The Unexpected Longevity of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic

It feels like a lifetime ago now, but at the start of 2017, lists floated around Facebook wherein friends recalled their favorite teenage albums. Most tried to prove they were always hip, boasting about cool bands and critically acclaimed classics they loved from the jump (Nirvana, Public Enemy, the Ramones, My Bloody Valentine, Patti Smith showed up often). But the long, agonizing desert that is seven years of adolescence is nothing if not constantly in flux, with teens molting their listening habits and tastes as they haphazardly try on, discard, and form their personas. Which is to say, years before I liked anything remotely cool (or even knew what was cool), I loved “Weird Al” Yankovic unabashedly.

Just what is revealed in admitting here that the most important album of my freshman year in high school was a dubbed TDK cassette with 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Want to Be on one side and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s breakout 1984 album 3-D on the flip, I can’t quite say. Decades of distance from my junior-high self don’t offer much insight, as it wasn’t a matter of being willfully eclectic. Sure, the former is a progenitor of Miami bass, while Al has shish-kebabbed pop music, popular culture, and nerd culture for 40 years. In hindsight, how much distance is there between Fresh Kid Ice rapping over Kraftwerk about an appendage that’s “15 inches long, 8 inches thick” and Weird Al rendering a Huey Lewis song as “I want a new duck”? The jokes are corny, but both served as gateways for prepubescent kids, at an age where they’re not really that into music, but down to titter along to songs about farts, dumb puns, food, references to old TV shows, and other bodily functions.

Squeeze Box, released a few weeks ago, is an exhausting, astonishing compilation of every one of Al’s 14 studio albums, from his New Wave–meets–accordion mash-up 1983 self-titled debut on through his farewell to the full-length album format, 2014’s Mandatory Fun, with another disc of “medium rarities,” all of it slotted into a replica plastic accordion. It’s a Complete World Book Encyclopedia set of Nerd Culture. It contains more studio albums than the Beatles ever recorded, documenting a man who has remained in the public eye for nearly twice as long as Elvis Presley. In terms of longevity, Al falls somewhere between The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, though rather than an ever-cycling comedic ensemble, Al’s just one bespectacled, poodle-haired accordionist with an adenoidal voice who’s never done illegal drugs in his life and kept the same band and manager for the duration of his career. And rather than simply document his knack for turning the Knack and the Presidents of the United States into punch lines, Squeeze Box posits Al as a singular entity in pop culture. Anyone can change the words of a popular song into something crude or LOL-worthy for a line or two, but to do it on nearly a hundred ubiquitous pop songs for over four decades, his career outlasting many of his original targets? Spanning from classic rock to New Wave, shiny pop to grunge to hip-hop, Al has squeezed all of it together under the umbrella of easily the most obnoxious, least popular music of the last half-century: polka.

In 1976, the California-raised high-school valedictorian made his recorded debut on Barry Hansen’s oddball music radio program, The Dr. Demento Show. Only 16 years old at the time, soon “Weird Al” appeared on the show more and more, breaking through with a take on Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” as “Another One Rides the Bus.” It remains a frantic spin on the song, the closest parody ever got to punk’s raw energy, complete with accordion, duck sounds, and a beat thumped out on Al’s accordion case by Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, who he met outside the sound booth at Dr. Demento just before recording. Schwartz remains Al’s drummer to this day, same with bassist Steve Jay, guitarist Jim West, and manager Jay Levey.

As a “Weird Al” fan, the Top 40 held little appeal to me during early adolescence, but the nationally syndicated Dr. Demento Show instilled a weekly ritual of listening, opening up an entirely weird world of song and nonsense. Dr. Demento was where one could hear Beck during his pre-“Loser” hit with songs like “Steve Threw Up,” early Ween before they became a jam-band favorite, as well as cuts from the catalogues of Spike Jones, Frank Zappa, and the Residents. It revealed a Bizarro world of mangled pop: There were odes to Star Trek, Star Wars, and to dead Russian leaders. There was the helium-voiced “Fish Heads” by Barnes and Barnes, the psychotic “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” by Napoleon XIV, wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie growling about a “Pencil Neck Geek.” There were plenty of song parodies during Al’s early days, but Al’s parodies stood out, in part because he learned early on to put them to music videos. “Al is unique,” Hansen told the Washington Post. “There’s nothing like him in the history of funny music.” Before him were the likes of Alan Sherman and Nervous Norvus, but Al broke into mainstream culture, thanks in part to music videos that matched their original targets.

One can argue that Al’s influence is actually more prevalent in comedy television than in music television, his visual wit rivaling that of his musical acumen. That much was evident when he was made bandleader for Comedy Bang! Bang! But from Jimmy Fallon musical skits to the spitfire send-ups of shows ranging from Robot Chicken to 30 Rock (wherein he “Normal Al”’d Jenna and sites like Funny or Die, Yankovic’s humor trailblazed the way, first finding a home on MTV and then subsequently wormed its way onto cable, late night, and finally the internet. His pervasive influence didn’t lead a new generation to pick up the accordion per se, but it did lead them to upload their punch lines.

Squeeze Box shows not just how Al reflected the changing times of pop culture, but embodies such change himself. Al’s own career traces an arc from a time when being a nerd meant obsessing over pop-culture minutiae to the present moment, where nerd-dom reigns as the dominant paradigm. Only three Star Wars movies existed in 1983 when Al first appeared on record shelves, and now there are ten of them. Nerd culture once entailed superhero action figures and old comic books being kept in mint condition. Now such figures reign over summer blockbusters. So it makes sense that over that time period, throwaway novelty songs could eventually warrant a massive box set.

Squeeze Box also serves as a tombstone. Dr. Demento is no longer nationally syndicated, living instead on the web, and there hasn’t been a “funny music” artist within shouting distance of Al ever since. Parody songs abound on YouTube, with new acts like Bart Baker and the Keys of Awesome (not to mention the Lonely Island and Tenacious D) racking up tens of millions of views. But does Baker’s parody of Ed Sheeran stick like gum in your head the same way that Al’s “Tacky” does? The Lonely Island might be the closest, but they began with the platform of SNL with their famous targets wholly in on the joke, which doesn’t quite match Al’s own target. “He was a parasite of ubiquity … lampooning the whole overwhelming mythology of pop,” Sam Anderson wrote in Slate about Al’s persistent gift. “His real medium wasn’t music, it was fame.”

As court jester to Michael Jackson’s King of Pop, Al transcended the novelty song to become an institution himself, his spoofs becoming a cultural verification along the lines of being a guest voice on The Simpsons (something Al’s done twice). As Chamillionaire put it after his 2005 song “Ridin’” went platinum: “Where do you go from there? Then ‘Weird Al’ calls.” Magically, a song about police racial profiling became a farce about riding Segways and choosing between Captain Kirk and Captain Picard.

But as our pop stars become even more ubiquitous in the monoculture, there’s an entire stratosphere of acts that Al has yet to properly lampoon. Outside of a few moments of his 2006 “Polkarama!” medley, the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West, and Drake fall beyond of his purview, as does most of modern country music. There might not be another “Weird Al” in the annals of funny music, but surely there’s room for a woman parodying R&B to carry “Weird Al”’s mantle forward.

Squeeze Box traces the seismic shift in pop’s mythology from the late ’70s into the 21st century, from the domain of white-guy guitar bands to manicured pop stars to rap/R&B personas. And it proves Al’s pop chops were there all along to accompany such changes. In fact, with hip-hop’s increased word flow, that just meant even more corny jokes could be shoehorned into a three-minute novelty song. But while some of Al’s most recent hits have taken aim at hip-hop to great success (“Trapped in the Drive-Thru” and “It’s All About the Pentiums,” while “White & Nerdy” became the biggest hit of his career, some three decades in), these later albums also find him comfortably falling back on the quaint strains of the Beach Boys, Don McLean, Queen, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. In an industry where longevity is all but impossible, Al’s genius entails reflecting the times while changing along with them, proving that dad jokes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“When you grow up with ‘Weird Al,’ you learn that genre is fluid,” Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda told the Washington Post earlier this year, admitting to being a huge fan of the man. Squeeze Box serves as a fitting capstone for Al’s days as an album artist, as he recently told Rolling Stone: “I like the flexibility and the freedom of just being able to put out songs as soon as I create them … I just don’t feel like albums are the best way for me to get my stuff out there anymore.”

Squeeze Box posits “Weird Al” as both the last of a specific type of musical comedian, and the dawn of a new era, where novelty albums and songs are relics and they instead move at the speed of novelty videos that proliferate on social media. As the hours of Squeeze Box roll on (and on and on), the corny jokes, dad-worthy puns, obscure pop-culture references, and musical in-jokes start to fall away, replaced instead with a staggering sense of accomplishment. Like a slice of bologna, “Weird Al” has had a remarkably long shelf life.

The Unexpected Longevity of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic