“You don’t know what life before Al was like,” said my longtime co-worker Kevin “Okie” Okey. He’s delivered pizza from the downtown Tulsa Mazzio’s since it was a Pizzettis, “since Alapalooza and before Bad Hair Day,” he said. That’s 20 years, for the uninitiated.
Okey is right; I can’t imagine life before Weird Al. For me—and many others—Al is, has, and always will be around. He’s the guy with the goofy versions of pop songs. He’s the guy with the hair and the accordion. Weird Al Yankovic is as American as Cheez Whiz on a hot dog in a Twinkie. I don’t know how life before Al felt, but Okey remembers accepting him into his. “I saw the video for ‘Eat It’ first,” he recalls. “Nickelodeon was airing Turkey TV at the time, and I remember seeing more of his videos on there. When ‘Dare To Be Stupid’ came out, I thought, wow, I need to get into this guy.” There may be crazier fans, but Okey was my hierophant to the world of Al.
Before I met Okey I didn’t know there are people who listen to comedy rock 90 percent of the time. He may be among the less fervent, but his overall existence is Yankovician in itself. He has heterochromatic eyes, practices Fushigi, and married a woman with the same first and middle name as his sister. He’s a homunculus of the Weird Alchemist, a thoughtform made flesh through pure wacky willpower. “There will be two Elizabeth Anne Okeys at Weird Al’s anniversary show,” he proudly told me.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC IS AS AMERICAN AS CHEEZ WHIZ ON A HOT DOG IN A TWINKIE.
UHF, Weird Al’s only feature film, was shot in Tulsa in 1988. It’s a goofball movie with characters as odd and endearing as Okey. A love letter to public access television and social outcasts, it follows a barely there “band together and save our ship” narrative over a UHF station, U-62. Cowritten by Al and manager/director Jay Levey, it bombed at the box office, but became a cult hit. More acclaimed films may have been shot in Tulsa, but none of them have UHF’s ring of Dadaist documentary edge. Kevin Okeys are still buying whoopee cushions and writing Klingon versions of “Who’s on First.”
Specters from the shoot permeate Tulsa. Poodles fly from an apartment by Okey’s Mazzio’s. Al flies from Billy Ray’s BBQ on east 15th street. Karate students fly from the windows above Downtown Lounge. From U-62’s antenna near Sand Springs to Ernie Miller Pontiac by 41st and Memorial, nearly all of Tulsa is humorously haunted. Even mundane locations seem important to Al. He rattles off every address on the DVD commentary, allowing the less astute to make the UHF pilgrimage of the pious. Tulsans pick out locations when they watch the film, but some realize they’re watching them from the inside.
“We were watching UHF at the 401 Club when we realized the room we were sitting in was Al’s apartment,” said Jeff Pierce, the defunct punk venue’s owner. But why Tulsa? The answer to that is innocuous enough: convenience. Tulsa’s half-vacant Kensington Galleria was a mall/hotel that the crew could film and sleep in. Executive Producer Gray Frederickson acknowledged the facility’s importance to me. But then there was the niceness.
“I have a story I tell folks in Hollywood,” Frederickson told me. On The Outsiders, which he also produced, Frederickson had a run-in with the Teamsters Union. Francis Ford Coppola had cut half of their trucks from the production, and the head of the Tulsa Teamsters at the time, Coleman Davis, confronted Frederickson. “He was gonna fight. He pulled out his front teeth and put them in his pocket,” remembered Frederickson. They came to an agreement, but Frederickson avoided the union altogether when he returned to Tulsa for UHF. The first day of filming was sweltering, and had the crew working outdoors. Frederickson spied Davis approach, and the union boss let him know he was standing in front of the Teamsters’ hall. Frederickson thought Davis would pull out his teeth again, but Davis invited the crew out of the heat instead. The nonunion group ate lunch in unionized air conditioning, and Davis was given a part in the film.
Frederickson, who also produced Rumblefish, describes Tulsa as “your own giant back lot.” The extras are plentiful, and fire fighters are happy to turn a dry street into a rainy set. That affability was something he advertised, but he, Yankovic, and Levey were surprised by the oddity they found in residence. The script called for a telethon scene of odd talents, so a casting call was staged, pulling Okeys out of thin air. “We had guys coming in standing on their heads playing banjos, singing out of their stomachs,” said Frederickson. Charles Marsh, who passed away last July, made it to television with his upside-down yodeling. The Uncle Sam on stilts and grotesque dancing stomachs were also found on location. Of all the telethon acts, only West Coast weirdos The Kipper Kids had to be flown in.
With a cast full of faces that went on to be familiar, nearly every other actor is an Okie. Lisa Stefanic, as “Wheel of Fish” contestant Phyllis Weaver, offers the best acting in the movie that isn’t slapstick. Her image made it onto posters for UHF, and her jubilation turned to pain at the gain and loss of a red snapper is a scene that resonates with viewers internationally. Local comic Barry Friedman tried out for a French waiter part, only to be cast as one of the main villain’s “yes men” along with a Kevin Roden in a cowboy hat and fake mustache. Former RSU professor Eldon Hallum was the “Spatula City Dad,” giving the character a perfect slack-jawed forehead slap. Everyone in the “Spatula City” scene was local, and every extra in every scene was, too. Friedman noted the film’s gracious credits, quipping, “Al gave a title to every person he saw while driving around town. Apocalypse Now has a shorter cast list.” The locals still reap the benefits of their roles. Friedman boasts about the $3.76 he gets when the film plays in Lithuania. Stefanic remembers standing behind someone renting UHF at Blockbuster and having one of her kids whisper, “Mom, we can afford pizza tonight.”
MORE ACCLAIMED FILMS MAY HAVE BEEN SHOT IN TULSA, BUT NONE OF THEM HAVE UHF’S RING OF DADAIST DOCUMENTARY EDGE.
Almost all the Tulsans in the film came from The Linda Layman Agency. Don Hull, Layman’s husband and booking agent, invited me to his offi ce to talk about the movie. He had a photo of Al, Victoria Jackson, and himself ready for me. Hull told me he was an extra in a scene with Jackson and kept the photo as a souvenir. While I eyed the photograph Don handed me another. It was a large signed photo of Al with all of the extras in the “Spatula City” scene. In it, Al sits above the crowd, arms extended, victorious. He signed it with his name and “Thank you Spatula City Shoppers!” On Don’s desk was a coffee mug, laminated with a picture of Al and “Little Old Lady” Wilma Jeanne Cummins, who passed away in 2011. She, like Charles Marsh, made it to TV with her odd talent. Playing pop bottles as musical instruments, her act went unused in the film, perhaps a testament to the wealth of weird the crew dug up. UHF memorabilia dominated Hull’s workspace—a lonely photo of Chuck Norris was the only thematically irrelevant artifact.
If Okey is Yankovic’s Golem, the overall production is his hyper-sigil. With Al as a sorcerer, UHF is his condensation of will into celluloid, where the on-screen action bleeds through and pierces the corporeal. Much how Al and team found weirdness where it lay through hopeful casting, the production of the film mirrored U-62’s push for group ownership and the power of the bizarre. Hull recalled the guerrilla nature of the production: drilling fish onto spinning wheels, posting flyers for K.C.-lit trucks at offroading clubs, and his scene, where Joey’s House of Blues doubles as a dive bar and the four-star restaurant at which he pretends to dine. Even the “Spatula City” billboard loomed over Highway 51 for a full summer. The final scene of the movie, a huge crowd endeavor to purchase the studio from the villains, was filmed over several nights in a field. Michael Richards, playing the blueprint for Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer, had to keep the crowd awake and screaming until dawn. His real life actions took on the role of his character, telling the locals any good takes would get them into his hotel for “chocolate pudding and cheese.” Hull said that two weeks of UHF was “like going to LA for a year.” Locations and people weren’t the limit of Tulsa’s imprint on the project. Stunts were coordinated by Tulsa bomb technician Robert Maras, who played a thug and donated his son to the famous “fire hose” scene.
The trains for Stanley Spadowki’s Clubhouse were built by the Green Country Model Railroaders Association, and Al’s car in the film, a Nash Metropolitan, was procured from a Tulsa owner. Richards sought out the local Shriners for his mini car. The owner at the time, Ken Deatherage, remembers Yankovic, Richards, and Jackson arriving in a limo to view it. “I gave them all tomatoes from my garden, and it blew their minds,” he told me, “because they were all born on concrete and had never tasted a real one.”
Just as the filming paralleled the script, so does the community narrative surrounding it. When local station RSU-TV needed help with funding they reached out to Yankovic. He returned their call. A telethon was staged in early October with local UHF stars, and Al appeared at several functions for their benefit. Last month Circle Cinema played Al’s failure of a film to 500 people on three sold-out screens. Yankovic, Levey, and Frederickson sat in for a Q&A. Film posters by locals and Twinkie wiener sandwiches, the film’s snack legacy, were sold as concessions.
Fans can, and do, heed Al’s call. They visit locations from the film and find a city just as odd as the one they’ve idolized on screen. The Chainsaw Massacre house is now a train-themed restaurant, but Tulsa is just the same—a Petrie dish teeming with Okey-like microbes. When Okey’s Beetle broke down, he got a smaller Fiat for his 20-plus pizza catering jobs. That’s dedication to form from a man who truly “dares to be stupid.” I told Okey I’d be interviewing Al, in case he had a burning question he needed answered. Without hesitation he replied: “Will he sign my adoption papers?”
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 20. Oct. 15, 2013.