April 09, 2016


(CBS, September 13-December 6, 1997)

Ear Booker Productions, Dick Clark Productions

“Weird Al” Yankovic – Himself, Fred Huggins, Tony Malone, Fatman, various
Gary LeRoi Gray – Bobby the Inquisitive Boy
Brian Haley – The Hooded Avenger
Paula Jai Parker – Val Brentwood, Gal Spy
Judy Tenuta – Madame Judy the Psychic
Danielle Weeks – Cousin Corky
Stan Freberg – Papa Boolie, J.B. Toppersmith
Donavan Freberg – Baby Boolie
Eddie Deezen – The Guy Boarded in the Wall
Mary Yankovic – Herself
Nick Yankovic - Himself
Harvey the Wonder Hamster - Himself
Billy West – Narrator, Harvey the Wonder Hamster (animated)

            “Weird Al” Yankovic is probably one of the most recognizable names in modern comedy; having a decades-spanning career built on numerous musical and pop culture parodies.

Just a boy and his accordian.

            Al started down the path to his career when he met and gave radio personality Dr. Demento a tape of his song “Belvedere Cruisin’” in 1976, which Demento loved and played on the Dr. Demento Show. Then, while working for his university’s radio station where he officially adopted the persona of “Weird Al”, Al recorded “My Bologna”, a parody of The Knack’s hit “My Sharona”, which Demento again played. The Knack lead singer Doug Fieger loved the parody and helped Al get it released as a single as well as his first six-month recording contract with Capitol Records. While touring with Demento’s stage show, Al met his manager, Jay Levey, and recruited his band: bassist Steve Jay, guitarist Jim West, drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, and later in 1991 keyboardist Ruben Valtierra.

            Over the next decade, Al and his band would record several albums full of parodies and original music and perform as both concert headliners and opening acts. Along the way, Al would flex his parody muscles with music videos that faithfully recreated the majority of the actual videos for the songs he parodied. From 1984-2006, Al would host Al TV; a series of ten specials that aired on MTV and VH1 where he would showcase his own videos, surreal or unusual videos from other performers, and fake commercials and celebrity interviews where he would intercut himself asking strange questions with footage from actual interviews. In 1985, Al and Levey made the mockumentary The Compleat Al, and in 1989 the cult classic film UHF. 

Al in his eyeball chair.

            One project that took a while to come to fruition was a children’s show. Since 1984, Al had been trying to get one produced, but it wouldn’t be until 1997 that it would finally happen. Along with producer Thomas F. Frank, Al pitched the show first to Dick Clark, who agreed to produce the show through his Dick Clark Productions. Then, they pitched it to CBS. They were interested, but due to FCC tightening the mandate for 3 hours of educational programming per week, they were only looking at shows with educational value. Al and Frank assured them the show would be educational in the vein of the network’s prior hit, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and CBS greenlit the show. Psychologist Dr. Gordon Berry was retained as the series’ educational advisor, much as he had been for the network’s other previous hit, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.

Al in his house.

            As the series’ intro explained, a fictional version of Al had taken to living below the Earth’s surface in a subterranean clubhouse full of bizarre furniture, gadgetry and musical instruments. Al lived with his best friend, Harvey the Wonder Hamster, who sometimes communicated with animated thought bubbles as a means to make him more expressive per the network’s wishes, and a guy who lived inside his wall (initially silent but later made to talk, played by Eddie Deezen). Al had an eclectic cast of friends frequently drop in to pay him a visit, including his super-strong cousin Corky (Danielle Weeks); super hero The Hooded Avenger (Brian Haley, who wasn’t thrilled with the costume and had a friend come up with an alternate version); super spy Val Brentwood (Paula Jai Parker, who always had different colored hair when she appeared); psychic Madame Judy (Judy Tenuta); inquisitive young man Bobby (Gary LeRoi Gray); and occasionally Al’s parents Mary and Nick (played by themselves). Julie Rae Engelsman handed the bulk of the costuming for the show. Billy West served as the series’ narrator and announcer, which included annoying (to the producers) voiceovers that led in and out of commercials that would restate the show’s moral lesson.

Al as Fred Huggins.

            The Weird Al Show debuted on CBS on September 13, 1997 as part of their Think CBS Kids initiative, which featured a Saturday morning line-up consisting of only educational live-action programs and news. Each episode would begin with the episode’s lesson that Al would have to learn as the episode progressed. There were a number of recurring segments, many recycled from previous projects. Al would sit on his eyeball chair for Channel Hopping on Al TV, which would yield parodies of shows, commercials, news and music videos pre-recorded and inserted into episodes as time allowed (which meant they rarely tied into the episode’s lesson), as well as licensed stock footage. To answer one of Bobby’s questions, Al would play him an old black and white educational film with a newly-dubbed vocal track provided by Bob Scott (who had actually narrated such films early in his career). Al would check his fan mail by having it fall on him after he yanked on a cord over his counter and heard a different sound effect each episode. And Nutrition Break was when Al would journey to his kitchen area and concoct a bizarre and completely inedible culinary creation. 

Jon Schwartz, Mary Yankovic, Val Brentwood, The Hooded Avenger, Bobby and Madame Judy.

The show’s introduction was the production of three different animation houses for the different styles: Epoch Ink Animation handled the traditional animation, DNA Productions rendered the CGI shots, and Scott Nordlund, who worked on Al’s “Jurassic Park” video, did the Claymation. Jay and Jim West handled the series’ incidental music, along with William Kevin Anderson. A 3-second clip of Al’s “Bite Me”, originally featured as a hidden track on Off the Deep End, played over the Ear Booker Productions logo.

The adventures of Fatman.

Sometimes an episode would feature an animated segment called Fatman by Keith Alcorn, Paul Claerhout and Tim Hatcher that was inspired by Al’s video for “Fat”. It showed Al as a super hero who could become fat to solve a food-related crime. Initially, the producers wanted to cast Adam West as the voice of Al’s sidekick (and the real brains of the duo), Harvey. However, West was only able to do it remotely and the producers couldn’t accommodate him, letting the role and most others in the shorts to fall to Billy West. Al would also play several other characters, including a news anchor, a very flexible fitness instructor, and Fred Huggins: a combined homage to Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo and Doug Henning. Huggins would often be seen with two puppet partners: Papa Boolie (Stan Freberg) and Baby Boolie (Donavan Freberg), both named by Al’s friend, Bob Odenkirk, who helped with the initial brainstorming for the show. The show would be the last time Al would be seen with his classic trademark appearance as in 1998 he had corrective Lasik surgery, shaved off his mustache, and grew his hair longer (the loud shirts still remained).

Al and "miners" David Lander, Michael McKean, David Bowe and Clarence Clemons.

            The series was shot on the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson stage, right next to the stage where the Tonight Show with Jay Leno was filmed. That proved fortuitous as when the show had difficulty booking guests, Al would troll the studio lot and halls to convince people to appear on the show. Amongst the celebrity appearances were Patton Oswald, Downtown Julie Brown, Kevin Weisman, Mike Levey, Tony Little, Ron and Lisa Popeil (Ron was the subject of an Al  song), Clarence Clemons, David Lander, Michael McKean, Martha Quinn, Bill Kirchenbauer, Tress MacNeille, Bill Mumy (also a close friend of Al’s), Alex Trebek, Teri Garr, Jill Talley, Ian Whitcomb, Charles Fleischer, Matthew McCurley, Tahj Mowry, Cathy Ladman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, John Roarke, Roger Rose, Matt Weinhold, Fabio, Daisy Fuentes, John Ennis, Rick Overton, Dweezil Zappa, Jimmy Briscoe, Drew Carey, Fred Willard, the Amazing Jonathan, Martin Lewis, Gilbert Gottfried, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and even Dick Clark. Previous collaborators of Al’s included Victoria Jackson, David Bowe, Emo Phillips (who also provided a voice in Fatman), Kevin McCarthy, Gedde Watanabe, Dick Van Patten and Dr. Demento, as well as members of Al’s band. Henry Corden and Jean Vander Pyl voiced their characters of Fred and Wilma Flintstone for a fantasy sequence featuring new animation by Hanna-Barbera Productions.

Harvey, the giant Wonder Hamster.

            Al also attempted to do something unique for Saturday morning television: feature live music. He and the other producers had an extensive wish list for acts they wanted to book on the show, but a great many of them were turned down by CBS for skewing too “old”. Instead, musical acts included the likes of Immature, Barenaked Ladies (whom the network wanted addressed as a child-friendlier “BNL”), Radish and All-4-One. Al was also able to book Hanson, personal friends of his, who were at the height of their popularity during the show’s production. However, despite that, the show received a lot of hate mail over their appearance by people who didn’t like their music or the group. Al’s band also played a few times, although Al’s “Yoda” (one of many Star Wars references peppered throughout the series as everyone involved were big fans) was accompanied by the Bad Hair Band.

You can see right through him.

While Al pitched the show as being like Pee-wee’s Playhouse, he and the other producers wanted to avoid comparisons the shows. That proved difficult, however, being that they hired Playhouse set designer Wayne White to design their set and logo, and CBS promoted the show initially with the comparison. Al served as the series’ head writer, along with a staff that included Susan Amerikaner, Tracy Berna, Zeke Kamm, Steve Lookner, Mark O’Keefe and Ron Weiner. Seth MacFarlane applied to be a writer on the program, showing them his concept for Family Guy, but they were forced to pass on it knowing that the network would never go for it. Had they been able to incorporate it, The Weird Al Show could have been to Family Guy what The Tracy Ullman Show was to The Simpsons

The network had Al all twisted in knots.

The network was very involved with the show, striving to ensure it was maintaining a certain level of educational content that was appropriate for their desired demographic. This often brought the producers in conflict with the network as the network had notes for almost every single thing they did. As the writers had already finished their work two weeks before filming, many of the script rewrites had to be done by Al, Frank and series director Peyton Reed typically overnight or on the fly as they were shooting an episode. They had gotten wise to the level of interference and often would load scripts up with content they were sure would get rejected in order to keep the content they really wanted; however, the network constantly surprised them with what they allowed and denied.

Al hangs out at the eyeball table with the Hooded Avenger, Cousin Corky and Val Brentwood.

Al’s humor was severely hampered by CBS’ interference; many of his jokes losing their punch and timing due to the extensive rewrites. Instead of talking to his audience like he envisioned, CBS forced him to talk down to them; the moral and the jokes had to be constantly repeated and explained, and they had to be careful not to include “imitable behavior” that kids could easily duplicate at home and injure themselves. To keep viewers from being “confused” when Al watched TV, a TV border was placed around the “shows” instead of being shown in full screen as Al had done in UHF. CBS wanted Al to include parody videos as much as possible. As a result, several of Al’s previous videos were played often during the end credits, although the rights to use most of them were surprisingly difficult to get. He also made a quick video for his previous song “Lasagna”, a parody of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba”, and a new 30-second snippet that parodied The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” called “Lousy Haircut”. Although “HE Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Hamster” was intended to be the first episode by the production, CBS made “Bad Influence” the first broadcast, feeling it had a better message from the outset.

Nothing like writing a short nap into the script.

The creative interference created an intense and stressful working environment. Al, Frank and Reed would often work on addressing the network’s notes all night before going into filming two episodes in a row the next day. The Weird Al Show was aired at different times in different markets, making it hard to promote. When the network did advertise for the show it was usually on the morning of broadcast, which often went unseen as the ratings for Think CBS Kids were abysmal. The fact that the lead-in was the news program CBS This Morning also didn’t help draw in the desired viewers. Within four months, most of the shows in the line-up were cancelled and replaced with reruns of Beakman’s World, CBS Storybreak and Tales from the Cryptkeeper; The Weird Al Show amongst them with the conclusion of its sole season. Despite the grueling conditions and the short run, many of the people involved both in front of and behind the cameras went on to have successful careers—especially Al.

"You want viewers? Macho Man will getcha viewers!"

Had the series been successful, Surge Licensing was in place to produce merchandise related to the show. However, the only merchandise to ever see the light of day was when Shout! Factory acquired the rights to release the complete series to DVD in 2006. While the set featured commentary on every episode by Al, Frank, Reed and several of the guest-stars, as well as Fatman and other concept art, it was light on content as CBS kept nothing from the show beyond the master tapes. Dick Clark also had much of the set and props in storage until he needed to make room for new shows, allowing Al and Frank to snatch up whatever they wanted before they wound up in the trash. The theme was included as a track on Al’s 1999 album Running with Scissors.

“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Hamster” (11/15/97) – Al has to apologize to Harvey after bullying him for a death-defying stunt.

“Mining Accident” (9/27/97) – Al has to learn to be friendly to the miners that dug into his house.

“Bad Influence” (9/13/97) – Al’s new friend Spike gets Al to perform goofy tasks in order to join his club.
Song: Shoebox” by Barenaked Ladies

“Promises, Promises” (9/20/97) – Al sells worthless junk on infomercials in order to pay John Tesh’s appearance fee after lying that he knew him.

“Back to School” (10/4/97) – Al regrets deciding that he wants to be smarter.

“One for the Record Books” (10/18/97) – Al tries to get his own world record after Harvey becomes a giant from radiation.
Song: Where’s the Love” by Hanson

“Because I Said So” (10/25/97) – Al has to babysit his producer’s greedy nephew.

“The Competition” (11/22/97) – Al, Fred Huggins and Uncle Ralphie compete to see who’s the best TV host.
Song: Little Pink Stars” by Radish

“Time Machine” (10/11/97) – Al goes back in time to get Harvey a birthday present.
Song: Yoda” by Weird Al Yankovic and the Bad Hair Band

“Al Gets Robbed” (12/6/97) – Al returns home to discover his cave has been cleaned out.
Song: Love’s in Need” by All-4-One

“Al Plays Hooky” (11/8/97) – Cousin Corky is left hosting the show when Al takes an impromptu vacation.

“Talent Show” (11/1/97) – It’s the annual “Weird Al” talent show and Corky has trouble with hers.
Song: I’m Not a Fool” by Immature

“The Obligatory Holiday Episode” (11/29/97) – Al celebrates the holidays with all of his friends.


The Best and Brightest said...

Nobody's watching our programming block that focuses on bland educational content, clearly the answer is to make it blander and more educational! Perfect example of poisonous executive meddling.

Chris Buchner said...

Network executives like to play it safe, and usually lack any sort of creative backgrounds. Network meddling has ruined many a good or potentially good show, and they never learn to let a show just be and step in WHEN you need to.