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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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Mike

Here's my similarly praising write up on the same topic from several months ago - http://mwood919.blogspot.com/2008/12/weird-al-yankovic-brilliant-innovator.html

ahow628

What? No UHF references? That's so STUPID!!!

Reen

Wait. To the poster "Doesn't Matter": if Al stole the idea from you then why are you hiding under an anonymous screen name? Why aren't you linking proof, shouting your case from the hilltops and/or suing the pants off of him? Coincidences happen. I highly doubt someone with Al's incredible intellect and creativity needs to hack off someone else for a hit to add to his oeuvre. (I totally used that word! Can I have a kiss?)

Michael, beautifully written. Al IS fantastic. He's a trail blazer - one of a kind. I hope he reads this and you two genuinely nice guys go out for a chocolate beer or something. (Plus, I bet *he* wouldn't make comments about your ass all day like that horn-ball Huebel).

Jill

Bless you, Michael, for finally setting the record straight for all the Yank-o-haters out there. "Dare to Be Stupid" was the first album I ever owned and, to this day, probably the most influential piece of pop culture to ever wander into my life. I've had the pleasure of meeting the man a few times - and even the pleasure of bowling with him at 4 in the morning on the west side of Chicago - and the rumors are true: he really is one of the nicest human beings on earth. He talks to people after shows, he returns fan-mail, he remembers your name - truly a gem.

And furthermore, I challenge anyone to watch the beginning of the "FAT" video and not laugh. I mean, "Yo, Ding Dong, man. Ding Dong. Ding Dong, yo"??? F-ing classic!

s.gothman

Simon Le Bon? Dude, what the fuck?

Abby

My husband and I still occasionally turn to each other and say, "Yo, Ding Dong, man. Ding Dong! Ding Dong, yo!" Best video opening ever.

AwesomeRobot

Al does irony very well, too. Remember "Don't download this song." ? He also does some great bits with fake interviews with celebrities where he splices in his own questions Space-Ghost style.

You also didn't mention that he is a spectacular performer. He's not just a guy that replaces song lyrics, the man can mimic any song style like a master. And his shows are pure entertainment from start to finish.

Alex

I'd like to add to your very fine writing on Al here with the following thought:

Al Yankovic is the common denominator of music. He's the only guy currently working that can get a scene kid, a country redneck, a punk rocker, a rivethead and a classic rock person (who I don't have a clever name for) to the same concert, and they all have an equally good time. What he does is just plain enjoyable and everyone, regardless of what music they actually listen to day-to-day, can do just that.

Natasha

First time reader, first time caller.
Add to the list of things you like about Mr. Y: He sent a bunch a traffic your way! I was all like, "what's this link in this tweet all about?" and then I was all like, "OMG! it's the guy from Stella, and he's saying he likes Weird Al! Hooray!"
For sure.
Great post! It's funny how it's supposed to be embarrassing to like Weird Al, but looking back on it, he's one of the few artists I liked as a kid that I still get excited about now
And as Ash alluded to above, Mr. Y's concerts are terrific. He performs the shiz out of his songs, and it's amazing.
I still have the jeans he signed after a show almost 17 YEARS ago!

jon

I've been an Al fan for as long as I can remember. Early Al is a genre of music that I revisit often in my adult years with fond memories. I shared his tapes with as many friends as possible. UHF is still one of the greatest movies ever. I'm really glad that he's not in hiding and is proud of the weird mark that he's made. His presence in the past 20 years is fantastic and I hope he doesn't stop being weird until the day he dies.

Mike Black's cool, too.

Steve

"Gotta boogey on my finger and I can't get it off!"

Dr. Demento to Weird Al to Giuseppe Verdi. That was my musical progression as a kid. Weird Al still trumps Verdi in many ways.

Alexis Gutierrez

It's so weird (no pun intended) that you wrote this when you did. Just yesterday, my friend and I were in a deep discussion about how we thought Weird Al was an uparalleled comedic genius at what he does. For those not familiar with the source material he parodies, there are still a lot of laughs to be had; however, if you know the song/video he is making fun of, you enjoy it at a totally different level.

Scott

Little known fact is that Al won't release a parody song without the original Artists' permission - even if he has the 'rights' to parody the song. - That's showing respect and a sign of a true class act.

david

Weird Al fans unite! I saw him live during the Deep End tour in Stamford, CT. I had always been a fan (love UHF) but his live performance was mind-blowing. Whenever the top 5 concerts comes up in conversation I always mention this show.

Amber

Awesome. I love Al's music, it makes me giggle when I hear it. I got to see him at a CD signing at Ft Hood, TX a few years back and had our picture taken. It turned out pretty funny because he looked up at everyone when they had the pictures taken giving them a bit of an odd look, well my son (who was 3 at the time) looked back down at him in much of the same goofy way! haha

The Naked Redhead

I respect Weird Al in the same way that I respect guys like Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Neither of them have done anything to win a Nobel Prize or to set the stalkarazzi on them, BUT, they are working in their field. They don't take themselves too seriously, and they don't apologize for not being "more famous" or for fitting into a certain niche.

In short, there's no air of "desperation"...just "here's what I do. If you don't like it, you can suck it." That's good stuff.

Stephen

doesn't matter-
I think I know who you are and the song you're referring to. Yes, the idea is similar and both songs are funny, but I doubt Al stole from you. The concept is ripe for parody. It sucks when someone so high profile has the same idea you had and is more successful with it, but then that's likely to happen when you're in a creative business, isn't it? If you think you have a case, hire a lawyer. I'm going to guess Mr. Black doesn't care.

Mike

I have enjoyed Weird Al since I was around 9 years old (now I'm 27). I think the first song of his I ever heard was "The White Stuff" back when New Kids On The Block was the shit.

Hell, when I finally got my own CD played, the first album I got was the Amish Paradise one. People might not think it's hard to remake lyrics to a song, but I think it is. You don't get to write your own beat. Instead you have to use an already made one and then insert entirely new words to fit a song that was created another way.

To top it off Weird Al does it with just about any style of music out there. Most artists only stick to one genre and that's it. So I respect him even more that being able to pull that off so well.

Laurie

Al is truly a genius. I can only give him my highest honor which was the embarrassingly loud snort when I saw White and Nerdy. My life's theme song.

Thank you Al!

Chuck

So glad to see someone taking it seriously in regards to humor. Al has taught us all that even the biggest ego-centric rock stars can be mocked, their brilliant compositions reduced to a platform for oh, a visit to a sadistic dentist.

And the concerts. Oh my. The second time around, I managed to get about 5 other folks to go, and not a complaint among them.

And it inspires others, but only rarely do they do a good enough job to actually be distinguished from Al's work.

Eventually they end up credited as Al's work on the internets. But it's pretty easy to tell, unless they are directly attempting to al-mulate.

While my medium is more visual than audio, I feel my parody gene has been supplemented by Al's work.

Lets you think about things just a little different.

That's good for the jello in your head.

Chris

UHF was the best movie! "BADGERS!....BADGERS!!!...WE DON'T NEED NO STINKING BADGERS!!!"

Keeko

FWIW, Al's song has one section on a missed connection on CL (this is assuming that my quick Google research is correct--I'm omitting names in case it isn't) I would suspect that rather than anyone actually stealing, you have two guys who had similar ideas in their heads and that they are executed quite differently, and that if you release the song on a CD no one is going to get upset about it. In the past, Al has been very careful to avoid even the appearance of borrowing song idea (he will not take parody suggestions from fans, for example) so I cannot imagine he has suddenly reversed this policy

Jimbo

Mr. Thell - He has a styrofoam peanuts. Clean out your ears!

sco3tt

Wonderful commentary about Weird Al. I feel the same way. I haven't heard a Weird Al song that I didn't like and always assumed that Al was a great guy. Thanks Michael, for confirming that.

And thanks Weird Al, for all the music and all the videos, but mostly for shaving your moustache, now I have the world's worst moustache. I was tired of being #2.

So when does Weird Al get into the Rock-n-Roll hall of fame?

Jared Mazzaschi

Don't forget "Smells like Nirvana" - Kurt Cobain has been quoted saying he knew was really famous when Al called him backstage at SNL and asked permission to parody the song. True to Kurt's nature he was humbled and honored. Al is incredibly generous in person - such, such a nice guy. Long live Al Yankovik.

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