Many times while writing these ALF reviews, I’m reminded of an episode Get a Life that aired shortly after my birthday in 1992. I was eleven.
“SPEWEY and Me” was the antepenultimate episode of the show, but I didn’t know that at a time. In the few short years between my love of ALF (which ended in 1990) and my love of Get a Life, my comic sensibilities must have changed drastically.
As much as I can pull it apart now — which, I hope you all realize, is exaggerated for effect — I can see pretty easily why I loved ALF as a kid. For starters, it was a puppet show. I already loved the Muppets, and while the Henson legacy has infinitely outstripped Paul Fusco’s, I didn’t care about that as a kid.
The Muppets had better characters, better actors, better writers, better everything, really. But that’s something I only came to realize much later, through a more mature perspective. When I was a kid, I liked them because they were silly puppets.
ALF, too, was a silly puppet. He had his own catchphrases and recognizable schtick, and that’s all I really cared about, I guess. I don’t know if I ever actually laughed at his antics (which is such a bizarre thing to realize), but I loved the hairy asshole.
AND I ALSO LOVED ALF.
I don’t remember when I stopped watching ALF, but I know I made it through season three. I don’t know for a fact that I tuned in for season four, but, either way, the same year ALF ended, Get a Life premiered. I immediately fell in love with this little-remembered, post-modern oddity, at least partially because it was so different from anything I’d ever seen. Whereas ALF ingratiated itself by way of my love of the Muppets, Get a Life stormed in from an alternate universe, wrecked up the place, and disappeared. It was an experience all its own…not always a great one, but always new and exciting.
“SPEWEY and Me” is an episode I remember fondly. I saw it the night it premiered, and continue to laugh about it to this day. It’s a partial pastiche of ALF, which makes it relevant enough for this little April Fool’s Day entry in the larger series, but it also manages to do ALF better than ALF did. I think that deserves some serious comparison…and a little bit of tribute.
The episode opens as ALF does, with an alien crashing to earth. It’s worth pointing out, however, that Get a Life was not a sci-fi comedy. Rather, if it was a direct parody of anything as a whole, it’s the 1950s family sitcom. The setup was the same…in an American suburb, a mischievous but well-meaning boy explores life and learns weekly lessons from his parents along the way.
Only here the boy was 30 years old, his parents were senile and uncaring, and whatever lessons he learned often resulted in his death. This was before South Park, by the way. Matt Stone and Trey Parker weren’t the first writers to murder a main character on a regular basis.
Get a Life was way ahead of its time…something that shouldn’t surprise you when you find out that its writing room contained David Mirkin, Charlie Kaufman, Bob Odenkirk, Adam Resnick, Marjorie Gross, and Chris Elliott, the latter of which also starred. It’s this crew of tremendous talent that steered Get a Life through incredible genre shifts. Nowadays, in the wake of Spaced, Community, and almost anything on Adult Swim, genre shifts are just something that brainy shows do. But in 1990, a multi-camera sitcom unexpectedly drifting into horror, romance, police procedural, inner-city inspiration porn, or science fiction (to name only a few) was thrilling to behold.
If you tuned into any other prime-time network show, you’d know what to expect. In fact, that’s why you’d have been turning in. But Get a Life elevated tonal schizophrenia to an artform, and there was no telling what rules the show would introduce from week to week. It was incredible.
“SPEWEY and Me” informs you right from the start what it’s set out to do. Chris Peterson — the closest thing this show could possibly have to a hero — surveys the wreckage and wonders aloud if it contains “a cute, wooly creature with a caustic wit, like ALF, or Ray Walston.”
The very fact that this show was doing a deliberately sardonic spin on another show (and a few other alien-related pop-culture touchpoints) was novel. It’s the sort of thing that shows like Family Guy and Robot Chicken have cheapened beyond repair, with lazy references and wholesale scene recreations subbing in for insight or cleverness, but at the time this was really rare. Sketch comedy trafficked in direct parody, and a few experiments like Police Squad! took one avenue of satire and stuck to it, but the scattershot approach of Get a Life was very, very much its own beast.
It carved out an identity for itself that somehow still defied definition. Anyone who remembers the show today remembers it vividly, I’m sure, because however old they were, they’d never seen anything like it.
To illustrate what a magical time this was for television, Get a Life ran new episodes on the same night (and the same channel) as the still-young Simpsons and the unapologetically caustic Married…with Children. Sunday night prime-time was incredible, with these shows breaking all kinds of new ground, back to back, on a weekly basis.
Watching these shows now, after the fact, it’s hard to feel the impact that they had when they were fresh. These were shows that felt dangerous, and exciting. But if you were there? Brother, you’ll never forget it.
New territory was being charted. Rules were breaking. Things that weren’t funny at all were the funniest things in the world. And for weeks after “SPEWEY and Me” made its debut, my friends and I quoted it endlessly. For perhaps the first time, satire had gotten around to taking on things we knew. And growing up with (and then outgrowing) ALF made the inappropriate laughter this episode inspired feel that much more cathartic.
Chris recovers the alien and takes it inside to return it to health. So far, so ALF pilot. He gushes for a moment about how exciting it is to learn that “there is life in outer space. And it’s really foxy!”
We’ll…get into Chris’s character later. For now, it’s funny enough to consider that comment as we get our first good look at SPEWEY: a hideous, snarling, distended, veiny beast. I’d be shocked if Get a Life had anywhere near the budget of ALF, but it has to be said that whomever was given the instruction to create the physical opposite of every lovable alien in the history of entertainment did one hell of a great job.
SPEWEY shares the acronymous nature of his name with ALF, which itself was certainly a hat-tip toward E.T.’s initialism. The title of this episode further nods toward Mac and Me, a toxically awful knockoff of Spielberg’s legendary hit. While Mac himself was one terrifying little fuck, he was a product of unintentional horror. SPEWEY is far more deliberately disturbing, and his appearance is therefore, I believe, intended to be E.T.’s picture of Dorian Gray.
One thing I really like about this episode now is that it marries (at least in title) E.T. to Mac and Me…the only time in all of recorded history that anyone’s acknowledged these two films as equals in any way.
In a not-unexpected homage, SPEWEY extends one finger to Chris, who waxes on about what a magical moment this is. In an excellent bit of dodging Standards and Practices, the decision to give SPEWEY only three fingers means that he’s also flipping Chris off.
As the touching music builds, Chris extends his own finger…which SPEWEY grabs, bites, and chews. Then he shoves Chris over and begins attacking him, concluding the cold open with an extended attempt at strangulation.
It’s hilarious. And as much as it undercuts the expected trope of the friendly visitor from outer space, it also makes actual, perfect sense.
Whatever this creature’s intentions, whatever its nature, whatever its history…it’s on a new planet, surrounded by unfamiliar everything, and it’s going to be scared out of its fucking mind.
SPEWEY is aggressive, which is one possible way that an extra-terrestrial might deal with its new surroundings. (Y’know…if the whole of human history is to serve as a case study.) E.T. was fearful and reluctant. Mac engaged in a protracted dance-off with Ronald McDonald. ALF…made a bunch of hacky jokes. Of those, ALF’s response is probably the least likely.
But it’s not just that ALF himself wasn’t worried / sad / afraid / lonely / defensive / threatened / confused, it’s that the family wasn’t either. A gigantic, sentient space rodent lives with them now. A matter of minutes ago, none of them even knew alien life existed. The net change in their demeanors? A massively disappointing zero.
Willie even goes so far as to strip naked in front of ALF a few hours after he crashes into the garage. And before that, they leave him unsupervised in the house overnight with their children sleeping a few feet away. There’s no worry, and, sure enough, ALF doesn’t attack or give them space measles or anything. (They weren’t vaccinated against those, as the Tanners were good parents and didn’t want to inject their kids with space autism.) Okay.
But Willie had no way of knowing that that would be the case. ALF being an intergalactic warm-up comedian is fine, because we don’t know anything about aliens. Willie being a naked, doddering idiot is not, because we know an awful lot about humans, and he’s not acting anything like one.
Here, both tables are turned. SPEWEY attacks, which is fine. Chris continues throughout the assault to declare how magical the experience is, because he’s a fucking idiot, and Get a Life knows it.
That’s the big difference. I talk a lot in the ALF reviews about that show’s lack of self-awareness. When Willie acts like a dope it’s frustrating, because the show doesn’t realize he’s a dope. As far as ALF is concerned, Willie’s an intelligent, hard-working, loving, responsible man. What we see in the audience doesn’t match up at all, but that doesn’t make it funny…it just means we’re watching a pile of shit.
Get a Life also stars an idiot, but it’s aware of that fact. Actually, it’s the show’s most consistently mined source of humor. The disparity between the way Chris views the world around him and the way we view it is funny. The audience is a necessary part of the joke, and it requires us to do some work of our own.
Chris Peterson speaking with awe about the majesty of the universe isn’t inherently funny. But when we contrast the monologue we’re hearing with the scene we’re viewing, in which he’s being horribly bludgeoned by a spacemonster, it becomes a joke. And a great one.
Get a Life tips us off early (in every episode) that Chris’s perspective is not reliable. ALF also tips us off to a similar fact about its characters, but it does so unintentionally, and it hopes we don’t notice.
The intro credits to this show are so nostalgic to me. To this day I can’t hear R.E.M.’s “Stand” without seeing the bicycle wheels spinning, and I love that. It’s such a perfect image…so playful and yet so absurd.
Speaking of which…imagine how awesome it must have been to have an R.E.M. song as your opening theme. That’s a hell of a coup. And the band itself played a role in preserving this show’s legacy. For a long time, reruns of Get a Life used royalty-free library music because the networks couldn’t afford the rights to “Stand.” The same financial roadblock was hit when the show was finally being prepped for a DVD release a few years ago. Apparently someone involved with the production reached out to R.E.M. and informed them of the situation. R.E.M. responded by drastically reducing their licensing fee so that Get a Life could be released intact. That’s really wonderful.
In case you’re not aware of the premise, the intro spells out a few things for you. For one, your hero is a paperboy…even though he’s clearly too old to be one. He’s on a bike, so presumably he doesn’t drive. He throws his papers playfully, implying a childlike silliness. He passes an old woman who hands him a cup of water that he then splashes in his face like a marathon runner…the kind of throwaway / visual gag that episodes will be full of. He then tosses a newspaper at his attractive neighbor so she’ll have to bend to retrieve it (his mischievousness getting a spotlight), and he painfully collides with a car while he’s leering…but gets up okay. That last bit does a great job of showing us that Chris bring in extreme pain will be a regular punchline…but that it’s okay, because he seems to respond to injury like a cartoon.
That’s the character, the setting, and the comic atmosphere set up in just a few seconds of screentime. Compare that to ALF‘s overlong credits sequence that tells us only who’s in the show, and that ALF intended to record his sexual assault of Kate in the shower.
The next morning Chris awakens alone, and concludes aloud that the events of last night must have just been “a beautiful dream.” SPEWEY then drops onto his chest from a hilariously exaggerated height and continues to beat the everloving crap of out him.
At one point Chris offers him the telephone so that he can “phone home.” SPEWEY immediately integrates the blunt instrument into his beatings, and Chris sadly tells him, “I don’t know what that means. Do you want me to dial for you?”
The show, obviously, knows Chris is an idiot, and is having fun with it. The sheer length of time that Chris Elliott carries on in a sunny sing-song while he’s being pounded is in itself a joke…and a very committed one. (There’s no way Chris the actor didn’t sustain at least a few accidental blows to the head and face while portraying Chris the character.)
His brainless reluctance to acknowledge the singular, central fact of SPEWEY — that the alien is an obnoxious, dangerous creature that he’d be wise to stay away from — reflects the Tanner family’s similar idiocy. Only ALF, in spite of all the obnoxious danger, wants us to love the alien. Get a Life, though it’s by far the sillier show, cuts out the bullshit and treats the concept more seriously.
SPEWEY eventually emits a stream of murky vomit into Chris’s face…a gesture Chris assumes is a greeting. He responds by spitting lightly on SPEWEY, who then beats even more crap out of him.
The joke isn’t so much the mindless brutality — though it is, admittedly, mindless — but rather the impressive thickness of Chris’s delusions. It’s one thing to remain detached from reality; it’s something much more severe when being on the receiving end of repeated physical violence doesn’t clue you in to the fact that something’s amiss.
Chris brings SPEWEY (under a sheet, in a nod to E.T. which doubles as an unintentional reminder of ALF, which saw the cold-cocked alien being lugged into the house wrapped in one) inside to meet Gus.
Chris moved in with Gus — played by the always incredible Brian Doyle-Murray — in season two. Prior to that he was still living with his parents, who kept him at least moderately grounded in reality. Season two retained his parents as characters (though not in this episode, sadly…I’d love to have seen what Bob Elliott would have made of SPEWEY), but changed the living situation, which allowed Chris and his adventures to drift further into the realm of the absurd.
Whereas his parents at least paid lip service to being supportive of their idiotic son, Gus is an actively bad influence upon him (in Chris’s own words in another episode, “You’re the drunk and abusive papa I never had.”), and while the two do share a few moments of genuine friendship, it’s clear that Gus would lose no sleep whatsoever if Chris suddenly died. (Again.)
Get a Life never got a season three, but David Mirkin said in an interview that it would have seen Chris moving out of Gus’s house and becoming a sort of wandering drifter. This would have provided further leeway for less-grounded storytelling.
Mind you, I’m talking about less-ground storytelling while reviewing an episode about a thirty-year-old paperboy being assaulted by a monster from space.
Anyway, Chris removes the blanket to introduce Gus to the interstellar marvel, and SPEWEY immediately sprints to the old man and starts beating him up as well.
Gus has the presence of mind to shove the alien away, and even doubts that it’s an alien at all. “Kid, I hate to disappoint you,” he says, “but this is just that sick kid from down the block. He must have gotten out of his bubble.”
It’s a joke — with a perfect delivery, I have to add — but it taps into something that the Tanners’ first experience of ALF totally lacked: dubiousness.
That’s not to say that an obnoxious, hideous midget crashing in your back yard should lead in any way to the conclusion that it’s a terminally ill child…but it is to say that in the face of some completely unknown presence, wouldn’t you question it rather than jump immediately to a solid conclusion?
In ALF’s case, as in SPEWEY’s, there’s the wreckage of a spacecraft. But how do we know it’s a spacecraft? Could this be some kind of prank? Is it, as Dr. Orpheus would ask, a guy in a mask messing with you?
And why a traveler from space? Isn’t it exactly as likely — in the absence of any evidence of extra-terrestrial life — that this is a traveler from another time? Or another dimension?
Is it a monster? A mutant? A demon? It’s equally likely to be any of those, and statistically speaking it’s more likely to be hostile than docile.
Willie declares the origin (and new name) of this creature before it even wakes up and starts telling jokes about Melmac, and he ends up being exactly right. Wow, what are the odds?
SPEWEY barfs on Chris some more, which only cements the boyman’s love.
Gus doesn’t react as fondly to the projectile vomiting, and he demands that “Next time that thing is gonna blow, put some damn newspapers down.” Again, it’s a joke, and it’s funny. But it’s also another step the Tanners skipped: setting rules.
How do you care for an alien? How do you protect yourself, your family, and your belongings? What needs to change about your routine in order for this to work?
“Nothing,” Willie tacitly replies as he slips out of his boxers and dangles his wiener in front of this still-unfamiliar creature from hell.
Gus, by contrast, immediately sets some ground rules.
Which of these is a parody of the other? You’d be forgiven for choosing incorrectly.
Chris then explains, as Willie did in ALF‘s pilot, what the acronym SPEWEY stands for: Special Person Entering the World Egg Yolks. While “ALF” is certainly a less labored acronym, it’s only a little less ridiculous that Willie had it in his pocket, ready to go.
The episode’s equivalent of the Alien Task Force shows up, and while they’re more overtly comic, they’re actually a lot more believable than the honor-system imbeciles of the ALF universe. It doesn’t help that we’re supposed to fear the Alien Task Force — which certainly couldn’t find its asshole on a guided tour — and laugh at these guys. If something’s meant to be funny, we just look for reasons to laugh. If something’s meant to be imposing and dangerous, we need to be convinced of those things, otherwise we lose confidence in the writing.
Their dialogue is nothing incredible, but it answers all of the questions that the existence of the Alien Task Force does not. “We’re from a special agency that’s none of your business. All you need to know is we’re searching the area for something that doesn’t concern you.” That’s recognizable satire of both shady government organizations and the way they’re portrayed in popular culture.
And that’s all we need. The moment we learn about the Alien Task Force, we start asking questions. Who funds them? Are they operating in secret or in the open? Why can the guy who comes to the Tanners’ door look neither up nor to his right?
Immediately we start poking holes, because we’re given specifics. Here, we aren’t. It’s a lesson from the actual United States government: control the communication. Whatever you say will be subject to scrutiny, so say only as much as you need to.
Again, which of these is the parody?
Funnily enough, one of the government men says that they got a report of strange activity in the area from “some HAM radio geek.” Willie, your legend lives on.
Chris stashes SPEWEY in the closet, and he and Gus pretend that the groans and grumbles are coming from their sick cat. SPEWEY then vomits all the way from his hiding place onto these men, who question that it’s a cat. Chris covers for SPEWEY by pretending that it was he who just threw up all over them, and Gus, beautifully, adds, “You buy that, right?”
Brian Doyle-Murray is one of those very, very, very few comic actors who manage to make every one of their lines funny. I’d add to that list Matt Berry, and the late Phil Hartman. I don’t know that I’d add anyone else.
After the government men leave, Gus starts wondering what to do with the alien. Granted, he’s thinking about how to turn him around to a tabloid (or to Michael Jackson) for a mountain of cash, but it’s still better than the Tanners who just shrug and say, “I guess it lives with us forever. Now let’s go out for some frosty chocolate milkshakes.”
SPEWEY begins shivering and emitting streams of yellowish gunk from his elbows. Chris, not wishing to be rude, grabs a mug and drinks it. It’s disgusting (to watch…not for him to drink, apparently) but, again, it’s more logical than anything we’ve seen in ALF. Why wouldn’t a space creature have bodily functions we’d find disgusting? Think of all the things that come out of your human body at various points throughout the day. To a hypothetical alien civilization that wasn’t familiar with any of them…would they seem kind of…well…gross? In return, the aliens would be comfortable with their own secretions, while we’d find them appalling.
What does ALF do? Hiccup sometimes? Fuck off.
Anyway, watching this right now, as I write this, I had to pause and laugh myself silly, because there’s a line that cracks me up every single time. I remember laughing about it as a kid, and being unable to stop laughing for minutes straight. Now, as an adult…that’s pretty much still the case.
Gus tells Chris to get it the hell out of there, and Chris says, “I think I’ll take SPEWEY out and introduce him to my old high school buddy, the Pope.”
I hurt myself laughing at that the first time I heard it, and I still remember my friends and I quoting it (and variations of it) for ages. Revisiting it is still just as funny to me. To a newcomer, who’s experienced this kind of joke in other shows by now, it probably doesn’t feel as fresh.
But to young me, in his important formative years as a humorist, this was probably the single funniest thing I had ever heard.
The fact that it’s immediately followed up by SPEWEY beating the shit out of the Pope kept me from being able to catch my breath.
Back at the house, Gus is meeting with two men who manage Michael Jackson’s private zoo: Peebo Griffin, and Nick “The Keeper” Gilotti. SPEWEY savagely beats the men, not for reasons of self-defense but because why not, and even bites Nick’s ear off.
When they flee, Gus figures that if nobody will buy the thing, then maybe he can at least “squeeze a little beer money out of the government.” It’s definitely interesting to me that nobody really stumbled upon this idea in ALF. As many people who have seen him, they’ve all been perfectly content to share their lives — to whatever degree — with a completely unfamiliar alien hellbeast.
Granted, Flaky Pete called the Alien Task Force on him, but also fell for the beauty of ALF’s lifeless black eyes and lazy movie references, and then reversed his testimony. Here it’s nice to see that somebody, for some reason, is going to let the government study the fucking thing before they start letting it sleep with children.
Chris protests that SPEWEY’s friends might be coming back for him, to which Gus replies perfectly, “Kid, nobody’s coming back for that.”
Then there’s a lovely little exchange between the two about SPEWEY’s fate in the hands of the government:
GUS: They’ll take a few pictures, maybe cut its head off.
CHRIS: Now Gus, I’m not a fool. I know that that could cause permanent damage. Look, you have got to open your mind, and more importantly your heart. Come on, SPEWEY’s here to spread compassion and hope to our world.
GUS: He’s a disgusting, puking bastard and his pointy-eared butt is outta here.
It goes without saying that this conversation mirrors a similar one in ALF‘s pilot, and also that this one is much, much funnier. Whereas ALF had an 85-year-old man dodder up to the front door and mumble through a list of horrors the alien would be subjected to, Get a Life actually has something to do with the characters involved.
Chris’s idiocy, for instance, plays out several times in the course of a single line. He thinks decapitation could result in “permanent damage,” as opposed to “guaranteed death.” That’s funny. It’s funnier that he says this as justification of the fact that he’s not an idiot. And then he caps it off with a completely detached and unfounded proclamation that SPEWEY is spreading compassion and hope.
Gus is more worldly, as he knows SPEWEY won’t have much of a future in captivity, and brusque in the way that he tosses off that information. He’s also both totally realistic and rude in his assessment of the creature’s demeanor.
Good writing allows you to do things like this…to build character while you build laughs. ALF struggles with both on a regular basis. Get a Life, while it never, ever took itself seriously, could achieve this in even expository dialogue.
My favorite thing about Chris’s love for SPEWEY, though, is just how perfectly it mirrors what we saw on ALF. The Tanners, like Chris, are oblivious to just how horrible, toxic, and draining a presence ALF is. He’s a destructive force in their lives, and yet they treat him better than they treat their son. The show doesn’t realize this. By contrast, in Get a Life, everybody apart from the main character realizes this…and reacts accordingly.
The government men, still in the neighborhood, show up almost as soon as Gus calls them, which leads to the second thing in this episode I remember hurting myself laughing at. It’s the perfect sight gag of Chris placing his hands on the creature and saying “We’ve got to get out of here! Run! Run like the wind, SPEWEY!”
I’m sorry, but Chris shoving this fucking beast face first into the floor will never stop being a riot.
Chris then drags it off-camera by the head. I think “SPEWEY and Me” might be the most perfect distillation of everything I could ever find funny.
Later, Chris arrives at the home of Sharon Potter, whose life he ruined in a previous episode by unwittingly convincing her husband — his best friend — to leave her. He brings his stinking, reeking companion into the living room under the now-customary E.T. blanket.
Sharon listens to Chris rattle on about the government coming after him, and as she openly hates him and regularly wishes him dead, she asks if he happens to have their number.
His reply is one of the most perfect lines I’ve ever heard. “Yes, as a matter of fact I do. Right here on this card. I keep it with me so I don’t accidentally call it.”
If I ever write something half as brilliant I will die a happy man.
While Sharon is in the other room making what she promises is a totally unrelated phone call, her daughter Amy comes in and asks about what’s under the blanket.
This is it. This is the big moment Chris has been waiting for, and he knows it. Weak-kneed and euphoric, he says, “This is the magic moment. When the children, oh the dear, sweet, innocent children, get to experience the magic of a creature from another world. Get ready, Amy. Get ready to be transformed by love…and by magic.”
He then reveals the hideous SPEWEY, whom Amy attacks immediately, screaming that she hates it and wants it dead.
Chris, of course, is overcome with joy at the fact that the children understand the spaceman’s simple language.
SPEWEY then begins to spray bolus from his head and mouth, spinning around like a sprinkler and drenching Sharon’s furniture with vomit. She complains to Chris between facefuls of sputum, while he beams and explains, “He’s teaching us about love!”
The government arrives at the house, and there’s a perfectly pitched dramatic music sting, as though this should be as shocking a revelation for us as it is for Chris.
Get a Life was a show that used a laugh-track…wholly against its will. David Mirkin and Chris Elliott hated it…but the network insisted.
Watching it now, the laughter does feel particularly phony and out of place…but it almost works as a sort of slanted parody of the idea of a laugh track, slotting the aggressive disorientation of Get a Life right alongside something like The Andy Griffith Show. The same voices are laughing at some truly, vastly different jokes.
But what I love about the network-mandated laugh track is how masterfully Get a Life withholds it. The obviousness of Sharon’s betrayal should be met with laughter, but instead it gets a music cue that sounds like it comes directly from Chris’s mind. Other episodes shut the laugh track off for the sake of unsettling the audience…the jokes don’t stop coming, but the absence of fabricated laughter helps us feel that we’ve shifted into darker territory.
It’s lovely stuff. Throughout the whole of the series I don’t think the withholding of laughter is employed very often, but when it is, it’s felt, even if it’s not consciously realized. It’s the kind of structural joke the show was only able to make because it was forced to do something it didn’t want to do.
When you have writers and actors this good, even your show’s limitations can become strengths.
Then we get another great moment of physical comedy…albeit one that’s been repeated so often that it’s become expected. Chris seats SPEWEY in his basket to escape the government, and encourages him to fly.
It’s the stupidest god damned thing possible for Chris to do, and as far as I’m concerned it’s the single greatest instance of this particular subversion. I don’t know that Get a Life did it first, but I’ll go to my grave arguing that it did it best.
The rules governing the universe of Get a Life were so flexible that something like this could be seen coming a mile away, and yet still feel like a surprise. After all, the episode is about a space alien arriving on Earth. Is the ability to fly or hover that far-fetched?
There’s really only one rule to the show, and that’s that whatever happens has to be funny. Much of what unfolds around Chris is funny because it’s realistic, and he’s behaving as though he lives in a fantasy world. The rest of the time, what unfolds around Chris is pure fantasy, and he’s held back by the actual laws of human existence. (In this case, gravity.)
The show can stop and pivot at any point, and then pivot right back again.
But, hey, so can Family Guy, right? The difference is that when Get a Life did it, they did it with a room full of writers asking a question: is this the funniest thing we can do? If the answer was yes, they probably did it. If it was no, they probably did not. Get a Life was charting a great deal of new territory, but it very rarely did anything for the sake of doing it. Its identity didn’t begin and end with its novelty; the novelty was a byproduct of its creativity.
They arrive back at Gus’s house, bruised and bleeding. Gus accuses Chris of trying to “make out with it,” but Chris explains what happened: “SPEWEY was talking me flying…and, well, we hit a downdraft. Either that or he just doesn’t fly.”
I cannot stress enough just how exciting dialogue like this felt to me as a kid. Totally straight-faced, and yet utterly insane. For a while, Sunday nights really were magical.
SPEWEY isn’t looking so hot, though…he’s leaking green gunk everywhere, and it tastes more garlicky than usual. Chris volunteers to get him some alien medicine, an idea which Gus derides. Chris then mocks him for his disbelief, and heads out to the supermarket to buy some…returning with a bottle of both regular and non-drowsy formula.
This is an example of just how pliant Get a Life‘s rules are. In the previous scene, the big joke was that Chris believed his bike would be able to fly…but that’s obviously bullshit because that’s not how things work in the real world.
Here, the big joke is that Gus told him he wouldn’t be able to find alien medicine at the grocery store because that’s not how things work in the real world…but Chris was right, and he found it just fine.
In each case, it’s a question of what would be funnier. Adhere to that rule and you’ll end up with a pretty unpredictable universe, yes, but you’ll also end up fulfilling the silent promise that you make to your audience: whatever happens, it will be funny.
Chris then notices that SPEWEY is missing.
CHRIS: You sold him to the government!
GUS: I did not. I said I wouldn’t, didn’t I? Gus Borden is a man of his word.
CHRIS: Jeeze, Gus I, I’m sorry. I apologize, I don’t know what came over me. So where is SPEWEY?
GUS: I beat him to death with a rake.
What’s more, he made dinner out of him. After all, he couldn’t let perfectly good meat go to waste.
Chris is upset, but comes around quickly when he realizes how tasty SPEWEY is. And Gus informs him that he didn’t even need to baste the meat, because it’s self-saucing.
File that away. I can promise you that calling something “self-saucing” over dinner is going to make at least one person sick.
Seriously…”self-saucing” was something that I somehow adopted into my lexicon without remembering where I heard it. Revisiting this episode so many years later, when I found a set of off-air recordings on ebay, I had to pause the VHS. It’s amazing how things can get wired into your brain without you even realizing it.
That night, both Chris and Gus get a hankering for more SPEWEY meat. But when they open the fridge, SPEWEY is in there. Gus explains that “He must have regenerated from his own leftovers in an accelerated cloning process.”
SPEWEY forces his way past them and out of the house. Chris, confused, calls out to him. “Where are you going? SPEWEY? Are you mad because we ate you?”
And holy son of a bitch, it’s lines like these that make me love this show. I know I’ve used the word “perfect” a lot in this review, but since Get a Life was so devoutly episodic, the writers really could craft every detail to suit the story, without having to worry about how it would fit between the prior and next episodes.
They play like short films, brief excursions into a world we’ll never see through quite that same filter again. And it meant that episodes didn’t ever wind down; as long as the writers kept putting forth the effort to build a new experience from scratch, they were going to make sure it was worth it, front to back.
They follow him outside, where the mothership has arrived to take the creature home. (“Either that,” Gus observes, “or they’re hungry.”) SPEWEY gets hoisted up by what looks like a noose around his neck, and Chris and Gus wave their farewells to the wondrous creature that taught the world about love, through the universal language of facial lacerations and vomit.
It’s a ridiculous episode. And it certainly doesn’t tell a story that resonates through profundity, or anything along those lines. It’s simply a funny piece of television that relies on subversion, characterization, and a lot of brave experimentation.
Things that ALF should have been about in the first place.
As it stands, the source material never — I say this will total confidence — came anywhere near the solid writing or memorability of “SPEWEY and Me.” But without it, we wouldn’t have had the parody. So, in a way, we did get a great episode of ALF. It was just a bit later, under another name, with writers who knew how to have fun with the idea.
Notice how SPEWEY didn’t spend the entire episode selling makeup over the phone? That probably accounts for at least some of the difference.