At 25: “UHF”

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July 21, 2014 by billysparrow


Released: July 21, 1989

Starring: “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Richards, Kevin Bowe, Gedde Watanabe, Victoria Jackson, John Paragon, Fran Drescher, Billy Barty

When thinking about what to do for the At 25 salute to “UHF,” “Weird Al” Yankovic’s cinematic masterpiece, thought was given to providing a list of the 62 greatest things about “UHF” (62 being the number of the cable channel in the movie, of course). But I felt like that would be giving in to the list culture that prevails in our Buzzfeed world, so I decided against it.

But do not take that to mean that I would have a hard time coming up with 62 highlights from “UHF.” I’m pretty confident I would have a harder time whittling it down to just 62. I suspect it is at this point in our salute that you are wondering if you have the time to sit here and read the rambling thoughts of a man who claims he would have a difficult time editing his favorite moments down to just 62. I understand your trepidation, and as a man who has lived with himself his entire life and has had to come to grips with the lunatic inside his head who just wants to think about old TV shows and movies from the 1980s all day, I sympathize with your predicament.

So, in an effort to keep you here, I will do my best to let the clips do the talking. I recognize I have said similar things before, but come on, baby, this time I mean it.

OK, a brief plot summary: George Newman (Yankovic) takes over ownership of a UHF channel when his uncle (Stanley Brock) wins it in a poker game. After initial failure, the runaway success of “Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse,” hosted by the station’s janitor (Michael Richards) turns the fortunes of U62 around and the station bests local network affiliate Channel 8, run by R.J. Fletcher (the reliably stupendous Kevin McCarthy). Chaos ensues, Uncle Harvey has a huge gambling debt he needs to pay off, Fletcher tries to buy U62, Newman runs a telethon to try to save the station, and, well, I bet you know how that ends up.

Let us get the bad things out of the way first. The Indiana Jones parody in the beginning bores me, and the Rambo parody toward the end (though it has its moments) and the “Gone With the Wind” homage at the very end leave me similarly cold. And thus concludes our “Things I Don’t Like about ‘UHF'” section.

Let us begin our virtue-extolling session with a look at Kevin McCarthy as R.J. Fletcher, one of the more enjoyable comic villains in movie history, mainly due to the ridiculous commitment, but also because of that great laugh.

Props also to John Paragon, who plays his son and who I remember enjoying on the short-lived TV show “FTV” when I was a wee lad. I can find very little evidence of this show’s existence, and that makes me sad. (Paragon is better known in the pop-culture world for being Jambi on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” though he also had a  memorable couple of episodes of “Seinfeld.”)

Paragon is in the scene that introduces us to the man anyone in their right mind is always happy to be introduced to, Billy Barty, who here plays cameraman Noodles McIntosh.

The beginning of that clip also has one of my favorite throwaway gags, the blind guy trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube and seeking verification from a homeless guy (Vance Colvig Jr.), who, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling “UHF” for you, has an important role in the movie’s conclusion. But his first scene is this one, which is also good for a quick laugh.

But wait, there’s more. Who besides Kevin McCarthy and Billy Barty is always a happy sight to see on your screen? That’s right, Gedde Watanabe, best known as Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles,” but here playing Kuni, the host of U62’s game show “Wheel of Fish,” and, as such, the utterer of “Nothing! Absolutely nothing! Stupid! You’re so stupid!” which takes its place alongside “Supplies!” (which he also says) and “Hey, mister!”/”Thanks a lot, mister!” as the things said in “UHF” that you might hear me say on any given day.

That’s just one of the many quick-hit laughs that pop up in “UHF” in the various TV shows and commercials on U62. How about a local shop teacher (comedian Emo Philips) and a table saw?

Or maybe you prefer a gag alluding to a (widely misquoted) line from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”?

Maybe commercial humor is more your thing. And when it comes to cinematic commercial humor (what, that’s a genre, isn’t it?), you’d have to look far and wide to top “Spatula City.”

And you have no sense of humor if you don’t at least chuckle at the commercial to “Gandhi II.”

Come on, “No more Mr. Passive Resistance” doesn’t get you?

But no discussion of the greatness of “UHF” is complete without a tipping of the hat in Michael Richards’s direction. As janitor Stanley Spadowski, Richards knocks it out of the park and gives a glimpse at the mega-stardom that would follow when “Seinfeld” took off in the year or so after “UHF” was released. It would be tempting to say that he’s a little over the top here, but (a) this is a movie in which “over the top” is worn like a badge of honor and (b) he did pretty well for himself by being over the top on “Seinfeld.” The world largely sees him as Kramer, but I’ll always think of him as Stanley Spadowski (followed by as the guy in the “Fridays” sketch where Andy Kaufman brought the show to a halt, then as Kramer, and, finally, as the guy who delivered the most uncomfortably awkward apology in TV history).

So, I am pleased to report that “UHF” still makes me laugh 25 years later. Honestly, the day I watch “UHF” and feel nothing will be a sad, sad day. I don’t even want to think about it. Why did you have to bring it up? What? I brought it up? I don’t think that’s true. Maybe we should just agree to disagree on that one.

Phew. I’m glad we settled that. It would’ve kept me up.

In closing, I think we can all agree that someone who doesn’t appreciate the silliness of “UHF,” and the many great character actors who populate it, is someone to be pitied. If you are that person, please accept my pity and my declaration of, and I say this with peace and love, “Stupid! You’re so stupid!”


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