“Weird Al” Yankovic was technically my first concert. At the time my mom, bless her heart, was worried that a lot of the culture I was consuming was parodying things I hadn’t seen the original of yet—this was the era (at least for me) of Animaniacs and Mystery Science Theater 3000. She had a point: I knew the words to “Smells Like Nirvana” way before I was even aware of who Nirvana was. But like a lot of kids, I loved the music and knew it was funny anyway, without ever having to see the source material.
The idea of parody itself has been bastardized in the past few years with things like “parody” Twitter accounts that are actually just generic jokes with the likeness of a funny celebrity or a character, and parody movies that are just barrages of random pop culture references. (Can I make myself the Bill O’Reilly of this cause and start going on about “the war on parody” to anyone who will listen? I wasn’t actually asking your permission.)
Many great icons of ‘80’s weirdness—Sam Kinison, ALF—are gone, but Yankovic is still at it—according to his conspicuously rudimentary website, he just finished a three-year tour in support of his most recent album, Alpocalypse. He’s also written his second children’s book, My New Teacher and Me, and if the Amazon preview of it is representative, it is extremely charming. He also recently collaborated with AV Club writer Nathan Rabin on a coffee table book about his life.
Yankovic endures not because his parodies keep up with pop culture—although that is essential to his shtick—but because the “Weird Al” character is timeless. He is an archetypal Southern California dork, even after his makeover (circa the Running With Scissors album, when I saw him live), often clad in stupid Hawaiian shirts, his voice a singularly zany honk.
He’s an institution, and while I don’t listen to his music the way I did when I was a kid—can you imagine walking around with parodies in your earbuds now?—the fact that he’s still doing it in a relevant way represents something still really right with the world.
Re-listening to his catalogue, and listening to his newer stuff for the first time, I realized effective parody takes different approaches and works in different ways. For example, here is a video (dated 1979!) of Yankovic performing “My Bologna,” a parody of the Knack’s “My Sharona.” “My Bologna” holds up really well—partly because, even at such an early stage in his career, he is so devoted to the character of accordion-playing bologna enthusiast, so willing to ham it up. I am so sorry for that joke.
The other part of why it holds up, and this may seem obvious, is that bologna is an incongruous thing to sing about. He does not try to be clever or make double entendres about it, he just sings about his love for bologna. Something about this approach seems incredibly natural to me now—I’m not sure if growing up on Yankovic’s music is the reason my friends and I like to change words to popular songs to be about the food we’re eating, or if it’s just something goofballs have always done.
This formula paid off throughout Yankovic’s career: “My Bologna” led to “Eat It” (“Beat It”), which led to “Girls Just Want to Have Lunch,” which begat “Addicted to Spuds,” (as in, “Might as well face it…”) There is an entire Food Album, a compilation.
2006’s “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” a parody of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet,” maybe constitutes an example of a different type of effective parody, though, despite its fast food theme. For one thing, it breaks what we could call the Scary Movie rule of parody: it makes fun of something that is already humorous and self-aware. However, the pleasure in listening to “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” like Aziz Ansari’s R. Kelly impression, comes from Yankovic pointing out specific idiosyncrasies of Kelly’s style, most notably in an interaction between the speaker and his wife around 1:17 involving a mishearing of the word “delivered.”
Yankovic’s recent parody of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” constitutes a third, rarer type of parody in his catalogue, in which the subject matter is actually the opposite of that of the original song. In Yankovic’s version, the speaker is broke, but still insists he is treating his significant other right: “Buy you a bagel even if it isn’t day-old… Long as I’m still assistant manager at Kinko’s.”
By reversing the wealth from the original song, his version becomes a political parody (for an even darker example of this, listen to his cover of the Miley Cyrus anthem “Party In The USA” called “Party In The CIA”):
The inverse of the parodies is Yankovic’s polka medleys. On one track per album, he performs a string of the choruses of loosely-related hits on his accordion, with their original lyrics. Yankovic’s music is never disrespectful to its source material, but “Angry White Boy Polka” pokes holes in the empty grimness of Disturbed and Papa Roach in a hilarious and completely deserved way, and “Polkas on 45,” from Yankovic’s first LP, has a similarly deflating effect on Jimi Hendrix and The Doors. Why the grunge-era “Alternative Polka” doesn’t have the same edge to it would involve a whole discussion of what constitutes pretentiousness in rock, and I already feel like I’m going to get my lunch money stolen after writing this article.
Certain concepts die but others only get funnier with repetition and persistence and escalation of extravagance. Yankovic is a master of a very specific, bizarre, but hilarious thing and I hope he keeps at it for decades more. Here are some more “Weird Al” classics, including some originals. I think Taylor Swift should cover “One More Minute:”