Alf: The Star Trek of NBC's Furry Resident Alien : How a Wisecracking Puppet Toddled Into the Hearts of Viewers

Nancy Reagan invited Alf to the White House last week to entertain at a children's Christmas party. There, Alf discovered that the President, the First Lady and his daughter Maureen are three of the millions of adult fans nationwide who have rocketed what many critics initially dismissed last season as a silly children's show into the Nielsen Top 15.

How popular is this brazen, wisecracking alien with the homeliest face on television?

"If Alf ran for President--and he's a lot like Mario Cuomo at this point," says Tom Patchett, executive producer and co-creator of the show, "I'll bet he would get over 3 million votes."

Not bad, Patchett thinks, for a big-nosed, big-eared actor from the planet Melmac--until he remembers that the last actor who ran for President made it all the way to the White House. But then Patchett finds solace in the fact that Alf is at least more telegenic than Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev: When NBC preempted "Alf" to air its exclusive interview with Gorbachev this month, the network switchboard was overrun with complaints from children, and NBC's usually laudable Monday night ratings plummeted.

In its first season, despite a massive promotion campaign that featured Alf cheering for the Red Sox in the '86 World Series, hosting "Friday Night Videos" and picking winners and losers on "NFL '86," "Alf" started slowly. CBS' "Kate & Allie" regularly crushed it in the ratings, and the show ended up a modest 31st in the season's final prime-time standings.

This season, buoyed by the success of its summer reruns and a succession of appearances on "Hollywood Squares," "Alf" has won in its Monday night time slot for more than 20 consecutive weeks, pulling NBC's "Valerie's Family," without Valerie Harper, up the ratings charts with it. It ranks 13th among the season's most popular series.

"I think more adults are giving themselves permission to like the show," Patchett says. "At first there was a resistance on the part of adults to watch something that they perceived to be either a children's show or a show with a puppet, and maybe a great number of them rejected it out of hand. Now parents are spreading the word that this is funny and hip--that you can watch 'Alf' and enjoy it."

From the beginning, the creators of Alf knew that children would love him. Kids automatically seem to adore the way he looks and the loud Catskill-comic sound and rhythm of his voice. And they are tickled whenever Alf burps or slams his hand in the refrigerator door.

The writing on "Alf" is not Shakespeare or even Woody Allen, but it's not Dr. Seuss or "Punky Brewster," either. Alf's speech is peppered with hip references to contemporary events and celebrities. One night, depressed about being left out of a family event, Alf replies to insistences that he is a part of the family: "Yeah, just like Arnold Schwarzenegger is a part of the Kennedys." (Schwarzenegger is related to the clan by marriage.) In another episode, having run away to a monastery, Alf invoked the name Cat Stevens, the one-time pop superstar who gave up music and fame to become a Muslim.

With the children instinctively hooked, Patchett says his challenge was to attract at least part of the same sophisticated audience that had gravitated to his earlier work with his former partner Jay Tarses (creator of "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" and "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd") on the original "Bob Newhart Show," "The Tony Randall Show" and "Buffalo Bill." But how could Patchett hope to do that by moving from a show like "Buffalo Bill"--a caustic, often offensive series with a malicious talk-show host at its center--to this playful sitcom about a lovable alien that is generally, above all else, sweet and warmhearted?

"I swear I haven't clicked into a new mentality except insofar that we have an audience that likes the show, and maybe in that sense I'm less willing to offend them--because, God knows, in the past the floodgates would open and we'd storm right through."

Alf's own sense of humor is really quite juvenile. He burps, dresses up in women's jewelry and laughs at his own inane jokes. But he is also outspoken, uninhibited and unencumbered by normal human rules of etiquette and conversation. The adorable alien exposes the foibles and absurdities of suburban living, and it's his fundamental honesty and the simple outrageousness of Alf's adopted family--four otherwise sane and exceedingly normal human beings--actually carrying on regular human conversations with him, Patchett says, that has charmed the adult audience as well as the children.

"He says what we all are thinking in the back of our minds but are always afraid to say out loud," says Paul Fusco, the show's producer and the man who created Alf. "And it's a novel idea. People always say, 'Where are the new shows?' Well, last year we gave them an original series that's not a cop show or a basic sitcom, and the large audience is our reward for doing that."

Fusco, a former high school teacher who previously produced several children's specials for PBS, created Alf in 1982 but had trouble getting a deal off the ground. He finally took the character to Patchett, who, after the initial embarrassment of talking eye to eye with the furry creature, was soon laughing out loud.

"It's hard to fight off your natural instinct, and this just happened to hit me as a chance to be hip and yet maybe be able to stay on the air," Patchett remembers.

Fusco guards the secret of how Alf walks and talks and moves around a desk or a television set like a magician refusing to reveal the secret of his magic tricks. When Alf walks, he looks like a 3-year-old in a bear costume toddling down the hallway. When he sits around spouting his brash opinions like a teen-age Archie Bunker, it looks as if he could have several human hands stuck up his backside, mechanically moving his mouth, arms and body.

His voice, a low, zany baritone, sounds vaguely familiar. But Fusco insists that many people believe in Alf just as they believe in Santa Claus, and he is not about to spoil the illusion.

"So many people want to believe he's real," Fusco says. "Alf is in fact very real to me. He has his own dressing room. He speaks for himself. I prefer to preserve that. When you know how it's done, it's just not as fascinating anymore."

Alf is so fascinating and so realistic, in fact, that he gets invited to birthday parties nearly every day. And mothers have told cast members that their children cry every Monday night when "Alf" ends. Though they realize that television shows, no matter how popular, don't last forever, Patchett and Fusco are convinced that their character is destined to survive far beyond his present incarnation.

"When the show ends," Fusco says, "I suppose Alf could always become the center square on 'Hollywood Squares.' "

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