In many ways, we’ve saved the best for last. At the end of each season we took an in-depth look at a member of the Tanner family, and drew, essentially, the same conclusion each time: these weren’t characters.
By no means does that suggest they’re all equal, though. Anne Schedeen easily came the closest, using the natural frustration and negativity she felt on a daily basis to give Kate a believable seethe. It helped, of course, that Schedeen has a natural sense of comic timing, and worked to sell both jokes and emotional moments that were underwritten on the page. She tried hard and, for my money, she did a great job with what she was given. A better job than the material deserved for sure.
Max Wright, by contrast, rarely tried at all. When he did you could almost feel the gears shifting, because it was like watching an entirely different person. He’d go from not caring if he hit his marks or pronounced his line properly to suddenly, unexpectedly, being genuinely funny in his awkwardness. Again, this didn’t happen often…but when it did, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking you were looking at an actor and not a depressed relative who should be on suicide watch.
The kids, interestingly, were miniature versions of the parents. Andrea Elson seemed to take after her TV mother and found some recognizable emotion in her character that she clung to whenever possible. Benji Gregory took after his TV dad by wishing he were dead.
But none of these characters were characters. We approached their discussions as we had to: by looking at what the individual actor did or did not bring to the part. The writing didn’t come close to shaping any recognizable figures…even after four fucking years with them. Willie best exemplifies this, as my Spotlight on him only made it clear that he wasn’t at all what the show wanted us to think he was.
To put a polite spin on it, one might say that ALF had an interestingly hands-off approach to characterization, letting every actor find and evolve his or her character with only minimal direction or guidance from the script.
To put a more realistic spin on it, ALF sucked ballsack and didn’t give two shits about its human characters.
Which leads us to…well…its one regular non-human character: ALF himself.
Because, yes, ALF, unlike anybody else, is a character. For once we don’t have to focus on what the actor brought to the role. We will do that, because it’s still worth discussing, but we don’t have to do that.
ALF is well-defined. ALF is the character one could sit down after 99 episodes and a movie and actually say things about. There are things ALF would do and things ALF would not do, things ALF might say and things ALF probably would not say. Things ALF cares about and things ALF emphatically does not care about.
ALF is somebody.
In fact, he’s the onlybody.
Episode one positioned him as the important character we should all pay attention to. And that’s fine; it was the pilot, and you certainly do have to spend more time setting up the sassy puppet from space than you do the nerdy dad or the frustrated housewife.
The problem is that in every episode to follow, he was still the only one we were supposed to be paying attention to. Exceptions to that rule were rare and, importantly, they were exceptions.
At no point was ALF an ensemble piece. If the puppet disappeared for a few scenes or some other character got a nice chance to hold the spotlight on his or her own, this was clearly fleeting. Next week everybody — whether watching the thing or making it — knew we’d be right back where we started.
The focus on ALF took a significant toll on the actors. Already grueling workdays were made even more thankless by the knowledge that the puppet would get all the jokes.
The actors went through hell just so a puppet could have a career. ALF gave nobody else any kind of bump in fame or a springboard to other projects. In fact, it marked the last major role almost anybody involved with it would ever have.
Any satisfaction any of them might have felt with any aspect of the production was purely incidental.
ALF, as a character, seems determined to surround himself with disposable figures he can pick up and let go of as necessary. He’s a joke machine. Not necessarily a good one, but a steady one. That’s why Paul Fusco didn’t see the Tanners themselves as necessary and treated them as such.
In his mind, they could have been anybody. For the purposes of a sitcom it was best to keep it to a small, recurring group of core characters, but if not for the logistical concerns of weekly television, ALF could have been rapping, farting, and slinging barbs at another group of actors working for scale in every single episode.
Paul Fusco knew this, which is why there don’t seem to have been any reservations about writing the Tanners out of a hypothetical fifth season. Most creatives would panic at the concept of their formula being reconfigured so severely, having to introduce a whole new cast, environment, and dynamic long after viewers are already familiar with the show.
Of course, only the environment would really change. The cast was a necessary evil, and the dynamic could always be illustrated by writing “ALF” on a whiteboard surrounded by arrows pointing outward.
This cast was never important, and no cast would ever be important.
We got a different group of characters and setting for Project: ALF, a different group of characters and setting ALF’s Hit Talk Show, a different group of characters and setting for ALF: The Animated Series, a different group of characters and setting for ALF Tales.
Even during ALF when Fusco filmed a pair of episodes on the actual Tonight Show set, no Tanners were invited to tag along. This was the puppet’s show, and he made sure that they knew it. In fact, pretty much the only additional piece of ALF media to feature the Tanners was the comic book. Tellingly, Fusco had no involvement with that production.
I hate the Tanners, but I can say that Project: ALF made me realize their importance. Without having them there, the film felt unanchored and aimless. Willie certainly never served any more than a minimal purpose in the show, but the fact that he was there, getting flustered whenever ALF pulled some kind of irritating bullshit, was, in retrospect, meaningful. In Project: ALF the alien pulls irritating bullshit all the time, but people just sort of shrug and drag their asses toward the next setpiece.
Confining ALF to the Tanner house might have been annoying to the puppet — and potentially Paul Fusco, though I’m only guessing there — but it actually lent the show a sense of stakes that I was only able to notice once those stakes were removed.
At the end of the day, ALF always had to come home. He could visit hospitals and nursing homes and animal shelters and whatever else he wanted to do, but because it’s a weekly sitcom he’ll need to start the next adventure in the living room set that’s already built. And this meant that his actions had (suggested) consequences.
If you piss off the people that you live with, you need to face that. You either apologize for it and fix things or push back against their frustration and make the situation worse. Certainly there are people who will naturally do either, but the point is that your decisions shape your living situation, the level of tension in the house, and the experience of being there.
ALF was in the same position. Many episodes were about him (deliberately or inadvertently) pissing off a Tanner. Sometimes they ended with ALF making amends, and sometimes they did not, but the very fact that ALF lived here, and would continue to live here, with these people, made those choices meaningful.
I tended to like the moments of ALF apologizing and disliked the moments of ALF punctuating a conflict with one last act of dickery. I think that’s because I was willing to buy the fact that he lived with these people. Of course I liked it when he’d apologize; that made living with him easier. When he wouldn’t, that made living with him harder.
On some level, I must have felt that, because once Project: ALF took it away, everything felt meaningless. ALF’s soft moments didn’t register. ALF’s shitty moments didn’t register. Nothing registered because nothing is meaningful when you dance along from character to character and location to location.
In Project: ALF, ALF being nice didn’t make it easier to live with him and ALF being cruel didn’t make it harder to live with him. Nobody lived with him; he could do whatever the hell he wanted, and the audience didn’t really feel anything the way they needed to in order for those moments to have impact.
There were no stakes, because neither he nor we will ever see any of these people again. ALF getting Willie arrested meant he’d have to deal in some way with a pissed-off Willie. ALF getting Ray Walston arrested just meant Ray Walston wasn’t in the movie anymore.
Fusco’s inability to realize this is frustrating, but, to be fair, I didn’t realize it either until Project: ALF came along.
And I know why: for different reasons, both he and I were too close to the material.
This is a great example of why soliciting, accepting, and responding to outside feedback is such an important thing for creatives to do.
ALF had its share of external feedback that Fusco chose to ignore, and that ultimately sealed the fate of both the show and the character.
When your entire cast is miserable and complaining about unfair working conditions, you should listen to them. Actors like to work, so if they’re complaining about all the bones they’ve broken tumbling into your network of puppet trenches when they were supposed to be finished shooting six hours ago, they probably have a point. They’re not complaining because they aren’t grateful to have a job; they’re complaining because this job fucking sucks.
When your writers keep seeing their scripts get gutted and rewritten, giving any funny lines to the puppet when possible and removing them completely when not, you’re stripping them of their incentive to write anything good in the first place. Like actors and acting, writers like to write. Writers do not like to produce work only to have it bastardized by a narcissist who can’t bear the idea of a secondary character getting the spotlight. By season four — which, to put it as politely as possible, was a pile of steaming catshit — the writers clearly weren’t trying anymore. They had tried for three years. I certainly don’t blame them for giving up by the end.
When the president of the network personally steps in to help you salvage your show, you should listen. You should especially listen when that president is Brandon Tartikoff, a network television whizkid who both understood audiences and respected the creative process. The shows he greenlit and guided weren’t just popular; they continue to be critical favorites, and they shaped the landscape of NBC and its competitors — who sought to respond in kind — in ways that we’re still feeling today. Tartikoff was an expert who took time he didn’t need to take to save a show he didn’t need to save. Fusco shot him down.
And when audiences keep rejecting your work — with everything from Project: ALF onward is hated with a passion you rarely see outside of this blog — you need to listen to them. People liked ALF. They bought all manner of shit with his face on it. He was popular enough that people do keep trying to give the character a chance. But whenever he pops up, viewers respond with a collective “…nah.” And that’s because nothing’s changed. The setting and characters, yes. The format, yes. The problems at the core of the character? Nope. Once you get sick of ALF you stay sick of ALF, because no effort has been made to evolve him or the way he interacts with a series of disposable others.
But for all of my complaining, you know what?
Paul Fusco was one talented motherfucker.
Of the main actors, he was by far the best. And the fact that we often looked at Willie and Max Wright as interchangeable (for instance) but almost never looked at ALF and Paul Fusco in the same way says a lot. Fusco’s performance was a performance. It wasn’t something he did. He wasn’t just reading lines off a script and moving on. Fusco played ALF. He gave him life. He gave him a distinct personality. He made something.
Whether you enjoy ALF’s antics or not — on the whole you know my answer — it’s impossible to deny Fusco his chops. He knew how to deliver a line, even if I didn’t enjoy the line. He knew how to carry a scene. He could be effectively funny or emotional as the moment dictated.
It was easy, at times, to believe that ALF was real, in spite of the fact that we were looking at somebody’s hand wrapped in an old carpet. In fact, it was easier to see ALF as real than any of the actual human beings we were watching.
That’s due to Fusco’s solid performance as ALF, and genuine understanding of who the character was. (Something no other actor had, though Schedeen and John LaMotta came closest to bringing some version of their character to life.)
But it’s also due to the show’s greatest accomplishment: the puppetry.
Dangerous trenches and grueling hours aside, Paul Fusco was a great puppeteer. (We probably shouldn’t push those things aside, I know, but I do at least feel as though we should consider them separately from the quality of the work he did.)
ALF was an impressively expressive puppet, and every aspect of his presence felt natural. Not just the way his mouth would move or the way he’d bob up and down when walking across a room. It was in the way he’d blink for no reason except that living creatures do blink. It was in the way he’d wrinkle his snout up in disgust. It was in the way his ears moved while he talked.
ALF felt alive, and that’s part of the reason the midget was always so incongruous. ALF already seemed real. When we cut to a little guy in an ALF suit trotting silently across the room, it was not only unnecessary, but because we already knew how ALF moved it looked unnatural.
Yes, it was the actual, flesh-and-blood person who didn’t seem real. The puppet, we believed in.
Fusco knew what he was doing, and had the talent to bring the character to life. He had something that most puppeteers and even most actors would kill to have: a character he innately understood, inside and out.
I’ve bitched about this show for several thousand years now, but Fusco’s performance is just about unimpeachable. It was the closest thing to a constant pleasure ALF had.
That’s why those external voices — his cast, his writers, the network president, his viewers — should have been heeded. They weren’t piping up and complaining and pleading because they wanted to ruin him. They were doing these things because they wanted ALF to be good.
What’s more, they all saw in it a kind of potential. A concept worth salvaging. Nobody wanted to sink with the ship. In fact, nobody wanted the ship to sink at all. But Captain Fusco said he knew what was best as he steered the thing directly into iceberg after iceberg.
He saw any kind of suggestion as meddling, as a personal affront, as an attempt to wrest control away from him, when, in actuality, everybody was trying to help the ship go further.
He still, to this day, does not realize this, culminating in the tragically hilarious insistence that he knows better than Tina fuckin’ Fey what audiences want and how best to give it to them.
Why has every subsequent ALF production failed? The simplest and most correct answer is that Paul Fusco still hasn’t learned the lessons people were trying to teach him 30 years ago.
He reminds me, in many ways, of Seth MacFarlane. MacFarlane is a deeply gifted voice actor. He understands how to deliver a line; he knows how to wring every ounce of humor from anything he’s given. But when he’s more involved in the creation / writing of a project (Family Guy, A Million Ways to Die in the West), the comedy suffers.
MacFarlane has a habit of treating reference as punchline. Of coasting on audience familiarity and nostalgia. Of finding the laziest way possible to resolve a scene, conflict, or setpiece. All very Fusco-like qualities.
But then you look at something like American Dad!, which features MacFarlane only as a voice actor. He drops by whenever they need him to record the voices for Stan and Roger, and then he leaves. He’s very hands-off with the project creatively…and it’s the strongest thing his name has ever been attached to.
MacFarlane, like Fusco, fancies himself a renaissance man. He’s an actor, a writer, a director, a producer, a creative consultant, a showrunner…he does it all. And yet he’s actually at his strongest when somebody takes those things away from him.
His performances as Stan and Roger are some of the best that primetime animation has ever had, and with somebody else writing the lines and developing the characters, we get something better than MacFarlane — as talented as he is — could ever have done on his own.
To his credit, MacFarlane lets people take those reins. Paul Fusco does not. Which is a shame, because if he was left to focus only on the puppetry and the vocal performance of ALF, ALF might still be around.
Yes, you knew I’d be bringing up American Dad! at some point here. It was an early point of comparison in this review series. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s another network comedy show that features an alien who secretly lives in a family’s attic. The difference is that Roger is integrated into his show’s universe, and is not the sun around which a handful of faceless others are forced to revolve.
Roger, in many ways, feels like a deliberate evolution of ALF…a knowing and successful attempt to correct the missteps of a decades-old show in a different medium on a rival network. I know that can’t possibly be the case, but it feels like it could be.
Again, Roger doesn’t have Seth MacFarlane’s self-indulgent humor behind him; he has a team of writers who care about making the entire show funny. (Some of which, it’s instructive to realize, were inherited from Futurama.)
Roger is one valuable part of a larger whole, and while he’s one of the principal characters he’s by no means the star. Episodes revolve around Stan, Francine, Hayley, and — gasp! — even Steve, with Roger many times getting nothing more than a few lines or a token appearance. He’s used when using him benefits the show or the story, and when he isn’t needed, he isn’t there.
He also addresses the problem of how to do interesting things with a character who shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house: disguises. While this concept was lightly toyed with in ALF (originally and most notably in “For Your Eyes Only”), it becomes a central aspect of Roger’s character.
It allows him to run off and do things he shouldn’t, in a narrative sense, be doing, while also retaining the danger of detection. Many episodes are about Roger’s extra-terrestrial origins being exposed. As such, we get to have our cake and eat it, too. Roger both can’t be seen and can run around doing whatever he pleases…a dichotomy ALF never nailed.
But the disguises also led to the development of what became Roger’s main characteristic: his mania.
Roger doesn’t just dress up so he can go outside. That’s how it started, but soon the writers realized how fruitful a storytelling device this could be. Roger loses himself in his various personas, becoming, in essence, a new character every time. Yet he’s anchored by that central mania. That’s what makes Roger Roger, in spite of whomever else he’s also being that week.
And that’s brilliant. It’s also the kind of thing that only happens when writers are allowed to develop new ideas and explore them.
Roger’s persona swapping wasn’t there from the start; it developed because the writers were able to learn (quickly) what did and did not work for the character, and they took it from there.
Which also addressed the other problematic aspect of ALF as a character: his two very distinct halves.
ALF is constantly flipping between two different incarnations. He’s sometimes a snide, ungrateful, destructive asshole, and he’s sometimes a magical being from beyond the stars who solves problems and enriches lives.
The problem isn’t that ALF sometimes does one thing and other times does another. That’s realistic. More realistic, in fact, than many sitcom characters were at the time. The problem was rather how gracelessly the two kinds of episodes slammed up against each other.
There seemed to be no connection between ALF the selfless savior (“Border Song,” “ALF’s Special Christmas,” “Tequila”) and ALF the selfish shitnut (“Lookin’ Through the Windows,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Happy Together”). These weren’t two seemingly-contradictory approaches to the same character; these were two completely different characters.
Roger gets to have both by virtue of the fanatical dedication to his personas. You do have Roger trying desperately hard to do the right thing and help others (“Rough Trade,” “The One That Got Away,” “A Ward Show”) as well as Roger the violent sociopath (“Stan’s Food Restaurant,” “Ricky Spanish,” “Love, American Dad Style”). He can be sweet, suave, sexy, scary. He can be angry, anxious, avuncular, antisocial. He can be a thief, a friend, an enabler, or a hero. All of those are Roger and none of those are Roger; Roger is his commitment to whatever he’s doing. The behavior is different, but the characterization is constant.
ALF is just ALF. He doesn’t have a singular, driving impulse or commitment that ties all of his disparate behavior together. He does whatever he does that week, and that’s that. American Dad! finds some identifiable impulse behind the (humorously sudden) shifts in demeanor, while ALF just hopes we aren’t paying enough attention to notice.
Often, I’m not sure what ALF is supposed to be. To be honest, I’m not even sure if we’re supposed to find his jokes funny, as though he’s a hairy little Rodney Dangerfield, or if he’s supposed to come off as dumb and hacky, like a less-vulnerable Fozzie Bear.
But I always get the sense that Fusco knows. Even if it seems to change from scene to scene, I believe that Fusco is in command of his performance, and could tell you at any given time why ALF is doing what he does. I may not agree with his reason, but I certainly respect the fact that he’d have one.
After 99 episodes and one TV movie, I can honestly say that anything we know about ALF — for better or worse — was right there in the pilot. Fusco understood him from the very start, and that’s admirable in its own right.
What’s less admirable, and deeply unfortunate, is the fact that no other actors were given the opportunity to develop comparable understandings. This left ALF feeling stranded in his own show, adrift in a sea of nobodies.
With that in mind, it’s actually easy to share Fusco’s suspicion that ALF didn’t need the Tanners, or anybody, at all. It’s only with hindsight that we see that that isn’t true.
It’s not that ALF didn’t need the Tanners, it’s that the Tanners never got to be the Tanners.
Interestingly, there were a few exceptions to the “ALF is the only character” rule.
Jodie arrived on the scene as a full-fledged character in her own right. Dr. Dykstra as well felt “real,” even if the Tanners’ frustrated dismissal of him in “Mind Games” did suggest that the writers had a different idea of who he was than the viewers did.
But the most significant exception was Jake. Jake arrived in season two as just some new, young male character for ALF to bounce off of. (The miscarriage of Brian meant that this was a position that sorely needed to be filled.) He got to grow from there, however. He developed. We learned more about him. We started getting plotlines (including romantic fumblings and his strained relationship with his mother) that fleshed him out and positioned him as somebody we were supposed to care about.
Josh Blake’s acting was also some of the best on the show. Faint praise, to be sure, but so be it. For whatever reason, ALF found itself with an actor willing to do solid work and a writing staff that wished to develop the character.
It’s impossible to say for sure, but it’s not totally unlikely that if Blake hadn’t left the show, we could have ended up with at least one other developed, recognizable character headlining episodes.
That in itself could have led to more plots in which ALF took on a sort of Roger role, popping up to offer advice and tell a few jokes, and then disappearing again so that the real star of the episode could do his thing. (In fact, this is almost exactly how “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” ended up playing out.)
But we’re well into the realm of hypothesis here. The important thing to note is that Paul Fusco made the most of his spotlight, and with only sporadic exceptions ensured that nobody else would get the chance to do the same.
ALF is the captain of a team nobody else joined. He’s the CEO of a company with no employees. He’s the leader of a nation nobody in their right mind would ever want to live in.
He has potential. He has the ability to make us laugh. He has everything a breakout, memorable, iconic character should have.
But he’s also a puppet.
And therefore he can only do what Paul Fusco allows.
That’s why you’ll never see him again.