I don’t think I’d be where I am right now – creatively and emotionally – had it not been for “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Weird Al’s 1999 album, Running with Scissors, was the first CD I had ever owned. I purchased it using my own money I would normally spend on junk at the local flea market. That was my CD, and I cherished that like it was a family heirloom. I played those songs so much that the third track, “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi,” wouldn’t play right anymore, akin to a warped cassette left in a blistering Grand Am far too long.
The first song of his that I had ever heard was a Star Wars: The Phantom Menace parody called “The Saga Begins,” the opening track on Scissors; however, Weird Al didn’t sing it for me. A fellow fifth-grader with a blond bowl cut did.
Now, I believe if we were to tell this same story, they would be analogous, but I have an inkling there would be an argument over who had the more prominent bowl cut. Regardless, it was recess. Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to this transfer student from the Catholic school down the road. While everyone else was kicking balls and running bases, we hung out where the grass met the blacktop. When you’re ten, that’s where you learn the fundamentals of life. In my case, it’s where I dove head-first into a biosphere of music, comedy, and sheer bliss.
I don’t fully recall the initial conversation I had with him, but, at some point, he asked, “Do you like Star Wars?” It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I would show him my hundreds of boxed Star Wars action figures that decorated my bedroom. Naturally, he then belted the chorus of one of the greatest songs I had, and have, ever heard.
Oh, my, my, this here Anakin guy. May be Vader someday later – now he’s just a small fry.
I wanted him to sing that over and over until he was sick of singing it for me. A tall order for someone I had just met. That night, I begged my mom to take me to Wal-Mart for that CD. I wish I could’ve told you I tussled with some old guy at the record store over the last copy of Running with Scissors, but not every story is worthy of a movie adaptation.
I listened to that album until my parents contemplated putting me up for adoption. I may be biased, but that compilation of tunes, including the eleven-minute opus “Albuquerque,” is a paramount musical masterpiece. He released the album with the eerily accurate “The Saga Begins” around the same time The Phantom Menace came out, using solely Internet spoilers to recount the movie’s entire plot. I remember listening to “Jerry Springer” on the lowest level that the CD player could go so my parents wouldn’t hear how dirty it was. “Your Horoscope for Today,” the third-wave ska parody, was one of my favorites on the album. It had such a cheerful tone, despite the screwy, and sometimes dark, lyrics. Much to my surprise, it features members of the Reel Big Fish horn section, who eventually turned out to be one of my favorite bands in college. It’s uncanny how full-circle some things can come.
Now, I could go on for hours about each individual track on Running with Scissors, breaking them down by the word, but I don’t want to write a review for an album that came out eighteen years ago. This is about how Weird Al changed my perspective on almost everything. Eventually, I was turned onto his other albums, like Bad Hair Day, Alapalooza, and Poodle Hat, and was fortunate enough to be fully engrossed in his music by the time Straight Outta Lynwood was released.
Because most of his songs are parodies of chart-topping hits, I had the privilege of tracking down the originals with the power of the Internet and the emergence of the definitive video archive, YouTube. Through Weird Al, I discovered the music of what my dad would call “actual artists,” opening my world to a plethora of musical genres that I wouldn’t otherwise dare touch. Straight Outta Lynwood is a great example of this. On that album, the genre parodies range from punk to hardcore hip hop to the surf sounds of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Not to say that I’m now a dedicated follower of Chamillionaire, but I believe that without hearing Weird Al belt his geeky rhymes in “White & Nerdy” first, I wouldn’t have unlocked the deadbolt of my stubborn mind, preventing me from experiencing these other pieces of popular culture.
In high school, I discovered UHF: the ultimate, and only, Weird Al film. Ever since my first viewing, and, trust me, there have been more than one, I’ve wanted to take over my Uncle Harvey’s bankrupt television station he won the deed to in a poker game. Unfortunately, I don’t have an Uncle Harvey nor do I play poker; however, the dream has yet to die. Despite the silliness of the movie parodies, like Conan the Librarian and Gandhi II, there is a sweet and encouraging message for the outcasts, nerds, and dreamers alike that I certainly held onto, and is the very reason why I keep going back to that movie.
Before Weird Al, all I had were The Beatles and Rolling Stones cassettes my dad would occasionally pop in the car. Don’t get me wrong, I love those bands; however, something just didn’t click for me at the time. A few of my friends were into AC/DC, but I thought they were ‘too hard,’ and I wasn’t about to breakdance to the Backstreet Boys. I didn’t have anything to call my own before Weird Al. It wasn’t until I heard his lyrics and happy-go-lucky attitude with that iconic underlying darkness thoroughly presented in his music that I felt understood.
To think a fifth-grade kid was experiencing an identity crisis may sound ludicrous, but I didn’t have anything that I truly loved to do. I wasn’t into sports. I wasn’t in the school band. I didn’t do a lot, besides play Nintendo and occasionally swing at the park with the few friends I had. It wasn’t until after I discovered him that I started to become involved. I didn’t join the marching band, but I did express interest in playing music, so my dad bought me my first guitar. Still to this day, I’m not sure exactly what I’m doing with it, even when I’m in front of an audience. The heart’s there, either way. Impulsively, I gained the confidence to take tennis lessons. My coach eventually gifted me a McDonald’s T-shirt, autographed by the guy who I owe everything besides my eye color to.
I was so infatuated with his songs that I attempted to write parodies of my own. Some of the more notable ones include “Who Am I?” to the tune of The Who’s, “Who Are You?” and an original called “Tony the Tiger,” both of which went on to earn zero accolades. Though colossal disappointments, the intention was there. Humor has always been an essential piece of my life, even before my discovery of Weird Al. In first grade, I recall having my teacher in tears by this odd dance I would do at the end of the school day, she coined the “Bee Dance.” I couldn’t tell if my classmates were laughing at me, or along, but it didn’t matter. I was the center of attention for two minutes out of every day. I held onto those moments, the ones when I would make people laugh. Still, it’s one of the greatest things when you bring someone out a slump by putting a smile on their face.
MAD magazine arrived on my radar around the same time Weird Al did. It was just another portal to escape into once dinner started digesting. It may be an old wives’ tale that sitting too close to the television will make you go blind, but if the same rang true for MAD magazine, I would’ve lost my vision years ago. There’s something extraordinary about sticking your nose in a publication for hours, chuckling to yourself as if you’re actually insane. Years later, MAD #533 featured Weird Al as guest-editor and as the face of the front cover, alongside Alfred E. Neuman. I treasured that issue like a religious text. Then, someone stepped on it and detached the front from the rest. I guess the moral, here, is that you shouldn’t keep religious texts on your bedroom carpet. Either way, a new copy is currently being shipped, and I can’t wait to laugh at those ink-laden pages all over again. Weird Al and MAD magazine are two reasons why I look at the world in the way I do. Those vital staples of comedy are essential to my overall happiness.
Two months ago, I wasn’t happy. So, I quit my job.
You’re probably thinking, did they not have Weird Al playing on the loudspeakers, or copies of MAD magazine in the stalls? Well, they didn't, but that's not why. No, I felt myself being dragged down the rabbit-hole of the mundane. It was mind-numbing work, a creativity jammer at best. My attention was like a kaleidoscope, comparable to George Newman’s in UHF. We yearned for a chance to let our imaginations flourish, so we focused our energy on our meandering thoughts, rather than the tasks at hand. Nevertheless, George was fired and I walked out. Now, this is the part where you expect me to say that Weird Al made me want to quit my job, though the answer is no. I quit because I wasn’t content with the very idea that a monkey could do my job just as well as I could. I felt like I deserved more than what I was dealt.
Every day, I focus much of my vigor writing television pilot scripts that may never amount to anything, and I’m okay with that. Just the idea of trying to do something that’s seemingly impossible to thrive doing is enough for me. I believe it illustrates courage, and Weird Al’s success story is proof of that. He did something that was out of the ordinary, in more ways than one. He wasn’t sure if his act would do well, but he did it regardless. As odd as it is to have a prodigious accordionist as a role model, I take great pride in saying Weird Al is mine.
Even if other influences like Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park guide my humor stylistically, I fully attribute how I started writing to Weird Al. Through him, I comprehended what makes something funny. Through him, I unearthed novel music I would have never otherwise been exposed to. Through him, I believe I’ve become a happier person.
Weird Al has been there when no one else was. Because of the beauty of music, he’ll always be there when I need him. First semester of college, my dorm room was Weird Al-free. I thought that it was time to move on to more sophisticated genres, like jazz or Stravinsky. But, that semester, I realized that because of Weird Al, I’ll never truly grow up. And that’s all right. I have MAD magazine, Nintendo, Sunday comics, Dino nuggets, and, of course, the man with more Hawaiian shirts than undergarments to maintain the speed of this train. Whatever keeps Stravinsky away is fine by me.
Every year, I go through my Weird Al phase, listening to his old records and reminiscing about how cool it was just to hang out in a basement and sing along and laugh to a CD. To this day, I listen to his music and I’m still taken by how he manages to surprise me every time, though I know almost every lyric by heart. Whenever I hear Running with Scissors, I’m transported to that momentous day on the blacktop, and cannot help but thank that blond kid for everything.
I was fortunate enough to see him perform live during his Alpocalypse Tour. When the horns belted the intro to “Wanna B Ur Lovr,” he strutted out into the audience and grinded his crotch around an old man’s face, two seats away from me. I didn’t have the courage to touch his shoe, but he did make eye-contact with me at one point. I saw him in that iconic fat suit, dressed as an Amish man, but, most importantly, I heard “The Saga Begins” live. The song that started it all.
If my brain were a television, Weird Al would be the picture-in-picture of my mind. There may be this other thing happening on the big screen, but there’s always a little frame in the corner in case I need something to go back to.