July 21st, 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of “UHF.” To celebrate the occasion (and its recent addtion to the JCL catalog), I wrote about my lifelong love of the film.
When I was around four or five years old, there were a handful of films I watched over and over again. Oliver!, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Beetlejuice were in very heavy rotation in my family room, along with several Disney animated films that we regularly threw on in the afternoon. I remember watching those films as a kid and being in awe of them. They felt so exotic, and I was completely captivated by the characters and their stories and worlds no matter how many times I watched the movies. Gradually we accumulated more VHS tapes and began going to video rental stores, and I fell in love with other movies and focused on seeing movies I hadn’t already seen thirty times. One title I discovered at a video store was UHF (1989), starring “Weird Al” Yankovic.
It was 1996, and I was ten. My friend had recently given me a copy of Weird Al’s 1993 album “Alapalooza” for my birthday. It was the first CD I’d ever owned, and I had to listen to it in the family room on my parents’ CD player because I didn’t have my own yet. I loved it, and listened to it constantly, much to my parents’ delight, I’m sure. All this to say: I was a Weird Al fan in 1996, but still in the early stages of my eventual lifelong admiration for the man. I don’t remember if it was summer or fall or night or day, but at some point that year I was browsing the comedy section at Polo Video (a great video store that used to exist near 119th and Roe in Leawood) when I saw one of my new heroes dressed up as one of my old heroes: There on the VHS cover for UHF was Weird Al dressed up as Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was a no-brainer. This was the movie I would be renting today (probably along with a couple of others).
I took it home and watched it with my sister, and I lost my mind. It was easily the funniest movie my ten-year-old self had ever seen. Parodies, sight gags, general absurdity, physical humor, puns, one after the other on top of the other... we laughed all the way through. It was everything I could ask for in a film at that age. We watched it again with my dad within that first five-day rental period, and I was delighted when he laughed harder than I’d ever heard him laugh at one of the gags (“Supplies!”). In addition to the joy of watching it, I also felt a small amount of pride that I’d discovered this wonderful thing at the video store, and I couldn’t wait to tell more people about it. It was my first taste of what I would eventually come to know as a “cult movie.”
I rented it another couple of times when friends would sleep over. It became familiar, but never less amusing. As I watched it more and more, the world of the movie began to feel like an extension of my own. My friends and I started quoting it to each other and excitedly reenacting our favorite parts in conversation. As a deeply goofy ten-year-old just beginning to navigate popularity and growing up, I related very strongly to the immature daydreamer George Newman, trying to make it in this R.J. Fletcher world one Twinkie wiener sandwich at a time. I knew it wasn’t real, but I think there was comfort in seeing an adult behave like I was inclined to, and still (eventually) make something of himself.
There was something else though. I didn’t know this at the time, but UHF was filmed largely in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The sets and locations felt different than in most of the other movies I’d seen. Less Hollywood, and more regional. The U62 shack looked like a place I might see in a field here in Kansas with a big broadcast antenna sticking up out of it. The exterior shots of buildings and homes felt more familiar than in movies that took place in Los Angeles or New York. I remember wondering what was behind the slightly ajar doors in the TV station, what else Philo was up to in his laboratory, what other shows were on U62 that we weren’t seeing. The movie’s world felt lived-in and alive - real in the same way that Raiders of the Lost Ark, Beetlejuice, and the Disney movies had felt to me when I was younger.
I rented it again and again, and eventually went looking to buy my own copy. Wal-Mart didn’t have it. Best Buy didn’t have it. Suncoast at the mall didn’t have it. At some point I asked the clerk at Polo Video where I could buy my own, and he was unable to help me much, although I think he pointed me in the direction of the Movies Unlimited catalog. It was (and apparently still is!) a company you could order all kinds of movies from, but when the catalog finally came there was no mention of UHF. I didn’t really know or understand this at the time, but the film was simply out of print. It had been a bit of a dud in theaters, facing competition from huge films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, and When Harry Met Sally, and after the initial home video push, Orion Pictures - which was struggling with bankruptcy by the early ‘90s - didn’t bother putting out more copies. I was unable to secure a copy of my own, but it was no big deal if I could always go and rent it, right? Wrong. The rental copy was wearing out after so many viewings. The picture was getting fuzzy throughout, and more and more of the end credits dissolved into snowy static on each play. Then Polo Video was bought out by Movie Gallery. As one store transitioned into the other they sold off some of their stock, and the UHF tape disappeared from my life.
It has never fully subsided, but peak Weird Al mania for me was between the ages of ten and thirteen, which psychologists will tell you is normal for the majority of affected individuals. During those years I came to own most of his albums, a VHS tape with some of his music videos on it, and a special my aunt taped off of cable that I watched a lot. But UHF evaded me. One night in high school I had a dream that I found a DVD release of the film in a bin at Suncoast, and woke up bitterly disappointed that no such disc existed. Every now and then I would search the relatively new website eBay for a copy of it on VHS, but whenever I found a copy it was well out of my price range. Then, at the tail end of my sophomore year, it was announced: A special edition DVD with a surprising amount of bonus features. I bought it as soon as it came out in the summer of 2002 and enjoyed the film as much as ever. Nothing about it had diminished. I shared it with my friends new and old, and it settled into our roster of favorites.
By the end of high school, I hadn’t seen Raiders or Beetlejuice in about a decade, and I revisited them, returning to some childhood pleasures as adulthood approached. Raiders seemed much smaller and shorter than I remembered, and the viewing experience couldn’t help but be changed by the fact that by the end of high school I had so much more historical and cultural context for what was going on in the film. (I didn’t know what Nazis were when I was four. I didn’t understand what alcohol was or what Marion was up to in the bar at the beginning of the film. I had seen Harrison Ford playing the President of the United States in “Air Force One.”) Beetlejuice felt smaller too, and no longer tickled my sense of wonder and fear about the afterlife. I even revisited some of the Disney movies I grew up with and was shocked at how different they were from what I remembered. Not only were the films shorter, but the characters were less interesting, their stories were less engrossing, and their worlds were less vast. I still really liked all of these films, but they felt like something else entirely compared to what I had experienced with them as a child. I was drawn in, but not immersed. The sense of fascination at what could possibly be lurking unseen around every corner in the background was gone. The magic was gone, and the movie was what was on screen. I flipped between seeing the characters as people in a world, and actors performing. I wondered if this would happen to every movie I loved as I got older.
I am happy to report that this is not the case with UHF. Of course, on one level I’ve always known that UHF is “just a movie,” but for some reason it was something from my childhood that didn’t feel any smaller to me by the end of high school. And it still doesn’t, fifteen years after that. I watched it the other day, and found myself basking in the world of the movie yet again, wondering what else was going on at U62 and at Kuni’s Karate School.
In 2009, I was in Tulsa visiting my sister, and I scouted out several of the filming locations for the movie so we could visit them. We cruised around Tulsa for an afternoon, poking around the locations and taking pictures. It was tons of fun. Everywhere we went, I couldn’t help but think that George Newman had been there. Stanley Spadowski had mopped there. Pamela Finkelstein had reported from those steps. RJ Fletcher and his simpering son worked there. Raul and his animal friends lived there. Philo stood in that field and was beamed back to his home planet. It was all real… more or less.
Today, the DVD and Blu-ray allow for me to pause it when they show the weekly TV schedule and examine it with greater clarity than the VHS ever did. I can reverently examine the set of Stanley Spadowski’s clubhouse. I can listen to the audio commentary (where Al is uncharacteristically and unfortunately rather negative about the movie since it marked such a hard time in his career), and watch the deleted scenes which reveal some of what was previously up to my imagination (if it’s deleted, it’s non-canon in my opinion). Yet nothing feels diminished. There’s nothing any smaller or less ridiculously joyful about George’s triumph in rallying the town together and saving the station at the end of the film today than there was for me when I was ten. There’s nothing smaller about all of those people cheering wildly in the middle of a field under the stars. And there’s certainly nothing less inspiring or less true about Stanley Spadowski’s mop monologue. Maybe it’s because I first saw it a few years after I’d seen the other movies, and watched it more regularly as I grew older. It could be that the regional locations just feel more familiar, and by being less exotic the film (bizarre as it may be) has always been more grounded in my reality. Or maybe it’s because what I return to when I watch UHF is less the movie and more some bottled bit of feeling from my childhood, where I was an immature kid trying to play along in an adult’s world. Maybe that feeling has carried through to today, and so I can leap right back into the film at any time and have as much fun as ever.
Camus looked within and found an invincible summer, pushing against the winter. I have an indomitable Spadowski, furiously mopping and scrubbing away the grime.