Guest Post: ALF Insight from Bernie Brillstein

ALF, "Weird Science"

A guest submission today from Justin B. Justin commented a few weeks back about having some insight from Bernie Brillstein, and I’ve asked him to expand his thoughts into a full post. I hope you enjoy. This also buys me another week to figure out how to make “Baby Love” interesting, so I’m not complaining…


ALF has always fascinated me, though the reasons for that fascination have varied quite a bit. As a child, I was naturally amused by ALF’s catchphrases and tendency to eat the family pets. Later, upon reevaluating the show in college and as an adult, what I found interesting was just how truly terrible the show was and always wondered why it was so bad.

There are so many shows from that era which hold up and continue to be just as funny today. There’s a reason why The Golden Girls, Fresh Prince and Seinfeld are consistently some of the most valuable syndication properties – the humor holds up. ALF on the other hand is truly a lazy show. Other than the fact he ate cats and was from outer space, I think most viewers would be hard pressed to think of anything else memorable about it.

Certainly nothing about the supporting characters (truly a set of people nobody cared about developing), the plots (unoriginal recycled material from previous sitcoms), or the production quality (it was made for like seventeen dollars; insert obvious joke about Max Wright getting paid in crack and hobos). Just about the only impressive thing was the puppetry involved in bringing the main character to life. Max Wright claimed in an interview years later that he once saw ALF blush. It really was a very emotive little puppet.

Later, once I moved to LA and got involved in the industry, I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with Bernie Brillstein, who packaged the show and helped sell it to NBC. He was credited as an Executive Producer on the series. Prior to ALF, his career was legendary managing many luminaries and developing classic shows like Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show and NewsRadio. In film, he did Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers and many more. One of the things I had to ask him about was ALF, which was brought to him by Paul Fusco in 1984.

When Fusco pitched the idea, ALF (the character) was basically a Don Rickles puppet. The fact he was an alien was secondary. Fusco’s humor was “as mean and nasty as humanly possible.” Brillstein found the idea hysterical and very different from what Henson was doing with the Muppets, which he’d also helped sell. Since Paul Fusco had zero writing or showrunning experience, Tom Patchett was brought in to serve as Executive Producer, as he’d executive produced The Bob Newhart Show, along with Brillstein’s Buffalo Bill, as a way to lend some experience to the project.

They went to NBC in Burbank to pitch the series and upon explaining their idea were met with a lot of blank stares. Bernie Brillstein kicked Fusco under the table, who pulled out ALF from a garbage bag. The puppet proceeded to sneeze and wipe it off on Brandon Tartikoff’s suit jacket, then verbally attack everybody in the room. Show sold.

In trying to understand what the show became, the crucial aspect of the above pitch was that ALF was basically an insult comedian. Never was it about the family and how they relate to an alien house guest, but rather in Fusco’s mind the Tanners were simply a vehicle for ALF to offend, insult and injure.

Watching the show today it is impossible not to take note of Max Wright’s performance. It is beyond over the top. He’s one of the stagiest actors I’ve ever seen, especially as Willie. To be fair, he’s playing a straight man and delivering the world’s most boring dialogue to a puppet. It’s not an easy task and there’s only so much you can do.

Having said that, the early reviews of the series praise Wright’s performance. After all, it was the quality of his work landed him the role, without even having to audition. He had been in Buffalo Bill, where Tom Patchett had worked with him, in addition to an award-winning performance as Nazi doctor Josef Mengle and in Fosse’s classic All That Jazz. He’s even Tony Award-nominated for his role in Ivanov. The biggest problem for me is the lack of any substance to these characters. We know nothing about them and they serve no purpose in the show except to get ALF to his next punchline. It’s even worse with Lynn and Brian.

Naturally I asked Bernie Brillstein about all of this and he admitted that ALF is quite literally the worst casting he’s ever overseen. It simply did not work. There was no chemistry between the leads, the kids were not particularly good and by season four everybody hated each other with a burning passion.

Adding to this was the fact that an objectively funny script would come out on a Monday and by Friday, Fusco would have the writers take any funny lines the family had and move them to ALF, leaving everybody else with dreadful expository dialogue. It pissed everybody off, from the series regulars to the guest actors. Character actor Dean Cameron, who starred on three episodes later in the show’s run, echoed this in an interview he recently gave: “The scripts were really funny on Monday. By the time tape day comes around, ALF has all the good lines and the rest of the script is horrible. It was bumming me out after a couple of weeks. Imagine what it was like working on the thing for [four] years. Imagine.” Adding to this was the fact it took 20-25 hours to shoot a single episode.

There’s a legendary story which I’ve heard from two different people and was even discussed briefly on Howard Stern: By the end of season four, tensions were so high that Max Wright had a serious meltdown on the set. Who knows if it was chemically induced or not, but he began physically attacking the ALF puppet and screaming “PUT US ON STICKS! WE’RE ALL PUPPETS HERE!” Truly, truly a great moment.

The whole thing got so heated that it was agreed between the producers that should the series get a fifth season order the Tanners would be completely written out of the show. ALF would be taken to the “Alien Task Force” headquarters and the show was to become a McHale’s Navy– or Hogan’s Heroes-type comedy, set on a military base.

I’ll leave you with this gem of a Benji Gregory interview. It’s not my normal practice to mock twelve-year-old kids, but Gregory can hardly string a sentence together. Why in the world he was cast on a major NBC show is beyond me. I’ve always wondered if he was secretly a good little child actor and they just didn’t know what to do with him. That, thankfully, appears not to be the case. He had zero charm, except perhaps he could scratch his armpit on cue.

15 thoughts on “Guest Post: ALF Insight from Bernie Brillstein”

  1. Good to know that all of our disgust and hate really CAN be piled onto The Fuscoe. Excellent write up. Thanks for sharing it!

      1. I keep thinking of something I read/heard about the original Ghostbusters movie–many of the times when a new funny line of dialogue was added for one of the four guys, he would insist that someone else get it so they’d have another good line. What a stark contrast to ALF.

  2. I’m… Call me crazy, but I don’t think this show was that bad. But you threat it like an objective fact that it was, and I just can’t agree with that.

    But I have to talk a bit about the interview with Benji Gregory. It was funny how it was made for Swedish television, and that he had to say “Söndagsöppet”. Cute!

  3. really there nothing new I haven’t heard about the show before, yes,I have read from other articles that by season 4 tensions were really high among the actors, but really who can blame them considering the working conditions they were under and after doing it for four years, tempers were bond to flare. i do remember watching an interview with Bernie Brillstein in it and he did mention working on ALF briefly and had said the casting was awful, but really i don’t think do, it just the actors were given not much to work with as characters. we have seen from a few episodes that they actors could shine when given the opportunity. I do remember watching the benji gregory interview a while back, the kid saying that even he himself got bored playing his character which is fare enough since the show didn’t do much with him.
    even still, despite it all the grip, hatred and rough edges, I still don’t find this show that bad, I liked it not just for how funny it was, but how odd it was and to me that’s what made it special.

  4. Buffalo Bill was another truly shitty show, if memory serves, and that’s coming from someone who more or less likes Dabney Coleman.

      1. Buffalo Bill has a Christmas episode, and I’m now going insane trying to find a copy for this year’s stream…

  5. would love to see max wright going ape shit on paul fuscos baby lol that mustve been great if I ever get a time machine im gonna go back with a phone and get the incident on film. forget the space time continuum.

  6. “Adding to this was the fact it took 20-25 hours to shoot a single episode.”
    I read that as a shingle episode (don’t know why)
    Then I thought that could be a good joke for an episode of Frontier Doctor.

  7. Max Wright’s crack addiction is not funny. I’m sure he’s in a very rough place in his life and none of us really knows why. I personally love Alf and found the series hilarious. I also love all the characters, especially Willie Tanner. They were all developed enough for me and all quite memorable. I still watch old reruns and the show is just as funny to me now as it was back then. I am keeping Max Wright in my prayers.

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