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.