Weird Al Yankovic has the Number One album in America with Mandatory Fun. It’s the first comedy album to go to number one since My Son, The Nut by Allan Sherman in 1963. For someone to hit a career peak 35 years in, with their 14th album, is about as common an occurrence as someone cleaning all the bathrooms in Grand Central Station with their tongue.
In case you missed it, Weird Al is all over the media lately, with 2000-word profiles in places like Rolling Stone and Grantland. He’s got recent stories on pretty much every website that kinda-sorta covers news, from the New York Times to reddit to laughspin. I’d say they’re missing two things: one, Weird Al is funny. Let’s just say that, since they don’t. He’s funny! Okay, number two is going to take a little longer (happens).
Almost but not quite as a side note: have you ever noticed that there’s generally an inverse relationship between quality of writing and amount of time a writer mentions his/her age? In the case of something like Grantland’s look back at 1994, just about every writer feels it’s necessary to chime in with what grade they were in, what their friends were liking, why they never saw this film (“I was 10, give me a break” – Molly Lambert)…never mind that Roger Ebert wrote something like 5,000 reviews without once mentioning anything like his age, including hundreds of revisitings of “great movies” he’d seen long ago (Ebert never wasted his readers’ time with words like: “Oh, yeah, well, when this came out when I was in college, we were so excited”…like half of his successors). In the case of Weird Al, someone like the writers in Deadspin and MTV are typical: oh, here’s how old I was when I discovered Weird Al, here’s what he meant to me as a teenager, like that.
Hey, internet writers: when your headline is about something famous (a movie, a show, a song, a star), we don’t care about your high school journeys. Imagine a 23-year-old writing about the summer they discovered Miley Cyrus’s music, and you’ll get an idea of how you sound. (You’re not going to read me here writing about the multiple times I saw Weird Al in concert; other than me, who cares?) My point: if your idea of going back in time is to give historical perspective (and not just to say, “hey, I got this job when I was under 30, suck on it older writers!”), then how about some historical perspective. Here’s an example: why wasn’t there a Weird Al before Weird Al? Oh, you mean that might require research beyond youtube surfing and staring at your belly button?
So here’s the second thing: where Al came from and why we won’t have another. You see, there were lots of song parodists before and after Weird Al. But it’s not a coincidence that he hit the culture just after Airplane! (1980) and Airplane II (1982). Those movies, written and directed by Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, were hardly the first films to satire Hollywood, but they did reflect a sensibility that was only possible after living through the 1970s. Before then, few Americans knew or used the word genre; at the peak of the Hollywood Renaissance, when movies like Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The Last Picture Show (1971) were coming out, genre was a dirty word, something to be avoided. Fast forward through Airport (1970), The Godfather (1972), Cabaret (1972), The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978), and Alien (1979), and genre becomes Hollywood’s savior, or at least a far more potent force than ever before…and thus ripe for satire. In some ways, the ZAZ team was simply following in Mel Brooks and Woody Allen’s footsteps (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Bananas, Sleeper), but while Brooks and Allen used genre parody to set up funny stories, ZAZ – more like Mad magazine – used threadbare stories to set up more genre parody. The assumption is more post-modern: the audience is presumed to be so familiar with the tropes that we can run through machine-gun fire jokes that may not relate to each other. Weird Al was all over this, in a way that few others even tried.
Weird Al also benefitted from, and helped to spearhead, a rising wave of pro-nerd culture. Where were nerds on TV or in movies before 1978? Pretty much nowhere (other than JJ on Good Times?). Animal House (1978) was a comedy earthquake, the first proof that the SNL sensibility (which they’d borrowed from Monty Python, but never mind) wouldn’t be limited to TV. In the film, John Belushi made fun of nerds, but by the time he palled around with the dorky Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers (1980) the more complicated truth was coming out: nerds could be useful and fun. As Tina Fey wrote in her book, Lorne Michaels’ genius was to combine Second City performers and Harvard writers in a cocktail and stir. At some point, just in the name of contrast, the Harvard side had to come out; Weird Al emerged in a sweet spot between the Apple II’s appearance on national news covers and Revenge of the Nerds (1984). With his stringy long hair, slumped shoulders, nasal vocals, self-deprecating pseudonym, and Hawaiian shirts, Weird Al was an unapologetic nerd, catnip to the young engineers and math whizzes who were just beginning to think up the Internet. (Ever notice that the terms “Weird Al Yankovic” and “Wikipedia” share first letters and syllable structure? Could be a coincidence.)
That’s where Weird Al parts company from his contemporary song parodists; instead of trying to show how cool he really is, Weird Al admits to his lameness and devotes more time to thinking up better lyrics. Weird Al was self-branded before self-branding was everything; he was his own niche before everyone looked for theirs. At this point, anyone else trying to establish a song parody brand looks like a non-ESPN sports website. Moreover, people are getting meaner, courser, and raunchier, not unlike the way the Scary Movie franchise looks compared to Airplane!, Top Secret (1984), and The Naked Gun (1988). There was a sweet, gentle sincerity and lack of anger to ZAZ that’s now outdated…except for Weird Al. Just his choice of targets, like food and grammar and the Amish, settles the audience into a mode of middle-class goofiness. A bit of desire for that sensibility goes a long way to explaining Al’s current rise to the top.
Depending how you figure, Weird Al has a thousand successors, or none. His influence is all over every youtube parodist, but no one is about to be what Weird Al was even in 1984. Musicians have long been thought cool, and they often thought it was fun to let Weird Al parody them, perhaps because any press is good press, perhaps because he introduced their melodies to a more affluent demographic (surely, some nerds went out to buy Coolio and Chamillion only after learning of their songs through Weird Al), or perhaps because Weird Al is a nice guy and what the heck. But musicians aren’t cool the way they were, because no one, and especially not the top-selling artists, have anything like mystique anymore. People like Prince, Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, and Patti Smith benefitted from us not knowing what they did at home and us assuming it was something cool; now, ye may know them all through their tweets, and no one can have a Sinatra-like persona. Without the Cobains, the Yankovics don’t mean what they did. Thus Weird Al’s current resurgence is both utterly internet-dependent – eight new videos in eight days – and an odd nervous reaction to it, a sort of nostalgia for a time when social media wasn’t everything.
Weird Al’s habit of resolving contradictions isn’t exactly a new thing. Chris Rock told Jon Stewart something profound when he said that choosing comedy might have been the biggest mistake either of them ever made, because audiences constantly expect new material; Rock pointed to Sting writing “Roxanne” and audiences being goddamn thrilled for 30 years when Sting plays that one thing. But Weird Al has split the difference, writing new jokes that people love along with performing 30-year-old songs to rabid applause. 14 albums later (compared to stand-up comedians like Rock who will never have a double-digit amount of albums), Al has not only banked the most laughs. He’s also getting the last one.