Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Weird Al’s birthday was on October 23; Weird: The Al Yankovic Story was released on November 4. This post only arrives this late because I chose to watch this movie on my birthday, which was yesterday. It was chosen to take our minds off a scary election day, and because it being my birthday, I got to do whatever I wanted.

It may shock you to know that I was never the hugest Weird Al fan. By many reliable measures I ought to have been. As a kid I was a major fan of Mad Magazine and Wacky Packages and comical novelty songs, all those things. Yancovic plays the accordion, one of a handful of eccentric instruments the world associates with vaudeville. I was a major, hard core fan of MTV, and also all the oddball comedians who flourished during the ’80s. All those things OUGHT to add up to Yanovic devotion, wouldn’t one think? But I do believe I have an explanation. Weird Al’s debut LP came out in spring 1983, shortly before I graduated from high school. I WAS TOO OLD. If I had been 13, I might have looked upon him as a comedy God, as many younger friends seem to. But me, I was already plumbing the depths of “sophistication”, watching silent movies, vaudeville comedians, screwball comedies, and camp stuff like the original Little Shop of Horrors and Santa Claus the Martians. (Well, it’s all relative, isn’t it? This stuff was hip, anyway, it was kitsch). I knew all of Weird Al’s more popular songs, and watched all the videos, but I’m pretty sure I thought it was…dumb? And not particularly worthwhile? And I found his look pretty mortifying. I confess that I valued “cool”, and Yankovic went full nerd. I mean, DEVO had been vintage nerd, which somehow arrived back in the cool category because it was ironic. But Weird Al looked CONTEMPORARY nerd. (This was a criticism I always had about Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Only Baby Boomers would have chosen those horn-rimmed eyeglass frames for an alienated psycho character in 1993. But Elvis Costello and others had rehabilitated those frames by then. They were actually kind of fashionable again. To play such a character in the ’80s and ’90s you needed the Jeffrey Dahmer frames. Those are the ones Weird Al wore). And that hair and that mustache! And the voice, which was SO try-hard, plus the lyrics which honestly were the sort of thing my friends and I had done for giggles in the school lunch room. In Junior High. And, truthfully, I believe we had done it ABOUT AS WELL as HE did. With premises about as brilliant.

But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now. Here’s where Al earns respect. His tenacity. He kept it up. For decades. In the past, acts like his would have one novelty hit, end of story. He took the joke seriously, never stopped. And as in good parody, the music under the jokes was played totally straight, and well, and professionally. So you had to hand it to him for the execution of the ideas, which was kind of the main point of the joke. A sublime presentation of the ridiculous. Yankovic has earned numerous Grammys, and garnered many more nominations. And every few years there would be some new development that pushed the envelope somehow. In 1989 there was his movie UHF, with a cast that included Kevin McCarthy, Michael Richards, Fran Drescher, Victoria Jackson, Emo Phillips, Billy Barty, Vance Colvig Jr (son of Pinto Colvig) and Al’s real-life supporter and mentor Dr. Demento (and I have always been a genuine Dr. Demento fan). In 1997 Weird Al had his own CBS Saturday morning children’s show.

In 2010, Yanovic and director Eric Appel made a 3 minute film for Funny or Die that purported to be a trailer for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, with Aaron Paul (then white hot from Breaking Bad) in the lead, with Gary Cole, Olivia Wilde, Mary Steenburgen and Patton Oswald also in the cast. After over a decade of encouragement from various quarters they finally made a feature length version. To my surprise and delight, Weird happens to be one of the funniest new comedies I have seen in years. Like UHF it is aggressively, obnoxiously comic. Unlike the previous film, Weird Al and Appel have exercised much more discipline in its creation. It parodies the Hollywood show biz bio pic genre with the same kind of preposterous focus Yankovic gives to his songs.

As it happens that hackneyed genre provides more than enough fodder for the film-makers to send up. Weird is as rich in messed-with quotations as Mel Brooks or early ZAZ, and it manages to keep the momentum going all the way through — no mean feat when you’re only following the FORM of a story, and not telling a real story. There’s the conflict with his working class old man (Toby Huss) who just doesn’t get his music. The “historic moments” when he creates his best known hits. The meteoric rise to the top and his subsequent transformation into a jerk who alienates all his friends. The most delightful aspect of it is the comic hubris of the screenplay and the production. Like, he got Daniel Radcliff –– Harry Potter, no less, a nerd’s wet dream — to play himself, and the love interest is Evan Rachel Wood as Madonna! (Paul and Wilde had aged out of those parts). At the climax Al becomes a macho action hero and takes down drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and his gang! And there’s a Doors scene where, Jim-like, he “whips it out” in front of the audience (spoiler alert, he whips out his accordion). And yes there are bathroom jokes, and a Mack Sennett level of fisticuffs, which I was particularly appreciative of. Bottom line is: it was funny.

Patton Oswald was slated to reprise his role as Dr. Demento, but he had an injury, causing him to be replaced by Rainn Wilson of The Office (Oswald has a cameo in the film though). There is a hilarious section that parodies the pool party scene in Boogie Nights, with only the most outre celebrities in attendance: Pee-Wee Herman, Divine, Alice Cooper, Tiny Tim, Gallagher. Jack Black plays Wolfman Jack, Conan O’Brien is Andy Warhol, and Emo Phillips is Salvador Dali. I was especially appreciative of the presence of Michael McKean, who of course started out with his parody band with Dave Lander called Lenny and the Squigtones. And Lin-Manuel Miranda plays an ER doctor who saves Al’s life, which also seemed like a wonderful, respectful nod — Miranda uses a lot pastiche in his own work.

Which begs the question: when’s Broadway going to do that Weird Al juke box musical?