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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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anon

the fuck

Bailey

I thought you wrote that he was formerly known as Weird and I got really upset. I thought maybe he went all normal and boring on me. But when I finished crying I re-read the sentence and saw you wrote "...formally known as Weird" and I feel soooo much better.

Sean

There was a girl who I went to High School with, who was a big fan of Wierd Al -- as well as Douglas Adams and the Barenaked Ladies, to mention three (somehow) associated artists. She was a smart, neat girl, and I guess I had a bit of a crush. Then she got married to fellow fan of Star Trek, and such is life.

Years later, I think it's great that Weird Al is still Weirding on with his Weird on. It's great to see him in focus, too -- and that song rocks.

Not to hijack the forum, but just honestly, and speaking of comedians (and comediennes) with long-standing careers, I wonder if Judy Tenuta will come back to the stage.

Cirrocco

Al Yankovic and his band may be some of the best performers of all time. How many cover bands can YOU name that can go from doing U2 to Michael Jackson to the frickin' Doors, on the fly, AND IN COSTUME?

On top of everything else, Al truly is a nice guy. While waiting to see him at the Filmore in San Francisco he comes around the corner to go upstairs to practice. I was the only one there (I was WAAAY early) and he said hello and shook my hand. He even took it in stride when I gave him the old Wayne and Garth "We're Not Worthy" routine.

A couple of years later he popped by Alex Bennet's studio (when Bennett was still on KITS in SF) and he signed my Demento Society card. Talk about bragging rights!

This new video is actually a bit of a departure for him: far more serious in its visuals than most of his stuff. Replace the song with something Morrison actually did and it wouldn't be a parody at all. This is perhaps the most effective video he's ever done. Well done, Al! I may have to get the video AND song from iTunes.

Lawrence August

Thank you SO MUCH for writing this, man. Yes, a Weird Al song was a MAJOR event when I was a kid. And what people forget is that not only are his parodies lyrically brilliant, his original songs are as melodic as They MIght Be Giants, and fantastically sharp and witty.

I wrote my latest Eminem parody about Hollywood remakes called "The Real Psycho Transformer" not only to make a statement about Hollywood, but as a tribute to my childhood (and now adulthood) hero, Weird Al.

He is, without question, a LEGEND.

p.s. my parody is on youtube, for those interested. Thanks!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F68U0v1UNCc&feature=channel_page


thecitychicken

I think MIB and "Tom" Lennon are way funnier than Weird Al.

Louise @ludovicah/@ludovicaa

Hey "doesn't matter" (I know who you are),

Its totally possible for two people to write totally different songs about the same subject without the slightest hint of plagiarism. Your song is great too but *completely different* There are OTHER songs about Craigslist out there as well I'll have you know. Theres room for all.

Chill,bro..seriously, Weird Al would NEVER intentionally or knowingly step on anyones toes. Its just a coincidence, and doesn't even have to be an unfortunate one for either party. Being bitter about a pure coincidence will make you no fans, being generous about it will. It's a crowded market out there, but there is room for all. Nobody has a monopoly on love songs, or songs about trains or hospitals or cars or anything else, including websites.
Theres no issue here.

Nancy

Don't forget Al's original songs. "One More Minute", "Mr. Frump". These are just small examples of his warped comic genius. The best part? I can share his music with my children and coy have to worry about what they'll hear.

Instant blog fan here. First time reader, and new subscriber.

Torlando

Back when Carson Daily still did TRL, Weird Al went on for the release of "Running with Scissors" (the un-sung hero of his discography) He was releasing his video parody of American Pie/ Episode I. (That song explained the Galactic Republic particularly well.) And Carson Daily himself said that of all of the celebrity guests that had come on TRL, Weird Al was the only one that made him feel star struck.

That said, most people who really enjoy Weird Al albums, know that the parodies are not his best work. His best songs are the polka melodies, where he uses the same words but turns the music into polk-a-steria. And this is coming from a black guy.

Lost Artist

And for realsies? The Spatula City scene from UHF? That shit is comedic gold.

Tiph_Tiph

I saw Weird Al perform years ago. He wore very tight, silver pants. And from what I could tell, YES, he does have a huge penis.

Michael Charboneau

Michael, thanks for a very thoughtful blog entry. I've enjoyed Al's music for a long time and hope he continues to be as creative (and doesn't have to do any more "parody under duress" as he did the late 80s).

Not sure what beef "doesn't matter" has exactly. Searched through Comedy Central's site, and found a couple songs that touch on Craigslist (which were quite funny), but few of them captured CL as a whole, or with the same style as Al's song. I certainly didn't see any evidence of theft or even competition. Those songs will still be funny when they come out. Perhaps the poster needs to read Neil Gaiman's comment about JK Rowling "stealing" his work (http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/04/fair-use-and-other-things.html) and just chill.

Nicol3

The Black Knight rides again.

Al is one of the reasons I wish I was born in 1980; I feel like I would've been more attached If I was exposed to his culture a decade earlier. Plus, I would've grown up playing Atari Instead of Genesis.

I DO remember singing and dancin' to "Eat it" In Pre-K with all of my little munchkin friends. I wasn't even aware that there was a "Beat It" until some time after. That's how religiously Authentic Al was!

SWJenn

Great post, and thanks for this. Al is a genius, and if you've ever heard ANY other song parody, you'll know why he's so good and everyone else sucks.

Great blog, I'll be reading more regularly now - can you believe I found your blog from NPR? Dude, I just busted your comedy cred - you're attracting NPR weenies now!

Saskboy

I saw Al in concert for the first time last year.
The first time I heard him was on a friend's tape, and I made a sample tape. I got the Bad Hair Day CD and played it in the classroom until classmates got tired of it. I think they thought they were too cool for Al.

Camille

Aw,I loves some Weird Al. This brings me back to sitting in our basement, clipping UPC's for my mom's now defunct refunding business and listening to Dr. Demento.
I agree with Reen, you two should go steady.

Felicia

I have TWO videos on my iPod--White and Nerdy (genius to use Donny Osmond) and The Saga Begins, because my son is a big Star Wars fan. I used to religiously listen to Dr. Demento, and Al was always a favorite...and I totally agree with Kevin about "Bob". The palindromes, the whole video was perfection. "Lisa Bonet ate no basil"--poetry!

OfficialHappyEmo

To "doesn't matter": Do you realize how many songs are out there named Craigslist or about craigslist? A shitload. Get over it. I doubt your song is as good as Al's anyway. :T

Louise @ludovicah/@ludovicaa

To OfficialHappyEmo. (I know who you are too! lol)
In defense of "doesn't matter" his song is freaking GREAT!seriously... Its just totally different from Al's and it's not even called "Craigslist"

Alice

If you've never seen Weird Al live, he is so definitely worth the ticket. The man is a genius, and he puts on a fantastic show. And this is coming from someone who would probably get her hipster card revoked if her friends knew the extent of her fandom.

"Living With a Hernia" is my favorite music video ever.

Bob

Have been a fan since Al entered the scene in the early 80s, I raised my kids and now my grandkids on Al's comedy. He is an excellent musician, and surrounds himself with amazing musical talent. Check out guitarist Jim West's Hawaiian Slack Key albums. You will thank me for this suggestion.

Jay Levitt

I worked on a Craigslist parody about four years ago too. It was a Berklee jingle project; you had to cover a well-known song in an entirely different genre. The kid did "Strangers in the Night", in the style of... Axl Rose. Hysterical. Nailed it, too.

Point being: I think a lot of people have recorded rock songs about Craigslist. It's not the premise; it's the execution.

buddyfish2

Stright Outta Lynwood was the first cd I ever bought! Al is incredible! ☺

Mike

Good to see stuff like this out there giving props to Al. I'll admit that I loved Al as a kid, then lost track because he wasn't "cool." Then as I got older, 30s, I figured out I don't care hat other people think is cool. Al is a very underrated musician, his ability to basically do any style of music from raggae to metal to swing to hip-hop pretty much proves that. Once I saw him in concert a few years ago I found a new respect for him that I never had as a kid. The guy is an amazing entertainer.

sildenafil

a greater loss but has had the rock, lyrics miss his talent and infected us with a rage of others, wish you were his art and his talent here with us the man was alone on their own ..

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