Obligatory disclaimer: What follows is my latest list of highly specific things I like, presented in the order I like them. This list makes no allowances for anyone’s taste but my own, nor for colossal, head-slappingly obvious omissions, of which, I’m sure, there are many. It’s pretty much as complete as it’s ever gonna get. By reading further, you absolve me, the author, from any liability related to your potentially scarred psyche – permanently furrowed brows, heart palpitations, etc. Feedback on your own favorites, or what I got wrong or right (or wrong), is both welcome and encouraged.
My appreciation for “Weird Al” Yankovic has spanned 30 years now, and was built and cultivated authentically, from the ground floor up. “Eat It”, his sterling Michael Jackson parody, is one of the first pop songs I ever remember hearing (it was track 1/side 1 on a mix tape my cousin and I wore out over the course of a summer weekend), and the album it’s from, 1984’s Weird Al Yankovic in 3-D, was the second album I ever bought. In 3-D has the further distinction of being the only comedy-tinged album to sit among my 20 or 30 all-time favorites (alongside Rush and Iron Maiden, Alice in Chains and Tori Amos, AC/DC and Nirvana, The Police and Pantera). It and he are just that good, the latter a truth lost on so many people who might seek to discount or dismiss his prodigious musical output just because it’s so especially, sublimely silly.
Yankovic is a music encyclopedia and a savvy student of pop culture, a clever writer, linguist and conceptual artist who cared enough to assemble an ace backing band and receive permission from the (often one-hit wonder) artists whose music he co-opted, before proceeding to make their songs truly immortal. Over the years, Yankovic’s public perception and pop chart fortunes have risen and fallen like the stock market. Through it all he has maintained a loyal, some would say rabid, fan base – a potpourri of kids, college students, and parents of almost every age – and risen to a level of royalty in the nerd realm few can claim. His music may start as novelty but has proven to be evergreen. To celebrate the release of his excellent 14th album, Mandatory Fun, DAE inaugurates a new, (hopefully) recurring feature: The Top Ten (+5). First up: “Weird Al” Yankovic song parodies, a list which I realize is the very definition of subjective. I expect readers to either have no opinion on it, or a passionate opinion. Please feel encouraged to substitute/champion your own favorites in the comments. This was a meticulous and excruciating joy to put together.
Which leads to a natural question we might as well dispense with straight away: what qualifies a particular parody to be #1 over others, perhaps equally strong? There are several elements I value when assessing an Al parody: First, the foundation, which is to say the original song, must be solid. It must be appealing musically, and should also be catchy, given its invariable history as a pop hit. Second, Al must do something especially interesting, diverting or clever with it. Often there will be a pronounced element of surprise, which can then morph into delight over the course of repeat listens. Verbal and/or vocal gymnastics are always welcome, but they must be in service of the song’s theme, and fit perfectly into the pre-defined song structure. The lyrics can’t be goofy gibberish, or lazy in the least, which occasionally has happened. The word flow should be smooth, and the word choices should be thoughtful, (again) surprising, and, if not LOL funny (which they so often are), still very, very clever. Most pop music is pure drivel from a lyrical standpoint, of course, which makes it all the easier for Al’s renovations to completely supplant it in the minds of fans. That’s happened to me numerous times.
- “Jerry Springer” – taken from Running With Scissors (1999) – Exhibit A in our presentation is the song I feel best embodies all the qualities listed above, a runaway vocal train which compresses multiple episodes of envelope-pushing talk show mayhem into three minutes of bouncy pop, all to the tune of Barenaked Ladies’ summer of ’98 anthem, “One Week”. This was among the first songs where Al’s talent for rapping really came to the forefront, and as he roll calls Springer’s list of dream guests/combatants, he is the calm eye of an increasingly absurd and bizarre storm. He never stops to be shocked, whether confronted with depravity, deformity or full scale, on stage riots. Sometimes it seems he never takes a breath. If “Jerry Springer” is not Al’s most masterful vocal performance, it’s in the top 1%. There are too many highlights to recount – and modern political correctness, not yet calcified in 1999, strongly recommends I avoid any such temptation – but I especially love the married couple, mid-confessional, each seemingly consumed with one-upping the other’s latest shocking infidelity. Overheard: “That goat doesn’t love you!”
- “Eat It” – taken from “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D (1984) – The song that first made Al a household name, and among the very oldest to still be name-checked in his live set. From the opening gong rings, “Eat It” announces itself as something to be taken seriously, but then, as the song gears up, the hand farts also sneak in, subtly, and we know something subversive is afoot. For the first time on album, the backing music ably mimics the source material (it would get exponentially better as his career progressed) and Al’s vocal delivery gently mocks the dour anti-violence tone of the Michael Jackson original, chastising a particularly fussy eater as he laments that “other kids are starving in Japan”. (How that line slayed me as a kid, by the way…or at least after my older cousin explained to me why it was funny.) The first of many Al songs to rewrite a repeating chorus into a series of increasing rather than diminishing returns (i.e. “Get yourself an egg and beat it”), “Eat It” was the wellspring, and the jackpot, and survives as both a classic piece of comic songwriting and a standard Al could aim for in future years. It holds up marvelously.
- “My Bologna” – taken from “Weird Al” Yankovic (1983) – But this, THIS, is where it all started. Al’s self-titled debut is a decidedly low-fi affair, leaning heavily on his disarming musical gifts. This takeoff on The Knack’s pop earworm “My Sharona” was originally recorded solo (with accordion accompaniment) in a bathroom at Al’s college, and was championed by beloved radio host Dr. Demento, whose support first helped make the young parodist’s name. The album version of “My Bologna” notably includes drums, deftly arranged layered accordions, and a well-timed belch, but retains all of what one imagines was the charm of that lost original take. The gift of clever wordplay is present in Al from the start, as he implores what one assumes are an army of his “little hungry ones” to bathe in the glory that is packaged lunch meat. That and nothing more. Al’s vocal commitment and lyrical dexterity are immediately impressive, and “My Bologna” set a standard for silliness he would both assail and expand over the next 30 years.
- “Bedrock Anthem” – taken from Alapalooza (1993) – Like “Jerry Springer” above, “Bedrock Anthem” has a place on this list largely for how well it injects left field subject matter (in this case the Hanna Barbera cartoon The Flintstones) into a well-defined, somewhat daunting lyrical structure (in this case, “Give it Away” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers). Beyond “Anthem”’s songwriting accomplishment, which is to so deftly integrate minutiae into the lyrics that the pointless becomes somehow transcendent (while remaining funny), the song is infectious and happens to kick butt musically, just as the original did. RHCP bassist Flea is on record as not thinking “Anthem” all that great, but I am consistently knocked out by Yankovic’s precise word placement and unpredictable choices. “Well I got a little woman named a-Wilma / Well I got a little baby named a-Pebbles / Well I got a little doggy named a-Dino / We do a little bowling and we drink a little vino! / Well I got a little buddy Barney Rubble / He a midget but he make a lot of trouble / Doesn’t like to shave, he got caveman stubble!” “Give it Away” is the only piece of source material on this countdown that hasn’t been completely overtaken in my consciousness by its “Weird Al” parody, but that is a compliment to the original, and not any knock on “Bedrock Anthem”, which delights me anew each time I hear it.
- “Yoda” – taken from Dare to be Stupid (1985) – Written around the time of Return of the Jedi but held for release until two years later (who knew George Lucas was at all touchy about intellectual property?), this standout from Al’s second best album is an unabashed crowd sing along song that often ends his concerts, invariably with dancers in Imperial Stormtrooper outfits flanking the stage and he and the band wearing Jedi robes. Based on “Lola” by The Kinks, “Yoda” recounts the events of The Empire Strikes Back from Luke Skywalker’s point of view, the kid straight off the farm suddenly possessed of great power and embroiled as a focal point in intergalactic war. Through it all, the diminutive Jedi Master is a font of advice and inspiration. “I know Darth Vader’s really got you annoyed,” he counsels Luke, “but remember if you kill him that you’ll be unemployed”. Comedy and sage wisdom from the heart of Dagobah, a shimmering, toe-tapping Star Wars geek’s dream. One pictures its listeners happily strumming guitars and gathered around a campfire, just outside the Cave of Evil.
- “White & Nerdy” – taken from Straight Outta Lynwood (2006) – Along with “Eat It” (and the hopefully self-explanatory “Smells Like Nirvana”), “White & Nerdy”, a parody of Chamillionaire’s inescapable 2005 club hit “Ridin’”, is one of three Yankovic songs that broke through to the larger general public and momentarily made him the biggest cult act in America, a fact slightly ironic given the plight of its protagonist, a MIT graduate and wannabe gangster coming to terms with the subterranean depths of his uncoolness. Yankovic catalogues in exhaustive detail all the reasons our Segue-riding, fanny pack-sporting, D&D-playing, “whiter than sour cream” hero would likely be eaten alive by the mean streets if he ever chose them over the suburbs, likely by people who could only calculate Pi to 999 places, or didn’t sufficiently appreciate his knowledge of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or fluency in both Java Script and Klingon. As hip hop songs became first a feature and then a staple on the Billboard charts, Al’s surprising rapping ability opened him up to a fan base that never would’ve given him a second look in the previous millennium. Probably because they hadn’t yet been born.
- “Ricky” – taken from “Weird Al” Yankovic (1983) – Television and food were Al’s go-to topics during his formative years, powering so many early parodies that his first contractually obligated compilation was titled The Food Album. Over the years, his parodies would grow more sophisticated while retaining their core silliness. Still, it’s hard to argue with his self-titled debut’s lead track, a brassy parody that transformed of one of the early ‘80s’ biggest pop hits, Toni Basil’s “Mickey”, from the pining of a lovelorn cheerleader into a contentious but strangely romantic duet between Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, of I Love Lucy fame. The premise, of both I Love Lucy and the song that so perfectly sends it up, is that Lucy is the doting but ditzy 1950s wife of Cuban nightclub impresario Ricky, who suffers her grand schemes and deficient domestic skills because he loves her so. The two spend verse and chorus trading barbs in an escalating point-counterpoint format, with Tress MacNeille, the veteran actress who would later voice Agnes Skinner on The Simpsons, uncannily channeling Lucy’s whine and Yankovic putting in an exasperated, suitably over-accented performance as Ricky. It was a definite risk for a young artist’s first foray into the larger music world to be a song on which he only sings half the lines, but “Ricky” carried with it the shock of the new. Impeccably written and well-played, “Ricky” was a terrific introduction, and effortlessly amuses over 30 years later.
- “Pretty Fly (For a Rabbi)” – taken from Running With Scissors (1999) – Perhaps the outright funniest song on the list is this exceedingly weird reworking of the minor Offspring hit “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)”. Beginning with a Yiddish variation on the nonsense invocation from Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages”, “Pretty Fly” immediately sets about the serious task at hand, which is to proclaim the numerous virtues of the new local rabbi, hurtling itself heedlessly into the depths of Jewish reference cataloguing. “He’s doing well,” the narrator gushes, “I gotta qvell. The yentas love him, even shicksas think he’s swell!” You cannot imagine a more pristinely or comprehensively Jewish holy man than this hero, and Al all but dares the listener to try. As always, his commitment to the character and/or narrative is total. “On high holy days, you know he prays and prays,” the narrator continues, “and he never eats pastrami on white bread with mayonnaise.” Just try inserting that line into any other pop song, ever. Go on, I’ll wait. Al often gets on fearsome lyrical rolls within his songs, where the jokes and references are not only rapid fire but also particularly exquisite in their construction (see also #1, #4, #6 and #10 on this list), but “Pretty Fly”, with its laser focus on cheerfully exhausting the Big Book of Jewish Stereotypes, presents him in peak form. There is no other song quite like it. Make peace with that fact, grab your yarmulke (you know, the one you got for Hanukkah) and hey, hey, do that Hebrew thing.
- “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” – taken from Straight Outta Lynwood (2006) – In recent years, Yankovic has experimented more overtly with song construction, resulting in a handful of striking, pointedly surreal long-form songs, each of which has been among the very best its album had to offer. The lone parody among the group is Al’s epic take on “Trapped in the Closet”, which transforms R. Kelly’s ambitious and notorious rap serial, in which a busted one-night stand further devolves into a labyrinth of lies and shocking sexual intrigue, into the most mundane multi-actor play he could imagine – a married couple arguing over the details of dinner, first at home and then in their immobile car. The fairly brilliant joke is that, in setting this scene, Al flattens the comically high stakes of “Closet” into so much powder but keeps its overheated, hyperbolic storytelling style and dramatic flourishes intact. Hence a simple scenario like the wife deciding to have a chicken sandwich instead of her usual cheeseburger is translated as follows: “I said, ‘you always get a cheeseburger!’ She says, ‘that’s not what I’m hungry for.’ I put my head in my hands and screamed, ‘I don’t know who you are anymore!’” At the time Al parodied it, “Closet” was twelve chapters long, though it has since ballooned to a running 33, and may yet spawn a Broadway musical. As such, it’s the only Yankovic source material I’ve never heard in its entirety. Al captures its slinky, dangerous vibe, however, and mimics Kelly’s histrionics to the letter, although their subject matter is worlds apart. Al keeps the joke running for almost eleven minutes – a comparative pittance in Kelly’s universe, though enough time to have already produced Chekhov’s gun and numerous reversals/betrayals – but the worst thing to happen to the heroic couple is to mistakenly get a burger with no onions. At least our protagonist was able to find Zeppelin on the radio.
- “Word Crimes” – taken from Mandatory Fun (2014) – Yankovic’s fourteenth album has many charms (it’s almost certainly his best of the current century), but perhaps its most delicious is this send up of “Blurred Lines”, the queasy but undeniably infectious calling card of currently free-falling popknuckle Robin Thicke. “Word Crimes” is a sunny summary condemnation and thorough evisceration of bad grammar, and, especially, of those millions who practice it. Thicke’s original, a cynical paeon to the joys of non-strictly-consensual sex set to a slamming, Marvin Gaye-“inspired” beat, is a song I never particularly cared to hear again but nevertheless could never get out of my head when I did. Thanks to Alfred Yankovic, we have all found a better way. The parody unfurls as a dizzying and delightful procession of grammar rules, coupled with blanket (and richly deserved) condemnation of people who, for example, misuse the contraction “it’s”, or the phrase “I could care less”, or the word “literally”. Yankovic clearly delights in comprehensively taking down the sub-mental masses that have overrun the internet. It’s something many of his fans, veteran or rookie, old or new, will identify with vicariously and appreciate. “I read your e-maillllll,” he sneers. “It’s quite apparent / your grammar’s errant / you’re incoherent / Saw your blog pooost / It’s really fantastic / that was sarcastic / ’cause you write like a spastic…” Really, what else needs to be said?
Plus Five – For this project I catalogued every “Weird Al” song, subdividing them into parodies, originals, polkas and oddities, then did a rough initial ranking, followed by a much closer inspection of the upper echelons. Of Yankovic’s 66 officially released parodies, my top 20 really stood out, making the list you just read exceedingly difficult to whittle down and rank. Dare to be Stupid’s Madonna parody “Like a Surgeon” was Al’s first attempt at replicating the success of “Eat It”, and an early example of him exhausting all aspects of a comic premise rather than succumbing to any temptation to coast. Though the excellent “Smells Like Nirvana” was justifiably the centerpiece of his 1992 comeback album Off the Deep End, I slightly prefer the further mangled Spanglish of “Taco Grande”, his spicy appropriation of Gerardo’s novelty hit “Rico Suave”. Al mutated POTUSA’s Alternative Nation hit “Lump” into “Gump” so cleanly and professionally that you’d think the producers of Forrest Gump commissioned the earlier song just so it would exist for him to work his magic on. “Spam”, from the UHF Soundtrack, recast R.E.M.’s most overt attempt at pop, “Stand”, as yet another charming ode to lunch meat. Finally, In 3-D’s “The Brady Bunch” cannily transformed “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats into a celebration of the joys of channel surfing.
Best Albums for Parodies – Al’s first three albums (all mentioned above multiple times) are foundational and marvelous, boasting a combined 14 parodies with only one clunker in the bunch (hello, Cyndi Lauper). 1999’s Running With Scissors is well-balanced quality from top to bottom and, for my money, Al’s third best album overall. It is fairly brimming with excellent parodies, including #1 and #8 above and also “It’s All About the Pentiums”, which reimagines Puff Daddy’s testosterone-soaked ode to Capitalism as a roast of the computer illiterate public by a boastful, particularly self-possessed IT professional. 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood falls a bit flat on the original front, but it contains three top 20 parodies, the aforementioned #6 and #9, plus the hysterical Usher bastardization “Confessions, Pt. 3”, in which an incredibly imperfect husband takes his penchant for full disclosure way further than he probably should.
Final Thought – Al’s own growth as a master parodist over the course of decades is both pronounced and possibly even chartable. As a fun experiment, listen to the aforementioned “My Bologna” and “Word Crimes” back to back some time. Both songs are clearly the work of the same comedic mind, and are amazing, albeit in entirely different ways.