There are not a lot of artists who can say that they’ve been an active part of popular culture for over 45 years. “Weird Al” Yankovic is part of this select group. Since 1976, Weird Al’s comedic music has been wildly popular among music fans of all ages. In many ways, you can track the progression of music history just by listening to Weird Al’s tracks. You can learn a lot from an artist who was there to parody both Freddie Mercury and Lin-Manuel Miranda in their prime.
“Weird Al” is beloved by musicians, writers, filmmakers, and Hollywood in general. Outside his parody songs and original tracks, Weird Al frequently appears in films and television. He’s popped up in films like The Naked Gun trilogySpy Hard, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Rob Zombie‘s Halloween IIand Bill & Ted Face The Music, just to name a few. Weird Al’s fascinating origin story is finally set to be unearthed later this year. Daniel Radcliffe plays the titular role in the upcoming biographical film, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, which is set to be released on The Roku Channel later this year. Weird Al helped co-write the script himself.
One of the reasons that Weird Al has been so successful for such a long time is that there is a certain element of his humor that is universal. You don’t have to really know what he’s parodying in order to laugh at it. His eccentric instruments, clever wordplay, and humorous delivery are just plain funny regardless. Sure, something like “Fat,” which parodies Michael Jackson‘s “Bad,” is pretty self-explanatory. At the same time, you don’t need to know anything about The Kinks or Star Wars to find enjoyment in “Yoda.” Some younger fans may be surprised when they’re listening to older music; they heard the “Weird Al” version first.
Just like the man himself, Weird Al’s work is seemingly ageless. Weird Al was at the height of his powers in the 1980s. In 1985, he won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording for another Michael Jackson parody, “Eat It,” and picked up a second Grammy for Best Concept Music Video for “Fat” in 1989. Everyone seemed to know who he was, so Weird Al made one of the most ambitious endeavors of his career: a feature film. He starred, co-wrote, and produced original music for the film UHFwhich was released in the summer of 1989 by Orion Pictures. The film centers on the inner politics of broadcast television and programming, phrases that might as well be foreign concepts to younger viewers.
Ironically, the subject material of UHF is now completely irrelevant. The story of an “ultra high frequency” (UHF) analog television broadcast program being a “rebellious underdog” is a complete product of the time that it was produced. However, UHF holds up as a comedy classic regardless. Just like most things that Weird Al has created, UHF has lasted longer than the thing that it is making fun of.
Weird Al stars in UHF as George Newman, a wacky slacker who struggles to be taken seriously; it wasn’t like Weird Al was stretching his personality all that much for his first leading role. George has floated between jobs, but through an amusing set of circumstances, he lands a role as the head programmer for the Channel 62 UHF station. George’s uncle, Harvey Bilchik (Stanley Brock), had won the rights to the station in a poker tournament. You don’t have to know anything about broadcasting (or creative management in general) to recognize that this is a completely implausible setup.
The premise alone is also the perfect way for Weird Al to enter the film. It would have been very easy for him to create his own version of Purple Rain or 8 Mile, and essentially just play himself. Even if George’s personality isn’t all that different from Weird Al’s, he’s not just relying on his stage persona. It allowed those who were not familiar with his music to find enjoyment in the film. It’s also the type of part that was made for Weird Al’s sensibilities; George is an underdog. His ideas seem ridiculous, and for that reason alone, people think he’s untalented. It feels like a subtle commentary on Weird Al’s entire career.
UHF makes a lot of smart decisions that have been forgotten by today’s parody films. The film knew how to appropriately utilize celebrity cameos. When Charlie Sheen shows up again in one of the Scary Movie films, there isn’t an actual joke itself. The film is relying on the audience’s awareness of Sheen; he is the punchline. This might generate laughter from an audience now, but many years down the line, it’s not going to age very well. UHF smartly includes well-known figures. When Dr. Demento makes a cameo appearance, he plays an actual character. A 12-year-old “Weird Al” fan today might not be familiar with who Dr. Demento is, but a guy being sprayed with whipped cream is funny either way.
ironically, UHF doesn’t have as much original music as you may expect from a film penned by Weird Al. In fact, Weird Al’s sixth studio album UHF – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff is padded out by other original compositions that don’t appear in the film itself. Appropriately, most of the music in UHF is original. This makes sense from a story perspective. It also distinguishes the film from Weird Al’s other work. At the same time, “UHF” is a beloved song among Weird Al fans, even if they’ve never seen UHF.
There is also something universal, and surprisingly relevant, about a “rogue programmer.” Whether it’s the broadcasting world of the 1980s or the streaming wars of today, original creators have always struggled to have a voice. Niche artists have always had to prove that if they produce interesting content, they will eventually find an audience. The terminology and context may have changed, but the theme is still there.
UHF wasn’t a massive success when it was first released. It received middling reviews, and failed to become a box office sensation. It’s not really a low point in Weird Al’s career, but it’s mostly been forgotten. However, UHF is worth revisiting; it shows the dexterity of Weird Al’s artist, and provides some insights on his road to success. With the upcoming biopic Weird: The Al Yankovic Storythere’s more reason than ever before to celebrate the furthest extent of one of the most important creative artists of our time.
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