Welcome to the July installment of LRM’s Retro-Specs! The 80s brings us our share of awesome aliens. Of course there is E.T., Howard the Duck, Predator, Alien just to name a few across different genres. Cartoons have a host of alien-centric heroes and villains including ThunderCats, Silver Hawks, Voltron and many more. However, one of the best aliens from the 80s covers different platforms from the TV show to animated series and toys. Let’s take a look back at everyone’s favorite 80s alien: ALF!
Lovable Alien Life Form
Most aliens of the 80s take on the mysterious, dangerous threat role. At least in a majority of the films. In cartoons, the primary alien format explores the archetype of good vs. evil stance. The loveable alien route is not new when ALF premiers in September of 1986. E.T. came out in 1982, and we all know the heartwarming story of a boy and his alien. Howard the Duck comes out in 1986 as well also using the friendly alien approach. However, it is not a way that was explored as much at the time. Especially in television.
The concept is basic for sitcoms at the time using a “typical” middle-class family. However, the twist is thrown in when ALF crash lands into the Tanner family garage. The father, Willie (played by Max Wright), is a social worker, but has a hobby of working with radio software out of the family garage. When ALF has to crash land, he connects to signals from Willie’s radio equipment. The rest of the family consist of the mother, Kate (played by Anne Schedeen) and two kids Lynn (Andrea Elsen) and Brian (Benji Gregory).
What makes the series is ALF’s, whose real name is Gordon Shumway, interactions with the family. The most notable are definitely with Willie. The rest of the family adore ALF, but he and Willie are constantly at comedic odds, yet they do care for each other. A majority of the episodes revolve around how to hide ALF so the government does not get him. That and also trying to hide him from the nosey neighbor, Mrs. Ochmonek (Liz Sheriden). She epitomizes everyone’s fear of having THAT type of neighbor.
It also does not help that while ALF knows he needs to hide, he also does what he wants. Such as ordering a pizza while Mrs. Ochmonek is at the house babysitting Brian. I cannot leave out another crucial cast member: Lucky the cat. The irony is in the name as ALF is constantly having to find the self-control to not eat the poor feline. I am not sure how I overlooked ALF constantly trying to eat Lucky when I was a kid. More than likely due to the constant comedy the show provides.
ALF is played by Michu Meszaros with voice actor Paul Fusco. The best part about ALF is his distinct voice and dry sense of humor. If were to play a sound clip of his voice, I could bet that most 80s kids would know exactly who it was. The show works because of the cast and the lovability factor of ALF. You can’t help but put yourself in the shoes of Lynn or Brian wanting to care for the charismatic alien.
Willie and ALF are constantly looking for ways to fix his ship so he can go back home. Not bad for a social worker and a hobby of radios, but hey, it’s 80s TV. You want ALF to be able to be back with his family on his home planet, but want him to stay with the Tanners as well. This investment in the character, the different approach for the time, and the comedy is what makes this show so great!
Here is something that I honestly did not remember. At the end of Season 4, the series ends on a cliffhanger. The title of the final episode is “Consider Me Gone”. At the time, a Season 5 is planned and thought to happen, which is why the cliffhanger is used. However, the show ends up being canceled. With fans wanting some type of resolution, a made-for-tv film known as Project ALF gets the go-ahead. Unfortunately, it leaves fans even more disappointed than before. Why?
Well to start, it airs in February of 1996. That’s six years after its cancelation. Also, the Tanner family is not present. How in the world could you leave out the family? The Tanners and ALF are the glue of the entire series! The premise is that the Alien Task Force capture and detain ALF. While he is not experimented on, he does fine in captivity. The Tanners are mentioned to be relocated to by a protection program in Iceland, but that’s about it. Of course on official of the Task Force wants to destroy ALF, but after the plan is found out, ALF is saved and becomes a space ambassador for Earth. However, the brief nod to the Tanners is the only mention of the family, which leaves fans extremely upset.
ALF The Animated Series
In typical 80s fashion, ALF gains an eventual animated series, toys, and tie-ins. In a day when we see successful shows have numerous seasons, it’s interesting to me to look back at the 80s and see programs that seemed successful only have a handful of seasons. For instance, ALF has four seasons running from 1986-1990. In contras, its animated series (which was fine, but not nearly as good as the TV show) is able to get two season from 1987-1988. Still surprising when we see many series today get closer to the 10 season mark.
The concept of ALF: The Animated Series is not bad. The live-action ALF starts and ends each episode in a story-teller approach. In between the live-action points is when the cartoon takes over. It works as a prequel and covers ALF’s time on Melmac before it is destroyed. Viewers get to see ALF’s life, friends, family, and his girlfriend, Rhonda.
There is a second animated series that comes out known as ALF Tales. The series also gets two seasons from 1988-1990. It is mainly ALF and his friends redoing fairy tales. While the cartoons are fine, and did give some fun, interesting background on the lovable alien, they are not nearly as good as the show. From the poor reception of Project ALF and the decent reception to the cartoon, individuals can see that the key to success is not only ALF, but the interactions with the Tanner family.
Merchandise and Tie-Ins
In the 80s, if there is a show and cartoon you know merchandise and tie-ins will follow. In 1987, Coleco release an ALF toy line that connects to the cartoon. While the specific toy line does not branch far from this series, the merchandise is where ALF excels. The main one I remember is the 1986 ALF plush doll. My sister has this and I remember others having it as well. You could even move his coif of hair on top of his head. The plush doll even makes an appearance in an episode of The Big Bang Theory!
Another piece of ALF merchandise that some may not remember is the watch. My sister and I both had one of these. It looks a little My Pet Monster-ish (the character may get their own Retro-Specs love), but you look awesome with it on none-the-less. Nothing like having this ball of fur of a watch strapped on your wrist on the playground in the middle of summer. Throw in lunchboxes, pencil toppers, shirts, etc., there is no shortage of ALF merchandise! Marvel even produces 50 ALF comic books, three annuals, three specials, a magazine and mini-comic.
There is also a Burger King tie-in during 1988. It’s right in time for BK as they try a nerdy character named Herb for promoting their products. It bombs, but they latch on the the ALF tie-in, which saves their blushes. A report from the Sun Sentinel suggests what not only makes the show a hit, but the tie-in for Burger King:
“Children just go bonkers over him, and adults find his humor interesting. It was a way to reach two segments of Burger King’s target population.”
To highlight the popularity of the show, they go on to state that more individuals knew who ALF was over the presidential candidate Michael Dukakis at the time! ALF for President! Anyways, there are two lines of toys for Burger King. The first are basic, but have fun small toys, jokes, riddles, a magnet, and doorknob placard. The BEST is their second line, which my sister and I have. If there is a Whopper, or larger sandwich item purchased, for an added $2.99 you can own one of four 12-inch puppets!
The four consist of: Rock Star, Chef, Baseball Player, and Beachcomber ALF. What a smart movie. The smaller toys are in the kid’s meals. However, if you want the puppet a larger sandwich needs to be purchased for a reduced puppet price. Get the kids to nag their parents for them and the parents in turn buy food. My sister and I definitely did this which is how we have all four! A record (that’s right, a record) comes with each character that goes along with their different theme.
While Burger King still lags behind McDonalds, this drastically helps their sales. It is also a smart move as the 18-inch plush ALF doll retails for around $35 at the time. This is a more affordable, and accessibly way to have an ALF figure.
In the age of nostalgia the question always surrounds reboots. Back in 2018 there is discussion of ALF coming back to the small screen. WBTV was to looking to bring the series back, however it did not seem to get beyond the search for a writer. Even though the show has been off the air since 1990, ALF still has lasting power.
As a pop culture reference he appears in shows such as Family Guy, Simpsons, Guardians of the Galaxy, and more. The strength the character has in the 80s, and the nostalgic references through fairly recent shows could bode well for a possible revival. Although it’s not looking likely at the moment.
Us kids of the 80s and 90s would possibly like it from the nostalgic aspect while younger kids could gravitate towards it as we did during its initial release. One thing is for sure though, ALF needs the Tanners in some form to be successful again. Maybe bringing back Lynn and Brian? The mainstays of the cast are still alive, aside from the great Max Wright unfortunately. Nevertheless, I say bring back the best Alien Life Form from the 80s!
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Do you remember ALF? Were you a fan of the show, or cartoon? Did you have the plush doll or any of the Burger King puppets/toys? If you miss ALF, episodes can be found on the Roku Channel and Amazon Prime. Leave your thoughts in the usual spot, and thanks for reading!