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.