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Monday, January 11, 2010

The Weird Al Show

In 1997, Weird Al Yankovic hosted a Saturday morning show on CBS called, appropriately enough, The Weird Al Show. The show ran 13 episodes before being canceled. A typical episode unspooled like this: an educational objective is displayed on a parchment and literally yelled at the viewer. Al, playing a jerky man-child, behaves in a manner contrary to the educational objective and his friends awkwardly reiterate the message to him. A Fatman cartoon is played, TV is watched, a tween friendly band plays. Finally, Al learns his lesson. Roll credits.

Sound kind of dull? Well, sad to say, it is. But, I think it's safe to say it's not the creative team's fault. It seems they envisioned something more along the lines of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, aimed at a middle school audience. CBS had other things in mind.

Since the network had been stung by past controversial kidvid, like Pee-Wee and the New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, they were looking to play safe with future Saturday morning fare. Additionally, new government mandates required three hours of educational television in the Saturday morning slot. How CBS was pitched The Weird Al Show and decided it would be safe and educational is beyond me.

What appeared on the screen was the product of back and forth between the show's creators and CBS, who insisted on things such as the educational objective and more or less dumbing down the show to reach a Barney aged crowd. Aided by an ever changing time slot, the result was the show never found an audience and was off the air a year after it started.

It is exactly this behind the scenes wrangling that may have ruined the show, but makes this DVD set worth watching. Not because the show itself has improved with age. It hasn't. But because it allowed Al, director Peyton Reed and producer Thomas F. Frank the opportunity to create one of the most blunt and fascinating commentary tracks of all time.

If you are expecting a laugh a minute track like say the one from This Is Spinal Tap, you will be disappointed. However, if you enjoy knowing how the sausage is made, or not as the case is here, it doesn't get much better than this. I'm not talking technical details of how they made shots and things of that nature. Sure, that's there too, but I'm talking pretty blunt airings of the many ways CBS mucked up the show.

The three commentators turn their bitterness and disappointment into a fascinating look at how major networks really view their audience and how removed they really are from the creative process. It's also interesting to get takes on what was removed vs. what was allowed. For instance,Al proudly proclaims the show had the fist television puppet vomit and then marvels that this was allowed while other, much more innocent things, were axed.

The tone of the commentary isn't all bile. They seem very self-aware and willing to poke fun at their own shortcomings as well as dish earned blame to the network. For example, Al notes if they had wanted to avoid comparison to Pee-Wee's show, they probably shouldn't have used the same set designer. There's also some fun trivia, such as they were originally offered the Family Guy characters for the show and Randy "Macho Man" Savage only agreed to a skit where he is pinned by Al's hamster sidekick after he was assured Harvey the Wonder Hamster wasn't a girl. It's also amusing to hear how Al lined up guests by accosting them on the Tonight Show set (which was down the hall) and they aren't afraid to poke fun at some of those same guests. ("John Tesh? There's one for our target demographic. Kids love John Tesh.")

To be fair, the show, as crippled as it is, has it's moments. On the rare occasion Al is allowed to be Al, it works well. The channel surfing bits, especially the Mr. Rogers parody Fred Huggins, are quite funny. And Emo Philips, who makes a guest appearance (much to the networks chagrin, it seems,) is great. But, it's hard to see The Weird Al Show as anything other than a giant missed opportunity, just like it's creators do. It's hard to deny these DVDs are much better with the commentary track on, and I'd highly recommend anyone interested in how messed up network television really is have a listen.

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