June 8th, 2012 / 3:36 pm

The Alfinian Way: Nuclear War and the Thoughts of an Alien

With mounting international debate about Iran’s nuclear weapons capability and potential military action against them, I am reminded of an episode of the TV show Alf. Aired on October 13, 1986, “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” the series’ fourth episode, follows the furry, wisecracking alien as he tries to convince the President of the United States to abandon the country’s nuclear weapons program in order to save planet Earth from complete annihilation.

In the opening scene, Alf sits in the living room of the suburban house where he lives, talking to a radio show host on the phone. “I’ve got the solution to this nuclear bomb thing,” Alf says. “Get rid of ’em! They’re dangerous.” The studio audience laughs, but the message is clear: Alf’s right. Nuclear weapons are potentially self-destructive. The episode’s other lesson is equally apparent: the issue isn’t that simple.

This is heady stuff for what was otherwise a lighthearted domestic comedy. For those of us of age in the late-1980s, Alf was a strong pop culture presence that penetrated your field of vision whether you watched the show or not. In real life, ALF is an acronym for everything from the American Leadership Forum (“dedicated to joining and strengthening leaders for the public good”) to the American Liver Foundation. In Swedish and Danish, alf is also the plural form of ‘elf.’ In the TV show’s case, Alf stands for “Alien Life Form.” It’s the nickname that the sarcastic creature’s host family gave him in the first episode. His real name is Gordon Shumway.

The sitcom’s storyline is as comic as Alf’s surname. After Shumway follows a strong radio signal, his spaceship crash-lands in a garage in greater Los Angeles. The garage belongs to the Tanners, a middle class, suburban family with two kids and a cat. Once they figure out what he is and that he’s harmless, they realize that the government would likely detain him if they discovered his existence, so the Tanners shelter Alf in their house. Despite his behavior, he quickly becomes an integral part of the family. Alf is a comedy of errors and clashing cultures, and much of its drama and one-liners derive from the alien’s fish-out-of-water situation; he’s out of his element and trying to adapt. They also derive fromhis personality. He’s acerbic and messy, demanding and impatient.

While talking to the radio host during the episode’s opening scene, the Tanner’s teenage daughter, Lynn, complains to her parents that Alf uses the phone too much. “I have got to get my own phone,” she says. This was the era of landlines.

“Hey,” Alf tells her, “cut me a break. I’m tryin’ to save your planet from nuclear devastation, alright?”

Lynn’s father Willy suggests call-waiting. “Call waiting won’t help,” Lynn tells him. “I need my own phone line. Cathy McDermott has her own phone line, and her family doesn’t even have an alien!” Willy gets big laughs when he says, “Would they like one?” It’s the sort of playful antagonism that earned Alf legions of fans.

When he isn’t messing things up and playing jokes on his housemates, Alf is either trying to eat their pet cat Lucky or imparting bits of wisdom. He teaches the Tanner boy, Brian, about space for a school science project. He saves the family’s nosey neighbor from embarrassment during her segment on live television. He even has regular encounters with a blind woman who feels his fur but apparently never figures out that he’s something more than a witty conversationalist. And when he foresees Earth’s potential fate in Episode 4, he calls the President to change it. Alf is an expert. His home planet Melmac was destroyed during a nuclear war, leaving him and a few surviving Melmacians homeless and scattered throughout the galaxy.

After his call to the talk show, Alf and Willy discuss the phone problem in the garage. Alf lives back there, hidden from view. When he tells Willy about his plan to call Air Force One to continue his anti-nuclear weapons crusade, Willy objects. “Willy, I’ve been through one nuclear disaster already,” Alf says. “It’s no picnic.”

This detail is news to Willy. “Nuclear,” he says, “you mean that’s how your planet exploded?”

“No,” Alf says, “we all plugged our hair dryers in at the same time.”

Once Willy leaves the garage, Alf unscrambles the radio signal and contacts Air Force One. A member of the President’s security staff answers. “Alf?” he says. “Alf who?” The man cups the phone and turns to another man in a suit, one of the President’s handlers. “Mister Defoe, it’s somebody calling himself Alf, and he wants to talk to the President.”

Defoe takes the call. He says the President is unavailable. “It’s an airplane,” Alf says. “How far can he be?”

Defoe says, “He’s indisposed.”

But Alf, as everyone who expects, is insistent. His voice bears the hint of a Philly-type accent, tough and headstrong and smart-alecky. “Tell him it’s about the bombs,” he says.

Defoe says, “Bombs, sir? What bombs would those be?”

“The bombs we’re thinking about using. Listen, tell the President I’m serious, and time is running out. I’d like to settle this before anybody pushes any buttons.”

The men trace the call to the Tanner’s house, so Defoe gets a clear statement on record. “Mister, about those bombs. Should I interpret this as a threat?”

“Of course it’s a threat,” Alf says. “What kinda question is that?”

Rather than a noble charge to reduce nuclear armament, the handler mistakes Alf’s call as one from a terrorist organization threatening to bomb the US. After he contacts the FBI, the Feds swoop down on the Tanner house and arrest Willy.

As Mrs. Tanner tells her husband through the bars of his jail cell, “Maybe it was wrong of Alf to call the President. Okay, it was wrong. But you know, you have to respect him for the way he feels about nuclear war.”

Naturally, Alf makes a second call to Air Force One, gets patched in to the President, and tells him, “Listen, I know you’re a busy guy, so I’ll make this brief…All I wanted to talk to you about were your bombs.” Judging from his voice and a joke about making bad movies, the President here is supposed to be Ronald Reagan, yet he listens to Alf’s message: “We’ve only got one planet, so why don’t you and the Ruskie ease up a little, would’ya?” As a closer, Alf tells him: “Hope I haven’t oversimplified the problem.” Which, of course, he has, but that’s part of the appeal. Alf’s ideas feed in to our own genetically imprinted survival instinct, our desire for understanding, and our wishful thinking: why can’t nuclear disarmament be as simple as our simple desire to live out our short, troubled lives in peace? Why can’t all people, like the Tanners did to Alf, be willing to open their hearts to strangers, find the beauty in a creature so different from themselves, and shelter those in danger? At the end of Episode 4, the FBI drops the charges against Willy and sets him free. Hopefully the more discerning viewer recognizes in the agents’ expressive faces the fundamental difference between the people at the top of the governmental food chain and the people at the bottom, sees that a country, like Iran and America, is more than its military practices and public policies, it’s its citizens.

So what does Alf have to teach us? Nothing really. At least, nothing that we didn’t already know.
The lesson here is mostly one of perspective. Twenty-six years after this episode debuted, nuclear
weapons still pose a threat to life on Earth, possibly more so than ever as their portability and
accessibility continually increase. The other perspective is more insular: even though I’m thirty-six, I still occasionally see the world like an eleven year old.


Aaron Gilbreath has written essays for Black Warrior Review, Tin House, Hotel Amerika, and Yeti.

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  1. Michael Jacobson
  2. Anonymous

      Alf is my twinsie.