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“Weird Al” Yankovic and Jay Levey: 25 Years of UHF

on November 11, 2014, 10:00am

This year, parody maestro “Weird Al” Yankovic trumped all his past success with Mandatory Fun, his chart-topping 14th album. But the festivities are far from over for “Weird Al.” This year marks the 25th anniversary of his flop-turned-cult classic feature film, UHF. When we spoke to him this past July, he hinted that there was something special planned for the film. That time is now!

Today marks the release of UHF‘s 25th anniversary Blu-ray as well as the release of the long out-of-print 1985 mockumentary, The Compleat Al. Both films are milestones in Yankovic’s legacy as the most prevalent comedic voice of the music video generation; his videos, TV appearances, and films have defined visual comedy for legions of weirdos.

Our Art Director and host of the Nerdy Show Podcast Network, Cap Blackard, looks back on the visual history of “Weird Al” with Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey – director of classics like “Fat” and “Dare to Be Stupid” as well as both The Compleat Al and UHF.

Read the interview below, or listen to it on Nerdy Show, along with Cap and the crew’s further exploration of Yankovic’s most influential and obscure TV and film projects.

You started working on music videos and then upped the ante to The Compleat Al, and then to UHF… Working in tandem to make these projects a reality, what was your creative process like?

Jay Levey: In the very beginning, we were both new to it. The feeling was that the most amount of control we could maintain over what we were doing would get us the best results – because it’s comedy, and that was a very early time for the genre of music videos. Comedy … it’s very special; you’ve got to get it just right. So even though neither of us had really created music videos before, we wanted to try and maintain control.

I just sort of naturally fell into the role of director. In the beginning, he would write everything out, conceptualize everything, and come up with the boards. We’d make sure we could afford everything that was in the boards, and actually, offhand, I don’t think that there was really ever anything we needed to compromise. It was my job essentially to faithfully execute that vision. So I did that for quite a number of years, and it wasn’t really too long after that I started to prod Al along saying, “You might wanna start considering directing these things yourself and for a while.”

[The role of] director calls on you to be the army general, if you will, and there’s that aspect of the role that he didn’t at first want much part of, so he would continue to defer to me over the years until finally one day he said, “You know what? I’m ready to be an army general as well as a creator,” and he took over.

“Weird Al” Yankovic: That’s pretty much it, yeah. I mean, the idea of taking a lot of production meetings and being the guy that everybody comes to with “what color do we paint this wall?” seemed like a lot of stress. I thought as long as I was driving the train creatively that was all I needed. I just wanted to have my ideas become reality, and I didn’t care how that happened, but it turns out that over the years I realized it was more efficient to be the guy telling people what color to paint the wall.

Moving from your music videos, which became increasingly more elaborate, what led to the creation of The Compleat Al?

Yankovic: It came out in ’85. That was you and Hamilton Cloud and Bob Weiss.

Levey: Yeah, basically the genesis of that was with the success of the early videos and Al’s quick blossom as an artist visually; we were approached by CBS Home Video to do a project. They just approached us and said, “We’d love for you guys to do a long form kind of a thing. Do you have anything in mind you’d like to do?” So we came up with the notion of The Compleat Al spelled “Comple-A-te” as a direct parody of The Compleat Beatles project that had come out … a mockumentary, if you will.

I had a partner in our management company who was the previous head of current programming at NBC; we’d been old friends, and together we got into managing, and his name was Hamilton Cloud. He co-produced, and another buddy of mine, Robert K. Weiss, affectionately known as “Bob,” he was a producer. He produced Kentucky Fried Movie and Blues Brothers and The Naked Gun, so we partnered up on that, and that’s how that happened.

You and Bob created the “Dare to Be Stupid” video together as well, which, much like the song, surpassed even the heights of Devo with one of the most lavishly produced, wacky music videos of the generation.

Yankovic: Jay and Bob directed the whole thing together, and the music videos where just part of the production. [They] were folded into the production of the long form.

Oh, so you were producing all of them simultaneously?

Yankovic: There were some videos that had already been made, but there were a handful of videos that were folded into the production budget for the long form. That included “One More Minute”, “Dare to Be Stupid”, “Like a Surgeon” … All the music, all the music videos for the Dare to Be Stupid album were folded into the budget of the long form video – which I guess was one of the ways we were able to make that all happen.

Levey: Part of our process has always been to try to be inventive and clever as best we can in terms of funding of music videos. So much a portion of the funding always ultimately gets charged back to the artist anyway, so the timing on that worked out. We’d done famously over the years, most recently of course.

So from there, what led to you guys deciding you wanted to make a feature?

Yankovic: It just seemed like a natural direction. We’d done the music videos, and they’d been getting a lot of acclaim and popularity – and, as managers are wont to do, Jay suggested, “Well, let’s do a feature now!” We sat around and we knocked the idea for UHF. It was a long road – it was a long time writing it, and it was a long time selling it. We’d given up two or three times days before we actually found some producers that wanted to make the movie. I think we wrote the bulk of it in 1985, and we weren’t on the set until the summer of ’88.

Wow. Did the film change directions during that period when you were shopping it around?

Yankovic: When we first came up with the idea of a “Money for Nothing” parody that was a very current music video. When it came out in UHF, it was three or four years old, but we felt it was still iconic enough that people would be able to appreciate it. Certainly there were some more current topical references that we inserted into the movie after we knew that the picture had been green lit. I think the basic story certainly and most of the gags were from the original script. Jay wrote the whole Geraldo bit with George Newman – that was sort of an 11th-hour edition to the script to give it more topicality.

What steps did you go through assembling the cast?

Yankovic: We had a casting director named Cathy Henderson who was amazing. She put a lot people in front of us who we normally wouldn’t have considered. We love Tony Geary, but I don’t think Jay or I would have thought immediately, “Oh, he’s our Philo” – because at that time he was Luke from General Hospital. We thought that was an odd thing for us to be considering, but during the casting he just knocked it out of the park, and we thought, “This guy’s perfect.” There were a few people like Michael Richards that we walked in saying we have to use Michael for Stanley Spadowski. But with people that Cassie put in front of us, we were given a wealth of choices, and we were able to find people we had in our heads when we were writing the script.

Did the production of a feature film change the dynamic of what you guys were doing?

Levey: Well, yeah, I mean – although we were still considered fairly low budget, the budget was significantly bigger and better than that which we had for Compleat Al.

Yankovic: I remember the first day on set. It was a little intimidating because we had written all of these silly little bit scenes not thinking what it was going to be like when we are actually shooting the movie. The first day on the set we’re doing Spatula City, and I remember pulling up to where we were shooting, and there were these trucks and an army of people, and we were just doing these silly scenes with spatulas – but it required hundreds and hundreds of people and all this equipment. Orion Pictures was a little freaked out because we shot Spatula City first, so the very first daily they got was just people holding up spatulas admiringly! Orion was just like, “What did we get ourselves into?”

The film famously bombed and became a huge cult classic. Now we’re celebrating 25 years with the Blu-ray. UHF already had a pretty fat-packed DVD special edition. What’s new for the Blu-ray?

Yankovic: Well, not much. They included everything that was on the DVD, and the only new thing I can think of is the panel I did at San Diego ComicCon this year, which Jonah Ray moderated. It’s a nice feature; it’s an hour long, and it’s me basically talking about UHF and an overview of my career. It was a lot of fun, and Jonah is an old friend, so it was great. I kind of felt like I said everything I could possibly have to say on the DVD’s commentary track, so I figured I didn’t really need to re-hash that again.

It’s not really a film that would have fans nitpicking the restoration process, but how does it look in HD?

Yankovic: I think it looks good. I’ve been seeing it in HD for a little bit of time – it’s been available in HD on iTunes for a while. But you can’t really appreciate Wheel of Fish until you see it in HD. It’s more of a visceral experience.

The Compleat Al is a relatively bare-bones release, but it’s special enough to have it out on home video – it’s been decades.

Yankovic: I’ve got the laser disc! It’s kind of a Holy Grail for some hardcore fans and completists. I don’t know if that’s going to be any kind of huge seller, but the people that are going to pick it up are going to be really happy about it.

It’s fun. It’s eight music videos wrapped around the bogus account of my life’s story. For me, it’s like looking at old baby pictures, because it’s much different from what I would be doing now, but it’s got a certain amount of charm because it’s a product of its era.

Fans have been asking about a follow-up to UHF for years. Now that you’re free of the record label shackles, has that changed the equation at all? Have you been thinking about new narrative pieces?

Yankovic: I don’t think the record label has ever stood in the way of me doing a sequel to UHF. It’s more that I felt like that wouldn’t be the best way for us to go at this point. I don’t think that movie studios are in the habit of doing sequels to movies that bombed 25 years ago. I know there’s a lot of love for the movie, and I certainly love it as well, but I feel like it would be best to not revisit it – to move on and do something new. I mean, if a major motion picture studio came to me begging to do a sequel to UHF, I’d certainly have to consider it, but it wouldn’t be my first choice and probably not Jay’s either.

Levey: Yeah, it lives in this special bubble. In its own kind of a perfect moment.

Yankovic: There’s a lot of nostalgia wrapped around it now. It’s had a long time to acquire fans, and everybody has their own particular memories of it. When something reaches that cult status, a sequel will never live up to expectations no matter how good it is. So if we start with something fresh, there wouldn’t be all these expectations with it.

We did a lot of things with my Saturday morning show, The Weird Al Show, in the 90’s to give fans a taste without doing a full-on sequel. I used Gedde Watanabe doing a character fairly similar to his character in UHF. We used Kevin McCarthy – we used a lot of the same cast that we had in UHF.

Closing with a very peculiar question: What are your thoughts on the softcore porn rendition of UHF that was unveiled for the 25th anniversary?

Yankovic: [Laughs] I’m bemused by it. I did check it out – Jay I don’t know if you have or not.

Levey: Yeah … I did. You know, I couldn’t help it.

Yankovic: I mean, how can you not? I don’t know what to say about that other than, well, when you get big enough, eventually somebody’s going to do a porn version. That’s just how life works.

Levey: That’s what we always strive for actually.

Yankovic: Yeah, every time Jay and I make a decision we think, “But how’s it going to look in porn?”

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