Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Jay Levey|
|Produced by||Gene Kirkwood|
John W. Hyde
|Written by||"Weird Al" Yankovic|
|Music by||John Du Prez|
|Edited by||Dennis M. O'Connor|
|Distributed by||Orion Pictures|
|Box office||$6.1 million|
UHF (released internationally as The Vidiot from UHF) is a 1989 American comedy film starring "Weird Al" Yankovic, David Bowe, Fran Drescher, Victoria Jackson, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Richards, Gedde Watanabe, Billy Barty, Anthony Geary, Emo Philips and Trinidad Silva; the film is dedicated to Silva, who died shortly after principal filming. The film was directed by Jay Levey, Yankovic's manager, who also co-wrote the screenplay with him. It was released by Orion Pictures and is currently owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Yankovic stars as George Newman, a shiftless dreamer who stumbles into managing a low-budget television station and, surprisingly, finds success with his eclectic programming choices, in part spearheaded by the antics of a janitor-turned-children's television host, Stanley Spadowski (Richards). He provokes the ire of a major network station that dislikes the competitive upstart. The title refers to the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) analog television broadcasting band on which such low-budget television stations often were placed in the United States.
Yankovic and Levey wrote the film after Yankovic's second studio album, looking to apply the musician's parody and comedy to film, and chose the approach of George being a straight man with a vivid imagination to support the inclusion of parodies within the film. They struggled with finding a film production company for financing the film, but were eventually able to get Orion Pictures' support after stating they could keep the film costs under $5 million. Principal filming took place around Tulsa, Oklahoma, with many of the extras for the film from the Tulsa and Dallas, Texas areas.
UHF earned mixed critical reviews, and was further impacted by being released in the middle of one of Hollywood's largest blockbuster summer periods. While only a modest success during its theatrical release, it became a cult film on home video. Shout! Factory released a special 25th-anniversary edition of UHF on November 11, 2014, on DVD and Blu-ray.
George Newman is a daydreamer with a hyperactive imagination, making it difficult for him and his friend Bob to keep a steady job. George's uncle Harvey wins the deed to Channel 62, a UHF television station, in a poker game, and Harvey's wife Esther urges him to put George in charge, hoping it will help turn his life around. George and Bob find that the station is nearly bankrupt and struggles for ratings with its lineup of reruns. George introduces himself to RJ Fletcher, the CEO of the primary competitor in the city, VHF station and network affiliate Channel 8 (it is never clear exactly which network). Fletcher suspects George is trying to spy on them, and has his henchmen throw him out. Outside, George runs into Stanley, a janitor just unfairly fired by RJ over some misplaced files (they were in RJ's desk chair all the time), and offers him a job at Channel 62.
George and Bob attempt to create new programs, including a live children's show, "Uncle Nutzy's Clubhouse" with George as its host. The new shows barely alter Channel 62's low viewership, and Bob warns George they are days from becoming insolvent. To add to George's misery over this, he realizes he had stood up his girlfriend Teri on her birthday for a dinner he set up, and she leaves him. Depressed, George goes on "Uncle Nutzy" and laments about his life, and then during a break, decides to head to a bar to get a drink, letting Stanley take over the show. By the time George and Bob arrive at the bar, they find its patronage are eagerly watching Channel 62 and the humorous slapstick antics of Stanley. George and Bob race back, finding there's a renewed interest in the station. Inspired by Stanley, George comes up with a whole range of wacky shows to fill Channel 62's schedule, all headlined by the newly re-titled "Stanley Spadowski's Clubhouse", and goes about trying to make amends with Teri.
Soon, Channel 62's ratings rival that of Channel 8's, infuriating RJ. RJ investigates and discovers that Harvey owns the station, and having just lost a wager on a horse race, owes his mysterious bookie Big Louie $75,000 by the end of the week. RJ offers to pay off Harvey's debt in exchange for the deed to Channel 62, which he plans to shut down afterward (there were FCC by-laws at the time forbidding the ownership of two TV stations in the same town, as Bob lucidly points out to RJ). Once Esther learns of this, she coerces Harvey into giving George the opportunity to make a counter-offer. George, after moping outside over the situation and wondering what to do, comes up with the idea of a telethon to sell stocks in the station, which would not only save it from RJ; it would also make it publicly owned if they succeed. The telethon launches with great interest, fueled by Stanley's boundless energy. RJ sends his henchmen to kidnap Stanley, which stalls the telethon. Philo, the station's engineer who had previously bugged Channel 8, discovers the kidnapping and alerts George. George and several staff members mount a rescue mission to recover Stanley, bringing him back to the station with only hours left before Big Louie's deadline. RJ makes one last attempt to stall the telethon by issuing a live public statement, but Philo interrupts this via video intrusion with previously taken footage of RJ derogatorily talking to Teri about the city's population.
RJ arrives at the station just as the telethon ends, still $2,000 short of its goal. Big Louie's limousine arrives, and Harvey anxiously concedes victory to RJ, who, instead of taking the money right away, decides to verbally celebrate his triumph with a speech to the crowd about what will become of the station. Meanwhile, George is approached by a hobo whom he had helped out earlier. The man wants to buy the rest of the stock with money he got from selling a rare 1955 doubled die cent that RJ had given him as a pittance, unaware of its true value. George hands over the money to Big Louie while RJ is still boasting to the crowd in his speech, and gives Harvey the proper paperwork to sign. RJ suddenly catches on, but before he can do anything Harvey finishes off the paperwork, and the station officially becomes publicly owned. RJ learns that due to Channel 8 being tardy in filing for renewal of their broadcast license and, moreover, the rant Philo had broadcast, the FCC is revoking their license, while George and the rest of the Channel 62 staff and their audience celebrate and George and Teri rekindle their romantic relationship.
Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey had discussed the idea of a movie for Yankovic around 1985, after his second major successful album; his popularity at that time led the two to thinking what other venues would work for the musician. The story concept they created was based on Yankovic's approach to his music videos, making parodies of other works. After sketching out a number of such parodies for a film, the concept of Yankovic being the owner of a small-time UHF station broadcasting these parodies as shows was born, as this would not require having any significant plot to string the parodies together, in a manner similar to Airplane! (1980).
The two attempted to shop the script around Hollywood film agencies for about three years without luck. They were surprised when one of their agents had shown the script to the founders of a new production company, Cinecorp, who were interested in the script and had given it to producers Gene Kirkwood and John W. Hyde; Kirkwood stated he has previously seen Yankovic's videos and wanted to make a movie with him. Kirkwood and Hyde had connections with Orion Pictures, who offered to fund the production as long as they could keep it under $5 million.
The title of the film was selected to refer to, at the time of the film's writing, the predominance of local television stations operating on ultra-high-frequency broadcasts, which were typically known for quirky, low-cost production shows, which the film spoofed. However, at the same time, cable television was becoming popular and displacing UHF stations, and the meaning of "UHF" was being lost to the general public. Yankovic suggested the title The Vidiot for the film's international release, but the studio eventually went with The Vidiot from UHF in an effort to connect the international and American versions, which Yankovic has expressed dissatisfaction with.
Primary filming for UHF occurred in Tulsa; the film's executive producer Gray Frederickson had earlier finished shooting of The Outsiders in Oklahoma, and found the ease and the cost to film in the state to be favorable for the needs of UHF. They found several favorable factors that made the city suitable for filming. At the time of filming, the Kensington Galleria (71st and Lewis) was being closed down to convert the mall into office space, allowing the production team to use it for both sound stage and interior scenes including those for both Channels 8 and 62; the mall was also situated near a hotel making it ideal for housing the cast and crew during filming. The area and close proximity to Dallas allowed them to recruit additional local talent for some of the acts during the telethon scenes.
The Burger World location was Harden's Hamburgers at 6835 East 15th Street in Tulsa, and "Bowling for Burgers" was filmed at Rose Bowl Lanes on East 11th Street. The bar location was Joey's House of the Blues at 2222 East 61st Street. The building used for Kuni's Karate School belongs to the Tulsa Pump Company and is located at 114 West Archer in Tulsa, while "Crazy Eddie's Used Car Emporium" was filmed on the lot of Ernie Miller Pontiac at 4700 South Memorial. The dead fish in the game show "Wheel of Fish" were real, obtained from the White River Fish Market. The news desk was located at OETA, a local PBS member station. The steps of City Hall are actually First Christian Church at 913 S. Boulder, which has looked the same since it was built in 1920. Channel 8's exterior is an office block (6655 South Lewis Building) occupied by Hewlett-Packard. The "U-62" building was constructed around KGTO 1050's AM radio transmitter site (5400 West Edison Street); the real KGTO studios had been moved elsewhere in 1975. Just the tower itself remains at this location today. The airport scenes were taken at Tulsa International Airport.
Yankovic was always envisioned to be the central character of the film George Newman, written as a straight man with a vivid imagination as to allow the insertion of the parodies into the film's script in a manner similar to the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). As the focus of the film was to be on the parodies, George was not fleshed out beyond enough character development to drive the principal storyline. The name "Newman" was selected as homage to Mad magazine's mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, further referenced by the name of "Uncle Nutsy's Clubhouse".
The role of Stanley Spadowski was written by Yankovic with Michael Richards in mind; at the time, Yankovic had been impressed with Richards' stand-up comedy and performance on the show Fridays. Yankovic had also considered that Stanley's role was influenced by Christopher Lloyd's performance on Taxi, and had considered reaching out to Lloyd to offer him the role, but decided to stay with Richards due to their original premise. Richards' agents had told Yankovic that he wasn't interested in the role as Richards at the time was suffering a bout of Bell's palsy, but when they reached out to Richards again, Richards came to the set, dropping right into the character of Stanley for the test read.
Other principal roles were cast through normal auditions, with most of the choices based on how well the actor fit the role. For George's girlfriend Teri Campbell, they didn't feel that they needed to spend a significant amount of time developing this side as they did not consider Yankovic to be the type of actor for a romantic lead. Although Jennifer Tilly and Ellen DeGeneres auditioned, they found Victoria Jackson's soft demeanor to be well-suited for the role.
For R.J. Fletcher, they found that Kevin McCarthy was in a similar stage of his career as Leslie Nielsen...one of many "serious vintage actors who had crossed over into satire", according to Levey, and McCarthy had relished the role. In the DVD commentary, Yankovic noted that McCarthy struggled not to laugh during takes. (McCarthy himself later described his own character as a fellow who "makes Ebenezer Scrooge look like Sally Struthers".) He also cited one of McCarthy's best-known roles, as the ageless history teacher in the classic Twilight Zone episode, "Long Live Walter Jameson". Noting McCarthy's gray hair, Yankovic recalled a scene at the end, when Jameson aged rapidly, saying, "For just a split second, he looked just like [he did in the movie]."
For George's friend Bob Speck, they looked for an actor that could be seen as a friend to George. At one point, they had considered Jerry Seinfeld for the role, but he had turned it down. David Bowe, who had been a long-time Yankovic fan, easily fit the role during auditions.
Philo's role was written with Joel Hodgson in mind, building on Hodgson's stand-up routines of using homemade inventions and deadpan comedy. Hodgson turned down the role feeling at the time that he wasn't a good actor. At the time, Hodgson was also working on Mystery Science Theater 3000. They also had approached Crispin Glover for Philo's role, but Glover said that he only wanted to play a used car salesman and no other part, turning down the offer. As they sought other actors, their casting agent Cathy Henderson offered up Anthony Geary, who at the time had gained popularity due to his role on General Hospital. Geary wanted to perform the role both as a fan of Yankovic and seeing the role as completely opposite from his normal acting.
Kuni was written with the intention of being performed by Gedde Watanabe from the start.
Emo Philips was a close friend of Yankovic, and Yankovic felt that he had to include Philips in the movie, eventually creating the role of the clumsy shop teacher for him.
Although they ended up using Vance Colvig Jr. for the hobo in the film, Ginger Baker of the rock band Cream had volunteered to audition for the role, but Yankovic and the production team found Colvig to be a better fit.
Trinidad Silva had performed his primary scenes, but he died in a car accident after returning home. Although they had planned on bringing back Silva's character for the telethon scene which had not yet been filmed, they were too grief-stricken for the use of body doubles and dropped this. The film was dedicated to Silva.
UHF received mixed reviews. On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 64% rating based on 25 reviews, with an average score of 5.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "UHF is bizarre, freewheeling, and spotty, though its anarchic spirit cannot be denied." On Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average based on selected critic reviews, the film has a score of 32 out of 100, based on 11 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable" reviews. Critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that Yankovic's approach to satire and parody works for the short-form music video, but does not work to fill out a full-length movie. Ebert also called to Yankovic's lack of screen presence, creating a "dispirited vacuum at the center of many scenes"; he gave UHF one star out of four.Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel wrote of the film, "Never has a comedy tried so hard and failed so often to be funny"; he gave it a zero star rating. Fellow Tribune critic Dave Kehr said of it "It's not surprising to find that UHF ultimately resolves itself into a series of four-minute, video-style sketches laid pretty much end-to-end, but at least Weird Al has given feature-length fiction the old college try, introducing rudimentary plot and number of semi-functional characters." Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times believed that, as the entire film comprised parodies, it gave no structure for the larger plot to work, thus resulting in "not much of a movie".
According to Yankovic's Behind the Music episode, UHF enjoyed one of the most successful test screenings in Orion's history. Orion Pictures released UHF on July 21, 1989, as a hopeful summer blockbuster, hoping that it would pull them out of the water. However, critical response was negative, and it was out of the theaters by the end of the month. The film has been compared to Young Einstein, which similarly scored well with test audiences but failed to make a critical impression. Yankovic has stated that it was not a "critic movie". As Yankovic states in his commentary of the movie, UHF was thought to be the movie that would "save the studio" for Orion. He was treated very well because of this. He states in the commentary: "Every morning I would wake up to fresh strawberries next to my bed. Then, when the movie bombed, I woke up and...no more strawberries!"
Within the month prior, and up to the release of UHF, studios released bigger movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Lethal Weapon 2, Batman, Licence to Kill, When Harry Met Sally... and Weekend at Bernie's. The draw of these blockbuster movies also contributed to the low attendance at UHF premiere; The A.V. Club, in a retrospective, called UHF "a sapling among the redwoods" and the type of film that Hollywood has since abandoned. Yankovic and the creators of the film considered that the film had a strong audience with younger viewers which did well to fill midday matinees but did not succeed in helping to sell tickets for more lucrative evening and nighttime showings.
The poor critical response of UHF left Yankovic in a slump that lasted for three years, impacting the finalization of his next studio album; the slump was broken when the band Nirvana rose to wide popularity, giving him the inspiration to write "Smells Like Nirvana" and complete the album Off the Deep End.
UHF has since become a cult classic, becoming very popular on cable and home video. The movie was re-released in Europe, the United States and Canada on VHS, but because of the little money earned at the box office, it soon fell out of print. In the several years UHF was out of print, the film developed a cult following, and fans of the film and Yankovic in general pawed desperately for a copy. Prices skyrocketed, ranging from fifty to a hundred dollars or more. Finally, UHF was released on DVD in 2002 by MGM, and in its debut week, it became a top ten bestseller in Variety magazine. The US and Canadian DVD contains numerous extras including a music video of the movie's theme song, a commentary track featuring director Jay Levey and Yankovic himself (with surprise guest appearances by costar Michael Richards and Emo Philips and a phoned-in appearance by Victoria Jackson), and a deleted-scenes reel with Yankovic's commentary. Shout! Factory released a special 25th Anniversary Edition of UHF on November 11, 2014, on DVD and Blu-ray, while Fabulous Films released the movie on Blu-Ray in the United Kingdom on July 27, 2015.
Though Yankovic has considered the possibility of a sequel, he has not actively pursued this. Yankovic noted that UHF is "a product of its era, and comedy has changed so much over the decades", but also considered that the type of comedy predated the nature of Internet phenomena and viral videos. Yankovic further maintained the unlikelihood of a sequel to UHF in an interview, citing the underwhelming box office returns of the film, and lack of industry interest in financing another UHF project.
Gedde Watanabe later reprised his role as Kuni for a guest appearance on The Weird Al Show in 1997.
Weird Al's music video "Word Crimes" gives a nod to this movie. It is a song talking about errant grammar used by people online and in the English language. There is a test paper shown on the screen, and the name George Newman (the character that Weird Al played in the movie) is the name on the test.
A webseries called The Real UHF which was heavily inspired by UHF started in 2009, and starred Dr. Demento, Neil Hamburger and Count Smokula. It featured guest appearances from Devo, George Clinton, and others. The series was the brainchild of Zack Wolk, an intern for Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!.
Yankovic also released a quasi-soundtrack for the film in late 1989, titled UHF - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff, which featured songs (and commercials) from the movie as well as his own new, unrelated studio material.