Friends, donuts, sundry hens, I come not to bury “Weird” Al Yankovic but to praise him. Or just to bury him a little, maybe up to the knees.
At 54, “Iron Man” Al has enjoyed unheard-of longevity in the business of making novelty songs. His career stretches from the barely post-adolescent “My Bologna” in 1979 a variation upon the theme of the Knack’s new wave one-hitter “My Sharona”), through the somehow-irresistible 1984 conversion of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” into “Eat It,” to “Cult Hero” Al’s belated manifesto, 2006’s “White & Nerdy” (neatly spun from the gossamer of Chamillionaire’s chorus about “ridin’ dirty”), with which he staked his territory on YouTube.
This week, seemingly inspired by the cornucopia of videos that attended Beyoncé’s latest album, “Market-Savvy” Al has adopted an Internet-conquering strategy of releasing a video a day from his new, 14th studio album, Mandatory Fun. This is probably his last full-length, he’s said, as his record contract is up (the title is partly a joke about contractual obligation) and the format is no longer so suitable to a spoofing style that depends on timeliness.
Most of the public never listened to the albums anyway—very few have heard his original songs (almost always another kind of silly style pastiche) as well as his perennial accordion medleys, which allow him to tick off lists of recent hits he hasn’t gotten around to goosing, instead throwing them an oompah-pah high-five. (The medley on the new album is titled “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!”) Perhaps he’ll be successful releasing songs himself in one-offs or small batches, as he plans. But it might also be that this week’s online orgy of Al will turn out to be kind of a last hurrah. And though I say it with affection, perhaps that’s as it should be.
Comedy had a regular and revered place in the prewar, vaudeville-and-Broadway-based recording industry, and it was common on both sides of the rock ’n’ roll/lounge-act divide in postwar pop—whether with Spike Jones’ orchestral sendups or Allan Sherman’s Catskills standup-in-song, or in Chuck Berry and Lieber-and-Stoller tunes, not to mention outright novelty numbers. It remained so in the hippie era, with the Beatles’ appeal leaning heavily on wit, and Bob Dylan’s stoned beatnik surrealism (“the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”) coming as much from Lenny Bruce as from Ginsberg and Kerouac.
But somewhere in the self-conscious 1970s, despite punk’s best rearguard efforts, the whoopie-cushion air went out of the game. Novelty music, with rare exceptions, was shunted off into a nerd ghetto ruled over by Barry Hansen, aka “Dr. Demento,” and his syndicated radio show of “weird sounds.” It was there that a young Al Yankovic discovered it, began submitting his own demos, and mainly thanks to the incongruity of a teenager with an accordion playing pop music, got adopted and promoted by the show.
And that, plus a little luck, was enough to launch “Nothing if Not Persistent” Al, who sustained his shtick through two decades that remained particularly fallow for deliberate laughs in pop—the CD era, when the music business was as fat as it had ever been on easy money and arrogant about its star-making force.
He had the especial fortune to coincide with the MTV era—videos were essentially ridiculous already, and ripe for the clowning. Without the visuals, Yankovic’s songs would never have had the same traction. He was working in memes and virality before those terms existed. What’s more surprising is that he had so little competition. (Even This Is Spinal Tap was a cinematic event that didn’t much ruffle the charts.)
But today, as many observers have noted, it’s the opposite. He’s not so much “Weird” Al as “Norm”-Al. As Jody Rosen wrote last year, “We’re all Weird Al Yankovic.” The spike in sophisticated comedy as well as the do-it-yourself recording and video-making boom centered on YouTube have brought if anything a surfeit of musical mockery. And a lot of the newborn Weird Als, face it, are simply better than “Field of One” Al ever was.
Consider this week’s offerings: He opened strong on Monday with “Tacky,” a takeoff on Pharrell’s global hit “Happy” and by far the finest of the five parodies on the record. The theme here permits “Sartorial” Al to extend his usual Hawaiian-shirted goofy style to new heights of hideous garishness. But he also gets in some digs about live-tweeting a funeral, “threatening waiters with a bad Yelp review,” and having a “YOLO license plate” that extend the joke beyond dress-up to modern manners and mores.
On Tuesday came “Word Crimes,” a geeky English-usage lecture that’s draped over the frame of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which is great if, like many of his hard-core fans, you’re as much of a grammar pedant as “Finger-Wagging” Al. If not, somewhat less so.
And unlike “Tacky,” which at least parallels one state of social being with another (even hinting that Pharrell’s crowing about happiness was kind of tacky itself), “Word Crimes” is more typical of “Random” Al’s M.O. in that the satire has little bearing on the source song except that the new words fit the same scansion and rhyme scheme.
That flaw is even more evident in “Handy” (the new album’s take on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” as a character portrait of a boastful carpenter) and today’s release, “Foil,” which adapts Lorde’s “Royals” into a tune about aluminum wrapping.
The joy in Yankovic’s main method is less in social relevance or aesthetic critique than in taking the vehemence, cool, or exuberance of a pop hit and applying it to a banal subject. (Most often food or TV.) It’s the schlub jumping out of the stands, scooping up the ball, and making a layup. It’s funny mainly because the doofus-looking guy turns out to have the musical skills to score, which undermines the authority and self-seriousness of the supposed star players—not because his jokes are particularly witty. In fact, his energetic overinvestment in the weak humor reinforces the absurdity.
“Overachiever” Al’s gift, ultimately, is for monocultural satire, laughs everybody can get without a second thought, on the level of Jimmy Fallon’s current talk-show routines: The Tonight Show host likewise depends on musical facility (courtesy of the Roots) combined with utterly uncurbed enthusiasm. Where Yankovic recycles hits into polka kicks, Fallon turns them into faux Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen odes, lip-sync competitions, and schoolroom-instrument jams. All good fun, but nothing to make the ghosts of Noel Coward or Moms Mabley turn their heads.
Fallon and Yankovic both seem childish when you compare them with the deftness of musical satirists such as the hip-hop-appropriating, adults-only, Saturday Night Live-sponsored Lonely Island, with half a dozen near-classics already behind them (including better grammar humor than “Word Crimes”); or understated New Zealand style-synthesizing-virtuosi imports Flight of the Conchords; or the polymath improvisational genius Reggie Watts.
They also seem out-of-touch in contrast with the tech-savvy Gregory Brothers, whose “Songified” segments alternately turn politicians and celebrities into tootling tweety birds or pluck ordinary people out of local news segments and make them viral stars (benevolently or not). And they’re certainly deeply timid and unhip compared with (the sadly defunct) Das Racist, who danced the border between the club and cultural studies with their ethnic-outsider raps about race and pop culture, or the is-it-or-isn’t-it-comedy of figures such as “Based God” Lil B.
You might consider all of these niche successes, but they’re big niches. Meanwhile, if it’s silly, “Ol’ Time” Al-like spoofs of particular songs you’re hankering for, you need only enter the target of your choice with the word “parody” in a YouTube search box and you’ll get all you can handle, often with a more critical edge than Yankovic’s. (Those by Internet collective The Key of Awesome, for instance, often hit a sweet spot between sharply funny and trollingly mean.)
If we have an embarrassment of “Weird” Als, what we lack perhaps is any single great incisive musical social critic, a 21st-century Tom Lehrer or an heir to 1970s-era Randy Newman. (Though Newman is still around, of course, and occasionally plays his hand.) Unless Stephen Colbert decides to make music a priority when he takes over David Letterman’s spot next season, the strongest candidates are likely Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who produced the first great musical-comedy in contemporary film as far back as 1999 and went on to offend Broadway beguilingly with The Book of Mormon.*
Their acumen seems a tad more opportunistic than the ideal I’m dreaming of. But “Resurrected” Al definitely will not be the savior we are waiting for. That individual, or collective, or autonomously intelligent algorithm, or terrifying 8-year-old-girl genius, will emerge out of the YouTube tower of babble when its moment comes. It may well look upon Yankovic as a beloved uncle, or maybe more like an archaeological figure, as significant but as out-of-date as Juvenal.
So let’s enjoy this possibly-last consensus moment of “Weird” Al-mania while we can, in honor of perhaps the least ambitious man ever to stalk celebritydom. Long may his bad food puns haunt us. We all did love him once, not without cause, and … ahem, sorry, bear with me. My heart is in the coffin there with Al, and I must pause till it come back to me.
*Correction, July 17, 2014: This article originally misspelled Stephen Colbert’s first name. (Return.)