Sometimes I worry when I see kids who aren’t getting enough Weird Al Yankovic in their lives. Like Mad Magazine, sugar straws, dirty limericks, and birthday parties with R-rated movies, Weird Al is one of those disreputable childhood staples that every impressionable kid should experience. 29 years after his first album, and long after many of the musicians he’s parodied have been consigned to the dustbin of history, Yankovic is still on the road, spreading silliness and good cheer for the outsider in all of us. In The Naked Gun, it’s supposed to be funny when Leslie Nielsen starts mouthing off at a press conference, only to realize the assembled multitude is there for Yankovic. But I dunno… in a perfect world, that scene would be documentary.
Kids tend to discover Yankovic at around age 8. That’s how old I was when I bought a cassette tape of Alapalooza (1993), tempted by the cover image of the Jurassic Park logo with Al’s goofy grin on the dinosaur. At school, my friends and I played that tape incessantly, committing to memory such immortal ditties as “Bedrock Anthem” (“Well I’ve got a little buddy Barney Rubble / He’s a midget but he makes a lot of trouble / Doesn’t like to shave, he got caveman stubble”), “Livin’ in the Fridge” (“If you can name the object in that baggy over there / Then mister, you’re a better man than I”), and, of course, “Jurassic Park” (“Someone shut the fence off in the rain…”).
I knew in the abstract that these were song parodies, but at the time I was completely unacquainted with “Give It Away,” “Livin’ on the Edge,” or “MacArthur Park.” Blasphemy of blasphemies, I knew Al’s “Bohemian Polka” long before I encountered “Bohemian Rhapsody.” When I finally did hear the Queen original, I remember a tinge of disappointment. To a grade-schooler, how can Queen’s melancholy glam-rock possibly compete with Weird Al’s jaunty, hellzapoppin’ accordion jamboree? An embarrassing amount of my music education came from Yankovic, and I know I’m not alone.
For any self-conscious kid, Weird Al is a role model. In a pop music landscape defined by conventional good looks and homogenized melodies, Yankovic’s stringy hair, coke-bottle glasses, candy-colored shirts and obsession with polka stand proudly apart. More importantly, he never gives the impression that his
eccentricities are some kind of put-on (no, not even the “Weird Al” moniker, which I choose to believe he was given at birth). He does was he likes and marches to his own drumbeat, and for those trapped in that cauldron of conformity we call childhood, Weird Al is an inspiration.
Yankovic’s songs are gentle and affectionate – more spoof than satire – and I’m sure musicians must consider a Weird Al parody a sign that they’ve “made it.” Yet over the years, a few fuddy-duddies have given ol’ Al the cold shoulder. Prince declines whenever Yankovic asks permission, and Eminem wouldn’t let him parody the “Lose Yourself” video. One of Yankovic’s most famous songs, “Amish Paradise,” provoked
the wrath of Coolio, who didn’t appreciate having his solemn gangland rap turned into a silly lark about the Amish.
That’s a ludicrous overreaction to be sure, but in their gently subversive way, Yankovic’s songs colonize one’s memory. When I see any of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video, I conjure the image of a bloated Weird Al singing “Because I’m fat, I’m fat, sha mone.” Whenever “Safety Dance” is on the radio, I hear Yankovic’s spot-on caricature of Ivon Doroschuk’s ruggedly masculine voice, belting out the Brady Bunch’s family history. And, to be fair to Coolio: can anyone who was a small child in the ‘90s really listen to “Gangster’s Paradise” without picturing Weird Al in a black hat and fake beard?
In a recent interview on WTF with Marc Maron, Yankovic noted that none of his original compositions have approached his parodies in popularity. That’s too bad, because Yankovic’s music is more than just pop-music Mad Libs. Consider the word-painting that Al evokes in “Frank’s Two Thousand Inch TV” –“Risin’ above the city, blocking out the noonday sun / It dwarfs the mighty redwoods and it towers over everyone.” Feel the infectious beat of “Boogie on my Finger” seep right into your bones. Admit that “The Saga Begins” tells the story of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace far more efficiently than George Lucas did. And I don’t mind telling you that many times, Al improves drastically on the insipid material he inherits. Forget “Rico Suave,” with his abs and undershirt and obnoxious over-confidence; give me “Taco Grande,” with its special appearance by Cheech Marin, instead.
I said that Al’s spoofery is gentle and affectionate, and maybe that’s why, the older I get, the less inclined I am to dig “Alapalooza” out of the basement. I still smile when I hear “Eat It” or “Smells Like Nirvana,” but let’s face it: extreme Weird Al fandom is a young man’s game. That’s okay – Al doesn’t need me. He has new generations of 9-year-olds to mold, shape and corrupt – new throngs of elementary-school weirdos to comfort and soothe. Yankovic has proven to be one of the more active and durable entertainers in popular music. In his WTF interview, he talked about how much he enjoys playing county fares, and other gigs that most big-name performers would look down upon. Look at his tour schedule and look at his venues, and you’ll see he’s a soldier of silliness.
Indeed, recent years have been kind to Al. His latest album, Alpocalypse (2011), debuted at #9 on the Billboard charts. He has become a regular guest on alt-comedy podcasts, sometimes hosted by comedians who grew up with his music. He has popped up alongside the hipsters of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Funny or Die, a comrade in arms. No wonder: in this digital age, when comic book conventions attract entertainment industry attention to rival Cannes, Weird Al’s timeless brand of anti-cool has never been cooler. Far more than Huey Lewis, Weird Al Yankovic has taught generations of young misfits and outsiders that it’s hip to be square.