Weird Al Yankovic and the importance of being funny

Weird Al Yankovic. Photo by Rob DiCaterino.

By Jason Kron

Dull minds everywhere differentiate comedy music from “real art”, separating the funny from the humorless creative expression that is put on a pedestal amongst the so-called musical elite. What these dull minds keep forgetting is that being funny isn’t easy. Being able to make someone laugh is as much of a talent as being able to move them to tears with the beauty of your work. Maybe the two aren’t even mutually exclusive. Maybe artistic work in the goofball realm can be as cathartic for its creator and audience as the darkest of the dark.

This brings me to Alfred Matthew Yankovic, aka Weird Al. In 2004, his elderly parents died from carbon monoxide poisoning in their home. Hours after being notified of the tragic news, Yankovic performed his scheduled concert in Wisconsin. This exemplifies two traits of his personality that explain his long success. 1.) An otherworldly work ethic, and 2.) An arguably unhealthy connection with comedic performance and its power to heal. He later said of his performing in the wake of his parents’ deaths, “Since music has helped my fans through tough times, maybe it would work for me as well.” This kind of impactfulness doesn’t happen without substantial substance in the work, and it’s happened to come from someone who’s not only The Beatles of comedy music but also the only person who’s maintained a lengthy superstar-level career by making the said style of music.

Over the course of forty years and fourteen albums, Weird Al has united countless walks of life with a style of clean humor that’s practically extinct in our society. Not that there’s anything wrong with vulgar jokes, but it speaks volumes of Weird Al’s genius that he can continue to thrive in a world where he seems to be the lone warrior of his kind left, when even Presidential statements are R-rated and most wholesome comedy of days past is viewed today with a sense of irony. Not only as Weird Al transcended that, but he’s also made a career that has eclipsed and outlived much the careers of most of his subjects for parody. It doesn’t hurt that most of his songs can be appreciated for their jokes that exist separate from the lyrics of the songs he’s satirizing. (For example, you can understand the food jokes in “Eat It” even if you for whatever insane reason have never heard “Beat It”.) Nor does it hurt that his own image and personality are as iconic as any he’s tried to mimic. The combination of the curly do, the mustache, the glasses, the Hawaiian shirt, and the accordion are now practically copyrighted by Yankovic, and his crazy-eyed energy would shine through regardless of what he was doing.

His most recent undertaking has been performing selections from his past catalog with a full orchestra. Weird Al shows are an extreme example of hard work, to begin with (every single song requires a costume change and the man shreds on accordion), but the orchestra symbolizes the proper respect for a true songwriting genius. It’s generally the next level for a musician when they want to show off the overlooked compositional prowess of their work, hence the orchestra performance being utilized by everyone from Paul McCartney to Metallica. Weird Al will surely lampoon some of the classic tropes of a classical concert, as usual creating a mirror reality that thumbs its nose at the reality that takes itself too seriously while simultaneously paying homage to it. It takes brilliance to pull this off in so clever a fashion, which is why Weird Al Yankovic will be studied in future schools as the person who broke the most ground in funny music up to this point, assuming that future schools give funny music the respect it deserves.

Weird Al Yankovic performs at 8 p.m. August 3 at Comerica Theatre, 400 West Washington Street, Phoenix.