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Coneheads

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

July 23rd, 1993

Dan Aykroyd was the mastermind behind two of the most beloved comedies of the ’80s: THE BLUES BROTHERS (possibly my favorite comedy of all time) and GHOSTBUSTERS (male version), so what could be more of a no-brainer than to have him turn his most famous Saturday Night Live sketch into a movie?

Like GHOSTBUSTERS, CONEHEADS teams him with an ensemble of great comedic talents from SNL and elsewhere to build on a comedy premise about an intersection between the regular world and a fantastical one. Instead of a supernatural element it’s an extra-terrestrial one. The Coneheads are an alien couple who crash their Remulakian space cruiser outside New York and while waiting for extraction decide to live as earthlings, first in a motorhome, then in the New Jersey suburbs, raising a daughter, owning a house, golfing, etc.

Again like GHOSTBUSTERS this means there are some fun (but not groundbreaking this time) FX sequences (mostly in the third act, set on Remulak). A major difference is that Aykroyd is less of a straight man than usual. He acts serious, and I guess speaking monotonously and walking funny aren’t new to him, but his inappropriate behavior is the force of chaos in most scenes – chewing a condom as bubble gum, biting off his daughter’s umbilical cord, eating a roll of toilet paper.

The Coneheads don’t seem to know they’re not fitting in, which is where most of the jokes come in. Unfortunately very few make me laugh. The most successful subplot is teenage Connie Conehead (Michelle Burke, DAZED AND CONFUSED), who grew up on Earth and seems normal, trying to navigate high school love. That’s hard enough even without your sex organs on your head. Chris Farley is the funniest part of the movie as her handsy but well-meaning boyfriend. This was around the time he was breaking out on SNL with The Chris Farley Show, and there’s some overlap with this character, his nervous laughter and angrily hitting himself in the forehead in disgust at his mistakes.

The movie’s cleverest conceit is that the Coneheads, like so many Americans, are immigrants. As in the sketches they claim to be from France, a lie that doesn’t completely differ from the reality that they’ve adopted the culture and lifestyle of their new home. I think they feel the lure of the American dream immediately. When they finish building the communication device to phone home, Beldar smokes an entire pack of cigarettes (at once) before using it. He’s hesitant to give this up. And while waiting many years for an eventual return they really become Americans. As aliens in hiding they may have done it under false pretenses, but they worked a hell of alot harder to be American than I had to. They earned it. I was just born.

So the bad guy is uptight INS dickwad Gorman Seedling (Michael McKean, 1941, RADIOLAND MURDERS), who gets on their trail because he’s been trying to catch a series of undocumented immigrants using this same dead man’s social security number. Once he realizes they might be from outer space he determines that “if they’re just visiting” they’re under Air Force jurisdiction, “but the moment they try to work here – they’re mine!”

This is another parallel to GHOSTBUSTERS, where an EPA guy is supposed to be an asshole for caring about their unlicensed nuclear reactor. But this bureaucrat actually is wrong, because why is it so important to him to stop a nice family from living here? This is a guy who we see heading off a boat of Cuban refugees and telling them “You have no job skills, you will be a drain on our economy.” So CONEHEADS is a relic from when it was almost universally agreed that only a crazy asshole would be mean to immigrants. Seedling even says, after presenting his model of an invisible fence that would electrocute “illegals,” that “everyone else thinks I’m crazy, that I’m a mental case.” These days he would be given equal time as one side of the argument on cable news.

Seedling is a true believer, defiantly declaring “I will not apologize for doing my job! The United States of America will no longer solve the employment problems of the rest of the universe!” when trotted out as a slave to the High Master on Remulak.

Back on Remulak, Beldar both suffers and triumphs because of his Americanization. Though he manages to impress his boss, he’s considered a traitor for having his teeth bonded to fit in down here. But his punishment is to fight a Rancor-esque monster called a Garthok, and he defeats him by recreating his golf swing with a rock.

If, like me, you don’t laugh much at this movie, at least you can pass the time by noting the ridiculous number of significant comedy people who show up in bit parts. In case you think I’m exaggerating, I’m gonna list them all: Michael Richards as a hotel clerk, Sinbad and Eddie Griffin as guys at the pawn shop where Beldar works, Phil Hartman as their contact back on Remulak, Adam Sandler as the guy who hooks up their fake social security numbers, David Spade as a douche at the immigration department, John Lovitz as the dentist who caps Beldar’s sharp teeth, Drew Carey as a passenger when Beldar is driving a cab, Jason Alexander as their next door neighbor, Kevin Nealon as a senator, Jan Hooks as Beldar’s driving student who makes a pass at him, Tom Arnold as a guy at the golf club, Ellen Degeneres as Connie’s swim coach, Julia Sweeney as a parent in the stands at the swim meet, Garrett Morris as the pilot who picks them up from Earth, Tom Davis, Dave Thomas, Larraine Newman (original Connie in the SNL sketches) and Tim Meadows play Coneheads on Remulak. Also, by the way, Joey Lauren Adams and Parker Posey show up, and Nils Allen Stewart (a stuntman who starred in THE JESSE VENTURA STORY and was one of the oil workers in the ON DEADLY GROUND bar fight) plays a conehead guard.

Anyway, Beldar re-enacts the beginning of RETURN OF THE JEDI as the climax.

Aykroyd gotta be Aykroyd, so he claims the characters were partially inspired by the statues on Easter Island. Maybe their mystical origins explain why, despite a fairly one-note premise, the Coneheads have persisted in pop culture longer than almost any characters from those early SNL seasons. They debuted on January 15, 1977, the 11th episode of the second season, which was hosted by Ralph Nader (!) with musical guest George Benson. This was also Bill Murray’s first episode, replacing John Belushi, who was hospitalized after jumping off the stage during a college lecture and tearing the cartilage in his knee. There were 11 total Coneheads skits between then and February, 1979.

In 1983, Aykroyd, Curtin and Newman voiced the characters for an animated TV special by Rankin-Bass (the studio behind Frosty the Snowman). It has a fake audience laughing and applauding and a funky synth and bass score by Bernard Hoffer (THE SINS OF DORIAN GRAY, Thundercats).

Written by (Senator) Al Franken & Tom Davis and designed by famed movie poster cartoonist Jack Davis, The Coneheads is basically a rough draft of the movie. Beldar and Prymaat are sent by their leader Highmaster (debuting here I think, and seemingly voiced by Franken?) to earth in a coneheaded (but much bigger inside) spacecraft that crashes in the water near New York City, where they use their Remulakian knowledge to get a job repairing TVs. Their boss Louie, an old man working out of a motor home, welcomes them as immigrants and gives them the idea to claim they’re from France. Then Prymaat tells Beldar that “I am with cone,” and soon they have a house in the suburbs to raise their teenage daughter Connie, who tries to fit in on Earth and dates a dude named Ronnie. She just wants “to groove and hang out,” but her parents are waiting for a star cruiser to bring them back to Remulak.

At the end, Highmaster informs them that “due to cutbacks” they’re not going to be rescued any time soon. It must’ve been meant as a pilot for a series – prime time, judging by all the jokes about “senso-ring” sex devices. But obviously it wasn’t picked up. I imagine the unfulfilled potential of that idea stuck in Aykroyd’s mind and, in the next decade, grew into the movie.

Tom Davis returned to write the movie with Aykroyd, and also more recent SNL writers Bonnie & Terry Turner (FUNLAND, WAYNE’S WORLD, THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE, TOMMY BOY). I’m sure this occurred to everybody else before it did to me, but the Turners turned almost the same premise into their sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun, which even featured Curtin (but not as an alien).

CONEHEADS director Steve Barron had mostly done music videos, including Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Madonna’s “Burning Up,” but also many by Toto, Bryan Adams, ZZ Top and A-ha. An episode of Jim Henson’s Storytellers began and relationship with the Jim Henson workshop, so it’s too bad he didn’t get some puppets in this one. In the feature film world he’d done ELECTRIC DREAMS and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, and after this he did THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO.

I think what all of these have in common is a fun sense of visual imagination, but from where I’m standing a pretty cheesy sense of design and humor. I think Barron is a better choice for visually illustrating short musical clips than for telling long form stories and selling jokes.

By the way, the soundtrack includes new songs by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Digable Planets, R.E.M. and Slash. In perhaps an attempt to mimic WAYNE’S WORLD’s use of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” they play Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and Beldar later (for reasons I don’t understand) sings it while fighting the monster. On the end credits Beldar and Prymaat sing a version called “Conehead Love.” I don’t really get it.

Yes, CONEHEADS (which really seems to me like it should be THE CONEHEADS so that it’s the assumed last name of the family, but I’m not in charge here) is different from the other movies in the Summer Flings series so far because it’s a straight up comedy. But I really think Paramount meant for it to be a big deal. It had a considerably bigger budget than WAYNE’S WORLD or GHOSTBUSTERS 2 and, come to think of it, used a minimalistic-icon type poster in the tradition of DICK TRACY and BATMAN.

And would you be surprised to learn that, like every other movie in the series so far except HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, they sold toys?

No shit – Playmates, the same company that made the hideous DICK TRACY figures (and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before that) made a more realistically proportioned line with six figures: Beldar and Prymaat versions in “Flight Uniform” and “Suburban Uniform,” Connie, and Agent Seedling. He has a windblown tie and trenchcoat and comes with a gun, a megaphone and the collar that makes him a slave to Remulak. I bet Trump and Joe Arpaio have him on their desks, as he is one of cinema’s greatest immigrant-harassers.

Please note that Connie’s stars and stripes jacket supports my interpretation of her as a first-generation American.

I have also found evidence of collector’s cards:

and this puzzle:

And a 4-issue Marvel Comics mini-series (apparently original stories, not an adaptation):

Also t-shirts. It’s kind of faded, but if you need the one on the right in an XXL there’s one on ebay for $74.95 plus shipping.

The Coneheads had been a popular easy Halloween costume for years, but maybe trying to merchandise their movie was overly optimistic. I’m not sure how many kids were gonna be in the sandbox making Agent Seedling yell anti-immigrant sentiments at Connie in her motorcycle helmet. Or maybe they did, I’m not sure how well they sold. Did any of you grow up playing CONEHEADS?

The movie received mostly negative reviews, which is fair in my opinion. But Peter Rainier of the LA Times compared its “Cone-speak exchanges” to Anthony Burgess’ newspeak in A Clockwork Orange and called the movie “an unusually companionable jape,” which might itself be Cone-speak. At the box office it failed to make back its budget, and opened in sixth place behind newcomer POETIC JUSTICE as well as IN THE LINE OF FIRE, THE FIRM, FREE WILLY and JURASSIC PARK. At least it beat ANOTHER STAKEOUT.

But that didn’t kill the Coneheads. They starred in two State Farm commercials in 2015. Maybe we’ll see them again in a gritty, long form HBO or Netflix series.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, June 12th, 2017 at 11:10 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

37 Responses to “Coneheads”

  1. I saw this movie at the theater – I have no idea why, as I had just graduated from high school and had the (relative) freedom to do as I pleased, but for some reason, I decided to go to nearly empty screening of Coneheads. It is not a good movie, and I can recall laughing only once or twice. But as usual, Vern makes a terrible movie seem somewhat compelling. Love this series of summer whiffs.

  2. Why don’t you just change the name of SUMMER FLINGS to A BUNCH OF MOVIES THAT CJ HOLDEN REALLY LIKES? Okay, this one doesn’t have a special place in my heart like SUPER MARIO BROS, but it has the sort of random ridiculousness, that truly appeals to me.

    BTW, what happened to Bonny and Terry Turner? One should think that after the one-two punch of 3rd ROCK FROM THE SUN and THAT 70s SHOW, they would have been the dominating force in multi-camera TV comedy for years. I guess Chuck Lorre murdered them. (Disclaimer: I don’t believe he truly did that and the previous sentence was a humourous remark that was not meant to be taken seriously. Also I don’t have money, so don’t sue me.)

  3. Only thing I gleaned from this was enjoying Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” over the montage.

  4. This is one of the more high-profile movies from this era that I initially wanted to see, but then people talked so much smack about it that I never saw it. Also in this category: 1492 and WYATT EARP.

  5. I forgot this movie existed. I saw it on VHS and remember it not being very good. You have failed to convince me to revisit it. Though it is funny to think of it as a possible secret favorite of the current GOP.

    I had no idea they had toys for this thing and I’m sure no one else did either so no, us ’90s kids were not playing with Conehead toys.

  6. I also remember seeing this in the theaters, but with my family. I think we also rented it at home for some reason. It’s a well meaning film, but I don’t remember finding it all that funny either. I laughed more times reading this review. Also, I’m going to try and insert it’s “an unusually companionable jape” into everyday conversation whether it makes sense or not and see if anyone calls me out on it.

  7. CJ I thought you had better taste in movies. lol

  8. I would say that I have a good taste in movies, but I’m also very easy to entertain.

  9. CJ, I bet you if we were to list 50 of our favorite movies, we would probably intersect in at least half of them.

    Is Dan Akroyd the most overrated SNL cast member from the OG 5 years?

  10. I do remember this getting heavy marketing. Never saw it in theaters. We rented the laserdisc but I didn’t think much of it at the time. My dad who taped it from the laser copy used to watch it a lot. I watched it again recently cause it was on like at 1AM and I couldn’t sleep and it actually resonated with me. I’m the son of immigrants so I kinda get why it connected with my dad now. It’s a pretty earnest immigrant story. They even learn how to negotiate like full blooded Americans by the end when they cut a deal with the INS guy. Also the conespeak did make me laugh as did some of the broader stuff (though it is admittedly pretty square humor) but more importantly it has some great lessons in terms of successfully and eloquently communicating the importance of family and acceptance in our society. It’s crazy to think that this movie made over 20 years back is more progressive than we currently are as people now a days. Things really do go in cycles.

  11. Like Beldar singing Tainted Love at what is possibly the last moment of his life for example. He clings to something he knows his daughter likes and uses it as a safety blanket much to the delight of his child. That was pretty cool. Yeah this is no THE BLUES BROTHERS or CONEHEADS it’s not even a NOTHING BUT TROUBLE but at least it did have some genuine heart. Something a lot of these type of comedies seem to miss now a days.

  12. Really Broddie? Have we reached the point where somebody is going to tell me they non-ironically like NOTHING BUT TROUBLE?

  13. Wasn’t there also a rap song rapped by Beldar? Or is that Conehead Love.

    Weird how none of the snl movies could catch on like Wayne’s World or Blues Brothers, even the massively deserving MacGruber.

    Also weird how in a Conehead movie the one thing the studio thought would be a bridge too far would be Larrain Newman playing the daughter. Like people come to a conehead movie excpecting age appropriate kids.

  14. Also, does this comedy review mean there’s a chance Stay Tuned will be in the summer fling series?

  15. Yes Sternshein I unironically like one of the more creative vanity projects ever made. Especially because I’m a sucker for TEXAS CHAINSAW influenced cannibal family movies.

    Fred I did like Connie recasting because her best friends were Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams. Yeah if you’re gonna watch any 1993 comedy with those 3 as high school students this is definitely not the one. However in retrospect it’s also a nice touch.

  16. We need to put together a list of movies we non ironically like.

  17. Was Stay Tuned supposed to be a summer tent pole film? I remember liking it a lot but haven’t seen it in decades.

  18. Crushinator Jones

    June 12th, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    My mom likes NOTHING BUT TROUBLE unironically. I thought it was ok when I saw it but, outside of the BONERIPPER (or whatever that sweet-ass rollercoaster of death was) I wasn’t much of a fan.

  19. Funnily enough CONEHEADS is one of the first movies I can remember seeing in theaters along with MRS. DOUBTFIRE and JURASSIC PARK, I rewatched it last year in fact and while it’s nothing special like BLUES BROTHERS or GHOSTBUSTERS it’s not a bad movie, reasonably funny and just overall too good natured to have a real negative response to, I too thought of Trump when it came to the villain and it’s sad to think immigration has been a hot button issue for that long, if only people in 1993 knew what anti-immigrant sentiment would get America into in the future.

    Also I unironically like NOTHING BUT TROUBLE, it’s not a totally successful movie but how can you not love Dan Aykroyd doing a GHOSTBUSTERS esque take on of all things THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE?

  20. This is one of those movies which I was aware of existing because it was heavily advertised in American comics but have never seen and have no idea if it even played in the UK.

    I’ll stick with the review for now.

  21. Sternshein, I guess a mid August comedy wasn’t meant to be a tentpole. I remember the trailer being attached to Batman Returns which is pretty boffo placement. It didn’t do that well considering its high concept and appealing cast.

  22. CONSUME MASS QUANTITIES!

  23. I like Coneheads a lot. While it does not make me laugh out loud, it amuses me. I smile a lot while watching it. The main joke winding through the entire movie is the fact that here are these people with huge, misshapen heads who talk like 50’s-era robots and NOBODY mentions it or thinks it is weird. The one guy who does speak up is Tom Arnold and we are supposed to think he’s an asshole for doing so. A lot of the little things in this one work. Spade’s character taking credit for the work of others so as to appear indispensable to his boss, Ronnie and his teenage insecurity, all of the technical jargon the Coneheads speak…I think it’s fun to translate the technobabble into a more everyday sentence. Even saying romantic things a woman wants to hear has a Coneian twist to it: “If, for some reason your life functions ceased, my most precious one, I would collapse, I would draw the shades and I would live in the dark. I would never get out of my slar pad or clean myself. My fluids would coagulate, my cone would shrivel, and I would die, miserable and lonely. The stench would be great.”

    I dunno…I like it. And me and my nerd family often quote this one.

  24. Steve Barron also did the 1998 TV movie Merlin, where his visual imagination and corny sense of design and humor work beautifully, offset as they are by the sincere, moving tragedy of the Arthurian legends. (the CGI is extremely dated, but it also mostly works, making the magic feel like a unique piece of the world that’s dying out)

    I think this was also the last film Phil Tippett did stop-motion effects for until the chess scene in The Force Awakens, and the last big-budget live-action Hollywood film to really showcase stop-motion. After this, Tippett was working with CGI artists on Dragonheart and Starship Troopers.

    On a completely unrelated note, this opened in 6th place, below Jurassic Park in its 7th week of release.

  25. Franchise Fred: you might be thinking of DRAGNET, which had a rap track.

  26. That Dragnet rap is bonkers. Also, remember a couple of years ago when Tom Hanks was on a British talk show and he recited his part to the Dragnet rap. Also, I like to think that the Dragnet rap (which I think is called “City of Crime”) is what influenced Chet Haze to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

  27. Nah, it’s Conehead Love. “You never have to hone your cone alone.”

  28. DRAGNET is one of those movies that whenever I think about it, I feel it’s better than I give it credit for. Then I re-watch it and I feel it’s worse than I remembered. Then a few years pass and the cycle starts over. Another movie like that for me is the firs English Jackie Chan movie BATTLE CREEK BRAWL (originally released in the US as THE BIG BRAWL).

    I guess my big problem with DRAGNET is that the whole thing seems to have been greenlit on the basis of Aykroyd can do a damned-good Jack Webb impersonation and then they figured they’d just wing it for the whole movie.

  29. JJ- Not sure if it counts as big budget, but THE STUPIDS has a couple of recurring stop-motion characters

  30. geoffrey…I remember going to see The Big Brawl in California when I was 9 years old. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen besides Star Wars and Empire.

  31. I remember once getting into an argument with my friend over Vertigo. (Bear with me here). I was saying how I didn’t really like it that much (naive film student that I was), and his argument was that it had great shots. My counter-argument was that Coneheads had some great shots, too, but it doesn’t mean it’s a great movie.

    He still hasn’t forgotten that.

    And truth be told, sometimes I think I would rather watch Coneheads than Vertigo.

  32. This one’s a little better

  33. Lovecraft in Brooklyn

    June 14th, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    I saw Brendan McCarthy, production designer of Fury Road, give a talk and he mentioned working on CONEHEADS, as well as the Ninja Turtles movie and stuff.

  34. Never seen this, except for a couple minutes occasionally when it is on TV, and I can’t even make it to the next commercial break before changing channels. FLINSTONES falls into this same category.

    This movie did give us one of the best Chili Peppers songs of all time though.

  35. I’m honestly a little shocked there’s not more love for this movie here.

  36. Was Stay Tuned supposed to be a summer tent pole film? I remember liking it a lot but haven’t seen it in decades. I would say that I have a good taste in movies, but I’m also very easy to entertain.

  37. This might make you glue yourself to the TV set and waste more precious time. And it’s not good for your health especially if you are Obese…lol

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