Stupid Things That Gave Me Nightmares As A Child, #3

"We're the Puppets!" Edition

The newest installment of my new series about things I was afraid of as a child, and if they’re still scary to me now.

The Fear

I’ve had something of a vendetta against this one for quite a while. I used to fear him. Now I just hate him.

That’s right. I’m talking about this fucker right here.

I wasn’t always afraid of him. I remember watching a few episodes of the show in the early ‘90s when it was still on, and I thought he was weird, but not terrifying. My brothers even had an ALF scooter, and I would ride it sometimes. Then the show got cancelled, and I didn’t think much of him at all until a few years later, when my friend Ashley told me she’d had a nightmare about a giant monster in her bedroom.

“Oh, but it wasn’t actually a monster,” she said. “It was ALF! You know, that alien thing? Remember ALF?” Suddenly, I did, and suddenly, I was terrified of him, too. Childhood fears can be contagious. Ashley seemed less scared after telling me, as if she’d passed the fear on, as if we were in a G-rated version of The Ring or It Follows. She never mentioned him again, but ALF was in my nightmares now.

But there was more to it, I think. I was in one of my particularly anxiety-heavy phases of childhood, and once of the worst parts of anxiety is that even thinking about anxiety or times you were previously anxious, can give you anxiety. And another one of my anxiety-heavy periods of childhood, probably the first one, had happened when I was three or four… right around the time ALF was on TV. So even if I wasn’t afraid of him at the time, I tended to associate things I saw or heard at that age with fear. (I still do, to some extent: hearing songs that were popular around then can still make me a little anxious. Sorry, Bryan Adams.) My childhood subconscious couldn’t help but make ALF into a harbinger of doom.

So even though I loved The Simpsons, I ran out of the room every time before the “ALF Pogs” scene in “Bart Sells His Soul” and before his lineup appearance in The Springfield Files. (I played it a little safe on time and didn’t know how those episodes ended, for years. And Anna was terrified of Mr. Burns in alien-lookalike form, so neither of us knew.) I was incensed and horrified when someone suggested one of my favorite stuffed animals, a wolf puppet named Boris, looked a little like ALF. I once was terrified to go into a grief counselor’s office because they had an ALF doll. A counselor’s office!

I don’t think it’s so strange to be afraid of ALF, though. I know lot of people who were scared of E.T., but E.T. was way less monstrous-looking than ALF. He’s hideous! Even the alien from Mac and Me was less horrifying than ALF! I know you shouldn’t hate or fear things because they’re strange to look at, that it’s not an ugly animal’s fault if we find it ugly. But when it’s something designed by humans, for us to look at on television, to have splayed across our t-shirts and scooters? That thing should probably be somewhat pleasant to look at. Paul Fusco, the creator of ALF, allegedly didn’t like Muppets, but Jim Henson got something right with the Muppets: they’re cute. Even the creepiest Muppets, like The Count (more on him in a later edition), Sweetums, and those Yip-Yip Martian things, are still kind of cute. Muppets look alive, they have the right neotenic features that make them look like something familiar and friendly. ALF, at best, looks like what would happen if you put shark eyes on a melted dick-shaped candle left over from a bachelorette party, and then threw a bag of hair clippings on it.

Puppetry isn’t easy, and I have a lot of respect for puppeteers. I’ve even done a little puppetry myself, back in college theater. But ALF is something different. I have no respect for him, and everything I learned about him over the years just made me dislike him more. My fear of ALF has ossified into pure hatred.

Revisiting It

I did it. I watched ALF. A few episodes, actually. Watching it, I was reminded of something my stepmom always lectured me about: there’s a particularly elaborate expression I make when I see something that disgusts me. I could feel myself making that face every time ALF came on screen.

I think I have an idea of what they were going for with this show. Fish-out-of-water stories are ancient, and rude houseguest comedies are probably nearly as old: think Tartuffe, or the guys hanging around Odysseus’s house while he’s off on his Odyssey. There were also a lot of shows and movies about a rude uncle archetype in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I’d say Uncle Buck is the prime example, but ALF actually predates Uncle Buck. ALF is the houseguest who arrives, in this case from another world, behaves like a rude uncle, and won’t fucking leave.

It doesn’t quite work, though, and the pilot is ridiculous even for an ‘80s sitcom. An alien crashes into the Tanner family’s garage, and they immediately bring the alien into their house? You don’t know what kind of pathogens that thing is carrying! Willie, the dad, is thrilled to meet an alien, but it turns out the alien speaks English, walks upright, and drinks beer. How did this show not give Carl Sagan an aneurysm? Things escalate very quickly, with the mom waking up to find ALF sleeping in bed with her. That same morning the allegedly uptight Willie gets out of the shower, wet and completely nude, to find ALF sitting in the bathroom with him – and just asks ALF for a towel.

Some government officials show up, but the children are somehow already so smitten with the disgusting asshole that the parents feel protective and don’t turn him in. The Tanners never seem to address ALF’s hideousness, and they love being around him despite him actively making everybody’s lives worse. There’s also the cat thing. He eats cats! He’s constantly chasing around the family’s cat, Lucky, trying to eat it, and they act like it’s just a mild annoyance, like him leaving the toilet seat up. And let’s be real, the whole “eating cats” thing was probably just a retooled cunnilingus joke, especially considering how phallic ALF’s nose is. Austin Powers was subtler.

It’s also weird that he responds to ALF, when that’s not actually his name: “ALF” just means “Alien Life Form.” His real name is Gordon Shumway, which could actually be a good one-off joke: strange alien creature has very human, vaguely Canadian name. Or it would be, if they hadn’t already run that into the ground by making everything about Gordon/ALF incredibly human. (Well, except for the eating cats thing. But humans have done that, and still do, sometimes, in some parts of the world.) The “he’s your rude, funny uncle… but he’s an alien!” thing doesn’t work when he’s neither particularly funny nor much of an alien. ALF’s jokes are like a WASP’s impression of Borscht Belt comedy, and there are parts of the U.S. and Canada that are more distinct from each other than Earth and ALF’s planet, Melmac. By the puppeteer and creator Paul Fusco’s own admission, in this amazing Mental Floss oral history of the show, “I was very against anything sci-fi in the show. I didn’t want people to buy into anything other than ALF being real.” Then… what was the point of making him an alien? That’s a wasted opportunity right there.

Maybe the actors sensed this, because there’s a split second at the end of the pilot where Max Wright, who plays Willie, looks right at the camera, a little bemused, as if he’s asking the audience, “Why are you watching this?” This show is infamous for having a truly unhappy cast, and none of them returned for the 1996 TV movie, Project ALF. Every recurring actor has said they were glad it ended, and some have even said that they would have “gone crazy” if it had gone on another season. This is mostly because of how dangerous the set was: a stunt performer played ALF inside a suit in the first few episodes, but I guess they phased him out due to good old ‘80s downsizing, and instead, they built a bunch of trapdoors into the set so the puppeteer could play ALF wherever he needed to be. That meant cast members could, and often did, fall into the holes. Additionally, setting up shots so ALF could be moved around the set meant “twenty hours for twenty minutes of filming,” and ALF being hidden to everyone but the Tanner family meant the main cast was in every episode and never had any days off. There were a lot of dueling egos, and a lot of arguments. Max Wright (who considered himself a serious theater actor) is said to have once yelled, “Put us all on sticks here! We’re the puppets! We’re the puppets!”

So not a great experience, all around.

Aside from ALF’s general creepiness and the backstage drama, there’s nothing really scary in the show. There’s a bit of a push and pull between being slightly risque and being a wholesome family show, but for the most part, the plots tend toward the anodyne. There are some slightly funny moments in later episodes, like one where ALF joins a multi-level marketing company. And there were some great writers working on the show, like Al Jean and Mike Reiss, who went on to write some great episodes of The Simpsons and create the underrated show The Critic. There are also attempts at tackling serious issues: the producers of the show love to talk about ALF having survivor’s guilt because his planet blew up and he lived, or about the episode where ALF dates a visually impaired woman. (They don’t seem to like to talk about the episode where the 200-something year old ALF hits on on the Tanners’ teenage daughter, though. Or when the puppeteer, as ALF, made crude comments towards the actress playing the teenage daughter in real life. They have written off him saying the N-word, saying it was a reference to an LA Law episode, with additional predictable comments about how everybody’s too damn PC these days.) Apparently there was also an episode about nuclear disarmament, which ALF was apparently very much for. Someone wrote an essay on it! But even that essay ends with “So what does ALF have to teach us? Nothing really. At least, nothing that we didn’t already know.”

It was also allegedly Ronald Reagan’s favorite show in the late ‘80s, and ALF was invited to the White House. Take from that what you will.

Is it Still Scary?

I don’t know if “scary” is the word for it. “Baffling” might be better. I cannot believe this show existed. I can’t believe that it was a hit. I can’t believe that it was such a hit that it went international and there was a fucking theme park ride partly inspired by ALF in Germany. Nothing about its existence makes sense.

I especially can’t believe that no one on the show seems to be afraid of ALF. No one screams in terror when they see him, they just assume he’s “a dog,” “an aardvark,” and once or twice, “a doll.” (What the hell kind of doll would that be?) Paul Fusco has insisted that he sold the show as soon as the executive saw the ALF puppet, because the executive imagined all the merchandising he could do with him. I don’t know which is more bizarre to me, that a businessman saw this ugly thing and thought he’d sell well, or that he was right.

I wonder if this show could have been better if it were in other hands. On the one hand, you could end up with a show like Unhappily Ever After, where a rude uncle-style talking stuffed animal sidekick is explained away as a symptom of the protagonist’s schizophrenia (which is very much not how schizophrenia works). It’s basically just ALF crossed with Married with Children, and might be even worse than ALF.

On the other hand, you have the critically-acclaimed fish-out-of-water story The Shape of Water. I know The Shape of Water has myriad issues, particularly when it comes to depictions of disability. and some uncomfortable metaphors about marginalization (and there are other, more qualified writers than I have who written about those issues). But I feel that the premise of the movie, at least, makes a little more sense than ALF, because its world is consistent with its magical realism. The creature in it feels like a fully realized alien creature—not alien in the" “extraterrestrial” sense, but in the sense that he’s different, very much not of our world. When that creature eats a cat, it’s still upsetting, but feels a little more understandable, because we get that he is a wild thing that doesn’t understand our world. He understands Sally Hawkins’s character’s loneliness and affection for him, but everything else is alien to him. Their love is strange, but it is based in a fairytale-kind of reality. There was definitely a voice in the back of my head saying “I don’t know about that” when I watched it, but it was nowhere near as loud as the voice screaming “WHAT THE FUCK” the whole time I was watching ALF. I think it’s because the movie has the aesthetic and feeling of a fairy tale, rather than stubbornly insisting on realism, and it is rooted in Guillermo Del Toro’s affection for monsters. What did the creators of ALF have affection for, besides dirty jokes and merchandising?

I can’t help but hate ALF. I will say, though, that I hate him a little less now. I felt myself making the face my stepmother hates less and less as I watched more of the show. Enough exposure to him has made him less horrifying to me. Now I just hate him, the way you’d hate something unpleasant. He is no longer a harbinger of doom, no longer the monster from mine and Ashley’s nightmares. But he is going to be in my YouTube and Google search history recommendations for a long time. Eternally, the guest that won’t fucking leave.

Stuff I Did This Week: Being both a mental health activist and a former Girl Scout, I’ve partnered up with my friends at Okay to Say, and the Girl Scouts of Texas, to support a badge about mental health! I’m so excited for this, I wish it had been around when I was a Girl Scout! Teaching kids about mental health is incredibly important.

I also went on my friend Kevin T. Porter’s spin-off of his podcast Good Christian Fun, to talk about one of my favorite works of drama (or really, art in general) ever, Angels in America! I could go on and on about this play and movie, and I did.

Fake BBC Show of the Week: I Mean To Say