Has time rendered any prospect sadder than “David Spade guest stars on this week’s ALF“?
“Make ‘Em Laugh” aired in January of 1990. ALF‘s cultural cachet was falling quickly, with public opinion of him and his shtick souring fast. His ratings fell. People stopped caring. He was once the star of one of the most popular shows in the world, but, as Artie Fufkin would say, ALF oversaturated. The more often people see something, the more opportunities they have to get sick of it, and ALF gave everyone a wealth of opportunities to get sick of him.
He was everywhere. There were ALF clothes, ALF dolls, ALF action figures, an ALF board game, ALF video games (in traditional and educational flavors), ALF ice cream, and even ALF records and cassettes on which he either narrated irrelevant fairy tales or sang bullshit songs about Melmac.
And those were just the tie-ins. As far actual ALF productions go, there was of course ALF, his flagship show that ruined the lives and careers of everyone involved. But there was also an ALF comic series on shelves, and two animated spin-offs.
One was ALF: The Animated Series, a prequel to the live-action show featuring a weekly half hour of hideous Melmacian freaks braying at each other, and ALF Tales, in which ALF kicks Humpty Dumpty off the wall and buffucks his cat or something. It was shit.
And these were all in addition to his guest appearances on other shows, such as The Hollywood Squares, where his demands to take all the best lines from Jim J. Bullock were taken less seriously.
The most important thing about all of these productions: they all happened at the same fucking time.
ALF ran from 1986 to 1990. ALF: The Animated Series aired from 1987-1989. ALF Tales ran from 1988-1989. ALF: The Pointless Comic for Idiots was published from 1988-1992 (holding on a bit longer than anything else, interestingly).
Do you think that’s enough god-damned ALF?
Public perception turned almost on a dime. We went from being so in love with ALF that we needed him everywhere, at all times, to being so sick of him that we didn’t care if we’d ever see him again.
This episode aired, and about three months later the series would be quietly terminated while nobody was looking. It was costly to produce, everybody hated working on it, and the ratings made it clear that an increasingly negligible amount of viewers gave a shit if ALF lived or died.
So the show died. ALF went from having everything to having nothing. As I’ve said before, Paul Fusco never wanted a show; he wanted a franchise. And that’s the mentality that prevented him from keeping one. Instead of giving the audience what it wanted, he gave them too much, and they moved on to other things. Instead of working to make any one of these myriad productions great, he was content to crank them out irrespective of quality.
“Make ‘Em Laugh” is one of the last gasps of an unlikely star whose career was as good as over. And though the episode sucks, I have to admit it has some damned good thematic resonance in that regard.
David Spade, by contrast, was coming up in the world. I was never an enormous fan of his, so maybe somebody can fill in the 1980s-shaped blanks for me, but as far as I can tell he was a standup comic who achieved some small degree of recognition for his talents. In 1990, though — the year this episode aired — he was hired as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, and it was a great time to be a part of that show.
Saturday Night Live was experiencing something of a second renaissance, thanks to the arrival of great new talents like Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Mike Meyers, Dana Carvey, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, Julia Sweeney, Adam Sandler, and Kevin Nealon, as well as the return of golden-age writer/performer Al Franken. How much credit Spade deserves for the show’s resurgence of cultural significance is debatable, but he was there, he was a part of it, and he was a staple of both the stage and the writers’ room.
He also carved out a bit of a film career for himself, most notably alongside the late Chris Farley. He established himself as a sort of caustic straightman, and it’s a role that served him well. But Farley passed away, and Spade was suddenly far less in demand. He didn’t stand on his own very well (hello, Joe Dirt!); whatever degree of talent he may have had, it pretty clearly involved responding to other people…and other people just weren’t interested in working with him.
With the notable exception of his role in Just Shoot Me, Spade failed to find work on an extended basis, and his career took a tumble as a result. Overnight he went from nobody to one of the most recognizable faces on the most popular sketch comedy show in history, and then another night passed and he was nobody again.
ALF and David Spade are natural fits for each other, though not for the reasons either of them would care to admit.
Anyway, David Spade’s scene here boils down to a brief snippet of a comedy program called Giggles in the Valley, which sounds like a film you might catch after Bikini Carwash IV through a scrambled HBO signal.
David Spade gets exactly one and a half lines. The first is him telling a joke about polyester. (And by that I mean he observes that somebody is wearing polyester.) Then he starts talking about his trip to Canada and gets cut off by ALF changing the channel. So I guess even when ALF goes out of its way to cast an actual stand-up comedian whose star is on the rise, it makes sure he doesn’t get any laughs that could instead go to Paul Fusco’s right hand.
That night ALF types some shitty jokes, making him the only person in history to be inspired by David Spade.
Willie comes up to yell at him for making noise at one o’clock in the morning, but Jesus fuck, it’s not that loud. And it’s in the attic. I’m willing to buy that Willie could hear him, but compared to ALF pounding on the piano to brainstorm a musical comedy act, or bringing the typewriter under Willie and Kate’s bed so he could write his material without having to sacrifice his chance to hear the joyless sounds of their passive fucking, this qualifies as good behavior.
Maybe that’s why ALF is still lashing out and pulling such destructive nonsense after all these years. When he’s an asshole, Willie screams at him. But when he’s polite and does something quiet to keep himself occupied, Willie screams at him with exactly the same degree of anger. At some point ALF must have realized that the net result is the same, so he might as well be a raging dick all the time.
ALF reads one of his jokes to Willie, with the implication that it’s so funny Willie will cum. Or piss himself. I’m not sure which. Either way, the show just made you picture Max Wright’s leaking cock, so you’re welcome.
The joke is a standard cat-eating gag, making it the first one since “Live and Let Die,” the episode in which our furry felon decided he wouldn’t eat felines anymore. But since it’s a just joke ALF invented and not necessarily reflective of his desires, I won’t cry “continuity flaw.”
I will cry “nonsensical bullshit” though. I honestly don’t understand the joke. It’s a short anecdote about ordering an extra-crispy cat on Melmac, and getting an arthritic cat instead.
Genuinely no fucking clue. Can anybody make sense of that one for me?
Willie says that the joke sucked and checks to make sure the tip of his withered old wiener is dry. Then he leaves and ALF repeats to himself, “I’m funny! I am! I am funny!” And…
No my fuck no
Not a fantasy sequence my ass please no
ALF, for some reason, is fantasizing about somebody else’s standup set. That would be kind of like leaning back in your chair to daydream about being a famous rock star, and then just thinking about some footage of Billy Idol you saw on VH1.
After a while ALF remembers that this is supposed to be taking place in his own brain, so he’d better make an appearance. He bumps into John Pinette backstage.
Pinette died in 2014, which I didn’t know before writing this. I definitely recognized him, so I wanted to see what else he’d been in. He had a good number of standup specials to himself, and guested in a bunch of others, so that’s definitely why I remember him. He also had a recurring role in Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, which I watched all the time and definitely never understood. His most notable sitcom appearance, though, was as the heavy man who gets mugged and kicks off the events of the Seinfeld finale.
I’m a bit sad to find out that he’s dead. I’d be lying if I said I was a particular fan of his, or even that I’d thought about him once in the past 18 years, but as soon as I saw him here in ALF I thought, “Hey, it’s that guy!” I remember him being pretty funny, and seeing him again brings me back to the days that I actually paid attention to the world of standup comedy.
Here ALF calls him fat and makes fun of him for a while. Then he suggests that Pinette make some jokes about his weight, so that the whole audience can make fun of him for the health issues that would kill him at 50.
ALF does his routine. Not a moment too soon, since this was the ostensible point of the whole fantasy sequence, which until now we’ve spent making fun of fat guys and listening to other people tell jokes.
He tells, in full, the same arthritic cat joke he told earlier. The fake audience laughs, which is kind of meta since ALF always has a fake audience laughing at his jokes, even when he’s awake. At least now he finally gets to meet the people who offer up polite chuckles at his half-assed material.
His other jokes: the Melmacian library had two coloring books, and his girlfriend Rhonda had a hairy back. Hilarious.
Son of a bitch I miss the midget.
Anyway, ALF is so funny that he takes his necktie off when we aren’t looking. Then the guy who runs the nightclub or hosts the TV show or whatever the fuck is going on comes over and tells ALF that he’s the funniest comedian ever and has “redefined comedy in America.” Man, if you liked those other three jokes, you’ve got to hear his take on airplane food!
Then Brandon Tartikoff shows up. The real one.
He offers ALF a prime time sitcom of his own to showcase his talents. I’m tempted to launch into a speech about how important Tartikoff was to network programming at the time — NBC in particular, as he was their president, though the echoes of his success unquestionably drove the decisions and reactions of rival networks as well — but I already did that in my review of “Prime Time.” So, go read that, because it provides some good context for his guest appearance here.
In that episode he was played by David Leisure, which is a little odd as the events of “Prime Time” happened in reality. Now that we’re firmly in a dream, we get the actual Tartikoff. Not a complaint at all, but it’s interesting how that worked out.
A while back reader Justin provided this piece that was inspired by a conversation he had with Bernie Brillstein, and it sheds some light about why Paul Fusco might have wanted to pay these in-show respects to Tartikoff. After all, that’s the guy who gave ALF his big break in real life.
Something seems to have turned in their relationship, however, as Anne Schedeen alludes to in this interview which was posted to YouTube last month. (Hat-tip to kim for sending it my way.) I shared this on Facebook and people seemed to enjoy it, so if you haven’t seen it, take a look. It’s a long interview, so make a sandwich, but people so rarely talk about ALF that it’s pretty valuable by default.
Among other interesting tidbits, she mentions that the network president and Fusco had some creative disagreements about where to take the show next…and the cleanest solution was to avoid the question altogether by canning ALF.
Paul Fusco made an invaluable ally in Tartikoff up front, and through stubbornness made a career-ending enemy of him.
Hands up, everyone who’s surprised.
Then the Tanners come over to gush about how great ALF is, and how funny he is, and how he’s the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being they’ve ever known in their lives.*
I’d complain about the fact that people keep walking up to ALF in the middle of his set, which may be recorded for broadcast or may be live, but which at the very least has a room full of people waiting for these assholes to leave the performer alone so he can tell some more jokes, but it’s a dream, so I can’t worry to much about it. That’s also, I hope, the explanation for why Lynn is dressed like Blossom.
Then there’s a short montage with a bunch of newspapers and fliers and calendar pages swirling around and footage of people laughing, to demonstrate how popular ALF is and WILL ALWAYS BE.
The camera is proud enough to make sure we see this one:
So if you don’t find that funny you can skip the episode in total confidence that you’ve missed nothing.
There’s also this:
It’s odd that “Alf” isn’t in all caps. It’s even odder how much punctuation is in that headline. I’ll give it points for proper usage of the semicolon. I’ll deduct far more points for suggesting that a performance at the White House implies political momentum. Did anyone expect a Colbert / Biden ticket after the Correspondents’ Dinner?
Again, it’s a dream…it’s a dream…
For ALF it’s a dream, anyway. For me, I’m spending my waking hours watching this horse shit so fuck it.
“Oh, good; more $excessive/punctuation.”?!
It’s the National Inquisitor, and I like the fact that this invented publication from “Alone Again, Naturally” and “Lies” has actually become a part of the show’s universe.
I enjoy far less the Sybil joke, but I guess it’s hilarious if you enjoy poking fun at people with severe mental health problems.
If anyone can make sense of the “A Redoubler Publication” tagline, please get in touch.
When the barrage of limp headline gags finally ends, we’re in the Tanner house, where the Tanners all dote on him and cater to his every whim. Weird…I thought the fantasy was supposed to be at least a little different from reality.
ALF reads fanmail and fields requests for interviews and to appear in shows, and then Mrs. Ochmonek comes over and sprays vaginal moisture everywhere. It sucks.
There’s a bit of an interesting theme here with ALF being really selfish in his requests — having other shows named after him before he’ll even consider appearing, refusing to grant interviews unless he’s the only guest — which may well be the writers venting their frustrations at Paul Fusco’s similarly audacious real-world demands…the very demands that would sink the entire show and send them all looking for new jobs in a matter of weeks.
I have no idea if it’s intentionally meta, but it sure is tempting and easy to read that way. And the way the next few scenes unfold — with some phantom global audience deciding that ALF isn’t funny almost as quickly as they decided ALF is funny — plays like a damned prophecy.
Then ALF gets a lifetime achievement award from Casey Kasem, and I’m entirely willing to believe we’re watching unedited footage of Paul Fusco’s wettest dream.
There’s a decent enough idea here (ALF has only been famous for three days, a conceit upheld by the calendar pages earlier), but, I assure you, I did not need “Make ‘Em Laugh” to convince me that ALF’s shtick is garbage.
Then ALF tells the arthritic cat joke — in its entirety — for the third fucking time. Granted, it gives the audience at the ceremony a chance to shout at him to do new material, but, man, telling the same cock sucking joke three times in the same episode, with the same cadence, just feels like extremely lazy padding.
Hey, speaking of extremely lazy padding, another passage-of-time montage! For this one they even used a headline from this very blog.
Interestingly, you can read some of that article in the screenshot. It’s text from an actual story about the then-recent box office failure of the Eddie Murphy vehicle Harlem Nights.
The film is mainly notable now for being one of the earliest examples of gunmen opening fire in a movie theater. Evidently they started firing on the crowd during a shootout scene in the film, perhaps to further confuse their victims and prevent them from immediately fleeing. I don’t think this particular article mentions that, but it’s an odd, dark footnote that seems to come up any time that film is mentioned. (Thankfully, the film’s astronomical crap factor ensures that it’s not brought up often.)
Then there’s a brief scene of the family saying ALF’s career is over, in case you didn’t pick that up from when ALF fretted that his career was over, or Casey Kasem said that ALF’s career was over, or the awards show audience shouted at him that his career was over, or those spinning newspapers all stopped long enough for you to read that his career was over.
And after that deeply necessary scene, we’re right back into a passage-of-time montage. If the episode keeps passing this much time the final scene is going to take place in the year 3535.
We do actually end up 10 years in the future. (ALF fantasy sequences are nothing if not comprehensive.) ALF is a washed up MC in the Catskills, introducing a plate spinner. There’s a nice enough detail that the sign is missing a letter and therefore refers to him as GORDON “AL” SHUMWAY. I mean, it’s not funny, but it’s also not the arthritic cat joke, so I’ll take it.
Of course, ALF then refers to that detail himself, calling attention to it that’s far out of proportion to its actual comic value — which it would have had as a sign gag — so…that kind of sucks. “Make ‘Em Laugh” is working really hard to ensure that I don’t.
Then HOLY JESUS SHITFUCK he tells the arthritic cat joke again anyway so fuck it all to fuck.
Somebody heckles ALF, and there’s some tedious back and forth about that. The heckler does threaten to stick the microphone up ALF’s ass, though, so he’s the most relatable character who’s ever been on this show.
Then John Pinette comes back and we hear a few minutes of his actual standup while ALF mopes around. Granted, spending the final stretch of your episode listening to a character we’ll never see again perform a completely irrelevant standup act in a fantasy sequence that doesn’t matter anyway is the very definition of wasting your audience’s time…but since people who actually know how to deliver a joke are so rare on this show, believe me, I’m fine with it.
Later that night, ALF drinks alone, with nobody else. The Tanners come in and holy barf what the shit is Benji Gregory wearing?
Somebody else make a joke about it. I know better than to try to follow Pinette.
The funniest thing in the whole episode is the tossed-off reveal that Brian somehow has his own TV show now. Man, I’m sure it’s a comic masterpiece. A weekly half hour of the kid sullenly scratching his armpit.
Also Lynn works for MGM, which is fine, if totally pointless as a plot development. I understand that the point is that ALF’s star has fallen while everyone else’s has risen…but that’s not even true. We don’t learn anything about who Willie and Kate are in this fantasy, and does the career trajectory of the kids — a trajectory that hasn’t even been mentioned before this scene — really mean anything? “Also Brian is famous or something” feels quarter-assed at best, and I don’t know what we’re supposed to take from it.
Unless it’s exactly what I am taking from it: the hilariously terrifying concept of a Benji Gregory Show.
The Tanners tell ALF he can come back and live with them, but he doesn’t want to leave show business, so he tells them to cram it with walnuts.
In the short scene before the credits, ALF wakes up.
He tells Willie and Kate about his dream. Then Max Wright does this while both ALF and I scream:
Alright. So “Make ‘Em Laugh” had a few strikes against it from the start.
Firstly, it was a dream episode, which, again, is the very definition of unnecessary in a show about a screaming space beast that lives in the attic. You don’t need to exploit another layer of fantasy when your show’s reality is already so far removed from our own. And when you do exploit it, you should do so because you want to do something more interesting than usual, and not something more mundane. (That sounds obvious, but ALF, oddly, still doesn’t understand this.)
Secondly, it had fucking David Spade. (Though John Pinette, admittedly, was a nice surprise.)
And thirdly it was an episode in which a character becomes a stand-up comic, and those have never been good. I’ve always wondered why it is that shows that are normally funny become exponentially less funny once it wants one of its characters to be funny in-universe.
It’s a larger essay than I’ll write here, and I’d certainly need to come up with more examples, but I do remember seeing an episode of Mama’s Family in which Mama — of Family fame — starts telling jokes at a comedy club or something. No, Mama’s Family wasn’t great, but it was competent. And I remember watching that episode as a kid and wondering why the show felt perfectly funny until it was actively trying to convince us that her standup routine was funny. It felt flat all of a sudden, and it almost always does, as though these shows are suddenly trying too hard. Or maybe it’s just because fictional standup routines will always be compared to the ones we know from the real world, which tend to be quite good and well-developed by the time we know them at all.
But “Make ‘Em Laugh” had one really intriguing card up its sleeve: the meta component. While I’m pretty sure the real-life frustrations of the staff bled through to the writing (ALF’s sharp rise and irredeemable fall — centering as they do on lazy, repetitive material and unreasonable egotism — are too true to life to believe otherwise) it wasn’t nearly as clever or interesting as “I’m Your Puppet,” which successfully offered metatextual insight while still telling a coherent story of its own.
“Make ‘Em Laugh,” by contrast, played like a string of grievances, without the interesting gimmick, solid jokes, or great acting to carry it. (The impact Bill Daily had on the viewing experience can’t be overstated. There’s a reason I sing that guy’s praises every chance I get.)
“I’m Your Puppet” took real-world frustration and spun it into a fun and insightful episode, and it actually ended up feeling more satisfyingly caustic because of its restraint. “Make ‘Em Laugh,” if it was intentionally meta at all, is just a stream of loose, disconnected bitching. It’s not funny, and, even as a guy who hates this fucking show, I have to say it feels nasty.
Additionally, Max Wright was really out of his mind this week. Usually I make fun of a slurred delivery here or there, but this week I couldn’t do that, because I’d be left with no room to talk about anything else. It’s pretty clear by now that he not only doesn’t care about giving his best performance…he doesn’t care if his lines are intelligible at all.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m honestly not. This week the guy sounded like an answering machine that’s eaten its tape. It takes a lot for me to single out a Max Wright performance as being particularly fucking terrible, but let me assure you that this one was particularly fucking terrible.
Anyway, Christ, let’s never speak of this garbage again.
This is the home stretch, ladies and gentlemen. We only have 10 episodes left to go. And if “Make ‘Em Laugh” accomplished nothing else, it reminded us that we’ve absolutely earned it.
Countdown to ALF having his flame extinguished in front of the Tanners: 10 episodes
* I’ve made this joke a few times over the course of these reviews, but since we’re nearing the end I might not get the chance to make it again. So let me take this opportunity to make this clear: if you’ve never seen The Manchurian Candidate, the original one, with Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, take a few hours this weekend and do so. You’ll thank me.