Monday, August 14, 2006

The Weird Al Show: “a show for nobody”
TV on DVD review by Sombrero Grande

Today’s lesson: Weird Al should stick to what he does best--song parodies, music videos and DVD commentaries--and avoid trying to come up with original stories in other mediums.

“Weird Al” Yankovic’s song parodies are often ingenious, his music videos are frequently brilliant, but his feature film, UHF, was disappointing, and his children’s TV show, The Weird Al Show, is just an utter mess.

For The Weird Al Show, Al played a dimwitted version of himself, living in a wacky, subterranean playhouse twenty miles below the surface of the Earth. His sole roommate was a character familiar to many of his fans: Harvey the Wonder Hamster, an absolutely ordinary hamster whose only distinguishing characteristic is that he has his own theme song. Recurring characters on the show included Al’s next-door neighbor, the Hooded Avenger (Brian Haley), Bobby the Inquisitive Boy (Gary LeRoi Gray), Madame Judy the Psychic (Judy Tenuta), “Val Brentwood, Gal Spy” (Paula Jai Parker) and the very easy-on-the-eyes Cousin Corky (Danielle Weeks) who fortunately gets lots of extra screen time in later episodes.

The short-lived Weird Al Show lasted just 13 episodes on CBS’s Saturday morning lineup in 1997 and ’98.

First off, what initially bugs me about this endeavor is that it’s a show geared specifically for little kids. To me, Weird Al is at his best when he sprinkles his offerings with a bit of a bite, stuff that probably will go over the heads of most kids but he still couldn’t get away with putting in a kids’ show. Take for example some of my favorite lyrics from his song “One More Minute”:

...I’m stranded all alone
at the gas station of love
and I have to use
the self-service pump.

See what I mean? Genius, but it’d never fly on a kids show. Instead of ideally getting a weekly version of Al’s infrequent Al TV specials that run on MTV (and which would be great to get someday on DVD), The Weird Al Show is more like a Pee Wee’s Playhouse for the intellectually inept.

The other thing that really bugs me about the show is that it really, really, REALLY dumbs down its content--to the point where each episode begins with a title card that reads “Today’s lesson is...” and an announcer reads it aloud. This “educational lesson” is nearly always some kind of obvious behavioral advice such as, “you should try to understand people who are different from you,” or “it’s important to acknowledge your mistakes, learn from them and try to do better next time,” which then gets beaten into the viewer over and over with all the subtlety of repeated punches to the groin. Many of the episodes do a highly dubious job of successfully illustrating said “lesson” to boot, such as the episode that states, “the best way to work out a problem with a bully is through peaceful communication.” Here Al repeatedly tries to peacefully communicate with a bully only to have it antagonize said bully further. Ultimately Al decides to quit his show and just leave when suddenly the bully has a dramatic change of heart and they become friends.

A great disadvantage of this whole “lesson” concept for each show is that it almost always falls on Al himself to be the one who has to learn each episode’s incredibly obvious lesson. This translates into Al having to act like a complete jerk or moron for a majority of each episode, which leaves his TV personality very unappealing. It’s hard to want to keep going back to Al’s subterranean playhouse week after week if the owner is coming across as a stupid dick 90% of the time.

It’s not just the lessons that get dumbed way down, it’s the jokes too. In one episode, Al promises his friends he can get John Tesh to appear when he lies and says the two of them are good friends. After ultimately admitting to his friends that he lied, Al doesn’t notice when Tesh arrives on set anyway. To make damn certain the audience gets the joke, the name “John Tesh!” appears on screen with a clip of him shown earlier in the program. Ugh.

But the episodes aren’t a total loss. Occasionally an honestly funny nugget of material manages to squeeze through, but you really have to look. At some point in almost every episode, Al sits down to watch a few minutes of TV. Okay, I thought, THIS is the reason to watch this show--as it was the random parody sketches peppered throughout Al’s movie UHF, such as the “Conan the Librarian” and “Raul’s Wild Kingdom” sketches, that provided the film’s best and funniest moments. Yet, sadly, while there are some great, brief parody commercial and TV show sketches thrown in here--such as “Pirate Day Care” and “French Prince of Bel-Air”--as the episodes get higher in number, the parodies become more belabored and less inspired. The frequent exercise workout, news anchor and “got milk?” parodies get old FAST while drifting farther from the target material with each passing permutation.

The “Fatman” cartoons, another reoccurring feature of the show, are hardly even worth writing about. While the animation style is quite eye-catching, the writing is sub-par at best. Each installment finds Fatman (a purposefully lame superhero inspired by Al’s “Fat” music video) up against a new supervillain with some kind of evil plot involving food that ultimately Fatman will eat. Harvey the Wonder Hamster is Fatman’s sidekick and here he not only talks but is obviously the brains of the duo. After the first cartoon where Fatman proves himself to be utterly incompetent and Harvey must do all the work to save the city, this one-gag cartoon had already worn out its welcome for me.

As disappointed as I was in Al’s movie UHF, I must point out that the film’s DVD commentary is phenomenal--easily one of the five best DVD commentaries I’ve ever listened to. Highly informative, refreshingly candid and hysterically funny, it far surpasses the actual movie for sheer entertainment value multiple times over. Thankfully, the DVD commentary for The Weird Al Show follows the tradition and is just as fantastic and enjoyable as the movie commentary. Listening to each episode’s commentary (and, yes, there’s a commentary by Al, director Peyton Reed and producer Thomas F. Frank on ALL 13 episodes) nearly makes watching the show itself worth it. In fact, it’s in listening to the commentaries that explains just why the show is the mess that it is. Apparently, when CBS was interested in buying a Saturday morning kids’ show starring Yankovic, the FCC had just recently mandated that the networks must show three hours of educational programming each Saturday morning. Eager not to let CBS’s interest in his show go away, Al told the executives that his show was indeed educational...thus the “lessons” had to be incorporated into each episode. But to make sure that it would appear as though The Weird Al Show was indeed “educational,” CBS ordered the extreme lack of subtlety evident in the final integration of each lesson. Combine this with Al’s off-kilter sense of humor (which often, as I pointed out earlier, is best enjoyed by adults) and super-cutesy, fluffy kids content and you’re left with what Al himself dubs in one of its commentaries, “a show for nobody.”

It’s hard for me to recommend The Weird Al Show to anyone but the most fanatical Weird Al fans out there. Heck, even Al himself, along with the others responsible for the show, admit it makes them “wince.” The plot lines are stupid (even for a kid’s show), the numerous guest stars are wasted and the whole endeavor reeks of compromise after dirty compromise. If you positively worship Al, unabashedly love his movie UHF and positively salivate at the thought of buying anything associated with him, then go ahead and pick up The Weird Al Show on DVD. For the rest of Al’s fan base, you’re better off just waiting until next month for his new CD, “Straight Outta Lynwood,” to satisfy your Weird Al craving. Anyone who isn’t already a Weird Al admirer should absolutely avoid this DVD set; it won’t be making any new fans.


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