Hey! Welcome to Weird Al Week! For the next six weekdays, Milwaukee Record will be filling your feed with fresh, funny, and slightly fanatical Al-related materiel. It all leads up to the two Weird Al shows at Pabst Theater April 9 and 10, as well as a performance from longtime Al band members Steve Jay and Jim West at Shank Hall April 11. Fun!
Matt Wild: The funny thing about my long and storied “Weird Al” Yankovic fandom is that Weird Al was the first “real” music I ever got into. Growing up, I wasn’t much of a music fan. Sure, I dug whatever was popular on the radio at the time (I remember really liking that “Walk The Dinosaur” song by Was (Not Was)), but I didn’t follow any particular bands or artists, and I certainly didn’t dig into their catalogs for deep cuts and non-radio tracks. That all changed in fourth grade, when I gave a tape of original comedy skits called “Mr. Matt’s Neighborhood” (don’t ask) to a girl in my class, and she, in return, gave me a dubbed copy of Weird Al’s Even Worse. (If you’re reading this: Hi, Rachel!)
I’m sure I was already semi-familiar with Al—so unavoidable was “Eat It” back in the day—but something about Even Worse got to me. The big single was “Fat,” of course, and while that song was/is a lot of fun (“Ham on, ham on, ham on whole wheat, all right,”) I found myself obsessing over the lesser-known numbers. “Stuck In A Closet With Vanna White” was a surrealist delight, “You Make Me” was a herky-jerky hoot, and “Melanie” was a perfectly lovely ballad about a stalker. Then there was “Good Old Days,” a James Taylor-esque tribute to sepia-toned nostalgia and criminal insanity (“Always treated me nice, gave me kindly advice / I don’t know why I set fire to his place”). Soon, I nabbed older Al albums (all dubbed on cassette, natch) and began obsessing over them, as well.
What about you, Cal and Rob? What were your first experiences with Weird Al? And how has your fandom changed over the years?
Rob Wieland: My experiences mirror yours, Matt. I taped most pop music off the radio (suck it, RIAA!), but Al was the first artist that felt like he was mine. My shitty mix tapes and his releases felt of a mind that mixed all the different odd pop music around in the ’80s and ’90s. To this day, there are some songs where I recall the parody lyrics more strongly than the original lyrics (sorry, “Beverly Hillbillies,” uh, “Money For Nothing”). Occasionally, a local parody would crop up on the radio, usually about the Packers, and I would just shake my head. Nobody could hold a torch to Al. Even as I dug into Dr. Demento and other novelty music, it was easy to see it was Weird Al…and then everybody else.
What kept me coming back, though, were the style parodies. “Dare To Be Stupid” is a better Devo song than Devo ever recorded. “Trigger Happy” was my “getting ready for school dances” music. The excellence of these songs proved why Al stuck around while most novelty acts went back to working the bar circuit or kept their zoo morning gigs. Al and his band were stunningly versatile and meticulous about recapturing sounds and the feel of music. Add to that Al expressing his great gift of the absurd without having to match rhyme and meter and you get songs like “Albuquerque” or “Close But No Cigar.” I’ve been looking at the set lists of the shows on this tour and have been tickled by each one. Yes, even the cover.
Cal Roach: It seems we all experienced that nascent self-identity thing with Al’s music. The first thing I ever bought with my own money was Dare To Be Stupid on cassette. It wasn’t just that symbolic first gesture of capitalism; the whole idea of “ownership” was more about me realizing that there could be music that didn’t come from my parents or the radio. And the funny thing was, I was an almost tragically serious kid; what drew me to Al was as much his music as his jokes. I’ve never been overly fond of the “style parody” designation; to me he’s just the king of all genres. How is a parody of country music not just a humorous country song? Admittedly, I didn’t know who Devo was at age nine, nor had I ever heard of the TV show George Of The Jungle. I just thought, “Wow, cool songs!” I still say “Slime Creatures From Outer Space” (according to Wikipedia, a “style parody of 1950s sci-fi soundtracks”) is just one of the great original Weird Al compositions. Oh, and let’s not forget “This Is The Life” (“Style parody of 1920s and 1930s music”) and, perhaps my favorite Yankovic song ever, a “style parody of Elvis Presley-like doo-wop,” “One More Minute.”
It’s funny to think about critics reviewing Weird Al albums. It wasn’t until preparing for Weird Al Week that I discovered that the beloved Polka Party! was so critically reviled. I remember the year my parents bought me that tape for Christmas—that evening, listening to “Christmas At Ground Zero” while assembling my shiny new Omega Supreme, this was sort of my last great kid Christmas. “One Of Those Days” and “Good Enough For Now” are still some of my favorite Al originals, and how is it a fair criticism that the parodies aren’t based on more popular songs? I had no idea at the time that “Living With A Hernia” or “Here’s Johnny” or “Toothless People” were parodies; maybe I could’ve properly hated the album if only I’d been more hip to the fringes of the top 40.
I don’t know what precisely this says about me, but when Even Worse came out, my perception was that Al was self-evidently the coolest dude on the planet with the possible exception of Michael Jackson. That was probably the peak of Weird Al mania, at least in my memory. Did you guys go through a that’s-kids’-stuff phase with Al? I somehow persisted through the grunge explosion with my fandom intact, but by the time Alapalooza came out in ’93 my interest was waning, and I’m not sure it was entirely due to that being a pretty terrible album. Seriously, when you choose some of the worst songs ever recorded to parody, the listening experience doesn’t necessarily improve that much. I voluntarily listened to “Jurassic Park” and “Achy Breaky Song” for hopefully the last time this week, but I’ll admit I couldn’t get through all of “Bedrock Anthem.” That might be Al’s most grating song ever. I remember Bad Hair Day being a legitimate comeback, but things weren’t really the same between me and Al for quite a while.
Matt: I’m glad you brought up a time when your Al interest was waning, Cal, because it’s something I’ve experienced, too. (Alapalooza‘s inclusion of the sublime “Frank’s 2000″ TV” saves it from “pretty terrible” in my book.) It’s weird: the more and more familiar I became with the songs being parodied, the less I found myself enjoying them. Like both of you, there were plenty of old parodies I thought were originals: “The Brady Bunch,” “I Lost On Jeopardy,” “Here’s Johnny.” I loved them. But by the time Off The Deep End and my 14th birthday rolled around, my enjoyment for goofs on songs I actually knew and loved—”Smells Like Nirvana,” for example—was on the wane. Or maybe I was just getting older. I probably bottomed out with Running With Scissors, but picked up again when—surprise!—I once again became less familiar with the source material. I don’t know that I’ve ever actually heard Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me,” but I can rattle off all the lyrics to “TMZ.”
Another thing that’s been on my mind: When Mandatory Fun came out in 2014, it was accompanied by an ambitious cross-publication media blitz that found different outlets premiering different videos. Along with that push came something new to the Weird Al universe: thinkpieces. Why did grown adults still love Weird Al? Was Weird Al actually funny? What did the popularity of Weird Al say about geek culture? About nostalgia? About our post-9/11 landscape? After reading about 8,000 of these pieces, I decided that everyone was really, really overthinking it. Weird Al was/is funny and good because…he was/is funny and good.
What about you, Rob and Cal? Have you found yourselves defending your Al fandom as you’ve gotten older? Maybe even getting protective of it?
Rob: I think it’s very easy to over analyze pop culture. The internet is hungry for content and a lot of those articles came off like the ones where the writer tries to convince you that Snoke is Jar-Jay via a Zapruder-like look at the teaser to the teaser trailer of the next Star Wars. I don’t know if I ever stopped liking Al, but I did kind of tune out during his “I’m just gonna release shit on the internet phase,” in between Straight Out Of Lynwood and Mandatory Fun. But even during that phase, I was glad that he was still around doing his thing and, more notably, maybe even getting respectable? The line from the Dark Knight is that you either die a hero or live long enough to be the villain, but in Al’s case you live long enough to become besties with Broadway’s hottest star and have the biggest names of comedy in this generation helping you out in your “Tacky” video.
I liked the Mandatory Fun video blitz because it was nice to see a few videos with actual production value again. Al’s dance with JibJab and lyric videos helped push me away, because I think he’s an underrated sketch comedian. I love his ALTV bits in concert, and till the day I die, I can’t not look at the video for “Bad” and not think of Al running around with garden implements.
Cal: True, over-analysis has always been my default mode, and the internet has only made that tendency worse. Being the only one of my childhood friends who really stuck it out with Al, I only found myself having to defend him against myself over the years. That notion of credibility as a critic starts to creep in; suddenly you start questioning your allegiance to a nerdy white guy “rapping” about Pentiums to the tune of Puff Daddy.
That Mandatory Fun media blitz was the best possible thing for me, though, because Al had been off my radar for quite a while prior to that. I needed to be beat over the head with dorkiness. The terrific video for “Tacky” grabbed me right away, but it was “Foil,” even regardless of the video, that made me realize I’d been foolish to neglect Al for so long. That one and the ingenious “Sports Song” were every bit as clever as anything from the old days, and maybe it was high time I quit taking myself so seriously and remember that I can still have fun.