On a recent episode, we spoke with Lily Hirsch, author of the excellent book “Weird Al, Seriously.” As is frequently the case for me, I ended up having more notes than we had time for discussing, and so as some of us anticipate the upcoming release of the “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” on the Roku Channel on November 4, I thought I’d share some of my unuttered reactions to Lily’s book. (I ask forgiveness for any disjointedness, or incoherence, or lack of formal citation; these were originally meant to be talking points for our chat.)
In her book, Lily introduces a concept that stood out for me, that being the idea of humor functioning as a sort of universal healthcare with an emphasis on mental health. In this light, Weird Al can perhaps be seen as a highly regarded (albeit modest) doctor, or a renowned psychologist, as his appeal is so broad and enduring. I LOVE this view of him.
Speaking of broad and enduring appeal: I must confess that I wasn’t listening to popular music when my children were young and we were listening to Raffi, The Wiggles and Disney tunes ad nauseum. One day, my daughter came home from 6th grade and said, “Mom, I have to show you this video of this funny guy that Mr. G showed us!” Imagine my surprise when she pulls up the “White & Nerdy” video— which I’d never seen or heard— and I recognize the creator of hilarious songs & videos (videos, especially the videos!) from my adolescence. I was floored and thrilled, and I did actually say, “He’s still AROUND?!?”
Back to humor: Weird Al is certainly a master of the craft of parody. There’s something about the way he goes all in— vocally, lyrically, visually— on the ridiculous things he is singing about that heightens the experience of incongruity, and the unexpected. I love his avoidance of profanity; humor doesn’t require it! He doesn’t shy away from referencing dark or racy themes, but the dark stuff is sublimated through his very careful choice of words and rhymes. I’m not going to say Weird Al is subtle, but the word play wrapping around the racy stuff manages to keep it balanced and palatable.
Speaking of the importance of words: I gained a bit of insight into myself from my reading of Lily’s book. It could perhaps be argued that in general, in the 80s, the actual lyrics of pop and rock songs weren’t as important as the sound, the beat, the musical delivery or even the danceability of the songs. Or maybe I just want to feel justified in my confession here that I didn’t pay much attention to lyrics back in the 80s! I would certainly memorize the lyrics (or at least what I thought were the lyrics) of favorite songs, but frequently I didn’t contemplate or fully understand what was actually being sung about—except for Weird Al songs! The main source of humor of Weird Al parodies was absolutely in the lyrics, and those were lyrics to which I gave my attention. Videos provided an excellent visual component, and Al himself used and continues to use a wide range of voices that always entertain, but the lyrics and the contrast they held against the original song were paramount.
Hm! Not so incoherent after all, I guess. Now go check out Lily’s book!