Unlike Weird Al Yankovic, the star for which it is a vehicle, 1989’s UHF never crossed over into mainstream success or critical favor. Before you come at me with your Weird Al pearl-clutching, the once-niche parody king has four Grammys, 11 nominations, four gold records, six platinum records, three top ten Billboard albums, and a number one album (2014’s Mandatory Fun). In contrast, the critical and popular reception to UHF was so harsh (Ebert gave the film one star; Siskel gave it zero) that it fell out of print. Even now in its internet-age cult resurgence, UHF is largely dismissed as a forgotten parody vehicle with some nostalgic merit.
Its movie riffs are often tired, its acting stilted, its romance between Al and Victoria Jackson deeply upsetting, and neither Al nor sidekick David Bowe is a charismatic leading man.
There are certainly things to like in the oddball late-night gags: Conan the Librarian comes to mind, bifurcating patrons that fail to understand the Dewey Decimal System. But the unironically (ok, maybe there’s some irony here) perfect part of UHF is its villain, RJ Fletcher. The perfectly slimy Kevin McCarthy plays the over-the-top Trumpian head of the local network affiliate in competition with Weird Al’s UHF station. Where Leslie Nielsen (in his similar comic career shift) went small, McCarthy goes big.
McCarthy embodies a certain kind of real-life '80s baddie in a movie straining to burst into the MTV '90s. His old-school white collar elitism and nepotism (his father owned the affiliate before him and his sniveling son works beneath him) was a cultural signifier that all kids understood as representative of "the man" even if they weren't quite sure what that meant yet. They just knew the weirdness opposed to him on Weird Al and Stanley Spudowski's (Michael Richards) ramshackle network was the fun, rebellious alternative.
When Fletcher fires Spudowski, blaming his own incompetence on the lanky janitor, it speaks to every kid’s sense of unfairness. Without McCarthy’s PG-rated bile-spitting, the film wouldn’t have the corporate schoolyard bully it so desperately needs.
If I was to pick just one of his wonderful put-downs, it’d probably be “a festering bowl of dog snot.” That’s primo Weird Al, who wrote songs based specifically on how funny words sounded, like “Weasel Stomping Day.” The only problem is, in order to deliver this objectively goofy sentiment with the kind of villainous business vitriol the character requires, you need an actor with some serious chops. McCarthy takes his acting bonafides (the guy led Invasion of the Body Snatchers and was Oscar-nominated for 1952's Death of a Salesman, I think he can call someone a “pea-brained yokel”) to their limits, becoming the Joey Chestnut of scenery-chewing.
His clipped delivery, a lilting vocal range more appropriate for the stage than anything approaching realism, and aggressively perfect veneers combine into the condescending father figure of all our nightmares. His guffaw is somewhere between the rich dudes running Trading Places and Satan.
He single-handedly breathes evil life into a film that would otherwise flounder as a loosely connected series of shortform goofs. Weird Al needs a bad guy to play off of, a “Man” to be up against, for his audience to latch on. His brand is underdog, riffing on the top of the pops, and what is an underdog without the oppressive entitlement of a corporate one percenter? UHF may have found its home as a cult movie, but when McCarthy’s RJ Fletcher is on screen it’s a comedy classic.