Weird Al is a genius

Editor’s note: This conversation was conducted via Facebook messages. It has been edited for clarity, and frankly for content, but not really for length.

JJ: OK. Stop listening to “Albuquerque.” Let’s talk about Weird Al.

Cody: I’ve got him on shuffle. “Albuquerque” ended like one Albuquerque ago.

JJ: This conversation is literally all I’ve wanted to do since he released that first video on Monday. So, lets start with earliest memories stuff: What was your first encounter with Weird Al?

Cody: I honestly don’t remember. It might have been a Disney channel promotion for a concert, because they used to show concerts on Disney channel a lot. I’m talking early ’90s. I remember my earliest memory being very closely tied to his fat suit from the “Fat” video, but I know he wore it in his concert too.

Here, this was it:

JJ: Wow, you like, found it. Your earliest WA memory.

Cody: I can’t find the date though. Probably around ’92.

JJ: I first heard about him from my best friends growing up, and it was the Bad Hair Day album. He bought it and we listened to it all the time.

I remember the “Phony Calls” calls parody of “Waterfalls” by TLC and I thought it was hilarious. I remember listening to the TLC song in my brothers car when he would drive me places and I loved it So when I heard “Phony Calls” I felt like I was part of some awesome inside joke. The part where Bart Simpson asks for Seymour Butts really scandalized me though.

I also had these really cool Jewish neighbors who had a daughter that was my sisters age and she listened to him all the time, so I thought he was like this cool insider Jewish thing.

Cody: Ha. That’s funny.

JJ: Which doesn’t make sense since the friend who introduced him to me was and is not Jewish, at least that I’m aware of.

Cody: So did you ever see The Weird Al Show?

JJ: Yes. And I loved it. I had the whole theme song memorized. And memorization is hard for me.

Cody: By that time I was in on the joke. When I saw him on the Disney Channel I didn’t get what he was doing. It seemed too grown up for me. Which says a lot about how young I must have been.

JJ: I always got that he was making fun of pop songs, but I don’t think I knew he was riffing on other talk shows with The Weird Al Show. I think I just thought he understood me on some strange deep level.

Cody: Here’s something that’ll blow your mind because you know me and how important this is: the first episode I saw of The Weird Al Show was my introduction to Barenaked Ladies. Which seems funny now that he’s obviously outlasted their popularity, despite being a ‘novelty act’.

JJ: That is so precious. Is he friends with them?

Cody: I think he’s friends with everyone, right?

JJ: Everyone that’s cool. I know he’s buddies with, like, Ben Folds, Patton Oswalt, William Shatner.

Cody: Patton Oswalt was on that same episode.

JJ: Patton Oswalt? Really? Back then? Had he even hit it very big yet?

Cody: Nope. It might have been his first TV appearance. I’m not going to bother to confirm that, of course.

JJ: Also, I thought UHF was the funniest movie I had ever seen, and I still don’t get how people don’t find it at least moderately amusing.

Cody: I’ve only seen it once. I can’t remember if I loved it, but I’m sure it made me laugh

JJ: I like, LOVED IT. The guy who licked the turtle and threw it on the roof. Got me laughing every time.

Cody: I should watch it again. I think it’s on Netflix.

JJ: I think that watching UHF and listening to his greatest hits CD’s is what taught me all about 80s music.

Cody: I know that “Alternative Polka” is where I first heard a lot of classic ’90s songs. Like Beck’s “Loser.”

JJ: Me too. Also, I don’t think I would know who the Kinks are were it not for Weird Al. I remember spending a lot of time looking in the liner notes of his albums, and I actually discovered a lot of music that way.

Cody: Can you think of any Weird Al parodies that outlive the originals? There’s certainly a lot in Polkas. Like, “Flagpole Sitta” – nobody would remember that song if it wasn’t immortalized in a Weird Al polka.

JJ: Well, that’s kind of hard, because fans of those songs would probably argue about it, but I think that “Yoda” is more popular on the internet than “Lola.”

Cody: That’s a good point.

JJ: And “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi” is still kind of an internet thing, and I doubt most people under 23 even know that that’s not an original.

Cody: But the original was pretty terrible. Also The Offspring ripped off the Beatles with that one song anyway. Were they trying to do that?

JJ: I think so.  Also, his Jurassic Park song. I know that’s a parody, but I honestly can’t remember what the original song actually is. The music video is so great.

Cody: I don’t know that one – but there are songs that are more style parodies than direct song parodies.

JJ: Yeah, and those are what prove he’s a genius. Like, that’s when he really lets his genius shine.

Cody: But when he does that, it can be hard to pinpoint the reference, which I really like. “Everything You Know Is Wrong” for instance, is supposed to sound like They Might Be Giants, but since they use an accordion and are kind of silly anyway it just sounds like pure Al Yankovic.

JJ: Yeah. This one’s a lot more obvious, but his take on Bob Dylan songs “Bob” is really great. Every verse is a palindrome, and it actually sounds like a Bob Dylan song. That’s hard. The palindrome part, not the “sounds like Bob Dylan” part.

Cody: Right.

JJ: So, do you actually have an album that you like the most? Am I changing the subject too quickly?

Cody: Probably Running With Scissors or Bad Hair Day, and no you are not Like, I wanted Running With Scissors for Christmas one year, and I got it, but I remember this weird feeling before I got it that it was the only thing in the whole world I wanted, and once I had it my life would be complete. It was weird, and I don’t often have such anticipation for an album.

I got my own stereo for Christmas that year, too, so of course Weird Al was the first thing I ever played on the soundsystem that would carry me through high school. That’s significant, right?

JJ: Funny story, I used to play “Christmas at Ground Zero” every Christmas morning when I was a kid because it was funny. Also, I thought “The Night Santa Went Crazy” was really hilarious. But I didn’t play that every Christmas morning because I also recognized that it was kind of morbid.

Running With Scissors was my obsession though. In fact, The very first boy/girl party I ever hosted (like, not a birthday party, just a strange middle school thing) all we listened to was RWS.

Cody: That’s weird.

JJ: Thanks. I was too scared to play any real pop music because I didn’t know what people would like and I didn’t want to play anything that would offend my parents. So we listened to “All About the Pentiums” and had a good time.

Cody: I was never cool enough to host boy/girl parties.

JJ: Well, that was the last one I ever hosted. For obvious reasons.

Cody:  That just reminded be of my friend Mary’s birthday party, right after that Christmas that I got Running With Scissors, so it would have been my freshman year of high school. Her family had the TV on in the living room, and all her friends came over but instead of being social I just asked if we could leave the TV on because they had it on VH1 and Weird Al’s Behind the Music was on, and then a concert. But, unlike your middle school party, which sounds awesome, I was the only one sitting in a living room full of 13 and 14 year old girls watching Weird Al on TV. I think I was the only boy at the party, too. So, I guess that was a formative experience in my youth as well.

JJ: My middle school party was not awesome.

Cody: My middle school friends would have made fun of me for listening to Weird Al because they were much more interested in pretending to be in high school. I got made fun of for liking BNL even then, when they had a number one hit. In middle school everyone was into Korn and The Offspring, like that was any better. Luckily, by the time I got into Weird Al I was in high school and found a better, nerdier clique and everyone was cool with it. One of my friends recorded Bad Hair Day to a cassette for me around the same time.

JJ: I think all I did with my middle school friends was listen to Weird Al. I kind of lost interest in High School. I think mostly because he was parodying music I wasn’t actually listening too. The less aware I became of pop music the less I thought he was funny. Also, I took life way too seriously in high school.

Cody: That’s why I missed the last few albums. But also I don’t think he released his next album until after I graduated, and I was thrilled that The Strokes made it into his polka because that was my high school album. Running With Scissors was perfect because that’s when I listened to the radio most.

JJ: Me too. Like, I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard whatever song his “White and Nerdy” parody is based on. But I remember that getting really big and me not caring.

Cody: Of course, I had to look up “Blurred Lines” after I heard “Word Crimes” and I wish I hadn’t.

JJ: Have you noticed he doesn’t parody any alt/indie music anymore? I mean, in his catalogue he has Nine Inch Nails, U2, REM, Nirvana. But now everything is just riffing hip-hop or party pop. I guess one of his songs on the new album is “done in the style of the Foo Fighters.” But still. It just seems different now.

Cody: Because he has to stick to what’s relevant. I think he follows Billboard or something.

JJ: Oh, that makes sense.

Cody: So he only parodied those alt bands when they were on the charts and MTV. The ’90s actually were as great as everyone remembers them.

JJ: So is literally no one listening to music that isn’t hip hop or pop anymore?

Cody: No, they are, but everything is a niche market now. So he still has to stick with what’s on the radio and pop charts. Which is mostly scientifically calculated for radio and pop charts.

JJ: I’m surprised he didn’t parody Mumford and Sons.

Cody: I was thinking that, too actually.

JJ: That album was on iTunes top 10 for like a year.

Cody: I wish he had. There’s something kind of victorious about turning an awful song like “Blurred Lines’ into an anthem for English majors.

JJ: Let’s not get too down on Mumford, but I get what you’re saying. That’s what’s so great about what he does. He kind of makes you realize that pop music and pop culture in general is actually really silly.

Cody: He uses pop culture as a vehicle for jokes, which is kind of the whole premise of parody, but there’s a larger statement about pop culture in the songs he chooses. But also that there’s a lot of people who get tired of the repetitive shtick of pop music and relate more to songs that are more absurd. Like “Word Crimes.” Or “The Saga Begins.” It has to exist because so many people were so excited for Phantom Menace. That song isn’t just a parody, it’s actually a reflection of real culture and captures the anticipation, before we knew it sucked. It’s almost like a real folk song, in that way. Who else is just going to do a song about Star Wars like that?

That’s why this week has been great. He’s reminded everyone why he’s the best at it. And it’s not just because he makes clever rhymes that fit the originals, its because his jokes are smart, and he is so entertaining.

JJ: I think “Word Crimes” is like that too. It’s actually a really funny critique of what the Internet and texting and general modern laziness is doing to language. It’s very now in a wonderful way. We will be able to look back at his song and think “remember when that was happening? Remember when we still kind of cared about that?”  Also, I feel like it must be hard for him to do his thing these days with all the other parodies on YouTube.

Cody: I don’t think so. Anybody could have come up with using “Foil” for “Royals,” but diverging into the conspiracy theory verse was so inspired.

JJ: Yes. Have you heard the one about business buzzwords? The video came out today. It’s called “Mission Statement.”

Cody: Isn’t it a parody of Mumford and Sons? Oh, wait, Wikipedia says Crosby Stills & Nash.

JJ: Working in this modern culture where buzzwords are basically a second language, that song isn’t just funny, it’s redemptive. It reminds you that you aren’t crazy. These things really are absurd.

Cody: Exactly. Which can be a very crucial part of comedy. That’s what I’m really getting out of this new album.  How vital and original he is as a comedian. I’ve always only thought of him as a musician, even if he is a parody artist, but now I realize that his songs are bits, and the music is just a format for delivery.

JJ: His bizarre persona is such a big part. The accordion. The hair. How he flails his arms.

Cody: Those moves.

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JJ: It’s so easy to just worship that when you’re a shy 12 year old. And also, his comedy is really really smart. Most of the time.

Cody: Have you seen his first TV performance? When he did “Another One Rides The Bus?” It’s so amazing, because the audience doesn’t care at all and he’s just doing it, no reservations or nerves at all. That’s incredible. And by audience I really mean host.

JJ: It was interesting to hear him say in that interview with Marc Maron you showed me that he thinks his lyrics have gotten a lot more mature.

Cody: I think that’s true. There’s not very many fat jokes anymore.

JJ: Or food jokes. The man has an entire album dedicated to how funny he thinks food is.

Cody: In fact, “Fat,” even though it is still funny, might be someday evidence of an unenlightened past when we demeaned and made jokes about weight. I don’t think he would do that now, and I don’t think someone else doing it now would capture the same audience.

JJ: I was actually thinking about that. It seems really mean now, but I guess people were just more mean in the ’80s.

Cody: Now it’s like an episode of Family Guy. It still works as comedy, but not for Weird Al’s fanbase. But then, he has a pretty wide fanbase. I think I’m making a fat joke myself now.

JJ: What’s your favorite video? Did you know he directs his own videos?

Cody: I didn’t. “Eat It” is really funny. There are so many jokes in there.

JJ: Yeah, and I think “Eat It” is the only one I can think of where he is also doing a really blatant parody of the original video.

Cody: And “Fat.”

JJ: Wait, I was thinking of “Fat.”

Cody: “Eat It,” too.

JJ: Yeah, come to think of it, I think he actually directly parodies music videos a lot. “Bad” is such an iconic video, but it’s also kind of silly. And “Fat” takes full advantage of that.

Cody: The “Eat It” video is like a shot for shot remake of “Beat It,” but there’s jokes crammed into every shot, like the picture falling off the wall or all of the gangsters’ pants falling down.

Cody: Actually I think my favorite video is “Smells Like Nirvana.”Or maybe “Dare to Be Stupid.”

JJ: I think my favorite is “Amish Paradise.” It just takes itself so seriously. It goes 100 percent and I love that.

Cody: Also, the Dire Straits one.

JJ: The strange CGI one? The dream in UHF?

Cody: Yes! It’s hilarious

JJ: Yeah it is. And really really strange.

Cody: I also really love Weird Al’s voice, and I think “Since You’ve Been Gone” is great evidence.

JJ: Yeah, I mean he can do this strange thing where he manages to imitate famous voices while simultaneously singing in that nasally Weird Al way. And it all works and makes sense and you understand what’s going on. That seems hard.

Cody: Also, I’d like to see him do a serious album. Maybe join a band, with Flea and Black Francis and Steven Drozd or something. I want to know if he writes serious songs, but shelves them or something.

JJ: I feel like he has to. I mean, he’s got the gift of music. Maybe he doesn’t share them with the world because he probably writes them on the accordion and the market just isn’t ready for a serious accordion song right now. At least not yet.

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JJ Feinauer

JJ writes stuff occasionally.

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