Man, A.V. Club’s oral history of UHF is a crazy rabbit-hole, as good oral history features tend to be. I started to read it at lunch and had to force myself to get back to work. It’s especially interesting to see the contrast between the personalities involved; the asynchronous sniping between writer Jay Levey and the film’s producers kind of gets to the bottom of what made UHF both interesting as a film and a failure as a commercial release: It was a personal project controlled very directly by two Hollywood outsiders. Kirkwood and Frederickson have that sort of detachment from reality and humanity that keeps the Hollywood machine going, and you can practically hear Levey’s eyes rolling at some of their remarks. Good stuff.
Levey totally nailed it with identifying the target audience for the movie, though, framing it as a sort of nerd bar mitzvah. I was just about that age when the movie came out, right at the fever peak of my interest in Weird Al Yankovic’s music — a matter of months before I really got into 20-minute symphonic rock epics and pretentiously cut ties with anything I’d ever enjoyed before that. Obviously, I loved UHF. I was just the right age to catch pretty much all the pop culture references but not old enough to find some of the humor too juvenile.
It was funny to stumble across this article maybe an hour after my mother and father headed back home; as much as I wanted to see UHF, I think my mother wanted to see it even more. She’s always been more tuned in to nerd/pop culture than I have. While she and my father were in town, and I took her to the bar trivia I sometimes sit in on… and we stomped the competition almost entirely on the strength of her pop culture knowledge. She’s the one whose Yes records I borrowed when I started seeking out interesting music, and most of the cult films I saw in the ’80s (The Goonies, Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, etc.) we saw because she wanted to see them.
Anyway, I’m sure UHF doesn’t hold up as well 25 years later as it does in my memories. I can imagine I’d be put off by some of the less sensitive jokes these days. But, even in the lowest moments of, say, Gedde Watanabe doing the Japanese equivalent of a minstrel act, at least it had jokes. That sure beats what passes for pop culture satire in certain circles these days (random pop culture reference appears from nowhere! And… that’s the whole joke). Wheel of Fish wasn’t just Long Duk Dong redux; it was lampooning outlandish Japanese television shows (back when that idea was novel and unique; we were still years away from Mr. Sparkle, for crying out loud), and it was funny not because of the outrrrrrageous accent but because it presented a rude game show host who said aloud what we all know game show hosts are thinking behind their veneer of bland encouragement. Plus, it spoke to the zeitgeist, too: Japan, we were told throughout the ’80s, was going to crush America’s economy and society with its clockwork business discipline and incomprehensible culture — and here was a Japanese game show with rules that made no sense, where failure resulted in public mockery by a shrill, hyperactive foreigner. Maybe that wasn’t the intended subtext, but it sure as hell is in there — America’s ’80s paranoia in a nutshell.
I think UHF would also seem less remarkable today just because there’s so much out there that followed in its footsteps. I love that we live in a media environment where productions as niche and off-kilter as UHF now seem run-of-the-mill — Silicon Valley is pretty much a more profane, modern-day UHF — but at the same time, it does mean there’s nothing quite so powerfully intoxicating these days as watching Weird Al in Indy Jones drag get squashed into a pancake, cross-fading into a sizzling, greasy hamburger.
Or maybe it’s just nostalgia speaking. What do I know.