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Talk It Out: Music Editors Past and Present Discuss 'Weird Al' Yankovic

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Published May 4, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

"Weird Al" Yankovic - COURTESY
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For some, "Weird Al" Yankovic is a silly novelty, a joke that's gone on for four decades. Those people are dumb, and their opinions are wrong.

Sorry, sorry. Let's start over. Al wouldn't want us getting nasty. Ahem.

Not everyone understands the brilliance of "Weird Al." Perhaps that's because his fame is largely built on parodying pop hits throughout the 1980s, '90s and 2000s. Some see his career as shtick, like he's some sort of glorified cover band. The assembled past and present music editors of Seven Days respectfully disagree.

This Sunday, May 8, Yankovic brings "The Unfortunate Return of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour" to the Flynn Main Stage in Burlington, with special guest Emo Philips. Rather than playing hits such as "Eat It," "Amish Paradise" and "Polka Face," the pop satirist is reaching into his deep back catalog to perform his equally hilarious original style parodies and pastiches. Instead of his usual theatrical show, which features elaborate costume changes and video segments, Yankovic will be accompanied only by his ace backing band.

To celebrate, music editor Chris Farnsworth enlisted his predecessors Jordan Adams and Dan Bolles to discuss Yankovic's weirdly enduring legacy in this latest edition of "Talk It Out."

CHRIS FARNSWORTH: I know you guys have some feelings about "Weird Al," so I think we should start this talk like any near-religious conversation might: When did Al first come into your life? I'll go first.

It was the '80s and, believe it or not, I took MTV super fucking seriously. I was tiny, and despite the neon clothes, ozone-killing hair spray and general ridiculous nature of music videos, everything I saw on the fledgling channel felt so dramatic and important.

That is, until I saw Al, dressed in a pair of scrubs and gyrating on a hospital gurney as he sang "Like a Surgeon." It was in that moment that I truly understood the world. Here was a song with the line "Got your kidneys on my mind." My sense of humor might have formed right there on the spot.

DAN BOLLES: Chris, we're of a similar vintage, so my intro to "Weird Al" happened around the same time. I was a moonwalking, one-glove-wearing Michael Jackson superfan, so "Eat It" was probably my baptism into the Church of Al. But I have fond memories of cracking up to "My Bologna," "Ricky," "I Lost on Jeopardy," "Dare to Be Stupid" and countless other classics throughout the '80s with my brother, Tyler, and our childhood best friends, Seth and Adam. "Weird Al" was a huge formative influence on our senses of humor as kids. But what amazes me about him — among many things — is that I find him just as hilarious now, three decades later, as an alleged grown-up.

JORDAN ADAMS: I was raised in a very strict Christian household. My parents didn't let me watch PG movies until I was in second grade. We didn't have cable, but if we did, you better believe I would not have been allowed to watch MTV. I know my older brother must've brought "Weird Al" home — and, actually, he probably heard him through your brother, Dan, since they were in the same class. For some reason, my parents didn't object.

Yankovic's music is actually pretty innocuous, unlike some of the stuff he parodies (see Madonna's "Like a Virgin"), so they must've determined it was no threat to my soul. What this means is: Dare to Be Stupid might be the first secular album I ever listened to all the way through. And it blew my mind.

CF: And what better first secular album could you ask for? I heard the title track in the middle of the animated The Transformers: The Movie and was astonished by lines like "You better squeeze all the Charmin you can while Mr. Wipple's not around / Stick your head in the microwave and get yourself a tan." But I couldn't figure out what song Weird Al was parodying with "Dare to Be Stupid"! It drove me crazy for weeks until one of my friends informed me that it was not, in fact, a parody, but an original composition.

Thus opened the world of Yankovic's own songs — "Stuck in a Closet With Vanna White," "You Don't Love Me Anymore" and the classic "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota." I'd always kept them on a separate shelf from his parodies, like they were their own sort of odd museum exhibit. They're such good songs, though!

That said, it seems brave of Mr. Yankovic to embark on a tour playing only his original material. Be honest: When you saw he was coming to town but not playing any of the parody songs, did you get a little less excited? Or the opposite?

JA: I'm glad you brought that up, Chris. As I've matured, I've come to appreciate his originals — specifically, his style parodies — more than his song parodies. When I was a little kid, I'd never heard of Devo, so I wouldn't have picked up on the fact that "Dare to Be Stupid" is meant to sound like a long-lost Devo track.

Now, when I listen to "Everything You Know Is Wrong" from Bad Hair Day, I can really hear how obviously and lovingly he's biting off They Might Be Giants. From the same album, "I'm So Sick of You" is pitch-perfect Elvis Costello, and Even Worse's "Velvet Elvis" is spot-on Police.

DB: When I was in high school, a friend's older brother made a "Weird Al" mixtape. One side was all polka medleys — admittedly an acquired taste. The other was all originals and style parodies: "Melanie," "Nature Trail to Hell," "Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung," etc. Everyone in that friend group had a copy of the tape, and we wore them out. (And, no, none of us dated much in high school.)

Point is: That tape deepened my understanding and appreciation for "Weird Al" beyond the pop parodies. With a few exceptions — "Dare to Be Stupid," "You Don't Love Me Anymore" — his style parodies don't have the same broad appeal as song parodies such as, say, "Smells Like Nirvana." But his originals reveal a more twisted sense of humor. ("Mr. Frump" is literally about a guy on a ventilator dying ... and it's hilarious.)

As he put it when I interviewed him in 2012 (did I mention I interviewed "Weird Al" yet?): "The style parodies, or pastiches, there's no rhyme or reason to those. If I'm doing an homage to a band, it's usually a band that I like or find interesting. So, I listen to their body of work and try to figure them out. I figure out some of the idiosyncrasies that make them who they are and then write a song in their style, but just a little more demented and warped."

CF: I was wondering when you'd bring up the "Weird Al" interview, Dan. And, no, I'm not jealous that you got to talk with him about his songwriting process at all. I'm not seething with envy at this moment at all! I mean, I sat across from Brutus "the Barber" Beefcake on a flight to Cincinnati once, so I've seen some things, too.

Do you guys wonder if the fact that Al has changed with the times — from churning out Michael Jackson spoofs to fucking with Imagine Dragons songs — has helped propel his career? I'm not going to lie: There were plenty of times over the years when I thought the whole thing would just fade away with other oddities from my youth.

Yet the appeal of "Weird Al" is still real. The Flynn show sold out in, like, 20 minutes or something! And, you know, it's not like Al is still dropping parodies like he used to. I think there's more to it. There's a sort of wholesomeness to his humor. None of his jokes seemed designed to really shit on anyone. (Well, maybe "Fat." That one hasn't aged so well.)

But by and large, there's a real uplifting aura around "Weird Al," and I think that might be one reason he's still doing something that, frankly, a lot of people didn't think was sustainable.

JA: I remember being stunned when his last album, Mandatory Fun, hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 2014. I'd expect him to take the top slot on the comedy chart anytime he drops a record, but it was then I realized that he wasn't just some oddity from our youth, as you put it, Chris. He's an icon.

DB: He really is, and it's at least in part because his wholesome-but-twisted appeal is so multigenerational. My 10- and 12-year-old nephews are pumped to see him live this weekend. So are their dad and uncle. And, at least anecdotally, there's a certain type of teenager that still loves Al, too.

I was walking my dog the other day when a high school kid in a beat-up old Toyota Corolla passed by and pulled into a neighbor's driveway. I could hear him coming from blocks away because he was blasting "The Night Santa Went Crazy." On a Sunday morning. In April.

As the kid emerged from his car, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia because he so closely resembled one of my gangliest (and weirdest) high school friends. Watching in awed admiration I thought, You RULE, kid. Then, I'm so sorry you won't get a date until you're 26.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Talk It Out:'Weird Al' Yankovic | Three fanboys discuss the pop music satirist's enduring appeal"