ALF Reviews: “Pennsylvania 6-5000” (Season 1, Episode 4)

Quick recap. Episode 1: An alien crashes to Earth and a family decides to harbor him illegally. Episode 2: ALF orders a pizza. Episode 3: The cat runs away. Following on from that pattern of wasted potential I half expected episode 4 to be about Willie getting a haircut. Or maybe Lynn breaking a nail.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me, but if I were creating a show about an alien, I’d probably make use of the fact that he’s an alien. I guess that’s why I’m not writing any sitcoms, and I’m just a lowly technical writer with a fantastic body and a hot tub full of super models. :(

It’s just so strange to me that every episode of ALF so far plays like a minor rewrite to another hypothetical show about a family who adopts a hobo. ALF is a little uncouth, and not totally respectful of other people’s privacy, but that just makes him a dick. It doesn’t make him an alien. If you were to tell me that this was originally supposed to be a show about somebody’s asshole uncle who moved into the house, I’m not sure I’d be able to find much evidence to the contrary in the show itself.

Case in point, this episode is about the family needing a second phone line because ALF is always calling political talk shows. For Christ’s sake, why can’t they write an episode about some space germs ALF introduces into the house? Maybe that’s the series finale.

So, yes, the episode begins with ALF and Brian watching a live panel debate about nuclear arms, and it does a great job of reminding us that Brian’s just your average, run of the mill 6-year-old kid. He hops out of bed on a Saturday morning to watch Meet the Press in his jim-jams, just like all toddlers who grew up in the 80s.

Seriously, I can buy that ALF would watch this, but why doesn’t Brian want to watch Pee-Wee’s Playhouse or something instead? What kind of kid is invested in foreign affairs?

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

Lynn comes in complaining that ALF is always hogging the phone, and then Willie comes home complaining that ALF is always hogging the phone. Nobody seems to have any problem with the fact that he’s hogging the phone in order to broadcast his alien voice and viewpoints live on a national news broadcast.

In fairness, Kate does handwave this somewhat: she says she doesn’t mind him calling the show because it keeps him out of the kitchen. Of course, I prefer to think that this is just an excuse, and Kate’s really hoping that ALF will accidentally out himself as an alien on live television and the Alien Task Force will come to the house and shoot him to death. Kate, if this is what you’re hoping for, leave Willie. You and I would be so happy together.

This conflict of the monopolized phone line is just riveting. I’ll probably say this in every review, but it boggles my mind that the writing staff doesn’t think it’s worth having ALF do anything alien. Why do they believe that it’s funnier if he’s just a bad roommate? I honestly don’t get it.

ALF tells the unseen political panel that he has a solution to the problem of nuclear weapons: “Get rid of them.”

It’s not hilarious or anything, but I actually kind of like that. It’s nice that he’s naive about this. As the panel tells him, he’s oversimplifying the problem. And he is. But he’s an alien, so that’s good. It’s good that his alien mind sees complicated and dangerous concepts as simple things that we should just “get rid of.” It’s insightful (accidentally so, I’m sure, but still) and it goes a short way back toward turning ALF into a creature that doesn’t quite “get” Earth.

Then I remember that he knows how call-in political talk shows work and I realize it’s meaningless to try to give this shit any credit.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

We get our normal credits sequence, including the little scene of Lynn talking on the phone in her closet. I draw attention to this because the very last thing before the credits is Lynn telling Willie that she needs her own phone. So she doesn’t have one? How long is this cord that she can take the living room phone upstairs and into her closet?

Whatever. Willie offers Lynn the possibility of call waiting instead. Wow, call waiting! Remember that? That was such a big thing when I was growing up. There were ads on television about it and it seemed so incredible that somebody could call you while you were on the phone. Then everyone got the internet and realized that call waiting would fuck up your connection and you’d have to start downloading the naked woman all over again. Man…wild times.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

ALF is in the shed doing something that is emphatically not related to getting his fucking space ship off the roof. Willie walks in with some Chinese food for him* and sees him dicking around with the ham radio. He doesn’t say that this is what he sees, but since he’s a human being with two eyes and I’m a human being with two eyes I can pretty safely deduce that he sees this happening. Bear that in mind as we move forward, because the show certainly doesn’t.

In giving ALF his twice cooked pork, Willie reveals that he took elocution lessons from Borat by calling it “twaayce cooked poo-ohrk.” Max Wright’s line readings are something I will never get used to. Christopher Walken can take oddly emphasized speech and elevate it to a form of art. Max Wright just sounds like he’s constantly trying to clear mashed potatoes out of his throat.

I hated it as a kid, and it doesn’t play any better now than it did then. I remember when Friends premiered and he played a barista or something. Even though I had been a young’un who loved this stupid show, when I recognized him I didn’t think, “Oh, hey! It’s the dad from ALF!” I thought, “Come on. This fuckin’ guy again?”

Anyway, Willie babbles to ALF for a while about family and ALF keeps asking him to pass tools his way. Something magical happens here, because that leads to a legitimately funny moment. Willie, in the middle of his speech, says, “You see, a family is like…”

Then ALF says, “Pliers.”

And Willie says, “Yes. Or a crescent wrench.”

It’s not hilarious or anything, and it’s nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before, but this is competent comedy. By ALF standards, that’s impressive. Instead of just throwing a handful of shit into the air and letting it fall onto some blank pages, the writers actually made an effort here to have two different things going on in the same room, and then intertwined them in service of a punchline.

That may sound like faint praise, but I am actually kind of impressed by this. Then again, the rest of the episode does seem to have been generated by writers who threw a handful of shit into the air and let it fall onto some blank pages so I guess I shouldn’t be so quick to enjoy this show.

ALF tells Willie to hold onto some exposed wiring while ALF switches the machine on, and Willie does it.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"


Fucking what.

What the fucking what.


Why would Willie have done this? What purpose would it have served for him to do this? I buy that ALF would do this shitty ass thing to the people who love him, because he’s always doing shitty ass things to the people who love him, but why in crap’s name would Willie grab a fistful of naked wires and watch ALF turn the machine on?

It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like that League of Gentlemen “Put your hand in!” sketch, in which the owner of a joke shop coerces someone into sticking his hand into an ominous tube, and then electrocutes him with a car battery. However that sketch had a thousand times more characterization than this entire show. The shop owner was quite clearly deranged, the customer was terrified, and the owner locked the door and refused to let the man leave until he did as he was told. It was dark, as it should have been, and it was at least somewhat terrifying as well.

ALF shocking Willie is the same thing, but “one guy shocks another guy” isn’t a joke on its own. You have to do something with it. The League of Gentlement used a predictable outcome to spin a nightmare in miniature. ALF just says “Yo Willie Imma shock you” and Willie says “cool ALF ok thx.”

That isn’t a joke, any more than it would be a joke for me to give you a hammer and tell you to smack yourself in the nuts.

And what the hell does Willie have in his front pocket during this scene? It looks like he’s carrying his letters of transit so he can leave Casablanca. Why would you stuff a character’s shirt pocket with thick, obtrusive documents unless he’s going to read them or refer to them at some point? This is so weird. Maybe it was just Max Wright’s suicide note for when the scene was finished, and he chickened out.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

Willie notices that ALF was screwing around with his ham radio, and gets upset. This is a bit strange since he watched ALF screw around with the ham radio, then handed him tools so that he could more effectively screw around with the ham radio, then reached his own hand into the ham radio that ALF screwed with so that ALF could continue to screw with the ham radio and shock him with his own ham radio. Needless to say, Willie is surprised to learn at this point that ALF was SCREWING AROUND WITH HIS FUCKING HAM RADIO.

The radio is destroyed (temporarily, because this is a sitcom) and Willie complains that it took him ten years to build it.


No. It did not take you ten years to build a ham radio, Willie. That’s inconceivable.

I remember seeing those kits at Radio Shack. I’m sure they weren’t easy to build, but it’s nothing that required a decade’s worth of work. Even if you didn’t have much time to work on it, I can’t imagine any reasonably intelligent human being wouldn’t have it done in a couple of months, at the most. If it took you much longer than that, you’d probably just give up and concede that you don’t know how to build a ham radio. You don’t keep working on it for longer than your fucking son has been alive.

The only way building this radio would have taken ten years is if Willie first had to teach himself fluent English so he could read the manual.

It’s just so ridiculous. If he’d said it took him one year, I wouldn’t complain. That’s still a long time, but it’s understandable. And it’s still a large enough investment of time that Willie could rightfully be upset. But for crying out loud the thing is the size of a toaster oven. He’s not restoring a classic car; he’s plugging things into other things.

Ugh this fuckin’ radio.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

Anyway, Willie forgets about being mad that ALF destroyed something important to him, which is sort of this guy’s only character trait I guess, and ALF explains that he was doing something to the radio so that he could call Air Force One and talk to the president.

Again…mother effing what? Why wouldn’t he call the White House? It’s still a bad idea, but at least that’s where the president is. I don’t understand this.

He confides to Willie, though, that the reason he’s calling is that he wants to talk about nuclear weapons. He’s concerned about them, because that’s how Melmac was destroyed.

Now this is interesting. And it’s effectively dark. That’s…kind of sad. The planet didn’t just blow up on its own…there was some kind of accident or war, a weapon of mass destruction detonated, and an entire intelligent civilization was destroyed. This was an unexpected reveal, and I like it.

Of course it sort of undercuts what I perceived as ALF’s naivete earlier in the episode, when he called the show. ALF no longer has a well-meaning but uneducated alien’s perspective…he’s a dude who comes from a planet that had the same problem we have, and he still has the oversimplified “get rid of them” attitude. I don’t know…this doesn’t bother me or anything — outside of the fact that, once again, ALF understands everything on Earth — but it seems strange to me that ALF is so passionate about this obviously impossible advice.

Willie informs ALF that it’s illegal to descramble the president’s secret radio frequency. Uh, okay Willie. I’ll take your word for that.

ALF counters that it’s also illegal to steal HBO, which the Tanner family does. Willie understands that these two things are absolutely equal and leaves ALF to hack into the government. I know the episode needs ALF to place the call, but what kind of rationalization was this for letting ALF do it? It would have been better writing to just have Willie spontaneously combust.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

In the next scene ALF successfully calls Air Force One, and we get a look at the set. I’m not sure if it’s a joke on the part of ALF‘s writers that it looks like an office right out of a Monty Python skit, or if they actually believe that Air Force One is just a flying White House. The set is also perfectly still and we don’t see any stars or lights through the windows, so maybe these assholes are just sitting in some dark hangar somewhere playing house. Who fuckin’ knows.

The guy who played Les Nessman answers the phone, and he thanks the caller for dialing Air Force One and asks how he can help. So, wait. Again. WAIT AGAIN. I thought this was some super secret scrambled presidential frequency? Why is this guy answering the phone like strangers call it all the time? Why would the frequency be scrambled unless only massively important people should be getting through? If that secret phone rings you’d better answer it “Yes, Mr. Vice President” or something. Not “Thank you for calling the totally impenetrable Air Force One help line, how may I direct your call?”

Les asks the other airborne clerical assistant if he should patch the caller through to the president. Sure! Why the fuck not!?

What kind of question is this? Who are these idiots? What is their role in the government even meant to be?

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

The other guy looks kind of like an off-brand Chevy Chase, and he worries that it might be a call from a communist. Uh, okay. He takes the call and tells ALF that he can’t put Mr. Reagan on the line because the president is taking a shit. I’m not joking. But I guess this explains that ALF called Air Force One because the president wasn’t at home. How the hell did he know that?

Chevy Lite asks him what he’s calling about, and ALF says that he’s calling about “the bombs.” Ominous music plays, and I’m not sure why. These guys can’t hear it…only we can, in the audience, and we know ALF isn’t a terrorist. What kind of tension was the show trying to create?

The guy ends his call with ALF and pulls a red telephone out of his desk drawer. It’s a corded phone so I don’t know how or why it would be stashed in a desk drawer, but then again I’ve never been on Air Force One and I’m positive the ALF team did their research.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

Willie presents a telephone usage chart that he made to his family. Man, this episode is really bringing me back. Remember the days before PowerPoint? That was when all presentations were done in the media of glitter paint and elbow macaroni.

Lynn is wearing a bolo.

I don’t have anything to say about that. I just really wanted to make sure you noticed that Lynn was wearing a bolo.

Kate points out a problem with the chart: Brian’s telephone time is at 11 o’clock, which is past his bed time. I’m not sure who a six-year-old boy needs to be calling at any time of day, but Kate’s pretty adamant that he gets to do it.

Willie proposes that he switch that time with Lynn’s, so that she can call her boyfriend at 11 o’clock instead. Lynn replies that that’s past her boyfriend’s bedtime as well, and the audience laughs, so I guess the joke is that Lynn is fucking a six-year-old kid.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

The FBI shows up, but it’s not because Lynn just confessed to the ongoing sexual violation of a child. They’re here to arrest Willie, as they traced ALF’s call and they conclude that the guy with a different name and a different voice is their man.

I actually looked up one of the FBI guys because I could have sworn he played Waldo Faldo or someone else I recognized from another show. It turns out he was a regular character on Designing Women, and I’m kind of amazed I’d remember anyone from that show. Did I really watch that much Designing Women as a kid? Man, I had some embarrassing taste in television shows.

Anyway, yes, this sucks, but Willie really has no room to complain since he walked out of the shed and let ALF call the president. This one’s kind of on him.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

The next act opens with Willie in jail, while Kate just kind of hangs around, leaning on the bars. Federal prison sure was lax in the late 80s! Kate loudly wonders why the alien who secretly lives in their house would call the president, but it’s totally okay because the guard is almost a whole sixteen inches away from her so there’s no way he heard that.

Willie, to his credit, tells Kate to hush. To his much greater discredit, however, he then starts talking even more loudly and more directly about the alien that secretly lives in their house. Why did the writers bother having this guard here? This scene would make so much more sense if they weren’t paying some extra $15 to dress like a policeman and stand there, somehow not hearing this obviously crucial information.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

Officer Designingwomen shows up and wants to talk to Willie about the chart he made. He asks whose names are written on it, which makes it pretty clear that the FBI hasn’t even done cursory research on Willie, since those are the members of his immediate family, one of whom was literally standing right there when he arrived, and all of whom were in the same room when he got arrested.

This guy is a suspected terrorist, but they don’t bother to research him at all? They just politely ask him questions? Why does every arm of the government operate on the honor system in this show?

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

ALF and Brian watch footage of Willie’s arrest. Where did this footage come from? There weren’t any cameras. AGH I DON’T CARE.

Lynn walks in and gets upset that they’re jacking off to video of the only Tanner who works getting arrested, so, hey, good on her.

ALF tells her not to worry, though, because he has a plan: he’ll just call the president again and tell him to pardon Willie. Everyone agrees this is a solid plan because Willie fed them paint chips instead of letting them breast feed.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

ALF calls Les Nessman again and it’s daylight through the windows. Why is Air Force One still in the sky? I don’t get it. Do ALF‘s writers believe its purpose is just to orbit the Earth continuously?

Not only is Air Force One still flying around the world, but Reagan is still taking a crap. Or maybe it’s a totally separate crap. I don’t know. I’m just mad that the show is even making me wonder about things like this.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

They patch ALF through to Reagan’s shitterphone — seriously, what kind of show is this? — and then we cut back to the shed where ALF has a conversation with someone doing a bad impression of our 40th president.

While this happens, Brian sits behind him glancing intermittently into the camera and scratching his armpit.

I actually feel a little bad for this kid. If he had been cast on almost any other show, he just would have been some cute little tyke that got to say silly things that made the audience go “Awwwww.” Instead he’s on ALF, and his job is to shut up and sit next to a puppet.

ALF launches into his disarmament spiel — which is why ALF is remembered to this day for its brilliant social commentary — and then Reagan agrees to send some folks around to ALF’s place to talk about it. ALF celebrates by hugging Brian at crotch level and stroking his hips.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

Jesus Christ this show.

Anyway, the FBI guys show up again, but Brian pretends he was the one who made the calls. The FBI wonders for about 20 seconds whether or not they should take any kind of action, and I have to admit…it’s a tough call. On the one hand, some little kid keeps hacking into the United States government’s private telecommunications network, making prank calls about nuclear war, and wasting the time of federal agents that could instead be investigating actual threats to national security. But on the other hand, the episode’s almost over.

Willie gets to go free for the same reason, and everyone gathers around to look at the plaque President Reagan sent to Brian.

ALF, "Pennsylvania 6-5000"

It’s some kind of official commendation, I guess for repeatedly causing undue panic with vague threats of domestic terrorism.

Willie is proud, though it’s unclear why, especially since he’s been waterboarded for the past 24 hours and his entire family will be on the no-fly list for the rest of their natural lives.

The episode ends with ALF calling the same talk show again, but nobody cares about that, because Willie agrees to get a second phone line.

And so ends the most obviously pre-9/11 episode of anything I’ve ever seen.

MELMAC FACTS: Melmac was destroyed in some kind of nuclear mishap. I know we meet some other refugees from the planet later on, so I wonder if this is ever elaborated upon. I hope so…which pretty conclusively means it won’t be.

* I doubt this is an “eating cats” joke. But…if you want it to be, there ya go.

11 thoughts on “ALF Reviews: “Pennsylvania 6-5000” (Season 1, Episode 4)”

  1. It’s weird watching some old sitcoms and how they treat airport security, like that episode of Full House where Stephanie and Michelle just up and wander through an airport and board a plane bound for New Zealand because they were bored.

  2. The whole “Melmac destroyed by Nuclear War” thing sounds like something they’ll totally forget in later episodes. Most writers/creators these days have a file of information on the backstory and details of their characters and settings (so I’ve been told and try to do myself, anyway). Does anyone think that the “writers” (I use the term in the loosest possible manner for people “throwing shit into the air and letting it land on paper”) of this show have any regard for continuity or detail? The obviously don’t have anything other than a Ham Radio for poor Willie’s character development. And having a 6-year-old boyfriend is, so far, the only thing I know about the daughter. A couple of posts ago you made the point that “American Dad” does the “illegal alien housemate” thing better than ALF does, and for them it’s only a side gag, and it just becomes more and more obvious with each week how little the people making this show care. I hope, one day, to see a documentary, about a troubled writer who did his best to make ALF brilliant, but who was forced by the network to make a shitty, derivative, boring-ass, by-the-numbers sitcom. But much like the elaboration on Melmac’s demise, it shall almost certainly never be.

    1. I wonder the same thing. Was there actually one guy with decent ideas who wanted to make a meaningful comedy, and his input was watered down by committee after committee until the result became the pablum that is ALF?

      1. The more I read about the behind-the-scenes turmoil on ALF (what am I doing with my life?!), the more it seems that Paul Fusco, the creator and voice of ALF, etc. was delusional and took out every joke given to any of the human characters and gave it to ALF instead. Apparently he was so obsessed with his creation, it got in the way of creating even a half-decent show. I don’t know if there’s any definitive proof for this, but according to Wikipedia he’s basically it made it his life goal to ensure ALF never fades from the public consciousness (he recently sold the rights to make an ALF movie to the people who make The Smurfs movies).

        1. Holy crap.

          What ARE you doing with your life?

          Also, I honestly would like to see a well-done ALF movie/comedy, since the actual premise DOES have potential. You could probably make a relatively decent seres right now spoofing the whole NSA/privacy stuff that’s going on across the world, which would combine well with the fact that they ARE hiding an illegal alien AND the fact that ALF sounds more human than a lot of the humans. Maybe not a whole series like that, but a miniseries or a pretty cheap movie. Just, I guess, keep Paul Fusco out of it, I suppose. I imagine a modern ALF movie being a lot like the two Garfield movies. *shudder*

  3. Phillip, I would like the record to show that I had a 30+ second giggle-attack over this line:

    “They patch ALF through to Reagan’s shitterphone”

    I’m not sure what’s making me laugh harder…the word “shitterphone”, or the show deciding that President Reagan would not only have a phone next to his toilet on Air Force One, but that he’d also gets calls patched through to him while taking a dump.

    Actually, it’s probably the word “shitterphone”. That’s just fantastic.

  4. yeah, this review is fair because I really did not like this episode because truthfully i didn’t find this episode that funny, ALF’s antics get willie throw in jail and he does not even care, matter of fact he records it and laughs about it. how ALF was able to record it without being seen I have no freakin idea. not to mention he does not think calling the president might endanger his well being and the well being of the family he is living with. this episode does show how much of a dick ALF can be. I get they were making him that way to try to make him be funny, but this was a bit extreme for me.

    yeah, the fate of ALF’s planet is mentioned a few times later in the series, but it is never really elaborated on which is were I think the show missed a lot of potential. there could of been a whole well written back story there, but it just was never taken that seriously.

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  6. I remember the designing women guy from Mannequin and Mannequin 2: On the Move with William Ragsdale aka Herman.

  7. Did this mark the first time ALF got Willie in trouble by using his name with telecommunication? That was Richard Sanders as the guy answering the telephone on Air Force One, which ALF managed to unscramble . He was pretty funny as the dorky, uptight Les Nesman in WKRP in Cincinatti. The title is a song from the 1940’s, I beleive. I don’t know why they chose it as the episode title.

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