Weird Al & the sound of funny

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

antique red accordion Last month I had the pleasure of seeing “Weird Al” Yankovic at Topeka Performing Arts Center. It was the fourth time I’ve seen him! I’ve tried to go to every show in the area. In fact, the parody king of pop music was also my first concert way back in 2000 when I was 12.

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

Yankovic’s own staying power and talent has outshined many of the stars he parodied. His distinctive use of the accordion and polka in his music set him apart from other comedic musicians when he started on Dr. Demento’s radio show in Southern California. Furthermore, his big curly hair, nerdy glasses, Hawaiian shirts and checkered Vans slip-ons became an iconic outfit (I spotted several audience members at TPAC in this get-up).

In 3-D

 Recently, there’s been a resurgence in pop culture appreciation for all things Al. Even though he hasn’t released an album since 2014 he hasn’t stopped touring. One recent tour even had a symphony orchestra backing him. He’s 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 Weird: The Al Yankovic Story kinda broke the internet recently. Starring Harry Potter‘s Daniel Radcliffe as Al, the movie looks to play fast and loose with any facts. The over-the-top melodrama is parody of music bios like Elvis, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman where truth never gets in the way of a good story. And it all started from a joke trailer on Funny or Die.

But it won’t be the first trip to Tinseltown for Al. The 1985 mockumentary, The Compleat Al, fictionalizes his life with his fantastic music video parodies interspersed. It’s crazy to think he’s been around so long that his videos were a formative part of MTV! Then he starred in the ’89 cult classic UHF where he buys a TV station that spoofs Conan the Librarian and Ghandi 2. It’s a dumb, fun time that’ll surely be referenced in the new flick.

Gotta boogie

But what about his music? “Isn’t it just parodies of pop hits?” you may ask. That’s one style, but Al and his band are incredibly versatile! Keeping up with music trends and playing anything that tops the charts pitch perfectly means they’ve got some real chops. And it speaks well to the front man that the same band has stuck by the entire time with no line-up changes.

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

  • Style parodies: Many songs aren’t spoofing one specific single, but a pastiche of a band’s sound and style. Listening to songs like the CSNY-style Mission Statement or The Doors-esque Craigslist, you can pick three or four soundalikes fused into one.
  • Polka medleys: Every album since the start has a medley that whips through about a dozen recent pop songs without changing the lyrics. The catch, though, is they’re all played on traditional polka instruments and arrangements. Accordion, tubas, slide whistles, kazoos and chants all goof up these sincere pop hits into memorable mash-ups.
  • Story epics: Later in his career, each album had a centerpiece that runs at least eight minutes long. These tales tell memorably crazy stories that get more absurd the further they go. It was amazing to see Al recite Albuquerque at the recent concert, a fan favorite stream-of-consciousness over 12 mins.

Another One Rides 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’s been a hit with kids forever and he knows this. So he’s avoided cursing, drug references and mean-spiritedness in general in his music. He’s Christian, sober and vegetarian, but not preachy about any of that. In recent years he’s even written several children’s storybooks (they’re available on Hoopla).

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

  • Flight of the Conchords – This duo from New Zealand blended his style parodies into an HBO comedy show. Subjects included David Bowie, Hall & Oates and Pet Shop Boys.
  • The Lonely Island – The internet trio that got Andy Samberg onto SNL have always had a major musical component to their comedy. Sometimes they even work with the same popstars they parody.
  • Tenacious DJack Black‘s folk-metal musical duo has released many albums, two seasons of a TV show and a movie. Definitely raunchier but still indebted to His Weirdness.

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

Stephen works in the library's Interlibrary Loan department helping you access the materials you want.