Weird Al & the sound of funny

“He who is tired of Weird Al is tired of life.” -Homer Simpson

Last month, I had the pleasure of seeing “Weird Al” Yankovic at the Topeka Performing Arts Center. It was the fourth time I saw him! I tried to go to all the shows in the area. In fact, the king of pop music parody was also my first gig in 2000, when I was 12.

Weird Al has become an American institution. By parodying some of the biggest Top 40 hits from the early 80s, Yankovic has essentially charted the course of pop music for four decades! It’s fun to see kids at Yaknovic’s concerts who know the melodies of the songs long before their time.

Yankovic’s stamina and talent eclipsed many stars he parodied. His distinctive use of accordion and polka in his music set him apart from other comedic musicians when he started Dr. Demento’s radio show in Southern California. Plus, her big curly hair, cheesy glasses, Hawaiian shirts, and plaid Vans slip-ons have become an iconic outfit (I spotted several audience members at TPAC in this outfit).

In 3D

Recently, there has been a resurgence in pop culture appreciation for all things Al. Although he hasn’t released an album since 2014, he hasn’t stopped touring. A recent tour even had a symphony orchestra backing it up. He has appeared as himself in shows and cartoons like The simpsons, family guy and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. In fact, he had his own short-lived Saturday morning kids show in the 90s produced by Dick Clark.

However, the announcement and trailer for the new biopic Bizarre: the story of Al Yankovic a bit broken internet recently. Featuring Harry Potter‘s Daniel Radcliffe as Al, the film seems to play fast and loose with all the facts. Over-the-top melodrama is a parody of musical biographies like Elvis, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman where the truth never stands in the way of a good story. And it all started from a joke trailer on funny or die.

But this won’t be the first trip to Tinseltown for Al. The 1985 mockumentary, The Al suit, fictionalizes his life with his fantastic intercut music video parodies. It’s crazy to think that he’s been around for so long that his videos have been an integral part of MTV! Then he starred in the ’89 cult classic UHF where he buys a TV channel that parodies Conan the Librarian and Ghandi 2. It’s a silly and fun moment that will surely be referenced in the new movie.

i have to dance

But what about his music? “Aren’t they just parodies of pop hits?” you can ask. It’s one style, but Al and his band are incredibly versatile! Keeping up with music trends and playing whatever tops the charts perfectly means they have some real chops. And it speaks well to the leader that the same group has remained faithful all the time without changing the line-up.

Besides song-specific parodies, Weird Al’s albums almost always have:

  • Style Parodies: Many songs don’t parody a particular single, but a pastiche of a band’s sound and style. Listen to songs like CSNY style Mission statement or The Doors-esque craigslistyou can choose three or four tones merged into one.
  • Polka Blends: Each album from the start has a medley that runs through a dozen recent pop songs without changing the lyrics. The catch, however, is that they’re all played on traditional polka instruments and arrangements. Accordion, tubas, slide whistles, kazoos and vocals turn these heartfelt pop hits into memorable mash-ups.
  • Story epics: Later in his career, each album had a centerpiece that lasted at least eight minutes. These tales tell crazy, memorable stories that get more and more absurd as they go on. It was amazing to watch Al recite Albuquerque at the recent concert, a fan-favorite stream of consciousness over 12 minutes.

Another takes the bus

Part of Yankovic’s charm is that, despite the delightfully demented themes of his songs, he’s honestly a nice guy. His music has always been a hit with kids and he knows it. He therefore avoided swear words, drug references and meanness in general in his music. He is Christian, sober and vegetarian, but not preachy about it. In recent years, he has even written several children’s storybooks (they are available on Hoopla).

Three decades of comedy inevitably inspired his fans and admirers to carry the torch as well. Many of them worked directly with Al but they all show his influence.

  • Flight of the Conchords – This New Zealand duo mixed their style parodies on an HBO comedy show. Topics included David Bowie, Hall & Oates and Pet Shop Boys.
  • The Lonely Island – The internet trio that brought Andy Samberg to SNL has always had a major musical component to their comedy. Sometimes they even work with the same popstars they parody.
  • Tenacious D – Jack Black’s folk-metal musical duo have released numerous albums, two seasons of a TV show and a movie. Certainly hotter but still indebted to its quirkiness.

I’m obviously biased, with him being my first gig and all. But I believe Weird Al is a positive influence in the increasingly fractured landscape of American pop culture. If you’re looking for something to help you stop taking things too seriously, to laugh, get stuck in your head, and sing along to, check out one of his library albums. And if he returns to Topeka, don’t miss a chance to see him live!

Stephen Ferrell

Stephen works in the library’s interlibrary loan department to help you access the materials you want.

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