ALF: The Sitcom Version Of E.T?

Courtesy NBC

Unless you’re Jim Henson it’s tough to introduce a puppet based T.V show and expect it to create a cultural significance.

ALF was a sitcom that ran from 1986-1990 based on an alien that crash-landed from the planet Melmac. He would live with the Tanner family that had to protect his secrecy while at the same time put up with him. ALF was an unexpected phenomenon and lead to a ton of merchandising, spin-off cartoons and other T.V specials.

ALF was one of my all time favorite shows and I remember vividly watching the premiere episode as a kid and laughing my ass off at it. I was instantly hooked and to me was one of the top shows of the 1980s. It’s funny now to look back on all the drama and crap that went on behind the scenes so let’s take a look at all this.

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What Was ALF

In case you’re not aware ALF stands for Alien Life Form and ALF was technically known as Gordon Shumway on his home planet of Melmac. He crash lands on earth into the garage of the Tanner family who are unsure what to do with him and help to hide him from the Alien Task Force. It’s found out the ALF’s home planet had exploded, with ALF and a few of his friends escaping.

A big part of ALF existence with the Tanner family is having to keep him hidden. There’s the neighbours the Ochmonek’s played by John LaMotta and Jerry Seinfeld’s mother Liz Sheridan. The show plays as a classic fish out of water premise with ALF trying to make sense of his new surroundings and culture while trying to suppress his own bizarre customs such as eating cats.

There were some humans he would interact with including Willie’s brother Neil played by Jim J. Bullock and Kate’s mother dorothy played by Anne Meara (real life mother of Ben Stiller and wife of Jerry Stiller aka Frank Costanza. I just realized the Seinfeld connection of this show).

ALF was born on October 28, 1756 on the lower east side of Melmac, a planet that had green sky, blue grass, and a purple sun. The currency they use is called the “wernick” named after show producer Sandy Wernick.  ALF is short, covered with orange fur and has 8 stomachs and his heart is located in his right ear. A few of his friends from Melmac include Skip, Rick, Stella, and girlfriend Rhonda.

Characters On ALF

  • ALF- Paul Fusco did the voice and puppeteering along with Lisa Buckley and Bob Fappiano (the name of a Melmac holiday) Full shots of ALF were performed by Michu Meszaros in a full costume. Michu was born in 1939 and was part of Ringling Brothers circus
  • Willie Tanner– The father of the Tanners played by Max Wright
  • Kate Tanner– The mother played by Anne Schedeen
  • Lynn Tanner- Played by Andrea Elson- was also on Who’s The Boss and Silver Spoons
  • Brian Tanner– the youngest son played by Benji Gregory who was on other epic shows such as Punky Brewster, The A-Team, Pound Puppies and T.J Hooker.
  • Jake Ochmonek- Josh Blake, nephew of the Ochmoneks and knew ALF

Production Of The Series

Max Wright about to snap…

Paul Fusco was behind the whole show and he approached producer Bernie Brillstein about showing off his puppeting ability and about the possibility of doing a show. The problem is Brillstein was a former manager of a somewhat competent puppeteer known as Jim Henson.

Brillstein was originally not interested as he had already seen and worked with the greatest puppeteer of all time in Henson. Fusco was somehow able to convince Brillstein and actually ended up winning him over with hisperformance and comedy ability. Fusco would co-produce the series with Tom Patchett and it was picked up by Warner Bros. Television and Lorimar-Telepictures.

Leading up to the initial production of the show Fusco was really secretive about ALF. No one was even sure what it was going to look like, sound like or if it was even an alien at all. The main ALF puppet that was used on the show was the only one and was meticulously cared for. To avoid any damage to the main ALF they used a makeshift puppet called RALF (rehearsal alien life form). Fusco was not big on rehearsing and would sometimes just use his hand to replicate ALF, he prefered more spontaneity and freshness in his performance similar to how Jackie Gleason would never rehearse on the Honeymooners.

The whole set was built on a four foot platform so Fusco could perform ALF underneath. This is similar to how they would do things on the Muppet Show. The entire set was filled with trap doors so ALF could basically appear anywhere on the set making it brutally hard on the cast to navigate the floor.

Operating ALF

Fusco was the main operator and would use his left hand to control ALF’s mouth and his right hand would control ALF’s right hand. Lisa Buckley, the second puppeteer, would control ALF’s left hand and help to control things beneath the stage. The third puppeteer, Bob Fappiano, would be in charge of controlling ALF’s facial and ear movements with a remote control that he could use off stage.

When they would do the tapings Fusco would wear a head-mounted microphone that would record ALF’s voice. Add this all up and you’ve got a ton of technical problems that can occur and scenes would have to constantly have multiple takes. Due to all this it was impossible to record ALF in front of a live audience so they had to use a laugh track. Though I never thought it sounded much like a live audience…

Problems WIth Making The Show

Oh what a time it was before the internet. I had NO idea of all the disaster that was taking place on the set of ALF, but then again, no one did. Only years later are we finding out about the dysfunction that occurred during the filming of this show.

As I mentioned before ALF was an incredibly difficult show to shoot from a technical perspective. It took so many takes and coordination through the actors and performers that an average 30 minute episode could take 20-25 hours to shoot. Yikes.

Due to this, and probably a combination of other factors, there was incredibly high tension on the set. Most of this came from Max Wright who played Willy. He was not shy about voicing his displeasure at the frustration of making a show like this but you’d think he would have known what he signed up for. His big complaint was that he despised having to cater to an inanimate object that made things a technical nightmare. He also hated that “ALF” would get all the good lines and he couldn’t wait for the show to be done with.

There’s a story told by Artie Lange, who worked with Wright on the Norm Show, that one night Wright actually attacked ALF and had to be pulled off him. Even if that’s not true that’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.

Anne Schedeen once said that on the last night of taping, and after the last scene, Max Wright walked off the set to his dressing room, got his bags and left without saying goodbye to anyone. She also shared how the show was a nightmare to shoot; besides the long and frustrating hours the set was joyless, hot and just extremely slow to produce.

It’s amazing that at the time word didn’t get out about how dysfunctional this show was and all the difficult personalities that clashed while making it. Andrea Elson who played Lynn said she wasn’t thankful the show didn’t go on for another season as everyone “would have lost it”.

That Last Episode

Photo: ALF/Lionsgate

I remember this as much as pretty much anything entertainment based that happened in the ‘80s. If you were a fan of ALF you no doubt remember this crushing finale but one that was apparently not intended to be the final episode.

In this “last show” ALF is contacted by friends from Melmac and they arrange to come pick him up. ALF wrestles with whether to stay or go but decides on trying to restart a life that he once lost. The Alien Task Force is able to intercept the transmission and finds out about the pick up point. Just when ALF is about to be picked up by spaceship the task force busts in to capture ALF leading to him defenceless while the spaceship takes off.

This was soul crushing.

There was no follow up. No fifth season. Nothing. Nothing was tied up, a ton of questioned weren’t answered and it honestly just sucked. It turns out this “finale” was done as a way to create a huge cliffhanger so that the network would have to bring back the show for a new season.

It didn’t work. And that leads us to…

Project ALF

This was a made for T.V movie/sequel that was supposed to wrap up the loose ends of the series and also create some new content as there was still some interest in ALF. It was made in 1996 by ABC but did not feature any of the original cast. Due to this fact a lot of people don’t consider it connected to the original show and it exists as a stand alone project.

PLOT- The movies starts where the final episode ended off; ALF has been captured by the Air Force and is being contained at Edmunds Air Force Base under the control of Colonel Milfoil (Martin Sheen). ALF remains his usual self and is able to convince the guards to turn his cell into more of a bachelor pad setup. The plan is to have ALF killed under the guise of a beauty treatment testing. Two of the scientist at the air force base learn of this and help ALF to escape.

ALF then escapes from them while staying in a motel and he ends up going to a strip club, for the lols I guess… The local police and military are alerted and a NASA scientist wants to publicly reveal ALF existence to the world. It turns out this scientist wants to auction off ALF to the highest bidder. This doesn’t happen and at the same time everyone finds out about the plan to have had ALF killed. Since ALF has escaped, Milfoil believes he has the right to kill ALF for doing so and it turns out all this hatred comes because his mother had apparently gone mad due to an alien abduction.

The movie ends up with ALF being recognized as a global ambassador.

I remember being psyched for this to come out as it would give proper closer to that inadvertent cliff hanger but when I finally watched it I remember feeling no real connection to it. I think, like many others had mentioned, that it’s not canon. It doesn’t connect to the original sitcom, none of the original characters are in it and it just exists as a standalone spin off of sorts.

This is kind of like the unfortunate Christmas Vacation sequel; Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure. Yes, that’s a real thing that existed.

ALF The Animated Series

This was actually a decent spinoff that came while ALF was still on the air. It was a better than average saturday morning cartoon that ran from 1987 to 1998 on NBC. It took place on ALF’s home planet of Melmac (worth mentioning now that Melmac was a brand of dinnerware that was popular from the 1940s through the 1960s).

This was a prequel series though that took place before Melmac would explode and basically followed the life of ALF, his friends, and girlfriend Rhonda. I forgot, until looking back at this, that the show would be bookended by live-action clips of ALF who talk to the viewers, set up the show, and then discuss it afterward.

This also lead to another spinoff called ALF Tales which I don’t remember at all but involved ALF and a bunch of the other characters from season one and put them in place of classic fairytale characters. This was done in an hour-long show and was meant to somehow connect season 1 and 2.

A New ALF Reboot?

2018 was the year of the reboot. There was a bunch of successful returns to former shows that were still able to capture the public’s interest and generate some really good ratings. The Roseanne reboot was a huge success but we all know how that ended up. Will & Grace came back and was still really good as did Murphy Brown.

T.V producers, who are desperate for quality network content, don’t seem to be focussed on reboots per se but more on anything that can be successful. If there’s an interest in it, and it happened to be because of a classic show, they don’t really care and will make whatever can be successful.

And this may include ALF.

There have been talks since 2012 about at least turning ALF into a CGI/live action type feature film. Sony Pictures Animation had bought the rights to it but we’re still holding our breath on that one.

But on August 1, 2018, it was announced that Warner Bros. was going to produce an ALF reboot. The show would focus on ALF returning to earth but this time living with a whole new family. As of November, 2018 it sounds like this is not moving forward at all. According to TVLine’s Michael Ausiello the show has failed to find a suitor. Reminds me of myself…

I obviously would love to see a reboot of ALF and I actually think it could work. There’s clearly an interest in old franchises being brought back as is evident by those shows I mentioned above. Even doing just one season seems like it would generate a lot of interest and be successful. With network television today I think it’s about getting quick hits and moving on to something else due to the huge amount of competition out there and the fact not a lot of people really watch live T.V much anymore. I think they could make a quick hit with one season of ALF and escape pretty unscathed.

But what the hell do I know about network programming, I thought SeaQuest would be on for decades.

Final Thoughts On ALF

If you don’t get it by now, ALF was one of my all time favorite shows. I think I was just at the right age for it when it first debuted in 1986. The humour and tone of the show really connected with me and it was one of those shows that I felt tapped in to my sensibilities and sense of humor.

Alf seems to never really die off as it’s been more than 30 years and it still comes up in some form so that interest hasn’t seemed to really go away. He’s still been used in commercials and the odd network show. Tina Fey tells a story about the NBC 75th Anniversary special about how hard ALF’s people were to work with. Fey said that Paul Fusco would only allow ALF to appear on the show if the puppeteers were allowed to hide from everyone else. Alf made a cameo alongside Michael Gross from Family Ties, disappeared through a riser, was stuffed in a suitcase, and immediately removed from the building.

ALF: The original primma donna…