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Previous Article - X-Entertainment - Next Article --- By Matt - 8.22/'02

Attempting to comprehend the Alf Phenomenon is no easy task. What probably should've been a completely unsuccessful TV show ended up becoming a global love affair, with people still praying to this day that real UFOs are all fuzzy comedians too. By the time Alf's popularity peaked, he had a prime time sitcom, Saturday morning cartoon show, comic book series, line of toys, and even a cake pan shaped in his image under his belt. That's damn impressive for a midget in a hairy costume - real actors can spend thirty years pouring their hearts into their careers, and most of them don't have cake pans. So what was it about Alf that made us love him so much?

Don't ask me - I was just a little kid when all this went down. Children cherished Alf for the more obvious reasons: he was a Muppet who made jokes. That's all it really takes to get kids under your wing, but Alf transcended way past that. Everyone loved him, young and old. Black and white. Republican and Democrat. People who like asparagus and people who don't like asparagus. Personally, I doubt the show's success had everything to do with Alf being cute and friendly. If you look back at the other sitcoms of the time, most of them follow a strict template: good-natured and extremely close-knit family help each other out through sticky and/or wacky situations. And yeah, this show followed that too, but at least they threw a cat-eating alien into the mix. We were flexible, any change would've done just fine.

Today we'll take a look at the very first episode of the Alf, which was interesting because he wasn't a national icon yet and the producers had no way of knowing how the show would be received. Sure, nowadays the networks will throw anything on television, trying to find that special next big thing. But back then, tv shows were way more by the numbers, especially if we're talking about prime time weeknight television. Who knew Alf would be a risk worth taking? I mean besides Whitey Shrieber. Who knew?

It all started for me with a simple plush doll. I don't remember being all that into Alf until I noticed that he was being sold as a furry Coleco doll. I'm not sure what kind of light aneurysm or brain malfunction I had when I saw the thing, but from that point on I was obsessed with owning one. Unfortunately, this was during the Christmas season, and I was one of millions of kids who wanted an Alf doll that year. So even though this had to be the smallest, most inexpensive gift I ever asked Santa for, the chances of me receiving one were pretty slim. Whenever I asked my mom for it, she'd give me the old 'we'll see!' parent line - you know the one I'm talking about. The one that's meant to inspire hope but was really just a way to get a kid to shut up? I'm the last of seven siblings, so my mother had plenty of time to master the 'we'll see' hook. Like a true pro, she'd throw in this two-second period of silent contemplation after saying it, which made it appear as if she was giving deep thought to getting me an Alf doll. In truth, I had gotten the 'we'll see' deal so many times that it lost it's effects, and my mother knew she had to add a little something in there to throw me off track.

Of course, this was when she was in the mood to play along. If she wasn't, I'd get a parenting device far more feared than the 'we'll see' bullshit - the classic tongue-bite and closed-fists-of-rage plot. She wasn't really angry though, just trying to get me off her back. Even though I knew that, I was still pretty small and getting slapped by my mother's then-seemingly huge hands would comparatively be like me intentionally annoying a wild gorilla. I'm not calling my mother a gorilla or anything, but now that I think about it, they both seem to really like cabbage.

When I woke up Christmas morning, there was Alf, under the tree. Turns out my mother's 'we'll see' wasn't a ploy after all! To be honest, I typically asked for the most ridiculous gifts around Christmastime, ranging from 200-dollar bikes to 1,000-dollar robots, so my parents were likely thrilled that all I wanted was a twenty-dollar dolly. I carried the thing proudly with me everywhere, so engulfed in my little alien Alf world that I never once heard the volley of insults being thrown at me by the other kids who were disgusted with my doll-toting antics. I didn't care, Alf would protect me with his untapped alien superpowers and acerbic witty retorts.

I ended up cutting the little tuft of hair on his head off, not for any good reason other than the fact that there were scissors nearby. Kids can't see a pair of scissors without cutting something; it didn't matter what we cut so long as we left a mess on the floor. When I looked at the Alf doll afterwards, he was mighty ugly with the new haircut and I felt extremely guilty. I had ruined Alf. So, I did what any other kid would in this situation of great shame and remorse - threw the doll in the back of our basement closet behind a stack of old paint pails, where I'm sure he's still sitting today. Alf, if you somehow escaped and learned to surf the web, let me take this opportunity to apologize. I didn't know you'd end up so ugly. I was trying to make you look distinguished. My brother's wedding was coming up. I needed to bring a guest so I wouldn't look like a spinster. I was just trying to clean you up a bit. I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry.

And now, onto the show! I don't think I was ever excited about watching television as I was right before Alf graced the screen. Obviously, the first episode just sets things up. Alf doesn't start breaking out the usual gamut of catchphrases till the third or fourth episode. Here's how it went down...

You know, it's a good thing they put an alien on the show. The family on Alf was one of the worst assortments in television history. The Tanners were so flaccid that, even while living with a space alien, they still all looked like zombies. I don't mean exciting, flesh-eating zombies either. Boring zombies. Willie Tanner is the father, played by Max Wright. You might remember Max from a short while back, when he was in the tabloids after getting busted for hosting a gay orgy crack party. No, that's not a joke. Who knew his real life could be more odd than a television life where he hung out with aliens all day? Willie's wife, Kate, expresses only slightly more emotion than a broom. And the kids, oh the kids! Teen daughter Lynn wasn't that bad, but boyish Brian Tanner had serious issues. He's a six-year-old who wears grandpa painter caps in the house and speaks maybe three times a day. The kid obviously suffers from bad parenting, so it's no surprise that he's allowed to apparently quit school to hang out with Alf all day watching cartoons.

But somehow, they're one of the more memorable sitcom families ever. They're just so not typical of what you usually saw back then. Sure, Steve and Elise Keaton had a lot more depth, but think about it - the last time I saw anything from Michael Gross, he was starring opposite Tori Spelling in a made-for-tv movie which featured Tori getting electrocuted in a pool. But Max Wright? Last time I saw him, it was in the Enquirer at the supermarket, in a pictorial showing him snorting coke off a 12" black cock. You tell me who's gonna leave the lasting impression there.

Anyway, Willie Tanner spends his evenings fiddling with short-wave radio equipment, which somehow leads to Alf's spaceship crashing in their backyard.

Of course, the family does what any family would when space aliens crash into the yard - take it inside the house and prepare warm cups of milk. The Tanners might be pretty boring, but at least they're making a small attempt to stir up intrigue. After a few minutes, Kate finally realizes that the alien could be dangerous, and asks Willie to get rid of it. But Willie's retort is done with such a nasally voice that Kate submits right from the getgo to a lifetime spent cleaning alien shit off the carpet.

Finally, Alf comes to. His real name is Gordon, but since Willie offered the 'Alf' moniker up for him, and he is a guest after all, he accepts his new nickname with total grace. I won't transcribe all of Alf's jokes here, but suffice to say, he's learned from E.T. that the best way to make it on Earth is by charming the pants off whomever's house you crash into. If crack-addled street whores can charm the pants off Willie, Alf shouldn't have a problem.

Believe it or not, Alf survived for - get this - 102 episodes. That equates to a four-year run on television, which is truly impressive for any show, especially one with this kind of theme. Aside from the inherent fun of watching a prime time alien puppet, I think most of us remember Alf so fondly because it was just a simple good time. No stupid 'real life issue' episodes, no nonsense, just good clean fun. Surprisingly well-written for what it was, too. I didn't catch it back then, but watching the show again now lets me notice a ton of really subtle humor coming from the human characters that was by no means a laugh riot, but cute enough to keep the public's interest after they've exhausted the amount of times they find Alf saying 'No problem!' hilarious. Not including shows on smaller networks with minuscule budgets usually aired during the day, a four-year run has to be considered a major success.

Anyway, the episode generally is all about Alf's zany antics - how he likes eating cats and tin cans, how he has to avoid being seen by anyone because the government will probably do nasty experiments on him, and how the family reacts to a life lived with a space alien. The idea was that, for all of his quirks, Alf ends up being a positive influence on everyone and brings the family closer together. The part about bringing the family closer together is a given, because I'm pretty sure none of them leave the house for the next hundred episodes. I think there was one where two of them went to get ice cream, but even then it only lasted five minutes.

On the plus side, the house was pretty roomy and that crazy Kate's adorned the living room couch with silk pillows. And Good God are those things comfy.

There were some things never really explored on the show - how did Alf go to the bathroom? Did he share the cat's litter box or did Willie actually toilet-train the thing? And you know the guy doesn't wipe so I hope he doesn't sit on Kate's great silky couch after taking one of his patented alien shits.

The climactic moment: a government official arrives looking for space aliens. News travels fast. Kate, who was by this point totally fed up with Alf, is faced with the opportunity to ditch him and get back to her normal life. Instead, she tells Generic Government Character #001 that they've got no aliens. Now Alf can remain safe from the evil lab tests. The new family has dinner together for the first time, and would go on to do so for the next few years until those of us watching at home decided that Alf's shelf life had expired. Hey Alf, we loved ya, but threatening to eat cats isn't going to keep our interest piqued forever, y'know?

There were two other characters too - Trevor and Raquel Ochmonek, the nosy neighbors of doom. Many of the episodes involve the Tanners constantly trying to keep Alf out of their view, which was tough because the Ochmoneks came to their house around fourteen times per episode. Oddly enough, the actress who played Raquel would go on to the most fame of anyone involved with the show - she played Jerry's mom on Seinfeld. The character here isn't all that different, actually.

Even though they did a television movie for Alf just a few years ago, I doubt we've seen the last of the guy. You've probably seen Alf on a recent slew of collect call commercials, but with all the old crap being revamped this past year, I'd say we're just a short time away from more Alf action. Probably with a new guy playing Willie. You know, for PR reasons.

Ugh, if I had known they were going to make an electronic storytelling Alf, I would've held off on begging for the regular doll. The Storytelling Alf doll was exactly the same as a Teddy Ruxpin doll, only cooler since it looked like Alf instead of a bear. This makes me even more angry, because I already begged for and received a Teddy Ruxpin before realizing this was even out there. I'd spent up all my viable Christmas wishes and would never have the chance to put a Paula Abdul cassette inside Alf to hear him sing Straight Up. I find this epiphany both depressing and sobering, but it's nothing a few well-placed pounded-fists-to-the-keyboard won't fix. ALKSDAJISDJ Q)_W)Q(*( W) ADSQEWASD. There, I feel better. I still love you Alf. Sorry I cut your hair.

- Matt
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