It came from outer space with an arsenal of put-downs and a craving for cat. The strange being frequently enjoyed a spin in the dryer, burped in three languages, and all in all was a more intrusive houseguest than Kato Kaelin. But instead of being revolted by the gruff extraterrestrial when he crash-landed on NBC’s schedule on Sept. 22, 1986, America quickly embraced the outspoken fur ball — better known as ALF — and made him into one of television’s biggest cult phenomena.
Debuting during the Bill Cosby-infused, hey-hey-heyday of the family sitcom, ALF stood out in a crowded genre. ALF — short for Alien Life Form — was a 229-year-old from Melmac, a strange planet where the national pastime is bouillabaisseball and haute cuisine is cat à l’orange. Unable to repair his spaceship after it careened into the garage of the unassuming Tanner family, ALF fell under the reluctant aegis of punching-bag patriarch Willie (played by Max Wright) and immediately unveiled a penchant for observational humor. (”I have dandruff older than your planet,” went a typical gag line.)
Not surprisingly, when stand-up comic Paul Fusco and veteran TV producer Tom Patchett presented the sitcom’s far-out premise to NBC president Brandon Tartikoff in February 1986, the network chief’s response was lukewarm. ”He had no idea what we were talking about,” says Fusco, who also voiced ALF. ”So I said, ‘Before you pass, just meet him.’ And I brought ALF out of this black garbage bag. He’s sitting there staring at Brandon Tartikoff. [Then] ALF picked his nose and wiped it on Tartikoff’s jacket. That broke the ice.”
Tartikoff would soon be glad the puppet couldn’t find a hankie: The show blew into the top 10 in its second season, spawned two hit Saturday- morning cartoons, and brought in millions of dollars from ALF-related merchandise (including an ALF car air freshener). The jokester sprang up on Larry King Live, in the Rose Bowl parade, as the center square on Hollywood Squares, even at the White House. Says Fusco: ”President Reagan was a big fan. He requested ALF’s presence at their Christmas party.”
Unfortunately, the ALF rocket fell to earth quickly. By its fourth year, with the novelty of the concept wearing thin and the show flagging creatively, ratings began to fall. Once the season ended, NBC canceled the series to make room for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
True to nature, however, ALF didn’t quietly fade away. In 1996, ABC aired a two-hour movie, Project: ALF, and most recently he was seen on an episode of UPN’s Love Boat: The Next Wave. And the Odyssey Channel is rerunning the show’s 102 original episodes. Fusco says he is in negotiations with a cable channel about developing a ”bizarre talk show” to be helmed by the puppet. As ALF himself would say: ”Ha! I kill me.”
Time Capsule / Sept. 22, 1986
AT THE MOVIES, even though it’s been playing for nearly five months, Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, jets back into the No. 1 spot, beating out the previous week’s champ, Stand by Me. IN MUSIC, Huey Lewis & the News’ ”Stuck With You” is the top pop single. IN BOOKSTORES, Fatherhood, Bill Cosby’s musings on the trials of family life, is the best-selling nonfiction book. AND IN THE NEWS, as awareness of the disease grows, colleges around the U.S. try to teach students about the risks of AIDS.