March 16, 2018 | by James Greene, Jr.
ALF mania — did it exist in the United States? Perhaps at a DEFCON 4 level. Children adored this wise-cracking and dangerously hirsute alien but his NBC sitcom (b. 1986, d. 1990) never garnered ratings comparable to that of network jewels like “Cheers” or “Cosby.” Annual Nielsen roundups that include data from competing networks paint an even grimmer picture; “ALF” was routinely trounced by “Murder, She Wrote,” “Who’s the Boss?,” and “60 Minutes.” This could explain why NBC famously reneged on its promise for a fifth season of “ALF,” a decision that came after the season four cliffhanger in which it appears ALF has finally been captured by our government’s Alien Task Force. We never saw the Tanner family again and “ALF” quickly became shorthand for obnoxious sitcom bullshit.
This is reflected in ALF’s North American discography. Yes, our fur-laden Belushi disciple cut a few singles for the U.S. market, but quality and distribution was poor. In fact, four of them were premium flexi-discs included with ALF hand puppets that were sold exclusively at Burger King in 1988. Not that songs like “Melmac Rock” (a paper-thin Springsteen rip off) or “Melmac Girls” (a Beach Boys pastiche that makes “Kokomo” look like “I Am the Walrus”) deserve pro treatment; they sound like they were written and recorded at a Burger King. At least “Take Me ALF to the Ball Game” doesn’t infringe on the Tin Pan Alley classic as it outlines the rules of bouillabaseball, the fish-based version of the sport played on ALF’s home planet. Meanwhile, “Cooking with ALF” finds this shameless extra terrestrial rapping about his favorite recipes (most of which are nonsensical or gross). “Grab a spatula off the shelf / Come on, mix it up / You’re cookin’ with ALF!”
Making slightly more sense, from the same year, is the 45 RPM release of “You’re the One Who Is Out of This World” from the Alien Productions record label. “You’re the One…” is a totally forgettable rock song ALF writes for his adopted sister Lynn Tanner in episode eight of season one (the song was actually written by composer Alf Clausen and “ALF” producer Tom Patchett). The b-side is the “ALF” theme (penned by Clausen & Tom Kramer), that bouncy piece of contemporary jazz that always signaled 30 minutes of puppet-based lunacy on Monday night.
Alas, “You’re the One…” sank like a rock here in the land of the free, unable to compete with the likes of Poison and Madonna. When it comes to ALF-related music overseas, however, the story is quite different. In January 1987 the Netherlands premiered "ALF" and it caused enough of a ruckus to prompt BMG and RCA to co-distribute the novelty single "Stuck on Earth." The brainchild of Dutch club figure Ben Liebrand, "Stuck on Earth" cuts together pieces of dialogue from the series and more of ALF's astoundingly awful hip-hop skills over a dreamy electro soundscape. Despite wildly embarrassing lyrics ("Well, my name is ALF and I'm stuck on Earth / I can't get back to my place of birth!") the "Stuck on Earth" single shot up the charts in several English-speaking countries familiar with our American puppet. Would you believe it went to fucking #3 in New Zealand? “Stuck on Earth” only went to #4 in Ben Liebrand’s home country!
Like David Hasselhoff, Heineken, and lederhosen before him, ALF experienced some of his greatest popularity in Germany when the sitcom began airing there in 1988. Germans were so thirsty for ALF right off the bat they spun him and the Tanners into a 43 episode radio show the year the series debuted. Even more incredible: ALF’s German voice actor Tommi Piper released two whole albums where he sings in character as ALF. The first one, 1989’s Alles Paradiso! (All Paradise!), immediately cuts to the chase with the hilarious song “ALF Wird Unser Bundeskanzler” (“ALF Becomes Our Federal Chancellor”).
The fact Tommi Piper is not only credited but pictured on the jacket of 1989’s Alles Paradiso! is something of a miracle. ALF’s creator Paul Fusco has gone to great lengths over the years to make it appear that ALF is actually an alien. Whereas Jim Henson would often stand alongside his Muppets and not worry too much about people seeing how they were operated, Fusco only wants to exist as ALF (to the noted chagrin of his co-stars; everybody knows by this point that the production of “ALF” was fraught with tension, and Tina Fey singled ALF out as the biggest headache she had while producing NBC’s 75th anniversary special). And so the fictional space creature is the only performer credited on those Burger King flexis, as well as the other North American 45. Perhaps artistic laws are different in Germany. Perhaps Tommi Piper is excellent at negotiating a deal. Whatever the case, Piper scored big.
“ALF Wird Unser Bundeskanzler” nakedly rips off Falco’s “Rock Me, Amadeus” as it charts this hairball’s rise through the German political system — but hey, at least they substitute Beethoven for Mozart in this tribute. The commanding opening notes of Ludwig van B’s 5th symphony are worked in between verses and choruses; occasionally, ALF laughs along in perfect rhythm. Of course, to a foreign ear, Tommi Piper’s take on Melmac’s forgotten son might sound completely outrageous. Piper plays ALF as a baritone with flawless enunciation. It’s some departure from Fusco’s original English voice for the character, which is up a register or two and more relaxed. Yes, German ALF owes more to Heino, and Heino is probably someone you’ll be thinking of as Alles Paradiso! bounces between period synth pop and traditional schlager.
Piper lets his hair down a little on “Leben Ist Gold” (“Love Is Gold”), a tender ballad you’d never attribute to a naked cat-hunting freeloader from the cosmos. “ALF’s Geburstags Boogie Woogie” (“ALF’s Birthday Boogie Woogie”), on the other hand, is pure ALF, right down to the sounds of breaking glass and joyful scatting. There is also an emotional new wave tribute to ALF’s gal pal Rhonda, who we all remember from the annals of ALF lore.
Piper’s second entry as ALF, Jetzt Sing’ Ich! (Now I Sing!), came in 1991, one year after German reunification. What better way to celebrate the fall of Communism than ALF croaking out covers of Prince’s “Kiss” and Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy?” He also tackles Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” because the CD would not be sufficiently 1991 otherwise. Meanwhile, on the cover, ALF is rendered as Elvis during the Vegas years, right down to the gaudy jewelry. Please note: Neither Alles Paradiso! or Jetzt Sing’ Ich! contain “Frohfest,” which Piper / ALF released as a single in 1988. Come on, Polydor, where are those remastered and expanded editions?
Please also note: ALF isn’t the only notable North American dubbing role Tommi Piper has on his résumé. He also provided the German voices for Michael Landon’s character on “Bonanza,” Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs, ALF’s rival Tony Danza on “Who’s the Boss?” and Angels In the Outfield, and Harvey Fierstein in Independence Day. So maybe you can listen to the ALF records and imagine it’s Nick Nolte being elected Germany’s Federal Chancellor.
ALF’s discography stops there (unless you count a few German pop compilations that bear only his image, like ALF’s Super Hitparade) but as previously noted his sitcom made it to plenty of other regions — the UK, France, Sweden, Brazil, Serbia, Russia, Bulgaria, Estonia. And Germany’s love affair with ALF lasted into well the 1990s. When Paul Fusco put together the reboot attempt Project ALF in 1996, Americans only saw it on tv (it aired on a Saturday night against “Touched by an Angel” and a rerun of “America’s Most Wanted”). In Germany, Project ALF was retitled ALF: Der Film and released theatrically.
Imagine paying movie theater prices to see a puppet do Milton Berle jokes and try to eat cats. Hey, if you’re German, you don’t have to imagine. It was reality.