The master parodist and lovable nut plays August 21 at Overture Hall. | By Joel Shanahan, Scott Gordon, Chris Lay
For a guy who made his career goofing on pop-music ephemera, "Weird Al" Yankovic has aged remarkably well. Most of the stuff he's released since the early '80s holds up pretty well, and his parodies-and-polka formula even surged back to a career high with 2014's Mandatory Fun and its welcome barrage of music videos (including one made by a Madison whiteboard-animation company). One reason for that longevity is that, like all good parodists, he approaches the material with affection and attention to detail, whether he's turning Lorde's "Royals" into the conspiracy-theorist anthem "Foil" or tackling mind-numbing garbage like Billy Ray Cyrus' "Achy Breaky Heart" and The Offspring's "Pretty Fly For A White Guy." (Regarding the latter parody, "Pretty Fly For A Rabbi," um, they can't all be winners, Al.)
The other key is that Yankovic's sense of humor is mostly just relentlessly silly—he can get a little harsh or snarky sometimes, but usually even that comes off as good-humored somehow. The writing hasn't gotten bitter or ugly or lazy over time. Weird Al is bringing his Mandatory Fun tour to Madison on August 21 at Overture Hall, and while we'll be as happy as anyone to hear recent favorites like "Word Crimes," we thought we'd take the excuse to recommend some of his less-appreciated masterworks.
"Weasel Stomping Day"
Anyone who's paid attention to Yankovic’s career knows that he writes a lot of originals in between the parodies and polka medleys. One of his greatest and most demented feats was an original tune from 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood. "Weasel Stomping Day" is a glorious pisstake on the cartoonishly wholesome, 1950s vocal-jazz template that was used and abused in commercial standards like "Meet The Flintstones" and Gene Autry’s atrociously unwashable "Here Comes Santa Claus." This hilariously cruel tune is an ode to a twisted, made-up holiday dedicated to crushing the spines of mustelidae and it truly begs to be whistled. Yankovic gets extra points for the repulsive and flatulent splattering noises that are littered across this snappy little number. —Joel Shanahan
Sometimes Weird Al's parodies seem to start from a forehead-smackingly obvious place—"Gump" rhymes with "Lump," one of smart-assed rockers The Presidents Of The United States Of America's mid-'90s hits—but hey, he thought of it before someone else did. Basically the whole song is Weird Al reciting plot points from Forrest Gump ("His buddy Bubba was a shrimp-lovin' man/ His friend with no legs he called Lieutenant Dan"), pitching in some of his own snarky but perhaps reasonable observations ("He's Gump, he's Gump, he's Gump/ Is he inbred?"). The video, meanwhile, envisions the less-than-uplifting scenes that could result from a random dude offering strangers chocolate at the bus stop. Of course, it's not quite as inspired a parody as the Cigarette Smoking Man's "Life is like a box of chocolates" speech, but still holds up as an opportunistic stitching-together of two pop-cultural moments that just happened to arrive within a year of each other. —Scott Gordon
"The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota"
It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest that I discovered how seriously folks out here take their tourist traps. Between Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron, Tommy Bartlett’s Water Show, and the granddaddy of them all, Alex Jordan Jr.’s House On The Rock, I have seen the error of my ways and have been remade into a man no longer capable of hearing humor in this Harry Chapin-biting album cuf off of the UHF soundtrack. Ostensibly unspooling the tale of a family going on vacation to, where else, The Biggest Ball of Twine In Minnesota, this gentle skewing of the bloated story takes a detour into questioning the existential questions presented by that "glorious, huge, majestic sphere." Like all of Weird Al’s parodies, this one never pokes at its subject matter and apes its model with nothing less than absolute sincerity, and in doing so ends up being one of Al’s most unexpectedly patriotic works. —Chris Lay
"Livin' In The Fridge"
Musically speaking, I led a pretty guarded childhood, with a cassette of DC Talk's Nu Thang album pretty much dominating my life up until middle school when a friend of mine passed along a dubbed copy of Aerosmith’s Get A Grip—whose first single, "Livin' On The Edge," was (sadly) one of the most rockin' things I had ever heard up to that point. When that same geneous friend passed along a dubbed copy of Alapalooza, the Peter Gabriel and "MacArthur Park" riffs went over my head, but "Livin' In The Fridge" hit me right in the sweet spot. Like many of Al's most memorable songs, "Fridge" is about food and, admittedly, it’s not his most musically adventurous reinterpretation of its source, but it manages to rhyme "liver cake" with "wooly mammoth steak" and that went a long way for my Mad Magazine-addled mind. —CL
"I Remember Larry"
At first this original from 1996's Bad Hair Day is an innocently silly song about a kid who's always playing pranks, sung somewhat-affectionately from the point of view of a frequent victim: "All those wedgies he gave, all those shoestrings he tied/ All those brownies he made with the Ex-lax inside/ Oh Lar', I swear, it was a laugh a minute with you." But the final verse takes a dark turn—even as Al keeps up a gleeful power-pop delivery—as the narrator then talks about kidnapping the titular Larry and murdering him. And, um, end of story. The only thing that reconciles it all is the implication that these hilarious pranks simply drove the narrator to "Cask of Amontillado"-level vengefulness. —SG
"King Of Suede"
Most of Yankovic’s parodies tend to challenge whatever is occupying the most decadently disposable corners of the pop charts in the months leading up to an album. This is why "King Of Suede," from 1984’s "Weird Al" Yankovic In 3-D, packs an extra wallop of chuckles—he’s prodding at one of the most self-serious and pompous ding-dongs of all time, Sting, and but also mocking one of Sting's most amazing and moody songs in The Police’s “King Of Pain.” The tune is sung from the point of view of a fashion retailer who’s trying desperately to lure you into his shop to buy tacky garments. Yes, we spent way too long scouring the Internet for quotes from Sting whining about the existence of "King Of Suede" but we unfortunately (and surprisingly) came up dry. —JS
Playfully packed to the brim with Scorsese-inspired Italian-American stereotypes, "Lasagna" is about as close to "offensive" as Yankovic gets. However, the impact is pretty much diffused by the fact that he’s singing about pasta in a nasally Italian accent and the fact that it's way funnier than it should be. A blasphemous play on Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba," "Lasagna" arrived on 1988's Even Worse, which was hot on the heels of everyone flipping their shit over the 1987 Valens biopic La Bamba. Poking fun at both Valens and Italians in the same tune would seem a lot riskier if the song wasn’t so harmlessly stupid. It’s hard to stay mad at someone who's singing about calzones. —JS