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June 17, 2009

In Praise of Weird Al

[DISCLAIMER: Although I do not know him, Al is a friend of friends, so any opinions expressed herein are written knowing that if I say the wrong thing about Weird Al, one of my friends might go, “Dude, what the fuck?” I never know how to respond when people say “what the fuck” so I try to avoid that situation whenever possible.]

The other day I got into a mild argument with somebody when I said that Al Yankovic has a lot of respect in the comedy community. This other person, who shall go nameless because I did not bother to learn his name, seemed shocked that the words “respect” and “Yankovic” were coming out of my mouth in the same sentence. So let me say it loud and proud: I respect and enjoy the artist formally known as Weird. Why? Because nobody does what he does better.

In general, song parodies are not my thing. I mean, it doesn’t seem to take a lot of talent to replace the lyrics to somebody else’s song, but when you think about it, by that definition, some of the most famous songs in the world are song parodies. For example, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” is basically just a song parody of “God Save the Queen.” Maybe not as hilarious as “Eat It,” but basically the same idea. “The Alphabet Song” is “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Etc.

But Al has single-handedly elevated the concept of the song parody into its own comedic genre. He was the first person to parody music videos. More importantly, he was the first to put Dick Van Patten in one of those music videos. Also, many of his songs aren’t even direct parodies. His latest, “Craiglist,” is a riff on the Doors. Not any song in particular, but the entire oeuvre, which is my favorite word. Ray Manzarek even plays keyboards on the song, which is one of the reasons it sounds so Doorsy.

I suspect the reason Al doesn’t get more credit is because his comedy doesn’t rely on irony. His is the comedy of Hawaiin shirts and funny last names. He plays accordion. He has funny hair. He is, in short, uncool. Ironically though, it’s his very uncoolness which I think contributes to his growing street cred. Weird never went alternative, never did anything other than what he does. He never went gangster except for “Amish Paradise,” the video of which features that gangsta bitch Florence Henderson. He is who he is, a Dr. Demento devotee who made it big. People respect his devotion to a craft that seems, on its surface, so utterly lame.

As a kid, I loved Weird Al. Looooved Weird Al, and so did every other teenage boy I knew. When MTV was young, Al’s videos felt subversive, the way a whoopee cushion is subversive. His Michael Jackson video for “Eat It” was one of the funniest things I had ever seen. Ditto “Fat,” and “Like A Surgeon.” A new Weird Al video was a major television event, the teenage boy equivalent of Breaking News. I cannot tell you where I was the day Reagan was shot, but I can tell you about the first time I saw “I Lost on Jeopardy.” Even then though, nobody really talked about Weird Al the way we talked about other musicians we liked. How is it that in my underdeveloped teenage mind, Simon LeBon deserved more respect than Weird Al? The thought shames me still.

By any measure, Weird Al has had an amazing career. He’s won three Grammys, sold twelve million albums, and for a time, had the worst moustache in the entire world. And on top of that, I’ve heard that he’s a genuinely nice guy.

My friend Tom is friends with Al, and I once asked Tom if when they are hanging out Al ever breaks out the guitar and plays some of his totally romantic heartfelt shit that he’s too embarrassed to release to the general public: the love songs, the anti-war protest songs. Tom said no because Al doesn’t write those kinds of songs. Al just writes stupid comedy songs. Which made me love him even more.


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Erik White

Excellent post,
I grew up listening to the Dr Demento show and thus heard AL early on.
His comedy isn't particularly cynical or cutting edge and so doesn't always get a lot of respect, but no one does it better.

Mr. Thell

I don't know if it's true, but I heard that Al has a massive penis. Maybe ask Tom?

Abra

Weird Al rocks the party, plus, he's got great skin jus' sayin'- I always just answer back "dude!?!" to the What The Fuck Question.

Melissa

MIB thinks makes me love you all the more. VIVA AL YANKOVIC!

Eric Akawie

I loved Weird Al as a teenager - In 3-D was one of the first cassettes I ever bought, and now my kids love him. The Kid's station on XM/Sirius plays him fairly often, especially his Star Wars songs, "The Saga Begins" and "Yoda," so he's being introduced to a whole new generation.

Cameron

Your observations of Al are astute and right. Thank you for those. I had kind of forgotten about the guy until I read your post.

Here's my Weird Al story: long ago when I was in high school, my dad took my friends and me to see Weird Al in concert. Bermuda Schwartz (his drummer) disappeared. I turned to my dad to point this out, but he had disappeared as well. And then we saw my dad on stage.

Apparently Bermuda had passed out, and my dad (an ER doctor) had gone to his rescue. Long story short, he rode in the ambulance with Bermuda to make sure he was okay, and my friends and I killed time by running around a parking garage. I didn't get to meet Al, but I did end up with a gigantic "Running With Scissors" tour shirt and a signed 8x10. That's my Weird Al story.

Amanda

I still maintain that "When you're only having seconds, I'm having twenty-thirds" is one of the funniest lines ever written. Brings me to tears every time, although I don't quite know why.

SkinFaceMcGee

I knew you were a smart guy, but this is exceptionally well-written. This is the first time I've read your blog, and I have instantly decided to subscribe. I'm sure you really give a sh*t, too.

I love what Al did with all that music over the years. When you look back on pop culture, you see the stuff people you were into and you think, "God, what were we thinking? This is SO lame!"

Al knew it was lame, and he jumped all over it while the gettin' was good. And when you watch one of his old videos, you don't have to feel guilty about enjoying the nostalgia because you can just blame it on how good the comedy is.

Louise @ludovicah/@ludovicaa

Great Blog. Al is the best

Kevin Wolf

I don't listen to Weird Al any more, but it's as you say: in middle school, EVERYBODY was a Weird Al fan. Although I've matured (slightly) beyond the appeal of his music, I do love that he is so fiercely committed to being goofy and uncool. I mean, seriously: a Doors parody about Craigslist? I can't think of anything nerdier (a They Might Be Giants parody song about tabletop miniatures gaming?).

Nice post, sir. It brings back many fond memories of Walkmans and Weird Al cassettes.

Frank

I just have to back MIB up when he says during the teenage years, a new Wierd Al album and/or video was like breaking news! I still have all the WAY tapes, safely hidden away from my kids, and I like to occationally bring them out. Of course, I have all his cd's ripped to CD, but it's just not the same.

Also, Wierd Al is on Twitter, http://twitter.com/alyankovic

julie

And he never ages, either. Is he a vampire? Only Al knows for sure.
But my respect for him goes back as far as MIB's.
And yes, he is a genuinely nice guy (or vampire).

Kevin

Al's a genius. His son "Bob" is truly a masterpiece. A tribute song in the style of Bob Dylan, it's written entirely in palindromes. What's more, it actually sounds like lyrics that Dylan would write. Long live Weird Al!

Eric Granata

I remember when I got my first Weird Al tape for Christmas. I think I was nine. I've enjoyed every one of his albums since then even well into adulthood. He's obviously talented and his lyrics are often quite clever.

Seeing him live during the Running With Scissors tour was the best $16 bucks I've spent. I got to shake his hand out by the bus afterward. He autographed my ticket stub and it is still in my wallet.

Kevin

oops, I meant his SONG "Bob", not son :-)

Patti Brown/the lady that makes Weird Al cookies

Excellent blog post, MIB! I first heard Al's music on Dr. D back in 1979. I was a casual fan up until 1999. Then something happened, and I went into hardcore mode. I've seen him in concert 7 times in the past 9 years, and met him 4 times. He is a very nice guy who always says the nicest things. He deserves all the respect in the world!

Jason Erik Lundberg

I had a similar childhood relationship with Weird Al. The cassette tapes I had got worn out because I listened to them so much, and my parents filled me in on many of the references he made to pop culture and current events.

Incidentally, the tune in "Craigslist" is actually a direct riff on the Doors song "When the Music's Over." The bass line, keyboards and drums are almost all the same, although Al changed them slightly to fit his song. He also does a mean imitation of Jim Morrison.

Roxan

My daughter and I sat through a storm in KC waiting to see Al at an outdoor concert. It was great even if we were soaking wet. The thunder and lightening delayed things but I don't think a single member of the audience left that night.

TN

I say this just about every time a new "Weird" Al song hits the inter-webs:

Genius!

Melissa

UHF is one of my favorite movies, and that's saying something. It seemed like people HATED it, even Al fans didn't "get" it. Sure, I could take or leave the mulleted sidekick, but there is some pure genius in that little flick (Emo Phelps and the table saw, Michael Richards in the role he was born to perform, and the whole thing frothing with Al's quirky, so dorky it's awesome sense of humor.) Weird Al is a unique artist who stayed absolutely true to his own style, and it paid off in total street cred with my generation (I'm 30 this year.) Thanks Michael, you just climbed a notch in my esteem as well (even though I did want to have your babies even before this.) <3

du

"I suspect the reason Al doesn’t get more credit is because his comedy doesn’t rely on irony."

Great post, and you're right in that Al doesn't have to /rely/ on anything-- his humor and talent are well-rounded, but his use of irony is brilliant! What about "Trigger Happy"? & "Couch Potato"? It takes Al’s singular talent to create parody with scathing satire and a keen wit that’s also listenable.

doesn't matter

he stole the idea of this song from me. i wrote it 4 years ago and have been performing it. it's on my comedy central persents and was planning to have it on my CD release this fall. as a comedian, i have lost all respect for al. does he not google his ideas before stealing them? thanks for posting something so nice about someone who just stole from me.

liz

I love Weird Al. The video for White & Nerdy is brilliant, and my 7-year-old son's favorite song in the entire world is Yoda.

ASH

Honest truth...I rank Weird Al's concerts right up there with Springsteen's.

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