“My Back Pages” is named after a Bob Dylan song. I’ll get that out of the way right now, since it was bound to happen sooner or later. My all-time favorite musician has an ALF connection. So it goes.
I guess it’s not really anything to get that grumpy about. As I’ve said before, somebody on the staff had pretty solid taste in music, based on the episode titles and on the choices of songs used (and referenced) in the episodes themselves. Alongside the competent (and often very good) puppetry, the nods and winks to music history represent the only observable passion in the show.
It’s an odd choice of title, though. For one, it’s not one of Dylan’s more popular songs. (Though it is one of my personal favorites.) It’s also a title that doesn’t occur anywhere in the song itself, meaning that folks who have actually heard it might not know what it’s called. It’s especially puzzling when the theme of the episode — though by no means incompatible with the theme of the song it’s named after — would have fit perfectly well with the more recognizable “The Times They Are A-Changing.”
It’s also odd because the pivotal moment in the episode occurs when Willie and Kate reminisce about Woodstock…and Dylan didn’t play Woodstock. Crosby, Stills, and Nash played Woodstock, and later released a song called “Woodstock,” so why not just call the episode that?
I bet nobody out there will suspect that I’m stalling.
Blah, whatever. “My Back Pages” opens with the funniest god damned thing I’ve ever seen this puppet do: it shuffles into the room all disheveled and verbally abuses Brian for picking a sock off of him.
It’s wonderful. It’s almost as though ALF really exists, and his time in this shitty show is taking the same toll on him that it is taking on his human costars.
It’s really funny, and for the wrong reasons. ALF’s grouchiness is totally out of scale with the situation, making this seem like behind the scenes footage of an alternate universe recording session, where ALF really was some washed-up comedian starring in a terrible sitcom he thinks he should be above.
This illusion is sustained by the fact that Benji Gregory appears to be legitimately angry in the above screengrab, as though he’s finally snapped, too.
It’s wonderful stuff, because the visible misery of the cast relieves me of a little bit of my own.
Honestly, though, there’s a kind of pulsing anger that flows through this episode, and it’s really odd. This isn’t one of those episodes where ALF pisses everybody off…it’s just a silly story tossed out as an excuse to get Willie and Kate into some dumb costumes. It should be lighthearted and airy. Instead it’s tense and miserable.
ALF fell asleep in the dryer, or something, and I guess someone turned it on. You’d think there’d be some kind of explanation, but there’s not, so it plays more like ALF just rolled out of bed after a long night of binge drinking and is looking for someone’s wife to hit.
He bitches to Willie for a while about wanting a proper room of his own, and Willie tells him to go fuck himself. ALF replies, “Fine. Just remember this the next time you complain about fur in your shorts.”
It’s not much of a joke (if it’s…even a joke?), but I point it out because the line is clearly overdubbed, with an entirely different sound quality. It’s obviously ADR, but the fact that he’s a puppet means there’s no hope of lip-reading what the original line was.
Any guesses as to what the punchline could have been? I honestly can’t imagine anything worse than the one we got.
After the credits we see ALF in the attic. He walks around and then he falls over for no reason and says, “I hate it when that happens!”
The audience laughs.
At what? I have no god damned clue. ALF hates it when he trips? Who gives a shit? What kind of writing is this? That’s not a joke. Is it? What is this show doing to my sense of humor? Why can I no longer identify what does and does not qualify as a joke?
Willie and Kate come upstairs to see what the fuck he’s doing now, and he tells them they really need to look into Public Storage. “We have,” Kate replies. “They won’t take you.”
And, okay, that’s pretty funny. Both Anne Schedeen and Jack LaMotta get a handful of good lines in this episode, which I’d love to interpret as some kind of peace offering on behalf of the writers.
Willie finds one of the leather straps he used to use on hobos in the crack dungeon, and he and his wife reminisce about the good times, before the National Enquirer stepped in.
They also find a dime-store silver peace sign, completely lacking in detail, attached to nothing, and the two of them beam over it like it’s some beloved talisman of the past.
Which it might be…but man, these two must have been some pretty lame hippies if they bought a peace sign at Hobby Lobby and called it a day. Didn’t hippies…make things? And didn’t they like vibrant colors and exaggerated shapes?
It’s a shame that the props department didn’t put any thought into this. An believable memento with personality could have told us a lot about their personalities. Or maybe it does. These two are just vague, flat representations themselves. Why should their cherished knick-knacks be any different?
It does lead to a funny line, though, when ALF sees it and says, “I’m impressed. When did you guys own a Mercedes?” That just about redeems to plainness of what we’re supposed to believe is an important and evocative memento.
Then we get a slightly different angle of the room and see a box of “XMAS GARLAND!” If ever a two-word phrase deserved an exclamation point, it’s surely that one.
ALF tells them to throw all their old shit away so he can expand his shrine to the Tanner ladies into the attic, and I’m okay with that seemingly dickish request. ALF might not understand human sentiment, and it makes sense that he’d ask why boxes full of crap they haven’t looked at in years gets to hang around while the family is facing space concerns.
Then again, ALF went back to gather up all of his mementos instead of using that time or that space in his UFO to rescue any of friends or family members before his planet exploded.
So, no, he’s not confused. He’s not even just dickish. He’s a massive pile of dicks.
Willie and Kate explain that it’s not junk…it’s part of who they are. “Or who we were,” Kate adds.
And…I don’t buy it.
We’re three years into knowing these people, and we’ve been told who they are (and were) several times already. “Hippie” was never one of these things, and nothing we’ve been told has stuck anyway.
This is just an excuse to get them into silly costumes, which is an approach to comedy writing somewhere on par with having a character fall over and then say, “I DO SO HATE TO FALL OVER!!”
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s sad that the idea of learning more about these people used to fill me with hope for the next half-hour, and now it just makes me want to skip the episode.
Part of me, admittedly, was defensive because “Night Train” already told a story about the difference between Willie the Idealist and Willie the Murmuring Scrotum. What’s more…it told that story really, really well. It’s a firm contender for my favorite episode of ALF, and while that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, I’ll say this clearly: I really did enjoy that episode on its own merits.
To have “My Back Pages” rip that very welcome backstory out of the character and replace it with love-beads and some silly wigs…well, it’s fighting an uphill battle to say the least.
However, since this episode shows us Willie at Woodstock, and we assume he was around 45 at the time this aired (his age as of “Jump,” anyway), that would have put him in his late 20s when he attended the legendary outdoor music festival. Since “Night Train” told us that he rode the rails at 17, both of these backstories can slot comfortably next to each other.
The fact that I still hate “My Back Pages,” then, is entirely down to its own internal failures, and not due to any kind of conflict with a superior episode.
Rest assured: you’re watching shit.
Willie and Kate find some old filmstrips (and I admit I know very little about late 60s filmstock, but this sure looks a fuck of a lot like a spool of thin, white ribbon) which are, we are told, the home movies they shot at Woodstock.
…and fuck off.
Really now. Fuck the fuck off.
What “home movies” were shot at Woodstock? Honest question. In 1969, on Max Yasgur’s farm, where for one long weekend the closest thing we’ve ever had to a functional utopia came and went, who was shooting home movies?
I’d be glad to be proven wrong, but as far as I know there really isn’t that much footage of Woodstock outside of the professionally-shot stuff, which largely became the documentary Woodstock. I’m sure there were at least a few amateur videographers in attendance, but there is not much film in existence to prove it.
Additionally, any film equipment back then would have been extremely expensive (which is probably why hippies wouldn’t have had it in the first place). It wasn’t until the late 80s or early 90s that camcorders became popular, and even then they were quite expensive. That the Tanners could afford one in the present day of the show is believable, but “My Back Pages” wants us to assume they had one two decades before they were invented.
So this footage should be extremely valuable. Like, urgently valuable. This film represents a newly discovered angle (at least) on anything that Willie and Kate caught on camera. And in some cases — say, had Willie been filming while Pete Townshend cracked Abbie Hoffman in the head with his guitar — it would represent the only angle. This is a reel of immaculately preserved gold.
This episode aired around twenty years after Woodstock. If the Tanners have really been sitting on never-before-seen footage of the event, they should easily be able to sell copies of this to the media, to documentarians, to hobbyists…to absolutely anybody with any kind of interest in American, musical, or cultural history at all. The question of how they managed to film it on a spool of white ribbon in the first place is one thing, but the question of how valuable it is never occurs to anyone. And that’s driving me insane.
I can’t wait for next week, when Willie and Kate remember that they recorded the Kennedy assassination with their iPhones.
Whatever. They set up the filmstrip that we’ll see once and which nobody will ever refer to again. Lynn comes home and ALF smacks her in the face with a fistful of peanuts.
Fine. Who cares. This is Lynn’s thing now, getting hit with food and raising her arms in dismay. (The latter half of that is certainly my thing now.)
It can’t be a coincidence that this occurred in back-to-back weeks, can it? Like…this has to be a conscious attempt at a running gag.
…right? Please tell me they didn’t write LYNN GETS HIT WITH FOOD OR SOMETHING I DON’T KNOW in two consecutive scripts without realizing it.
ALF throws peanuts fucking everywhere because who the fuck fucking fucks. At least Lynn grabs a handful and throws them back at him. That’s my single favorite moment in all of season three so far.
I told you, everyone’s pissy in this episode. It’s automatically the most realistic installment yet.
Mr. Ochmonek comes over, and before he hides ALF complains about never getting to meet anyone. Which is pretty ridiculous, since by this point ALF has directly interacted with more people than any of the humans on this show. The writers don’t realize that they can’t pull this shit anymore, do they?
Mr. O busted up Willie’s weed whacker, which would probably make him a dick, but after all the crap Willie’s said and done to him, this is nothing. Mr. O could decapitate Lucky on Willie’s porch and he’d still rank as the better neighbor.
Anyway, the Ochmoneks are off to play bridge with some other people, and Mr. O asks if he can borrow some bridge mix. Willie says he doesn’t have any, so Mr. O says, “I guess we can’t play bridge.” Then he thinks and asks, “Got any gin?”
It’s a stupid, stupid, stupid joke that begins and ends with a pun…but it works.
Jack LaMotta’s delivery sells it, as it so often sells things like this, and the fact that he only pops up to make the joke and then disappears helps it a lot. It’s an interlude, and a welcome one, before Willie begins his filmribbon. (Funnily enough, ALF even refers to this exchange as the cartoon before the main event. It’s a nicely observed bit of meta-humor.)
I don’t think the writing for LaMotta is any better than it is for anyone else on this show; I think it’s just a matter of the fact that he, like Anne Schedeen, studies his lines, and decides how to give them heft. In Schedeen’s case, that often comes down to good acting. In LaMotta’s, it’s more about being as funny as possible in as little time as possible. Two very different executions, but they come from the same place: the all-too-rare desire to do good work.
Then we see the film and suddenly I understand how Willie obtained it: he ordered it from a stock footage company. It’s just a bunch of clips of hippies standing around, shuffling around, looking around. Great stuff, Willie. Maybe eventually we’ll see some examples of his photography, like a smiling black man and a smiling white man shaking hands in a boardroom.
There’s some sitar noodling in the background, which is unbroken through the scene transitions, so I guess Willie not only had expensive film equipment, but an entire editing suite at his disposal. Fuck this show.
Conveniently, ALF cuts to a different angle before Willie says, “Look! There’s Mama Cass!” Because that would have cost something, as would playing any actual Woodstock music instead of the pack-in disc from Sitar for Dummies.
We see Kate on the screen, with Willie helpfully pointing out who we’re looking at, because it’s not like her own children or the alien who tries to fingerfuck her every time she takes a shower would recognize her.
And okay, okay. I know; she’s dressed a lot different in the film than her children or her lodger have seen her. That’s okay. But it leads me to wonder what future generations will do for their flashback episodes.
The Simpsons might provide some kind of answer, as Homer and Marge’s backstory involved similar late-hippie culture, and Principal Skinner’s involved a stint in Vietnam. At least, that was the case at first. Later on the show had been on long enough that these things no longer made sense for characters their ages, and another flashback episode showed Homer and Marge coming of age in the 90s instead.
The thing is, though, that the latter didn’t offer much in the way of opportunity for humor…or for sweetness. The culture of the 60s (and the specific iconography of Woodstock) stood for something…even if it was something intangible. (Or, if you’re being less generous, false.) It was representative of a conscious turning away. It was an entire generation standing up and saying, “No, I don’t want that. I want this.”
Volumes will continue to be written about what this actually meant or did not mean, but it’s fair to say that it meant something. It was liberty, and it was irresponsibility. It was the celebration of a future that never got here, and a denial of the present that already was. It was a chance for the young to spring forward into a childish idea of adulthood with the ability to make all of their own choices, but with none of the experience or foresight to make them intelligently. It wasn’t a culture of contradiction, exactly…it was more like a culture of often beautiful confusion.
…which is why it makes for such a nice setting when it’s time to visit “the past.” The fashions may look silly, but much of the music is timeless. And the entire backdrop serves as both a wistful dream and a cautionary tale. It’s a rich and evocative setting.
The 90s? Well, according to The Simpsons when it dipped a toe into that possible past, it was grunge music and slow internet. Ha ha.
There’s a reason That 70s Show was actually pretty good, made stars out of much of its cast, and continues to have a life in syndication, while That 80s Show barely staggered through a single, abbreviated season. And it’s because, to be totally frank, some generations are simply more culturally rich than others.
As sitcoms move forward — and as we grow older — we’ll see more and more of them building backstories that involve the Gulf War, the dot-com bubble, the Furby. But that will be out of necessity, and it will happen by default. It won’t happen out of love in the same way that the endlessly revisited 60s do. Or the similarly revisited 70s. Or even the ironically revisited 50s.
And so we beat on, boats against the current, away from richer kinds of culture. What we move toward remains to be seen. And I’m not particularly looking forward to it.
Oh, shit. We’re still watching ALF?
We see Willie in the film, so either he and Kate handed the camera back and forth to each other a shitload of times, or there’s a third person who filmed this for them whom Willie and Kate couldn’t be arsed to name. ALF says that Willie looks like a fucking idiot and the family does this:
What an insightful episode.
It’s extremely disappointing that “My Back Pages” just goes for the sight-gag of Willie looking like a dolt (and then has ALF say as much, presumably for the benefit of the blind), instead of mining any comedy from the contrast between the Summer of Love and the Me Decade.
No, it’s enough that at Woodstock some of the guys had long hair and that’s hilarious.
Viewing this event through alien eyes should have been interesting. For all the great music and provocative imagery that came out of 60s counterculture, we so often end up boiling it down to a handful of symbols and touchpoints. We accept that it was something, but if you weren’t there (and, surely, in many cases even if you were), it’s impossible to know what it meant. How it felt. Its human impact as opposed to its accepted social impact.
The absolute best way to explore that significance? Through the eyes of somebody who, somehow, has never even heard of Woodstock. Somebody like…I dunno…a cunting SPACE ALIEN?
We don’t get that, though. While ALF indeed raises questions about it, they’re answered (in a moment) by a simpleton. Willie isn’t just a bonehead who himself couldn’t identify with the movement beyond the symbols and touchpoints; he’s a voicebox for the writers who seem to believe that there really wasn’t anything else to it.
There’s no reason to believe that the staff understands what they’re talking about, and that’s frustrating. Vineland, a novel by Thomas Pynchon, explores exactly this territory…specifically, the distance between 1969 and 1984. How did America let its idealism falter so severely? How did we go from peace, love, and rock and roll to the War on Drugs? What shift of cultural complacency occurred to change the world once, and then let it change right back without interference?
It’s a great novel, and while I don’t expect an episode of ALF to measure up to high literature, Pynchon’s novel itself stoops to low comedy, slapstick, winks toward the popular culture of the time. In short, even though Pynchon is writing a work of art, he’s able to craft better sitcom material along the way than a sitcom aspiring to nothing else is able to craft.
Do yourself a favor. Buy Vineland. It’s brilliant.
Later on, Willie comes into the kitchen to find ALF eating fuckin’ everything. He starts to wax nostalgic about his college roommate, Snout. Snout also ate a lot, so at least now we know the writers consider that a valid sole personality trait for characters to have.
Anyway, Snout was awesome. (At least, that’s what I assume the show wants me to assume.) Everyone loved him, including Willie, who thought he was just the kitten’s tits.
He talks about a time that Snout took off all of his clothes and burned them, in order to stop the war. ALF asks if that worked, and Willie says yeah, he’d like to think it did, which shows not only what a fucking nincompoop Willie is, but exactly how simplified this important and unique cultural movement is treated by “My Back Pages.”
ALF, channeling the charmless political idiocy of “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and “Hail to the Chief,” asks why people don’t pull these stunts for peace anymore, what with Central America and the Middle East being war-ravaged hellholes.
Willie explains that he can’t do that stuff nowadays, because he has a family to support and he needs to pick his battles.
This proves he’s learned nothing in his half-century on Earth, because what he should be explaining to ALF is the fact that we can shape our country by voting, by contributing to causes, by volunteering, and so on. Instead he buys right into the same idea that he just sold ALF on: that, yes, you can change the world by doing ridiculous, tangential things with no demonstrable relationship to the thing you’re trying to affect.
It’s weird. Like, so weird that if this were a radio show, I’d have no idea which of these idiots was the alien.
ALF says Willie sold out, and Willie storms off to bed. Man, if you are what you eat, then ALF must have eaten Grumpy Cat.
But, you know what? Fuck Willie.
Seriously. Fuck him.
If he really believes that he can change the world by setting his clothes on fire or painting FREE HUGS across his paunch, and he still chooses not to, then he’s just a selfish asshole.
Either he doesn’t believe those things, in which case this conversation needed to take a very different turn, or he does, and he needs to start pulling his weight as a member of the human race.
Then ALF eats a big sandwich and the scene is over. HOORAY!
In the next scene, Willie is pacing around, complaining that he can’t sleep. Kate suggests that it might be because he’s pacing, which is a very human response, and which I like…probably because it reminds me of a similar joke on Father Ted. (Albeit one that was pulled off far more artfully.)
“I used to organize peace marches, now I organize coupons,” Willie bitches, while his wife goes unlaid. Really, though, Willie should be distressed by the fact that he used to organize peace marches, and now he verbally abuses, kidnaps, and assaults those in need of his help as a social worker. But, hey, potato potato.
ALF comes in and does some ALF shit, and then Willie lays down and…
fucking NO NO
fucking fucking fucking NNNOOOOO
God shitting dammit.
A dream sequence. What is it with this show and dream sequences?
Typically dream sequences exist in sitcoms so that you can put the characters in fantastic situations, and have them do and say things that are beyond the reach of its normally grounded reality. It’s a cheat, really, but one that can be fun for both the writing staff and the viewer. And the cast, come to think of it. It’s a chance for everyone to enjoy an expanded playing field, and it temporarily opens up the context of the show, letting it feel a little less constrained and stuffy.
In ALF, though, the title character is a centuries-old intergalactic pederast. That is its normal, grounded reality. Zany situations are built in. We don’t need to do this…especially since the dreams are never any less dull or more creative than anything we get in the show proper.
Oh well. At least this dream sequence contains the Ochmoneks. More specifically Mr. Ochmonek, who welcomes Willie to the bar by saying, “All you need is love! There’s a two drink minimum.”
It’s rock solid delivery. Seriously. No snark from me at all on this one; LaMotta’s a fucking ace.
Sadly, though, the dream isn’t about him. It’s about Willie being Willie while everyone else around him gets to be a hippie and smoke a lot of drugpuffs and rub each other’s nipples and exchange patchouli recipes, or whatever the hell the ALF writers think hippies did.
Nightmare Hippie Kate starts telling Willie about this awesome guy named Snout, and if you can’t tell where this is going you should probably have that head injury looked at.
Yes, it’s ALF dressed as flower child icon Bruce Springsteen.
Wait, why Springsteen? His first album wasn’t released until 1973.
Well, you see, there actually is a really clever connection here: they already paid for a puppet-sized jean jacket for “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?” and they wanted to make damn well sure they got their money’s worth. Also, Springsteen played music, and Woodstock, the writers are pretty sure, had some music, so, really, it’s a seamless fit.
ALF says a bunch of vaguely hippie things like “sit-in” and “hey man” and “you can’t rebuild without tearing down first.” To which Willie says a bunch of Willie things like “Hnnnggghymmn pffyyvr fsstmnrm.”
It turns out everyone in the Hippie Tavern agrees with whatever the fuck ALF says and disagrees with whatever the fuck Willie says because one of them is wearing a suit and holy shit I could not possibly care less about any of this.
Then it turns out that Willie and ALF are going to be roommates, which causes Willie to shit the bed and wake up.
Actually, no, he doesn’t. We just watch him toss and turn for a bit and then…
Oh fucking suck my god damned taint.
A time skip? In a dream.
Why are we leaping forward four years in a dream? What kind of dream has establishing subtitles? Is Willie actually asleep for four years? What the pissing shit are they going for here?
Mr. Ochmonek — who goes by the name Big Daddy in this sequence, suggesting a subconscious attraction that I truly do not want you discussing in the comments — is updating the specials board.
Wow, he sure couldn’t have done that four years ago. Thank Christ for the time skip.
Willie comes in and…wait. Why wasn’t he already there? This is his fucking dream. Was he dreaming of a restaurant owner writing on a chalkboard for a few minutes before he himself entered the room? What kind of dream is this?
Ugh, who cares. He’s turned into Shaggy from Scooby Doo I guess.
Willie reveals that he’s graduated with honors, even though he’s a hippie, then ALF comes in, and ALF also graduated, even though he’s a hippie. No, I have no idea what we’re meant to glean from this, and it only gets more confusing.
ALF says he has a job lined up for him, which makes Willie flip out and accuse him of abandoning his ideals, which makes ALF lecture him for wasting his life…
…but I don’t see why any of this is happening. They’re acting like there’s this big gulf between them, but if they both graduated and have jobs and accolades to carry them into the workforce, why are they accusing each other of anything? Didn’t they both end up in the same place?
I honestly have no clue. They’re each upset at each other, which makes it seem like they’ve each revealed something that the other finds unpalatable. And yet…they both kind of revealed the same thing. And it’s nothing bad. And…they were still both hippies. And they’re both graduating and going to work. Why is this a conflict?
Fuck that…why is this a dream?
Who the fuck knows. It’s such a manufactured complication and it adds nothing to anything. Good thing we jumped four years ahead to get to it.
Six years later Willie wakes up and heads to the kitchen to speak with ALF.
He either stretches or does the Chicken Dance, I can’t tell which. Then he says that ALF can have the attic, because he used to be a hippie, but then he wasn’t anymore, and he had a dream about not being a hippie, and then later in the dream he was a hippie again.
With that trail of sound logic followed to its obvious conclusion, Willie eats a cookie and the episode ends.
In the short scene before the credits ALF puts on some library disco music and bops around.
Personally, I’d have far preferred an episode about Willie accidentally eating the brown acid.
MELMAC FACTS: Willie is from Decatur, Illinois. Melmackians had a word for guys who pierced their ears: pirates. The fact that ALF swears it’s not a gay joke doesn’t make it any less of a gay joke.