classic along the lines of what you’re talking about is Airplane, where there’s really not much storyline—certainly not compared to what we did. You know, Airplane is one of Al’s favorite movies of all time, and if we had just consciously set out to do simply that—a string of parodies with no story to hang it on—he probably would have been just as happy or happier doing that. I think we just together decided that, if we had the right story, it could be just that much better and have that much more appeal. But it’s hard to say. I mean, obviously, Airplane had tons of appeal.
Yankovic: Certainly in retrospect, for the first couple years after the movie came out and did so poorly, I was kind of kicking myself that we didn’t do that. I thought that the story was the weakest part of it—why did we try and make it more conventional? It should have just been like those movies you mentioned, like Kentucky Fried Movie or Groove Tube or Tunnel Vision, those ’70s kind of collections of sketches. Because certainly my favorite part of the movie was the parodies, and maybe it would have worked just to have a collection of parody bits.
But over the years, I’ve gotten away from that feeling, because the movie has been so embraced by the fans, and people—as sort of hackneyed as the story is—a lot of people really seem to have responded to it, and they appreciate the movie as is. So that’s not something that I lose sleep over anymore.
AVC: Was there any concern that making UHF’s pop culture references too specific would end up dating the movie?
Levey: I mean, you can’t serve both masters. Al can do that with his music—and has done that successfully for his entire career—where part of his formula with the parodies is they need to completely stand on their own, without you necessarily knowing the original cultural reference. And that’s been a great secret of his success for all these years with his music. But in that particular case, it really is something so much of the moment, you just kind of have to hang your hat on that and hope that it will last, and you hope that in the end they will still stand on their own. And I think that we managed to do that, just through the strength of the set pieces we created. I think they have managed to last. But I really can’t say that we were concerned at all. We just wanted to make the funniest movie that we could at the time.
Yankovic: We probably, in retrospect, should have had more pushback, because it was a total anachronism even when it came out—it was on the tail end of UHF even being a thing. But as a kid, that was where you went to see all the weird programming. You know, you had your UHF dial, and you flipped it around, and there was everything from PBS stations to Spanish-speaking stations to low-budget public stations, to just out-and-out weirdness. It was a precursor to the Internet. It was like, if you wanted to do something unusual and bizarre, you’d go to UHF.
Levey: “UHF,” there are many—if not most—people today who wouldn’t even know what that meant. But on its way out is implying that it hadn’t completely vanished, so it was within everyone’s frame of reference. I must say, I’m actually surprised to hear Al say that, because that wasn’t anything I can ever recall talking about or being concerned about. I don’t agree.
I mean, in the New York area, there was Uncle Floyd, who was exceptionally popular right around that time. It might have been a few years earlier than that, but not too much earlier. UHF channels were still in people’s frame of reference, so I’m surprised to hear that. I think if that was an issue, the studio would’ve said, “Look guys, we’re happy to use this storyline as a conceit, but just the actual reference of UHF itself, people won’t know what that is. Can we do something else with that?” We never, ever received that note. That would be a really obvious kind of note you’d get from a studio, you know?
Yankovic: When the movie went international, we called it The Vidiot From UHF. I don’t know why they insisted on keeping UHF in the title, because The Vidiot is a much better name. But they wanted to tie it in with the North American release for some bizarre reason—because it was obviously such a huge hit. [Laughs.] Part of me feels like if I had my life to live over again, you know, The Vidiot or possibly just Vidiots would have been a title that would have stood the test of time better.
“You know what the problem is? Nobody here appreciates a guy with a good imagination.”
Levey: We wrote this script, but it didn’t go anywhere with New Line. And it kind of sat for a bit.
Yankovic: We pitched the script around town for about three years, and gave up on it more than once. I can’t even tell you exactly where, but I know that we were pretty thorough in our pitching. There weren’t many places in town where we hadn’t taken the script. And then, almost out of the blue, some producers found the script and said, “Hey, let’s make a movie!”
Levey: It was picked up again by an agent that we were working with at that time, who gave it to Gene Kirkwood and John Hyde. Kirkwood was the producer of Rocky and John Hyde was the producer of Das Boot. Together they had formed a new production company, Cinecorp, and there were these two guys who were doing development for Gene and John, named Deren Getz and Kevin Breslin. They loved the script and gave it to Gene and John.
Gene Kirkwood (Producer): I saw the “Fat” video that Al did—Michael Jackson—and I said, “Geez, we ought to make a movie with him.” And then the guys came up with UHF. At the time, I was making a film called Ironweed with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, which was a very depressing movie set in Albany. I really needed a laugh.
Levey: Gene and John had a relationship with Orion. They gave it to Orion. Orion said, “If we can make this movie for under $5 million, we will do it.”
Yankovic: We met Gene Kirkwood at a restaurant in Hollywood, who told us during dinner, “Yeah! This looks great! And we’ll be shooting this next month in Tulsa, Oklahoma.” Jay and I walked out of that dinner meeting sort of giggling and laughing to ourselves. We thought, “Yeah, right. Like that’s going to happen. This guy’s so full of it.” And then like a month later we were on set shooting the movie.
Kirkwood: I liked it a lot. I mean, it was very different, you know? And it was very real. When I say “real,” it was very funny and made me laugh out loud. Most of my work—and my work still—is like The Pope Of Greenwich Village. You know, those types of movies, Pulitzer Prize-winning books, very, very tough movies. Gorky Park, movies like that. And this was good relief. I’d never done comedy before.
Levey: Gene and John were very respectful on the creative. It was our movie to make, and they had no interest in trying to fix something that wasn’t broken—meaning the script sold as is. It’s not like they came back saying, “We’d like to buy this, but we have the following notes,” which very often happens. Orion bought the script wholesale. That also spoke volumes to John and Gene. This is not their element. They’re producers, but comedy wasn’t necessarily their element. And we had proven a certain amount of success at that point in musical comedy and on television. They rightfully stepped back and just let us make the movie that we wanted to make.
Starring “Weird Al”
“I don’t know the first thing about what goes on in a TV station.”
Yankovic: Starring in a movie is always a dicey proposition, and I knew that it wasn’t an easy road. And I knew that the history of film is littered with people who tried to make the transition from music to movies. I just wanted to give it my best shot, and not worry too much about what had been done in the past. There were a lot of things going against us making that movie. I just kind of put my blinders on and tried to do what we thought was best at the time.
Kirkwood: I hired Mickey [Rourke] to do The Pope Of Greenwich Village and he wasn’t a big star then. That never bothered me. I did 50 [Cent’s] first film, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. I prefer doing it that way.
Levey: I’d directed music videos, but I hadn’t directed a film—meaning I hadn’t directed any acting either. So that was interesting for both of us. When you write a film together, to some degree you’re kind of acting it out in the room. In essence, it almost took the place of a table read when it came to his character. And once we got on the set, he just kind of did it, and there was very little for me to really coach him on at that point. It was clear going in what he was going to do and how we were going to do it.
Yankovic: George, in many ways, was sort of the straight man in the movie—which was a big criticism from people at the time. Because he surrounded himself with a lot of crazies, he was almost the calm center in the middle of this movie—which, considering I’m ostensibly the “weird” guy, seemed to confuse a lot of people. But he was the dreamer. Even though he’s basically a normal person, he lives out his life through his fantasies, and that was always a main element in the plotting. So he becomes, obviously, Rambo and Indiana Jones and he lives out his life that way. That was the genesis of the character. We wanted the parodies to be mostly fantasy elements, and for him to be the glue that holds the film together.
Levey: George was conceived as a classic daydreamer with an overactive imagination—much in the vein of the original [The Secret Life Of] Walter Mitty. Not to be confused with the recent remake. But, you know, in so many ways, the script and the character development were primarily used as a vehicle with which to deliver the jokes. So the classic kind of story and character development—while it was there, because it gave us the basic skeleton of a traditional film—we didn’t go to necessarily to great lengths to flesh them out, with George being really no different. In some senses, you could almost see everyone as a live-action cartoon character, with broad strokes of characteristics, but not really extensively developed.
Yankovic: Walter Mitty was—as well as all of the parody movies that we mentioned—a big influence in the genesis of the movie.
Levey: The name “Newman” is definitely a tip of the hat to Alfred E., there’s no question. And the Mort Drucker thing was also an inspiration, sure.
Yankovic: Oh, absolutely. I make no secret of the fact that Mad magazine was a huge inspiration and influence on me, and “Uncle Nutsy’s Clubhouse”… There can’t be much more of a direct reference to Mad magazine than that. I mean that’s one of my favorite pieces from the ’60s from Mad. That was a direct homage.
Enter Michael Richards
“Hey, Stanley. How would you like your own TV show?”
Yankovic: Jay and I were very involved in the casting. We worked with a casting director named Cathy Henderson, who put a lot of really amazing people in front of us.
Levey: We didn’t do table reads for everyone else, because we really didn’t feel like we needed to.
Yankovic: One of the few casting choices that we had outside of the casting process was Michael Richards. I just was a big fan of his characters on the show Fridays on ABC, and I’d seen him do stand-up on the L.A. club circuit. And I just didn’t think there were many people that had the kind of physical comedy and surrealistic sensibility that would be able to pull off the character of Stanley Spadowski, so that part was pretty much written with him in mind. Although, I have to say that Christopher Lloyd’s character of Jim Ignatowski from the show Taxi also was, like, a voice that I heard in my head while writing dialogue for Michael, because it was sort of that idiot savant kind of character.
Levey: At first we sort of toyed with the possibility of reaching out to [Lloyd]. I think we did toy with that for bit. But it just really felt clear that this was Michael’s role. We didn’t see it, really, for anybody else. At that point, he had carved a place for himself in his work on the cast of Fridays, so he had certainly made a name for himself to some degree, but we thought that this was a cherry role for him, and something that he would really welcome. And when we put out the word through his people that we’d like him to come in so we could talk to him about the role, he just flat out passed. And we weren’t given a reason. It was like, did he not like the part? We weren’t given anything other than, “Michael’s not interested in the role, but thank you very much.”
Levey: We were a little without a rudder for a short period of time on that role. Finally we said, “This just doesn’t make any sense. Let’s just reach out to him again and see what happens.” So we did, and he came in—and not only did he come in, but he came in as Stanley. He came in completely and totally Stanley, and was Stanley for us the whole time he was in the room with us.
Michael Richards (“Stanley Spadowski”): I went in and I went off book. I just started playing with this character in front of them. Had a few of the lines, put some funny teeth in—I have a teeth kit. I just saw this guy going on about a rant about cleaning, a big metaphor for having a clean life. So I just knew they needed a pretty whacked-out character who would go off and rant like that. I was real thin at the time. I think I was about 30 pounds lighter. Now I’m around 200, and I still look thin on camera. I was nearly anorexic. Nobody told me I should gain more weight. But I was doing a lot of Jane Fonda aerobics, so I think that doing that kind of exercising every day…. Aerobics is a really whacked-out way to get going. The loud rock ’n’ roll music and the teachers standing before you, doing the exercises and screaming into the microphone, “Go! Go! Go for the burn!” So when I went in, I was probably underweight, because I was burning it all off and not eating enough calories. I didn’t know much about diet. All these things work out for the best.
I’m always modulating—just part of the character work. I did it with that Kramer character on Seinfeld. I kind of lowered the voice a little bit: “Jerry.” It was down there. Spadowski was just another way of making a voice work for the character work. Can’t tell you how these things happen. Can’t tell you why hair grows on the top of our head. It’s just the nature of my ability. Of course, I’m trained as an actor for the stage—classically trained, believe it or not—and I worked closely with Stella Adler for years. People don’t know that much about it. They just think I am these people. But I’ve been in this comedy racket, because it’s just how everybody wants to see me.
When I saw Weird Al walk into the room with that long hair, I knew this would be good. And I was becoming familiar. He was doing these really whacked-out impersonations of singers—you know the work. He was just doing such a fine job lampooning that I knew we had to go big and broadly funny.
Levey: He was so clear that, from the time he walked in the door, This is my role, I love this role, I’m Stanley for you now, we didn’t even say, “So what’s the deal, Michael?” Maybe it could have been as simple as a miscommunication between him and his people. But we never found out, ultimately. We didn’t care, obviously. All we cared about was that we got him for the role.
Richards: It was funny because I got a bout of Bell’s palsy. Do you know what this is, where half your face freezes up? So I called Al and told him, “I don’t think I can do the role. I have Bell’s palsy. Half my face is frozen. I’m told it goes away in a few weeks, but you want me on set in a few days. I don’t think this is going to work out.” And he said, “No, that’s perfect. That’s even better.” He was all for me playing the role with half my face paralyzed. That’s the kind of humor Weird Al brings to the table. Interestingly enough, I said, “Fine, okay.”
Yankovic: [Laughs.] I don’t remember saying that, but I certainly could have. That sounds like a little bit of desperation talking, like, “No, no, it’ll be great!” At some point, it’s like you’ve got a whole movie production waiting on you, and you do anything you’ve got to do to just keep it rolling along.
Richards: I had an old friend who teaches tai chi chuan at the California Institute Of The Arts, and I called him. He’s really a master of acupuncture. Was. He passed away. But at the time, he was in his 70s and was responsible for introducing tai chi chuan to the country. He had developed a whole Tai Chi Chuan Association and worked with the UCLA medical school. His name was Marshall Ho’o. I’ll tell you, he put needles on my face, that Bell’s palsy was gone in two days. And before that, I had a television pilot where I cracked two ribs during a pratfall, and I was in such pain. He came over to my house and put those needles on me, and I was walking around. I felt nothing. It was extraordinary. He was a very talented man. No quackery there.
Friends, Rivals, And Mad Scientists
“You know these dreams you’re always having? Do you think that maybe sometimes I could be a part of them?”
Yankovic: I’ve got a bunch of VHS tapes with—I guess you’d call them screen tests with actors, but it’s just sort of them reading lines on camera with me and going through scenes. We did a lot of that with Teri in particular. [Victoria Jackson] had a sweetness to her and a vulnerability, and she was able to pull off the comedy. She just seemed like she was the right kind of character to pull off that particular part.
Yankovic: A close runner-up was Jennifer Tilly. Ellen DeGeneres actually auditioned for that role as well. I showed her the footage a couple years ago, and she was sort of horrified. [Laughs.] So in deference to her, I’m going to keep that under wraps. It was an interesting process, going through all these various actors, just trying to figure out who would have the on-screen chemistry.
In retrospect, you know, I don’t think anybody wanted to see me play the romantic lead, which is one of the reasons that whole subplot wasn’t terribly well developed. It was sort of like we figured, “Oh, we have to have a romantic interest in the movie.” But ultimately, did we? I don’t know. Maybe not.
Levey: Our radar pointed us pretty clearly towards Victoria. Sometimes you just have a person and a role that seem like a good match right off the top, and that’s exactly the case. That was the case with Michael, it was the case with Victoria, it was also the case with Kevin [McCarthy]. Actually, it was really clearly the case with Fran, too. We kind of wrote that role almost with her in mind. Really, those four people, we had them all in mind to begin with.
Yankovic: Fran [Drescher] was another where, when she came in to audition, she was almost immediately cast. We were like, “You’re good. We can’t imagine anybody that’s going to knock it out of the park like that.” You know, some people have taken us to task for having two women—Victoria and Fran—who had sort of the… I guess you’d call them nasally voices. But I thought, particularly for a broadcaster, for Fran Drescher’s character, it was funny, because that’s not the kind of voice you normally hear as a news anchor. We wanted to play against type a little bit with some of these casting choices.
Levey: Kevin McCarthy was in the Leslie Nielsen camp of the serious vintage actors who had crossed over into satire, and there was such wonderful irony in their performance. I don’t know if we ever even considered going to Leslie. At that point, he’d become so well known for what he was doing with Naked Gun, it was the same kind of casting conceit. And Kevin was right in that wheelhouse. He just seemed right for that kind of a crossover. He was such a ham. He relished that role. He had the time of his life. [Laughs.] He never for a minute said, “I’m going too far over the top,” or getting any kind of notes where he would pull back. He gave a flat-out, 100-mile-an-hour performance. He was great.
Kevin McCarthy died in 2010. Victoria Jackson and Fran Drescher did not respond to requests for interviews.
AVC: What were you looking for with Bob?
Yankovic: Just somebody who could play the comedy—and somebody who looked like he’d be my friend. It’s hard to articulate exactly what we looked for. I think actually Jerry Seinfeld was offered the role, and he turned it down. [Laughs.] He was a popular stand-up, but it was before his TV show.
David Bowe (“Bob”): I remember getting an audition, and there was a lot to the script because it was just like, “Insert parody here.” “Insert ‘Weird Al’ video here”—that kind of thing. I was very excited to meet with Al. I think I might have gushed too much about what a fan I was at the audition. I should have played it cool. The first audition was with him and with Jay, and they seemed to like me right off the bat. I came in wearing a very “Weird Al” outfit—but that was just my luck. I wore Chucks and a wacky shirt and funky slacks. That was always my luck. I remember thinking I had a good shot at it.
Yankovic: Some of the decisions, in retrospect, seem kind of arbitrary. I think that Rick Overton was in the running, and Jay thought that he was too tall. Because, for whatever reason, he wanted Bob to be shorter than me. I don’t know why that was important, but he seemed to think it was.
Bowe: I think that’s great. Thank God I was that height! It’s so funny when you look back on all the auditions you’ve had over your life as an actor. “Why did I get that?” or “Why did they pick him over me?” It comes down to a certain hairstyle, or how tall you were, or how big your foot was. You never know. But that is funny. I didn’t know that.
Levey: You know what? David just nailed it in the room. We didn’t know anything about David. David didn’t have a lot in the way of credits. He was just one of the various people coming in to read for a role. But he just totally nailed it. It just felt like Bob. Sometimes that happens, when you just look at each other, and you go, “This is Bob.”
Yankovic: In retrospect, I guess it was a good choice, because a lot of people now think that David Bowie’s in the movie. [Laughs.] I think UHF is on David Bowie’s IMDB listing. Labyrinth and UHF.
Levey: Tony Geary was like the David Bowe situation, from the standpoint that it was his read in the room that nailed it for us.
Yankovic: Cathy Henderson put a lot of really great people in front of us. I mean, we never would have thought of casting Anthony Geary for the role of Philo, because he was known as Luke from General Hospital, and when we saw his name on the casting list, we thought, “Really? Are you kidding me with this?”
Levey: She was like, “No, he’s really a wonderful actor, and he really would love to come in and read for the role.” We were like, we’re not going to stop him from coming in. I mean, what an interesting and unexpected an idea.
Tony Geary (“Philo”): I was a fan of Al’s. I don’t know if he had done “Eat It” yet, but I just thought that was brilliant. But I know he had done “Like A Surgeon” and a few others, and I just thought he was wonderfully funny. I like his satirical, ironic humor, and it was a fun role. It was a big departure from General Hospital. I was looking for a departure.
I left General Hospital for eight years in ’82, and I did a lot of theater and some television, but I wasn’t making that big break into movies that everybody thinks they’re going to make after they’ve been successful on television. Today, it’s different. You can go from soaps into other mediums easier than you could then. And because my character had become so big, nobody wanted Luke Spencer in their movie. And I understand that now, because for those 30 seconds or whatever, somebody would say, “Oh, isn’t that that guy on….?” They’re taken out of the film.
And one of the cool things about this was they didn’t use my celebrity in any way. In fact, they allowed me to frizz my hair out and wear glasses. I dyed it gray, I think. I went as far away from my look as I could, and I tried to make that character—even though he was a mad scientist—very quiet and do smaller work than I had been doing on GH. I thought because Weird Al was so into lampooning the cultural icons of the day, that it was going to be some kind of Luke Spencer rip-off. But I was so pleased that it had nothing to do with my image on GH, and that they embraced the idea of me trying to look more like Albert Einstein than Luke Spencer. Because that’s really what I wanted was to get away from that role.
Yankovic: We almost let him come in slightly under duress, because we just thought, “Oh, he’s not right for this.”
Geary: That makes sense. And I understand that. A lot of people wouldn’t see me under duress. I remember meeting with Oliver Stone during that period, and I had met him twice. The first time was for Salvador, and he didn’t know who I was and he had me come back and the role hadn’t been written. I don’t think it even made it into the movie—or if it did, it was really small. It was some kind of California surfer who ran a bar down in El Salvador that James Woods hung out in. So he had me go to lunch and meet James Woods, and James said, “Oh, I love your work on General Hospital,” and all that. And Oliver Stone said, “What’s that?” And James Woods said, “You don’t know him on General Hospital?” He said no. He said, “Well, it’s a soap opera,” and I never got called again. And later, I remember I got called in to meet Oliver Stone again for the movie about The Doors, and I went in and he said, “Don’t I know you?” And I said, “Yeah, I went to lunch with you and James Woods.” And he said, “Oh, you’re that soap actor… There isn’t anything for you here.” So I don’t wonder that Al and Levey were under duress to see me, because nobody wanted to see me.
Yankovic: And then he came in and he blew us away with an amazing comedic performance and had us practically falling out of our chairs with laughter.
Levey: Like Michael, when he walked in, he was doing Philo in the room, and it was fabulous. It was exactly what you see on-screen, and we just loved his interpretation.
Geary: In those days, I didn’t know how to audition for film. I still don’t. But my idea at the time was that you go in as the character, because I had had a lot of stage training, and I’ve worked with Lee Strasberg for four years. And he always said in an audition you’re going to get one shot, so go in with a point of view. What I didn’t understand at the time is it’s a point of view about yourself—not about the character. Because when they’re doing a film, they’re usually looking for what they can get out of you as a human being. They’re not looking for you to come in and show them the full-blown character—especially a character like that. But I didn’t know that. So I just went full out. I think I painted my teeth dark, and I just went full mad scientist. And that’s what got the role.
Yankovic: We cast him on the spot. Cathy was great at finding all these choices that almost seemed counterintuitive.
AVC: Is it true you had originally written Philo for Joel Hodgson?
Yankovic: Yes, he was my first choice originally, because I thought of Philo more as an inventor. And Joel Hodgson had built this stand-up routine around building these kind of crazy inventions and things like that, and also had this very, very deadpan delivery, which I thought would suit the character well. And then, for whatever reason, Joel decided not to do it. Joel and I are friends to this day, but at the time, he seemed like he wanted to back away from showbiz. He just didn’t feel like being involved in a movie at that point in his life.
Joel Hodgson (creator, Mystery Science Theater 3000): You know, it was funny. I was just so enthused about doing Mystery Science Theater. I didn’t really feel comfortable as an actor, you know? I’m really not an actor. Other Space, the show I’m working on right now, is the most acting I’ve ever done—like eight episodes. And I feel like, just now after eight episodes, I’m finally figuring out how to act. So back then, I just didn’t feel like I had the chops.
AVC: Do you have any regrets about not doing the movie?
Hodgson: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it did very well, did it? So it was probably the right thing. But obviously, I know now that people love it. I don’t really regret it. I just listened to myself, and it was the right thing for me at the time.
Yankovic: [Crispin Glover] was another decision, because Crispin is, you know, kind of a wild character, and that kind of sensibility I thought worked well with the character of Philo. And Crispin was excited about the movie, but he said, “I want to play Crazy Ernie, the used car salesman.” And we thought, “Well, we’d love for you to be in the movie, but that character is, you know, not exactly right for you. You’re not really the character type. You’re not really the look for it. I don’t think that’s going to work. Are you sure you don’t want to play Philo?” And he was like, “No, Crazy Ernie or nothing.” “Okay, sorry.”
Geary: I don’t know [Joel Hodgson] at all, which pleases me. Of course, I know who Crispin Glover is. I wasn’t aware of anybody that they wanted, and I’m glad. Because if I had known they’d wanted somebody, I probably wouldn’t have gone in. I had been humiliated plenty of times and didn’t need another slap in the face.
Gedde Takes The Wheel (Of Fish)
Levey: Gedde [Watanabe] I should also put in that exact category of a role that we already identified the person before we even tested him for it. I can almost say he was an obvious choice.
Yankovic: Gedde was already quite famous from Gung Ho and Sixteen Candles and several other movies. So I was a big fan of his work. I’m not sure that I had him specifically in mind when I wrote the part, but he was always definitely my number one choice.
Gedde Watanabe (“Kuni”): I didn’t even know that! That’s fantastic. I had no idea. But that’s good to know. The only thing I remember is that I had long hair and I was able to kind of use it and put in a ponytail—when I had hair. [Laughs.] I thought that might maybe be a different look, and I’m pretty sure I had that when I came in to audition. I just remember there was a lot of energy to it. I figured, if anything, I could bring a certain kind of energy to it.
Levey: Some of these people, their on-camera persona or what they’d been known for, reflected perfectly the kind of cartoon personas that we were creating. Not to do them any disservice—not that they were in any way being cartoons in their other films. I just mean that their previous on-screen personas fit like a glove.
AVC: It seems like Kuni is the kind of character who might not exist today.
Yankovic: Yeah, there were a number of things in the movie which probably would not go over quite as well in a more PC era. But at the time, we seem to have gotten away with it. In many respects, you have to look at UHF as being of a certain era. Certainly there are many things that I would have done differently had I been writing a movie like that in current times, and perhaps some of those jokes would be something we’d have to consider altering somehow.
Watanabe: I kind of disagree with that. I think it’s getting stronger for Asians, to be honest with you. What I felt then was that there weren’t that many Asians that were really out there, that were getting jobs. I think now that they’re getting more, they’re trying to get the balance of what you can do comedically and what you can do seriously. You’ve got the serious actors like John Cho and Sandra Oh, and the comedian actors like Ken Jeong. Then you have the controversy of 2 Broke Girls and him—but he’s comedic, and there is stereotypical and there’s not. I think that people are kind of lightening up a little bit more about comedy and about Asians in general.
There’s always going to be people that get offended, and I think what really is the problem is not so much the character. It’s that there isn’t enough. It’s like what happened with Sixteen Candles [where Watanabe played “Long Duk Dong”], which is that there wasn’t anybody else out there doing any kind of serious counter to show we’re not really all like that. The balance of representation wasn’t out there.
My roles have all been mangled English! [Laughs.] During that time, I was just looking for a job. I was a working actor and I was just having fun. Did I have reservations about Sixteen Candles? Did I have reservations about UHF? Yeah. I mean, of course. I always had reservations—always of everything I did in the ’80s, I had reservations. But I think I went to do it because I felt like I wanted to see—I wanted to work—but I wanted to see if I could make something out of it. Like any other actor, I wanted to see if I could make soup in some way. I was hoping that, if anything, maybe all those things in the ’80s did open doors and that people were asking questions. And the biggest question was, “Why wasn’t there more representation?” I think that’s really the biggest thing—and why there still isn’t now. But it’s better. And that’s probably what came out of that situation for me.
Levey: I’m sure many people in the comedy world feel that nothing is sacred—or there are very few things that are sacred. There might be some horrible tragedies that might be considered sacred, but even that’s even really debatable. As best exemplified by the—what I think, and what I’m sure many in the entertainment community—consider to be the injustice done to Gilbert Gottfried for what happened his tweet. I wouldn’t put Michael [Richards’] thing in that category, actually, because that was more almost performance art. But, you know, there is a fine line there, between performance art and political appropriateness.
But in general, we considered then—and honestly, I don’t think we feel any different now—that nothing or no one is considered sacred. However, there is no question that times have radically changed to a point where almost everything is sacred to somebody or another, in a way that, in an Internet world translates to a massive hypersensitivity that I think is really unfair and unfortunate. But that’s the way it is. So with that in mind, there’s a good chance that the characterization we did of the Asian character of Kuni in UHF would have today been felt to have been a racist and inappropriate characterization. While what we were doing was just having fun, in that world of nothing being sacred to us.
AVC: If you had it to do over again, would you keep that character the same?
Levey: Absolutely. But that’s a double-edged sword of a question. Because if you’re asking, do I regret having the character—based on how our culture has changed, with respect to its hypersensitivity—no, I don’t regret it. I think he’s a great character. He was funny as hell, and that’s ultimately what matters. When we show the “Wheel Of Fish” scene at Al’s concerts during his costume changes, it gets a giant, rousing, thunderous reaction—as it does when the movie is re-shown in arthouses these days. We created something that was really funny, and it’s lasted to this day.
But if you’re asking me would I do it again? Sadly, I probably wouldn’t. Al and I would probably have come up with the same exact character, and then we would have asked ourselves and the studio, can we do this? Trying to be sensitive to the hypersensitivities of the culture at large. It really is questionable as to whether or not that character would’ve ended up in the script had we been writing it today. And I think it’s a really sad state of affairs. Because there’s not a racist bone in our body—in either of our bodies. Some may say as soon as you do a caricature of a particular race, that inherently there must be racism involved, whether you are admitting it or not. And I would argue that. I would say it’s not the case. It was a funny character, period. End of story.
I think it’s a really good question, so don’t get me wrong. I’m not in the slightest bit implying that your question is irrelevant or inappropriate. I actually think it’s a really interesting question. What’s interesting is that, you know, I grew up in your classic Steven Spielberg American suburbia, and there really wasn’t a whole lot of racism there. You could see that there was racism in the existential, exclusionary factor of suburbia itself, but as a kid, I never experienced that. I just simply experienced this bubble of a place. It was a very sort of idealistic way to grow up. So I didn’t even really know what it was to be racist, frankly. The same could be said for Al. He grew up in middle-class Southern California, suburbia, the same thing.
So in creating a character like Gedde’s, if you came from a place where you have experienced, directly, that kind of racism, then I can totally understand how someone could take umbrage at it and be offended by it. It gets to be a slippery slope and a dicey proposition to try and modify or edit your actions and your thoughts and your words to try and appease or to address those hurts, that genuine pain that people who have grown up in a racist world have experienced, you know? If I had grown up in maybe more of an urban environment, let’s say, and I had Asian friends, and I experienced firsthand their experience of racism, I might carry that same sense of outrage myself and have felt that it was off-bounds in comedy.
But I started this whole conversation by saying there’s really nothing that’s considered out of bounds, and in the very, very end, I will stick by that. I think comedy breaks that rule. And there may be jokes where some comics may really want to push the envelope, and I will groan, but not in a million-billion-quadrillion years will I ever say, “Oh man, you shouldn’t have said that.” I think there is a place for every version of comedy, where nothing is sacred. If you don’t like it personally, then I’m sorry, and I apologize if I pushed any buttons that I certainly didn’t mean to push. Glad you asked this question, huh?
Shop Teachers, Spatulas, And Barbarians
“You know, if we had a few more shows like this, we’d really be in business!”
Yankovic: Emo [Philips] was a really good friend of mine, and I think he’s one of the funniest people in the world, so basically it was me saying I have to put him in this movie somewhere. And I’m not sure why exactly I decided on him for the role of the shop teacher. It really was sort of like, I need to put Emo in this movie, and let’s do this one. I knew that anywhere I put Emo, he would be hilarious. And it was sort of an iconic role.
Emo Philips (“Joe Earley”): I think Al and I both did The Dr. Demento Show and I met him through that route. But we were both big fans of each other and then he asked me to do UHF… You know, I went to Weird Al’s wedding reception and he sat me next to Joe Earley—Joe Earley is the name of the shop teacher that I portrayed. And apparently Joe Earley was a childhood friend of Al’s. And I sat next to the real Joe Earley. Who, by the way, is all thumbs.
AVC: How did he feel about your portrayal of his… name?
Emo Philips: Well, you know, how would Alexander Graham Bell have felt if he had met Don Ameche? I’m assuming very flattered.
Bob Hungerford (“Sy Greenblum, owner of Spatula City”): I was living in Dallas at the time, and my agent got me the audition… I don’t know. Somebody said, “Okay, let’s use him,” I guess. The people were all very cordial and complimentary afterward. I didn’t think I had done anything in terms of being an actor, but they were satisfied for some reason. It wasn’t like I had to remember a Shakespearean monologue.
Roger Callard (“Conan The Librarian”): I’d been in the business a long time, and I was able to see bodybuilders who were actually legitimate actors. Arnold [Schwarzenegger] and I were good friends, and he would go to an acting gig—which was new to him—and he took me because he knew that I was knowledgeable in the business, because I’d won the dramatics award in high school. And I was actually a bodybuilder who happened to be an actor, so it was a natural transition for me. I think because I was friends with Arnold and I was a world-class bodybuilder, they figured we might as well get somebody who looks the part, and could have the timing to be funny.
Levey: [Conan] wasn’t much of a role. It was a cartoon thing, you know? He obviously completely and totally looked the part. That’s the number one thing we were looking for that role, was somebody who was massive of physical stature, and he was. And it was easy enough for him to do the few lines he had, so there wasn’t much in terms of coaching going on there. That was more—like many of the small set pieces like that, it’s just about—capturing the essence of the joke on the screen is as much about the blocking and the lines themselves. Not to take anything away from him, but it wasn’t a tough role. [Laughs.]
Callard: We walk into this storefront or something that they turned into a library, and it was cold as hell—freezing—and we just jumped right into it, with the music, “Boom boom boom boom…” I looked in the mirror and I almost burst out laughing. The wig was just awful. It looked like an old sea wench or something. Jay Levey, he was laughing so hard. [Laughing.] He reminds me of a little kid when he gets a toy and he’s playing with it and he realizes that this is just the best toy he’s ever had. And he was just laughing so hard. I thought, this is going to be frickin’ hard not to look at him. I’ve never seen a guy laugh like that. It was the hideous laughter of a brainchild.
Levey: You know, it’s great when you see the joke that you’ve written being brought to life. We were laughing our asses off through the whole movie. Because it’s one thing to have it on the page, and it’s another thing to have it being acted out in front of you by terrific actors.
AVC: You actually got in on that yourself, when you played Gandhi.
Levey: Yeah, well, I was resisting that for the longest time. Again, that was starting with a person of a certain stature. Gandhi was small and thin, and with a certain kind of an ethnic vibe, obviously. You have to start there, then try and find somebody that can do some kind of acting, although it doesn’t require all that much. And we just couldn’t find any. We couldn’t even get to first base on somebody who had the right physical stature for that. And Al at first suggested me, and I just brushed it off. And then as we continued to look and couldn’t find people, he just started pressing me more and more to do it, and I kept resisting more and more. I just had enough on my mind directing my first feature that it wasn’t a distraction that I was eager to have.
Yankovic: We auditioned a number of people for Gandhi, and none of them knocked us out. And every time I looked at Jay, I said, “You’re Gandhi. What are we doing? Just play the part.” I did have to twist his arm a little bit, but I just thought it would be funny. I just wanted to see him as Gandhi! It might have been a personal thing for me. I just thought it was the role he was born to play.
Levey: Finally we were, I think, a week away from shooting and we didn’t have anyone. And so I relented to be a team player. But I have to say, I certainly enjoyed myself. And it was my 15 minutes of fame, you know?
AVC: And now you’re one of the few to have played Gandhi—you and Sir Ben Kingsley.
Levey: That’s it. We have lunch once a year to trade notes.
Yankovic: [Cream’s Ginger Baker] came in to audition for the role of the “Change? You got change?” guy. And he came in and he read, and he was okay. But he just wasn’t as good as Vance [Colvig Jr.], who wound up doing the part. But it was a bit surrealistic for me and Jay, you know, who were big Cream fans, to have Ginger Baker come in for this movie.
Levey: Oh my God, do I remember that. As a child of the ’60s, Cream was probably second only to The Beatles as being my favorite band. I was a giant Creamhead. And when I heard that Ginger Baker was going to come in and read for that role, it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I didn’t know where to put that. The fact is, he just wasn’t right. I guess it’s like the Crispin Glover thing. I dreaded the idea of saying no, having to turn him down for the role. He wasn’t an actor, but he was just trying all kinds of things, and his agent saw the listing for this and saw it was a small enough role. He could’ve conceivably worked. It was just Vance, who had worked with Spike Jones, was just a bull’s-eye. So there was no reason to go elsewhere, you know?
Yankovic: Gene Kirkwood was good friends with Sylvester Stallone—in fact, I remember Gene took me over to Sly’s house, this amazing mansion in Los Angeles, and we hung out for an afternoon.
Levey: Right after Rocky, he bought a house that was adjacent to Stallone’s. And he’s like, “Come on, let’s go over to Sly’s!” And we were trouncing through his backyard to get to Stallone’s backyard, then we’re up in Stallone’s house and he’s showing us his collection of knives on the wall.
Yankovic: And we thought maybe we could have him do a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in the Rambo sequence, but it was not to be. I guess he just wasn’t into it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Wasn’t the official excuse “scheduling problems”?
Yankovic: I mean, maybe, you know… I don’t know what the real story is. I can’t imagine that we wouldn’t have changed our schedule to allow for a cameo from Sylvester Stallone. [Laughs.] So I don’t know why he passed on it, but maybe quote-unquote “scheduling problems” was the reason.
Filming In Tulsa
“It’s a little UHF station on the edge of town... it’s been on the brink of bankruptcy for years.”
Levey: Gene and John were studio execs, basically. Gray Frederickson produced the film. He was our line producer, and he got executive producer credit because of this weird thing with the Academy, where if you win an Oscar, the producers are named by the Academy as the recipients of the Oscar, not the executive producers. So Gene and John called themselves producers and called Gray the executive producer. But he was the producer of the film. Gray produced The Godfather, Godfather II, all of Francis Ford Coppola’s movies. He’s a giant! And it was yet another surreal part of the experience. You know, here’s the guy who produced The Godfather, and he’s producing UHF.
Gray Frederickson (Producer): The Outsiders was written by a Tulsa person, S.E. Hinton. The socs and the greasers, the north and south sides of Tulsa. And because I’m from Oklahoma, Francis says, “Well, let’s go check out Oklahoma. It’s written by an Oklahoman, about Oklahoma, set in Oklahoma. You’re from Oklahoma.” So we came to Oklahoma and shot it here and had such a great experience, Francis stayed on, immediately shot Rumble Fish while we were doing post-production on The Outsiders. That experience was so pleasant that when UHF came along, I said maybe we should go on location there.
Levey: It was for the same reason everybody else shot in Tulsa—and why people shoot in Canada and various other places—which is, essentially, to save money. So when it came time to produce the film, he said, “Do you guys have any objection to shooting in Tulsa? We can save a lot of money there and we can get it all on the screen, instead of having to scrimp unnecessarily if we shoot it in L.A.” All we cared about was getting the script on the screen. And any way that it took to do that from a production standpoint was fine by us.
Yankovic: Also, we’d done some scouting around for locations, and Tulsa offered a sort of unique situation. There was a large indoor mall that had recently gone out of business, so they had all these vacant storefronts.
Frederickson: The oil bust had happened, so everybody lost all their money in the oil bust and the bank failures. That’s why the mall and everything was empty.
Yankovic: And the mall was right next to a hotel. So basically, it allowed us to have the whole cast and crew live in the hotel and work next door in the mall, and take it over and make sets out of all the unused storefronts. It became a bit of a full-scale habitrail. We all just lived in this sort of communal situation.
Frederickson: You could walk out of your hotel room, down the elevator, and right into the mall. And then we had a movie theater there, so we had our dailies screening right there in the hotel. The restaurant was in the hotel. The caterer was in the hotel. A lot of the sets were shot right in the hotel. It was like our own movie studio.
Kirkwood: We got Billy Barty, Michael Richards, Fran Drescher, that whole cast, and we did it in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A lot of the people thought we came off a spaceship.
Yankovic: We did some casting in Tulsa and some out of Dallas, which is not too far away. We tried to get as much local talent as possible. We did our big sort of telethon/Gong Show, we had an open call where we had people come in and show their talent. If it was bizarre and stupid enough, we shot them for the movie.
Frederickson: It was like David Letterman’s “Stupid Human Tricks.” We had guys who would stand on their head and play the banjo and juggle fire. And they came not just from Tulsa but from around the country. Some of them came as far as California for this casting call for the talent show for the telethon.
Philips: I was really fascinated by Tulsa. I don’t know if you ever heard of a guy called Oral Roberts. He built a hospital complex there. Apparently, a 900-foot floating Jesus told him to build this huge hospital—which, I believe in the first few years lost about half a billion dollars. Which just goes to show, you can’t believe every 900-foot floating Jesus that comes around. So that was fascinating. It’s a beautiful city.
Watanabe: I remember driving by the praying hands at Oral Roberts, the school there. I thought that was the funniest thing. I just remembered thinking, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.” Or close to it. [Laughs.]
Bowe: It was a great set to be on. Everybody was very down-to-earth and easy to work with… I guess I was chosen by Fran Drescher to be her best friend while we were in Tulsa. It was up to me to find the good Chinese food. On days off, we’d go out and explore and have lunch and go shopping. Fran decided Dave Bowe was her best buddy off the set.
The only person who stood out as being a little odd was Michael Richards. He didn’t like small talk on the set. He wanted to focus on his part, and he also did a lot of yoga when he was off camera. Or maybe it was tai chi, I don’t know. He was always doing something, meditating off on his own.
Geary: My memories of the ’80s are sketchy, I’ll tell you the truth. I remember nothing from about ’82 to ’86. I’m sure I was there because people tell me I was, but exactly where I was, I don’t know. I can tell you my memories are that it was hot and that it was a fun experience. I remember talking Jungian therapy and dreams with Michael Richards. He was reading a book at the time on Jung. We were on a bus from Tulsa out to some little place where the UHF studio was. I was reading this and I was in Freudian therapy at the time, and I remember having a conversation about that. I was impressed that he wasn’t just a funny man but he had an inquiring mind.
I remember Fran Drescher winking at me and telling me I was cute. You don’t forget a thing like that. Not with that voice and that body.
I remember Billy Barty really well because Billy and I had both been on The Merv Griffin Show years before. And it’s such a weird thing, but Billy had sat in my lap on the couch there on Merv’s show, and I was in the makeup trailer when he first came in, and he said, “Do you remember our act?” And I said, “What act?” And he climbed up in a makeup chair on my lap and said, “Put your hand up the back of my shirt,” and I did and we did a ventriloquist act where he did his own speaking as the dummy. I would ask questions, and he had hysterical answers. He was a very funny, sweet man.
I remember Kevin McCarthy. I had recently read a biography of Montgomery Clift, who is one of my favorite actors of all time, and Kevin is in that because he and his wife were best friends with Montgomery Clift, and Clift lived with them when he first moved to Hollywood to do whatever his first picture was. I went to him and told him I was a huge Montgomery Clift fan, and I had read that he had been Clift’s best friend—and I didn’t pump him for information. I just told him what a fan I was, and also that one of my favorite films of all time was the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Kevin and I got on really well.
Richards: I remember there was craft service, and Kevin McCarthy was saying to the rest of us who were sitting there waiting to go before camera, “This business is something, isn’t it? Look at all those goodies over there on the table. And then when the film is over, the table is empty.” And then he went into a brood. I’m thinking, that’s quite an observation. [Laughs.] That’s depressing.
The man was from the Actors Studio, so I said, “You’re from the Actors Studio, aren’t you?” He goes, “Yeah? What’s your training?!” He’s kind of gruff. He’s kind of always in character. I actually got into that. I was always Stanley Spadowski. I’d get the shoes on, and I am indeed my character. It keeps you going. “But what’s your training?!” he barks out at me. Sounds like you’re an animal and they’re teaching you to sit and roll over. “What’s your training?!” It was like we were in the trenches. “What’s your training, soldier?!”
I said, “I’ve never really had any training. I was a student at California Institute Of The Arts, but my training really was we were just doing a lot of plays. So I suppose my training just came out of a lot of doing theater, lot of plays.” He said, “You ought to come over to the Actors Studio!” And he’s talking a bit loud. Everybody can hear. But I thought, he’s got good vocal pitch. That’s good for stage.
So when I got back to Los Angeles, I filled out the form, applied to the Actors Studio, said I was recommended by Kevin McCarthy. And I was given a date to come in and do my scene. And I did the scene, and I wasn’t accepted. I called them back and I said, “Well, Kevin McCarthy told me to apply.” They said they’d get back to me. And I never heard from them again. Then my friend called me and said, “Hey, I just got accepted to the Actors Studio.” They actually accepted him and not me, and he wasn’t even applying. They asked him if he wanted to be a member of the Actors Studio.
It’s all that “Let’s have lunch.” All this bullshit in Hollywood. Such bullshit. But I was working with Stella [Adler]. She was like, “Thank God you didn’t get in the Actors Studio. They would have ruined you.” It actually worked out for the best, because Stella was a much better teacher and wouldn’t cry out loud about not having any more craft service once the picture’s over with. We have far bigger things to do. Like figure out a Tennessee Williams scene or something on that level.
So much for the Actors Studio. God bless Kevin McCarthy. And there we were in Tulsa doing UHF in a parking lot. [Laughs.] That’s showbiz.
Kirkwood: I loved working in Tulsa. I just found out that “Tulsa” spelled backwards is “a slut.” [Laughs.] We had a boat down there on the water every day. It was like a vacation. It really was a great shoot.
Watanabe: I think [Al’s] energy just kind of swooped down onto everybody else so we just kind of played around. It was a play date, actually. The whole shoot was.
Frederickson: It was one of the most pleasant movies I’ve ever worked on. In my memory of all the movies I’ve done, that’s the best, I think. It was just a very fun shoot. There was never a cross word on the set. We all went out to a nearby lake in the evenings after filming.
Levey: It was very smooth, yeah—the benefit of the key creatives doing the writing, the directing, and the starring. And when we were on the set, Al would—as much as I would—always look in the lens. It’s not something that directors do, or in general, often times, not something that actors do. But this was such our creative baby that I would set up the shot and I would call him over, and I would say, “How does this look to you?” Because we really were creative partners in that way. The two of us had written the script, we knew exactly what we wanted on the screen, I was there to in a director’s role to get it—to make sure that all of the elements were in place to get it on the screen—and he would oversee that. He was almost like an executive producer that way.
So it was a pure creative experience. There was no friction anywhere to be had, because we went in with such an organic view of the piece. That really lent itself to very little drama, because we just knew exactly what we wanted and we set out to get that, without any interference.
Frederickson: Except Jay got mad at me because he always asked about this crane, and I could never get him to agree, because we didn’t have the money for a big crane. I thought I got him a crane at the end, but recently, at the 25th anniversary reunion in Tulsa, I was joking about the crane, and he said, “You never did get me the crane.” And I said, “I got you a crane.” And he said, “No, you just got me a cherry picker. You didn’t get me a real crane.” [Laughs.]
Levey: John and Gene could have easily been on the set and giving us notes, and they weren’t anywhere to be found. I mean, Gene came to Tulsa and stayed for most of the shooting, so I shouldn’t say he was nowhere to be found. But that’s very telling that I would say that. Because it’s like, what am I thinking? Of course he was on the set every day. But as long as we were being efficient from a production standpoint—because we had a very limited budget—they completely just let us do our thing creatively.
AVC: Which helped, I imagine, since the quickest way to kill a comedy is to put it in front of a committee.
Levey: Exactly. That’s exactly right. There was no committee here. Zero. Really the only times that John and Gene would get involved—in the very beginning, just sort of getting our bearings—I remember how we would do lots of takes sometimes, to get the read exactly the way we had seen it to be. What comes to mind is R.J. Fletcher in his office with his minions, and he’s throwing a fit about this little upstart station. And his read wasn’t exactly the way we saw it. And of course, you want to give actors tons of room to bring their own to it, and Kevin McCarthy is a great actor. But there was just something in that particular scene where he just wasn’t getting it, and we weren’t in the same place.
I remember we probably did like 15 takes of that, to the point where we finally got it just right. But I remember getting a lot of pushback, because we also printed a ton of dailies of those. We were used to being able to do that in video, for television, where you can just look at countless takes—and burning video, it doesn’t cost a fraction of what it costs to burn film. So here we are burning all this film, and on top of it then developing it all to dailies. So I just remember being cautioned toward the beginning, like, hey, you know, you can’t do that. It’s not TV. You need to be a bit more judicial about selecting your takes and which ones you’re going to have printed for your dailies. It was Film 101 for me, on that level. But that’s an example of how they were involved in the actual production process, not the creative process.
Kirkwood: Well, it’s just shoots. You’re there to have fun. I mean, what are you going to do? It’s never going to be Judgment At Nuremberg, you know? And Al and Jay had such a great rapport from their videos, I said, “Leave ’em alone! If they want to do ‘Wheel Of Fish,’ fantastic!”
Richards: Al was just open to anything. I remember I said, “Hey, Al. Can I get a train set? I think Stanley would play with a train on this kiddy show.” And he goes, “Definitely!” And they called up some hobby store in town and got this guy to let us come over and get inside this whole train setup he had. It just showed how open Al was to just making comedy. Extraordinary. I did a lot of improvising in that film. The way I would rush in and start screaming things, I think most of that was improvised. Remember I entered driving one of those Shriner cars? I saw those Shriner cars somewhere, a picture or something, and I asked to get a Shriner car. And there it was, right there. He and Jay were just so open to that kind of creativity. I just love to work in that manner.
I sang that Bonanza song because I used to do that as a kid. I used to watch that TV show all the time, and I was always going around singing—and I could do it very, very fast. I threw that in there. I’ve used lot of things from my childhood. Like when I was doing Fridays and doing Battle Boy. I used to play with toy soldiers, so that was a character I played on this sketch show. All that was from my childhood. Stanley’s a very childlike guy.
Bowe: Al and I, we bonded in Tulsa. A lot of the things we did while waiting for our scenes to come up ended up in the movie—funny little things, like I showed him how I could stick my fingers in my mouth and open my mouth really big and show my teeth. He was like, “That’s great, we’ve got to put that in the movie.” I said, “Okay, tell me when I should do it.” And he said, “No, I’m going to do it.” So he’d be the one to put his fingers in my mouth and open my mouth like that. That, of course, made it into the movie.
And in the scene where I was talking how all the shows are doing really well? Right before that we’d been in the green room waiting to shoot, and I told him to toss me a grape, and I caught it with my mouth. He was like, “Wow, you can do that?” And I go, “Every time.” So he kept tossing grapes; I kept catching them all in my mouth. He’s like, “We’ve got to put that in the movie.” So we did that, too.
Philips: My scene, I believe some of the bits might’ve been things I ad-libbed, and some of them were definitely in the script. I forget which is which now. I remember they had a table saw with a whirling blade, and I very, very, very, very carefully positioned my thumb in the right spot, a quarter of an inch from the whirling blade. And we did three takes. And afterwards, I thought, Whoo, that was close! You know, because I could’ve…. But it’s a movie. I want to do my best. And after the third take, the director said, “Okay, now let’s go for a close-up of the thumb.” So I risked my thumb for no reason! The other thing I remember was that I was sprayed with this red… whatever it was. The red thing that made it look like blood? It wasn’t really blood. And I was all covered in blood, and I had to go to my hotel room and shower and change into a new outfit. So that took three times as well, obviously.
If you go on emophilips.com, there is unseen footage that was left on the editing room floor. I have a line in the film—which almost never happens—where I said to Al, “Whenever this happens, I tell my students to put their thumb in their mouth until they get to the emergency room.” But Al said, “Yes, but you already said, ‘This hardly ever happens.’” He has a very logical mind. So, the sad part is that the second bit had to be left on the cutting room floor. Along with the thumb.
Yankovic: That particular scene was a big reason why we got the PG-13, and Orion was begging us to just take that out of the movie so we could get just a regular PG and get a lot more people into the theaters. And I was like, I can’t cut Emo. And I love the scene. I think it’s hilarious. It’s really dark and bloody and disgusting, and no, it stays in the movie.
Frederickson: The biggest problem we ran into was when we had the telethon. We ran an ad that said [to] come out and be extras in the movie, and we gave away prizes. And at the end of the night when the sun came up, we had drawings to give away stuff that was given by local merchants, or certificates to Pizza Hut and KFC. We’d give away bicycles and motor scooters and things. It was a lot cheaper than paying the extras.
And then human resources came out and stayed at the unemployment office one night and said, “Who’s in charge here?” And of course, they pointed to me. And here come these guys in suits, saying, “You’re in trouble. These people are working for less than minimum wage.” And I said, “No, they’re working for nothing.” They said, “That’s against the law. You can’t do that. You have to pay people at least minimum wage.” And so I said, “Well, we were using their cars”—we lined up all their cars and shined the headlights on the stage. I said, “We really need their cars.” And they said, “So the people are free to leave?” And I said, “Yeah, we don’t care if the people stay. We just need their cars.” But of course, they couldn’t leave without their cars. So we dodged that bullet.
AVC: They say never to work with kids, yet you guys worked with a whole lot of them.
Richards: Oh, that was fun. That’s just all fun. I don’t know what was going on in their heads with me running around with that character, but I hope it didn’t frighten them. I remember the first time I saw Johnny Weissmuller. I was 10 years old, and he showed up at Bob’s Big Boy. This is Tarzan, and he was gruff, in a terrible mood. It startled me that he was a big guy. I’m just a kid. I thought he was going to show up as Tarzan. But instead, he wore a black suit and he was moody. So I was doing Stanley Spadowski in between takes.
I may have dropped out of character just in standing there thinking about what to do, and maybe in that moment, the kids were frightened. It’s a radical change, going into character and out of character. I just hope those kids survived. That’s pretty heavy for a young kid on a motion picture set. Nothing’s supposed to be real—yet there’s Kevin McCarthy blurting out, “And when the table is empty, it’s empty!” I don’t know how they felt about that guy.
Watanabe: I remember trying to get that [“Wheel Of Fish”] scene done because the fish were live. They weren’t alive, but they were real fish and I was worried about the fish stink. [Laughs.] I thought, oh my God, after a while, under those lights, this room is going to smell horrific. I just heard from—I can’t remember her name [Lisa R. Stefanic]—the son of the woman that I called, “You so stupid!” in that scene—[he] contacted me for some reason and said, “Do you remember my mother?” I sent him a signed picture that said, “You’re not stupid.”
AVC: Do people still yell that at you?
Watanabe: Oh God, yeah. And sometimes I’ll yell back, “Yeah, so are you!” You know? [Laughs.] In a fun way. They get it.
Geary: My favorite moment that I have in the movie is when I have Al hold the electric whatever-they-are—sensors or something—and I throw a switch and his hair stands on end. Then I turn it off and quietly take them away and tell Al it worked. I really liked that moment. It’s one of my favorite moments I’ve ever done on film, because it was small and it was real and it was funny…. I remember Al was very busy, so I didn’t have much interaction with him except in those scenes—which is fine. He had written and had money in the picture, and it was important to him that everything be just right.
Frederickson: Al would stay up at night all night—he’s a night owl. And when we were shooting between takes, he would just lie down right on the set and go to sleep. The director and camera people would just step over him, sleeping on the floor there when we were changing setups. Getting ready for the next set, they’d say, “Okay, let’s go.” He’d jump up and go right back into character.
Yankovic: I can’t do that so much anymore, but back in those days I was very good at cat napping. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep, and I took advantage of moments when there was downtime. Somebody would say, “Okay Al, we’re not going to need you for 20 minutes,” and I’d go okay, and I’d go somewhere close and I’d just lay down on the floor, and I’d be asleep in like 20 seconds. And then they’d wake me up, and I would be like, “Okay, let’s do it!” Apparently I was doing that quite a lot. I’m glad they didn’t have smartphones back then, because there would have been a million pictures of me on Instagram, sleeping under a chair.
Bowe: We had a couple parties where Al came over to my room. I had some friends come out from L.A. and hang with me for a few days. He came over to make his world-famous Yankarita Margaritas in my bathroom in my hotel room. We got a little crazy one night…. Okay, we got a little crazy more than one night. On that particular night, he was like, “You have to taste my world famous Yankaritas.” We all got our party on.
Yankovic: Oh gosh, yeah. I mean, I’m not much of a drinker, but I used to have some kind of margarita recipe, which I probably just found on the back of a bottle. It wasn’t anything really special. It’s one of those things where it was really just a common, garden-variety margarita, but you call it a “Yankarita” and all of a sudden people are like, “Ooh, I’ve got to have one of those!” It was probably just tequila and triple sec and lime juice. And ice cubes. So that’s the world famous secret Yankarita recipe.
AVC: So you’re just taking someone else’s creation and putting “Weird Al” Yankovic’s name on it?
Yankovic: [Laughs.] It wasn’t like I was marketing it! But yes, that’s correct.
Despite the otherwise smooth production, UHF was beset by one unexpected tragedy: Trinidad Silva, who played the poodle-flinging host of Raul’s Wild Kingdom, was killed in a collision with a drunk driver. The film is dedicated to his memory.
Levey: It was horrible. Trinidad was in an accident, and passed away very shortly after the filming of UHF. There’s really very little else to say, except that we loved working with him. He was absolutely fabulous, just a wonderful sense of humor, nailed the part, went home, got in an accident, and was killed. It was just terribly tragic.
Yankovic: It was a horrible shock, and it was kind of tough to go on in light of that. But of course, you’ve got a whole army of people waiting for you to command them, and you can’t just stop production of a movie. You have to keep the show going. But it was very difficult at the time, because he was a friend and a key player in the movie, and he was gone in an instant.
He was going to come back in the telethon scene, and in fact I think we tried to shoot one or two of those scenes using a body double. It was like “the revenge of the poodles,” so we thought, okay, we’ll just have some body double running through frame with his face completely covered with poodles—and in fact, you see a few seconds of that in the deleted scenes. Number one, it just didn’t work. It just looked very fake. And number two, we just didn’t have the heart to try to replace Trinidad.
So we just said, you know what, let’s just leave his scenes as is. The other thought was to just take him out of the movie completely, and I said, “We’re not going to do that. We love him, we want to honor him, and also they’re some of our favorite and funniest scenes in the movie, so he’s definitely staying in. We’re just not going to have the payoff that was originally in the script.”
Levey: We probably had him at the end—why wouldn’t we have had him in the end scene, right? He was just, sadly, missing from it.
Test Screening Highs
“George, we’re the number one station in town!”
Yankovic: I was told that UHF got the highest test screening numbers since the original RoboCop.
Bowe: Fran and I snuck into one of the test screenings out in the Valley. We knew they were handing out flyers to do a test screening. It seemed so well received. It was packed. There were a lot of people, and people were cheering and laughing. We thought, “This is going to be great. Everything looks great.”
Emo Philips: I can tell you, when I saw it in the movie theater, on the big screen, it—well first of all, I was gratified. It got a huge, gigantic wave of laughs. It was probably the most exciting moment of my life up until then. Maybe still the most exciting moment. Well, one of the most exciting. I don’t know if you’re counting near misses on the freeway.
Levey: When a movie tests like that, that’s how Hollywood works: They thought we were the next big thing. We were keyed up to be doing more movies right away.
Yankovic: I got pretty pumped up, thinking that I was going to be a movie star for a brief period of time. That was certainly the way Orion was positioning it. They said that I was going to be their new Woody Allen. They were looking forward to a long career with me.
Levey: In some ways, it was supposed to contribute towards keeping them in business, because they were going out of business at the time. So all of a sudden, with these tremendous testing results, they put us out just right in the heart of the summer, thinking that we would compete with the other films for that summer. Unfortunately, the other films for that summer were Indiana Jones [And The Last Crusade], Batman, Do The Right Thing, Lethal Weapon ….
Richards: We weren’t on the side of buses. Batman was. That’s not very good timing, is it?
Box Office Lows
“Given our present financial situation, compounded by ongoing fixed expenses and outstanding invoices, I figure this station will be flat broke by the end of the week.”
Yankovic: The summer of 1989, you know, is one of the biggest blockbuster summers in history. In retrospect, if the movie had been put out during a sleepy or slow period, when there wasn’t a whole lot going on, it probably would have done a whole lot better. But as it was, it got swallowed up very quickly.
Kirkwood: You know, I opened The Pope Of Greenwich Village against Star Wars and Ghostbusters. You go out when you can go out, and you get a release, and you never know what’s going to sneak through. I forget how many theaters we had, but we had a lot of theaters. [Orion] believed in the picture. You never know what’s going to happen. I opened Rocky in three theaters. It wound up winning Best Picture that year.
Levey: We couldn’t compete. We just simply couldn’t compete. There was probably more than one moment where we were like, “Uh, we hope they know what they’re doing…” You know? But in the end we felt like they’re the big studio and that’s their call, right? We were the new kids on the block. We didn’t have a lot of experience in that.
Kirkwood: When the grosses came in, I was at the boat show, thinking, “I’m going to buy a boat off this movie, it’s going to be so good.” I called Orion for the grosses, and they said, “Forget a boat, just get a paddle.” [Laughs.] They took me out of the boat show with a bottle of tequila in my hand.
Frederickson: I had to leave during the final month or so of post-production to go off to Rome to start Godfather: Part III, so I just heard from long distance the disappointment of the movie release. The good news is that I sort of missed all that because I was in Rome—in another world, on another movie. And the bad was that I didn’t get to experience any of the release of the movie, going to theaters and seeing people’s reactions and all that.
Richards: I knew when it came out it wasn’t a bona fide hit. And that’s it. I don’t normally keep up with the tracks and the box office. That’s not my scene.
Yankovic: We all expected the movie to do well. And then after opening weekend, when it didn’t perform up to anybody’s expectations, I was basically a ghost. People in the hallways at Orion didn’t want to establish eye contact with me. It was a pretty dramatic rise and fall. I won’t say that I spiraled into depression, but I was pretty bummed. It took me a while to kind of get out of my funk and to go on with my life, because I’d had a pretty large carrot dangled in front of me and then dropped into the toilet.
Levey: You go from being treated as if you are the new best thing in Hollywood to persona non grata. It’s pretty scary when that happens. It was an unbelievable fall. But it was a bit strange, because we were doing our best not to buy into… You know, obviously it was great to see that everything was testing so well, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. We had never set our expectations at any kind of level like that. We were trying our best not to get sucked into that—but it was hard not to, frankly. Because there was so much excitement for it after the test screenings.
Yankovic: You know, I think it was still the highest debuting movie that week. But I mean, still… I think it barely made the top 10. [Laughs.] So I can’t blame it all on Batman and Indiana Jones. I mean, competition was certainly a big part of that, but maybe it was just a movie that was years ahead of its time.
Kirkwood: Al’s audience, was, like, 5. So the matinees were packed—sold out—but nothing at night. At night, it was empty. That first day, we went around to all the theaters at night, and it was dead. They were, like, half full. The Q [rating]—everybody misjudged the Q. We didn’t think we’d go that young. Because Al was on MTV, we figured we’d have a higher Q, but it wasn’t the case.
Levey: I love Gene, and he was key and instrumental in this movie getting made. Having said that, I couldn’t possibly disagree more. To call Al’s audience 5-year-olds is patently ridiculous. It’s not to say that 5-year-olds don’t enjoy Al’s sense of humor, but I’m sorry, that’s just not it. Al always says that when people are asked what their favorite Al album is, they’ll typically raise the example of the album when they were 12 years old. Because the perennial 12-year-old in us is the “Weird Al” audience. And even if it begins around 5, that’s in no way close to being his core audience. So Gene’s just flat-out wrong when he says that.
Gene is a businessman. It would be so remotely untrue to say that Gene in any way had a passion for Al or our kind of comedy. He just saw it as a really good opportunity based on Al’s success up until that point, and it’s fantastic that he and John Hyde came to the table as producers and said they wanted to make the movie. But it was from that perspective. He didn’t really understand Al’s audience, as is clearly indicated by that quote. I’m exceptionally appreciative for the role that he played. I just disagree with his characterization of Al’s audience.
I didn’t think that anything was sold out, let alone the matinees. I thought we did simply, overall, poorly in general. Al’s core audience, never was, nor ever has been, 5-year-olds. They’ve been teenagers—young teenagers. Really, the main factor that has been the most widely cited in the past—and to this day, I would still stick by—is that we were released amidst a flurry of tentpole, mega-hit studio films. And we just simply couldn’t survive in that pool.
Yankovic: And the critics certainly weren’t kind to it. It took a long time for people to discover the movie on cable TV and through VHS rentals.
Birth Of A Cult Classic
“Now I’m calling out an S.O.S.—Save Our Station!”
Bowe: I’m a big fan of the movie and very happy that it’s built up such a cult following. People seem to discover it—and those who like it, like it a lot… I get stopped—still to this day—on the street, and people say, “UHF was my favorite movie.” The people that did like it loved it. A lot of people say, “That’s a movie we own that I watch almost every day.”
Levey: It’s enormously gratifying. As the Grateful Dead would say, I guess it’s been a long, strange trip. It was a little bit of a Cinderella story. It was very early into his career, and having that creative partnership between the two of us, where we get the opportunity to make a feature film with a major studio, with the producers, collectively, of Rocky, Das Boot, and The Godfather, with wonderful actors... Having the opportunity to get on the screen what we intended to do from the outset. Having this enormous success with the test screenings, and then falling off a cliff for so many years. Not really understanding the influence and the effect that that movie had on people.
I mean, it was called a cult classic almost from the beginning. In fact, it wasn’t very long after the film that The New York Times did a front page Arts & Leisure article all about cult films, and UHF was one of the ones held up as one of the prime examples of cult movies. And you just feel like, “Well, that’s nice…” But you still have the sting of failure at the box office, right?
Kirkwood: It was great making it at the time, it really felt good making it, and that’s all that really matters. You never know what the movie gods are going to do. To this day, you know, kids buy it. It’s still around. And every now and then, you go into Wal-Mart or something like that and it’s featured there. I’ll tell you this: I’m not ashamed of it.
Levey: When it came out on DVD, of all the DVDs being released that week—including recent films, recent blockbusters—we were in the top 10, several years after the movie came out. So, yet another sign of it having a lasting effect. But it’s really only the last several years where it really feels like it has landed.
Geary: I don’t think I saw it until it was on my VCR. I was pleasantly surprised that it was funny and held up and the humor wasn’t cloying or sophomoric. It was quite a funny, sophisticated film, and the people in it were terrific…. I did a lot of crappy movies in the ’80s, which is probably why I don’t remember five years of them. But this one I’ve always enjoyed, and I always stop if I’m flipping through television and it’s on because there’s wonderful people in it, and it’s a funny film.
Richards: The comedy’s rich. It’s a smart picture in the way in which Al went after lampooning television. Lampoonery, that’s an art form. Al is a master of it and I just think that the way he crafted that picture, it’s pretty much his own doing. I was brought in as a character that he imagined, and I took it to where I took it, and he went along with it, and we were both on the same page. I think it’s good wholesome comedy. I think it will hold up. Comedy’s comedy.
Kirkwood: It catches up to itself, because of the way UHF stations are, and the YouTube and different things. It fits in today. I think it might have been a different movie were it released today. Because it would’ve been Google, it would’ve been this and that, and it would’ve been a big hit, like, digitally. You would have had a different type of release and everything. Today I might have done it as a series instead of as a movie.
Levey: People who saw it of that generation when it came out, they loved the picture. But that got lost in the box office failure, in our perception. In Al’s and my perception of the film, it was shrouded in failure. But the fact is that people say to us, “Wow man, that movie meant so much to me. It was such an important movie for me. I remember where I was and what movie theater.” It’s the same way that new audiences discover Al’s older work, his music. It lasts and new audiences discover it.
Yankovic: There was just an anniversary fundraiser for a Tulsa UHF station—or a local public station at least—and I did a big screening of the movie with a Q&A afterwards. And it was nice to come home, to come back to Tulsa.
Frederickson: A local college has a small PBS television station called Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, and it was their anniversary, so they tied it all in with the 25th anniversary of UHF. The college dedicated a closet—the supplies closet—to UHF.
Yankovic: I saw some people that were in the movie that I hadn’t seen in 25 years. I saw the little boy that got blasted with the firehose. I saw the woman who was a contestant in “Wheel Of Fish.” It was great to touch base with those actors and that community.
Frederickson: It was like stepping back in time going to that, except the little kid that was shot with the fire hose is now 6-foot-4 and in his 30s. So he’s a little different.
Levey: We just hear about [UHF] all the time. Al and I—separately, together, whatever. It’s like it’s a constant topic of conversation. And the number of people who bring it up, and so many people from within the entertainment industry will say that it’s what, between that film and [Al’s] work in general, led them into comedy. And it’s being referenced constantly. It’s extraordinarily gratifying to be getting that kind of response, finally.
Richards: Sometimes when I’m traveling, people show up at the airport with pictures to sign. They’re wearing Stanley Spadowski T-shirts. I’ve seen people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, wearing T-shirts with religious figures on them, so I suppose it’s okay to wear a Stanley Spadowski T-shirt. Some people identify with a number of a player on a basketball team and wear that jersey around. I think it’s funny when people really identify with a character and say, “Hey, I’m swinging with this for awhile. Dig it.” I don’t wear pictures of people… But I think UHF does indeed hold up. If there’s someone standing at the airport wearing that T-shirt, something’s holding up, baby.
Geary: I got a lot of mail from all over the world—and I don’t read it, but somebody reads it for me and always puts aside anything they think I might be interested in looking at. I remember a letter asking for picture and an autograph came in from Singapore, and they didn’t know me from General Hospital but they did know me from UHF. I was really pleased to give it to them.
Philips: Just last night I was at a casino doing a show, and the security guard takes me to the dressing room, and then he comes back 10 minutes later and says, “Wait a second, weren’t you that guy in UHF?” So people that don’t even know my stand-up know me from UHF. And last Halloween, this fan of mine dressed up like my character Joe Earley. And two years ago, there’s a great actor called Matthew Gray Gubler—he’s on Criminal Minds—he dressed up like me for Halloween. I’ll email you a picture. Would you like that?
Watanabe: I remember seeing Al years later, because I was filming up in Canada and we just happened to run into each other. And he invited me to see his show, and I was blown away by the fact that there were all these people out there, and they showed little clips of UHF, and people were screaming the lines. It was really fantastic. I was just astounded by it. I was floored.
Bowe: I have two boys, a 16-year-old and a 12-year-old. I showed it to them years and years ago, but when the anniversary came up, they didn’t remember watching it. They were much younger. We watched it again. They were like, “Oh yeah, we love that movie!” We watched it together and had a good time.
Geary: It’s one of my nephew’s favorite films ever. He didn’t even know it was me when he was first watching it, but he loved the movie and his brother said, “That’s your uncle.” And he said, “Really?! I didn’t know.” I’m glad that it transcends those of us who are in it, and it still works for each generation. That’s very cool.
Philips: All over America, whenever a young man turns 13, he sees this film, and it becomes his favorite film of all time. It’s kind of like a secular, comedic Bar Mitzvah. And the accumulation of young men who at the age of 13 who have seen this film over the last 25 years has given it a massive fan base and elevated it to a legendary stature.
Frederickson: I teach a film program here at Oklahoma City Community College, and more of my students are aware of UHF than they are of The Godfather. When I talk about the movies I’ve done, I say, “The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders, UHF…. “UHF?! Wow, we love that movie.” So, it’s got some legs. It kept on going.
Yankovic: It’s been extremely gratifying for me. I’m not sure exactly why I was lucky enough to have this become a cult classic, because for years it was just… you know, a failed movie, a big box-office bomb. But somehow, it’s really found its audience. And again, I’m not sure why it’s resonated with people like that, or why it was such a slow build, but it’s meant a lot to me. Because it was traumatic for the movie to do as poorly as it did upon release, and the fact that now it’s so beloved by so many people, that certainly heals a lot of the wounds I had at the time, and I’m very proud of it now.
Having said that, there are still a million things I would have done differently in retrospect. You know, Jay and I were very green and we made a lot of mistakes, and we made a lot of decisions which I think… I think we could have made better ones. But we now have a movie that a lot of people look back on fondly. You know, there are people walking around with “Weird Al” tattoos. There are people that have seen the movie literally hundreds of times. There are people that say that UHF is their absolute favorite movie. That can’t help but make me feel pretty good.
You’ll Never Work In This Town Again
“This is a business, not a home for irresponsible pus brains!”
Kirkwood: I liked Jay a lot. I think he’s really talented. I didn’t mean for that picture to kill their careers in film. [Laughs.]
Frederickson: [Jay] had his homework done, and he just did a great job. He was a good director. He should have kept doing it. I don’t know why he didn’t follow up with that career. He said, “Well, nobody called me and offered me jobs.” But I think he deserved to.
Levey: For me, I certainly wasn’t going to be offered any more directing roles. It just simply wasn’t going to happen. What they care about is box office, and that was my first shot, and it was very niche in what it was. And the niche failed at the box office.
Kirkwood: [Jay] should get over it a little. I offered him a couple of pictures, but he wanted to wait until it opened. He was waiting.
Levey: That’s a little bit disingenuous. There was a script that a mutual friend of ours had written that I thought was cute. It was a very G-rated, feel-good, almost like a Hallmark movie. And I admired it and even gave that person notes. But it was nothing more than conversations that he and I had about one script. For him to say that he brought me more than one opportunity—and I’m not even sure how much of an opportunity that was—is simply not true.
He’s absolutely right that I said I’d like to wait and see how the film does, because I thought it was going to do well. I was really happy and proud of UHF. I didn’t want to just grab at the first thing that was thrown my way before the movie even came out—unless it would have been a perfect fit. But as I said, this wasn’t. This was like a Hallmark, kind of TV movie. I thought it was very beautifully done, but it wasn’t my kind of film.
Gene Kirkwood was a producer, like many independent producers, who go and sell properties to studios. So it’s also disingenuous, to some degree, to make it sound like I was offered a film and I turned it down. Because it would’ve meant if I had shown interest, he would’ve gone to the studios to try and sell it—which, by the way, he could have done anyway. There are lots of other directors besides me, and undoubtedly better than I would have been for that movie. So, I don’t know what he’s talking about.
I could flat-out tell you that I was never offered a single script, by him or anyone else. When I use the word “offer,” it’s not like, “feeling out interest.” It’s an offer. No one ever offered. He was feeling me out. During post-production—because the thing was killing in previews—everybody was high on their horse. And so he couldn’t help but be like, okay, so what’s next? He’s a producer, right? He wants to sell the next thing. And I’m like, well, why don’t we wait to see how this thing does? Neither he nor anyone brought me a script, the same way neither he nor anyone else brought Al a script. Neither of us have been presented with primary vehicles for our talents. It just simply hasn’t happened.
And I don’t feel bitter about it. I feel sort of sad and disappointed by it, but it’s the way of Hollywood, you know? You’re a first-time director and you get killed commercially, no one is going to come to you, because that’s not how business is. If somebody’s trying to get a film made so that it’s commercially successful, they don’t go to a person who has done one thing unsuccessfully.
Any directing that I had done was directing Al’s music videos. And he and I went into this project with this attitude, like, let’s keep it as close to the vest creatively as possible, so that we can get what we believe will be the truest form of the script on screen. And we both felt that that meant my directing it. It was an assertion that we made, and it was granted, thankfully, by Gene and John, and by Orion. They didn’t have to do that. They could’ve said, “Look, guys, we want Al to star in this, but we need a director who has done some things in the past.” And I am grateful to this day that they allowed me to direct it. It took some balls on their part to do that.
Having said all that, I basically fell into it. Because it wasn’t like my primary occupation was a director. My primary occupation was as a personal manager, with Al being my primary client. I also had some creative chops, enough to put me in the position of directing—and included, in no small way, the co-writing of the script. But it wasn’t my primary occupation. After the film did not perform, I could have decided to change course, I suppose, and pursue a different occupation directing. And I chose not to.
There were a couple of very strong reasons for that. One was I felt a very strong sense of loyalty to Al. I’m not trying to project any sense of sacrifice. I don’t see it necessarily as sacrifice. But it just wasn’t much of an internal dialogue for me, because I was tremendously invested in him as a client, in our working together, and in his future. I wasn’t prepared to change careers and just say, “Well, I’ve caught the bug and now I want to be a director. So I’m going to suggest you get another manager.” It never even dawned on me. When we both started, I was a fledgling manager, he was a fledgling artist, and it was that world we had built up until that point. And when it crashed at that moment, even though it stung like hell, we were both determined to pick ourselves up out of the rubble and continue forward. So all of my efforts continued in that trajectory. They didn’t shift.
I have directed things since then. I directed another feature film [Life As We Know It]. I directed a documentary [Blues Story], which I’m very proud of. And I directed Steve Carell’s first television pilot, thank you. [Laughs.] But let’s put it this way: My eye was never off the prize of Al’s success in his career, and my role in that as his personal manager. When the film failed, my eye remained on the prize and the film quickly worked its way beyond my peripheral vision.
For Al, it’s really a combination of two things. One is that he hasn’t really had a film that he’s wanted to write on his own. He’s had the opportunity, through a long and flourishing career, to sit down and write a film for himself at any time. He just doesn’t really have a film in mind. And no one’s come knocking, either. So those two things, combined with the fact that he’s had a nonstop busy career for 30 years. It’s not ever like there’s been this lull where he’s just sitting around wondering, looking to fill time, so, “Gee, maybe I’ll just write another script and see where that’ll take me.”
Yankovic: It’s not entirely my decision. [Laughs.] I would love to star in another movie. But somehow I think you need to have a motion picture studio involved in that decision, and nobody’s been knocking down my door. I’ve done cameos in a number of movies, and I’ve had a fun time doing those. And I’d written a script which Cartoon Network was going to be producing at one point, but that fell through. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I would love to make another movie, but I haven’t been terribly proactive about it. The music has always been my bread and butter, and I’ve focused more of my attention on that. Because I’ve felt like any album that I recorded, I knew that it would come out, whereas any movie script I wrote, I felt like it would still be a miracle if it got made—like any movie. So I never put a whole lot of energy in that direction.
What About A Sequel?
“It’s a whole new weekend on U-62! The reason television was invented!”
Kirkwood: I’m glad “Weird Al” keeps coming back. He’s never left us. We should do UHF Again, instead of UHF 2. Sure, why not? You never know. It’s crazy out there. You never know what’s going to hit or what’s going to go on today. It’s amazing.
Levey: Both of us see there not being a sequel there. It just kind of lives in this perfect place, in the perfect time. It did connect in the zeitgeist. It has continued on. And just kind of leave it alone.
Kirkwood: We could do UHF as a series. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. Tell Al to wake up. Tell him we’ll do it as a series. We could do it digitally. A lot of places would probably take it. Why not? Bring it up to date. It’s all reality shows now. It’s the same thing.
Levey: Al is very much awake, thank you very much. He never fell asleep. [Laughs.] And yes, that would be one way to go with perpetuating the franchise. We’ve heard that idea from many others, as much as we’ve been pitched the idea from many others that there should be another film sequel. We’ve been very much awake during all of those conversations, thank you very much, and during all those conversations, we’ve primarily said the same thing. Al’s got a very quick trigger—which, that’s maybe an unfair way to characterize someone who quickly makes up his mind and quickly knows his own mind, which is a very good way of characterizing Al. And he’s always and immediately said, look, UHF was its own creative moment. It lived in its own time, in its own place, and was perfect within that very constrictive universe. Al will not dismiss it—that’s not fair to say. He will answer it succinctly and then move on, because there’s really nothing more to say.
My primary reaction is to say, well, wait a minute, yeah, why can’t we? Because my primary reaction is as a businessperson looking for opportunities—the right kinds of opportunities. There have been many, many business opportunities in Al’s career that we’ve passed on, simply because they’re not a good fit. When I start to really think about what a sequel might be, there are so many different reasons why it’s very, very, very difficult for me to imagine anything that would come close to being satisfying. Whether it be in the form of a film or a digital series, as Gene just mentioned—which, by the way, many others have mentioned to us as well. I would say as recently as last fall.
And it kind of makes sense. In many ways, UHF was prescient in terms of its use of short-form content that has become the wheelhouse of the web. And from that standpoint you could look at that and go, God, you could just carve this up and just do it on the web. It’s absolutely true. In some ways, that’s what people like Nerdist and College Humor and Funny Or Die are all doing, right?
Yankovic: [Laughs.] It’s an interesting thought. Certainly, people have been saying, “You should do UHF 2.” I think even when I ran into Gray Frederickson recently, he may have mentioned the UHF series idea. It’s not a bad idea, but I kind of feel like, at this point, I’d like to move on—for a number of reasons. Maybe the biggest is, I don’t want to ruin people’s nostalgia about UHF.
I think that anything that we did as a sequel or a continuation would be a disappointment in some way. No matter how good it was, or how funny it was, there would be people saying, “Yeah, but it’s not UHF.” Because however funny UHF was, I think a lot of people have a sense of nostalgia tied in with it, and I feel very reluctant about messing with that. You know, never say never, but I just don’t really feel like I want to do anything UHF-related in terms of continuing the story at this point. I would love to do another movie, but I’d prefer to go in a different direction.
I mean, if a major motion picture studio said, “Here’s $40 million, we want UHF 2,” I’d probably think of something. [Laughs.] But I would rather it be something different.... If that’s an option.