Revisiting 'Weird Al' Yankovic's under-appreciated 'UHF': Ellen DeGeneres & Ginger Baker’s lost auditions, the brilliance of 'Spatula City,' and why it was rated PG-13

Thirty years ago, “Weird Al” Yankovic was primed to be a matinee idol. The comedy-rock star’s first feature film, UHF — cowritten with and directed by his longtime manager Jay Levey, director of classic Al videos like “Fat,” “Like a Surgeon,” and “Eat It” — hit cinemas on July 21, 1989, boasting an impressive cast that included scene-stealing future Seinfeld star Michael Richards, SNL’s Victoria Jackson, Fran Drescher, Kevin McCarthy, Gedde Watanabe, Billy Barty, Anthony Geary, and Emo Philips. There was even a Mark Knopfler cameo on the soundtrack’s Dire Straits parody. The film, a classic Davey/Goliath tale about a Walter Mitty-like dreamer whose rinky-dink bottom-of-the-dial cable station takes on an evil media behemoth, seemingly had all the right ingredients for summer-blockbuster success. And yet, it tanked at box office.

'Weird' Al Yankovic and the Oscar that 'UHF' deserved. (Photo: Orion Pictures)
'Weird' Al Yankovic and the Oscar that 'UHF' deserved. (Photo: Orion Pictures)

Yankovic’s career has of course long since rebounded — in fact, it could be argued that he’s bigger than ever, with his most recent album, Mandatory Fun, becoming his first to go to No. 1 on the Billboard 200. This year, he won his fifth Grammy for his career-spanning Squeeze Box collection, and he’s even playing with a full orchestra this summer on his “Strings Attached” tour. But Yankovic admits to Yahoo Entertainment that he was disappointed at the time when UHF fizzled, “primarily because my expectations were so built up. Orion Pictures, God love 'em, were thinking I was ‘the next Woody Allen.’ They tested the movie, and it got the highest numbers since the original RoboCop, which they'd done. So they were all excited, like, ‘This is going to be our big summer movie!’”

But the timing was all wrong. “It was made for $5 million, real low-budget, but it tested so well that they really got the big promotional machine working for it, and they put it out in the middle of perhaps the biggest blockbuster summer in movie history. It was 1989, and it was up against Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Do the Right Thing, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, all these huge movies. And it just got swallowed up.”

Perhaps UHF was just ahead of its time — which explains why it has become a beloved bona fide cult classic in recent years. While the movie was a love letter to an already-outdated terrestrial TV format, Yankovic notes now that its many would’ve-been-viral vignettes — “Gandhi II,” “Conan the Librarian,” and of course the hilarious “Spatula City” — were “basically made for the YouTube generation.” Says Yankovic, “People thought it was prescient because they look at that now and they go, ‘That was sort of like predicting YouTube,’ that it was predicting all these niche markets for entertainment that are now part of our Zeitgeist. But back then it was like, ‘This is just some crazy UHF station.’”

UHF could also be connecting three decades later because of its timeless underdog message about following one’s dreams, although Yankovic modestly says it’s not all that deep: “The point [of the film] was just to cram as many stupid jokes into 95 minutes as we could.”

The following retrospective Q&A is culled from “Weird” Al interviews conducted on UHF’s 10th, 25th, and now 30th anniversaries. This movie truly never gets old!

Yahoo Entertainment: My favorite scene of UHF has to be “Spatula City.” It is possibly one of your all-time greatest onscreen moments. Did spatula sales spike afterwards?

“Weird” Al Yankovic: That's a good question! You'd have to talk to the National Spatula League, or something; they could get the specs on that. I think I got the idea for “Spatula City” one time while we were driving through a section of New Jersey. Looking out the window, I was seeing Boot World and Linoleum City and all these bizarre specialty shops. I don't think I ever saw an actual Spatula City, but it would not have felt out of place along this particular stretch of road in New Jersey. So I think that was probably the impetus for the idea. And then when I was writing the movie, I was also inspired by the Remington razor guy [Victor Kiam]: "I liked them so much, I bought the company." It's an amalgamation of a lot of cheesy commercials at the time.

The other thing that really sticks in my mind is the very first day of shooting, which is when we were starting to shoot “Spatula City,” and there were all these trucks and tractor trailers full of equipment lining this residential street. And I thought, “This is just some weird, stupid idea I came up with at 3 in the morning one night about spatulas — and now there’s, like, an army of people working on this.”

What other skits stand out to you?

Oh, there were so many. One is the “Wheel of Fish” day, because that was the worst-smelling set I’ve ever been on. Those were not fake fish — those were real fish that were purchased at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, fish market that morning and they were literally nailed to a wooden wheel in a hot studio for an entire day.

Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits actually played guitar on the UHF soundtrack’s “Money for Nothing”/“Beverly Hillbillies” mashup. How did that come about?

Well, I always get permission when we do the parodies. And when we went to clear “Money for Nothing” from Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler, according to secondhand accounts, his response was, "Of course you can do it — but I have to play guitar on it." Which was not a response I was expecting! But I said, "Well, sure!" He didn't come into the studio. I think he was in London at the time, so we took the old two-inch 24-track analog master that we'd been working on, and we shipped it to London. And he put his part on it, and shipped it back, and there was Mark Knopfler on our song.

And a little bit of trivia: I approached Prince a number of times for a parody, and he always turned it down. In the original script for UHF, that was supposed to be “Let’s Go Crazy” mashed up with The Beverly Hillbillies, and Prince thought otherwise. But Dire Straits worked extremely well. That’s such an iconic video [“Money for Nothing”], and Mark Knopfler couldn’t have been a better sport about it.

Also on the subject of music, is it true that Cream drummer Ginger Baker actually tried out for the part of the homeless man who, in a last-minute plot twist [spoiler alert!], saves the station and saves the day?

Yes, that’s true. I don't know how that happened. We didn't ask for him [to audition]. All I know is we had a full day of people coming in to read, and next up, here's Ginger Baker from Cream. And he came in, and he read the lines in his British accent. And he didn't knock us out with his comedy timing, and we said, "Thank you very much, but ... " That's something I'll never forget as long as I live.

I’ve also heard that Ellen DeGeneres auditioned for the part of your girlfriend, Teri, which ultimately went to Victoria Jackson.

Yeah, Ellen came in and read once or twice, and she was really good. She was very funny, but obviously didn't quite make the cut. I still have her audition on a VHS tape somewhere. In fact, Ellen DeGeneres, at one point, asked if she could see the audition, to see if she wanted to air it on her show. And I sent it to her, and she was like, "Yeah, no. Nobody should see this." She didn't think it was good.

Well, let’s talk about one of the surprise castings that did happen: Anthony Geary, who played the mad alien scientist, Philo. He got the part over Crispin Glover and Joel Hodgson! How on earth did a soap opera hunk land that role?

Well, that was a very Ginger Baker-like situation. We read on our list of people coming in: “Anthony Geary, Luke from General Hospital.” We just thought, "Oh, brother, how did this happen? Well, why not? Let him come and read." And he came in, and he knocked our socks off. He had us howling with laughter, he was so funny. So he completely subverted our expectations, and we cast him immediately.

At the time, he basically wanted to erase Luke from his résumé and not be typecast. In fact, I think he had invited me to a play he was doing in L.A., and in the program for the play, I think he didn't even list General Hospital among his credits.

Speaking of playing against type, you were sort of the straight guy in this film, the foil for all these other wacky characters. Your character, George Newman, was relatively serious. That’s a surprising casting decision.

It was playing against type, since I called myself "Weird” Al, to be the straight man in the movie; that's going to raise some eyebrows. In fact, at one point, we had a script doctor look at our script, and she wanted to completely rewrite it so that I was the [janitor] Stanley Spadowski character, the goofy one. And I was like, "No, that just doesn't feel right. I should just be the like the glue that holds everything together." I mean, Michael Richards knocked that role out of the park. There's no way I could have nailed that better than he did.

This was well before Michael became known as Kramer from Seinfeld.

I was a big fan of Michael Richards's work on the late-night ABC show Fridays, and I'd seen him in the comedy clubs around L.A. His physical comedy was amazing. He'd only been in a small handful of movies in very small parts, but every time he appeared onscreen, he would knock it out of the park. He was just hilariously funny, and I thought, "This is the guy." It was between him and Christopher Lloyd, because I wrote the character, Stanley Spadowski, sometimes with [Taxi’s] Jim Ignatowski's voice in my head, just to get that kind of like idiot savant kind of patter down. I'm sure we couldn't have afforded Christopher Lloyd at the time! But also, I don't think that he could have pulled off the physical comedy that Michael Richards was able to do.

Did you ever have regrets about the film, since it wasn’t a big success at first?

After it came out and didn't do spectacularly at the box office, every single night before I went to sleep I spent an hour and a half thinking, "What should I have done differently?" And that's calmed down in the last 30 years. But yeah, there were a number of things… and I don't want to start giving you a list of things I could have done differently, but there was a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking that went on, with me thinking, "What should I have done? What could I have done? How could I have made this more popular, or more funny, or more coherent?" … I wouldn’t say that it brought me to a spiraling depression, but it was definitely a bummer, and it took me a little bit of time to get out of my funk and to move on with my recording career.

Your comedy is pretty clean and your fanbase is pretty young, lots of kids — but this wasn’t a PG-rated movie. I was surprised that UHF got a PG-13 rating, and I wonder if that hurt ticket sales.

Well, that was for exactly two reasons, both of which I refused to cut out of the movie: One was Emo Philips cutting his thumb off on a table saw, and the other was Raoul Hernandez throwing poodles out the window. They said, "Hey, if you just take those two things out of the movie, we'll make it PG, and a bunch of more people will see it." And I said, "I'm not willing to do that." So, it was PG-13. And I'm glad I stuck by my guns, because I would rather have it be the movie I wanted to make and be a flop, than be a compromised movie and be a flop. And by the way, no poodles were harmed in the making of UHF. The ASPCA was on set to make sure we weren't really throwing poodles out the window.

Did Orion Pictures pretty much let you and Jay Levey do what you wanted to do?

They didn't muzzle us very much. We essentially, for better or worse, made the movie we wanted to make. Jay and I were both extremely green, so maybe they should have muzzled us more! But we got to do creatively pretty much everything.

What were the reviews like for UHF?

Critics pretty much universally hated it. In retrospect, you see critics talking about it now with a fond memory, but at the time, Siskel and Ebert just thought I was Satan. There were personal attacks, not just on the movie, but even about the way I looked! Newsweek said something like my face looked like a "baby's buttocks to which wire-rimmed glasses and a caterpillar had been attached." [laughs] Really uncalled-for!

But now it has become a cult classic.

It was a very gradual thing. Fans discovered it eventually first on cable TV, I think, and then through VHS rentals. And I think everybody started realizing that this was a thing when the DVD was released 13 years after the theatrical release, and it was a top 10 bestselling DVD. Nobody expected that. That was very gratifying, and to this day I meet fans that have seen the movie almost as many times as I have. … It’s definitely got its hardcore fans.

So you’re getting the last laugh, so to speak.

It's bittersweet. First of all, I'm extremely grateful that it's become a cult favorite and that the fans are so fond of it. Some fans have seen it literally hundreds of times. I've met dozens of people that have various UHF-inspired tattoos permanently emblazoned on their bodies. I mean, the love for the movie has not been lost on me. I'm certainly thrilled that it's inspired so much fan love. Of course, I wish it had done better at the box office when it first came out, and like I said, I spent many sleepless nights wondering what I could have done to have made it a box office hit. But I'm glad I had the experience. I'm glad that it's part of my body of work, and I'm glad that people seem to like it so much to this day. … During our live shows, we show scenes from the movie in between songs, to facilitate the costume changes we have to make; we'll play a clip from UHF on the screen, and it's like Rocky Horror time. Everyone knows every single line of dialog from the movie and they chant along. It's just amazing.

Do you think the movie holds up?

I think most of the physical humor and most of the gags still play. Some of the parodies are a little dated: I’m not sure how many people [30 years later] remember the whole Al Capone phase of Geraldo [Rivera’s] career. … I know there’s still a lot of young fans of UHF that maybe don’t get all the pop culture references in the movie, but still appreciate it on a certain level.

So, now that you’re bigger than ever, I think the timing is right for a UHF sequel. Whaddya say?

Well, certainly my comedy and my sensibility still lends itself to that type of humor, but I'm very careful not to brand anything as UHF, or “here's the sequel" or "here's the online version of UHF." Because I don't want to trade on people's nostalgia. I'd rather let people have their fond memories of the movie and not try to do the new iteration of it.

I mean, I'd love to do another movie. In fact, I was pitching a movie right before I left on tour. Unfortunately, I'm not at liberty to talk about it [right now]. I'm very interested in doing more feature film projects and more TV projects and other things like that. And it's still me, and it's still my sense of humor, so it would still feel UHF-like, but it just would not be a “UHF sequel.”

So, the UHF experience didn’t entirely sour you on movie-making for good?

Well, it did for a short period of time. But it's been, what, 30 years? So look, I'm over it.

Additional reporting by Kevin Polowy. A portion of this conversation is taken from the SiriusXM Volume show “Volume West.”

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