Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underrated, we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.
“Weird Al” Yankovic knows a thing or two about what constitutes a good parody. For over 35 years, he’s defined the stakes and scope of what musical comedy can be, but he’s also defied the inherent creative limits of absurdist satire. The old adage that comedy has a laughably short shelf life might be true in most cases, but Yankovic has proven that it is possible to age gracefully in the genre thanks in no small part to how seriously he takes the craft of being silly.
Yankovic has dialed in on both his songwriting and joke-writing mechanics, so even if you haven’t heard the records he’s lampooning, his songs still work as stand-alone, catchy pop-comedy tunes. The musicality is just as important as the jokes, and that creative harmony has garnered Yankovic multiple platinum records and three decades worth of nerdy earworm hilarity, from “Stuck in a Closet with Vanna White” to “Amish Paradise” to “Another Tattoo.” And even though he’s focused less on the pastiche lately and more on original songs — the audio of from this year’s The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour is now part of the Stitcher Premium library so you can hear for yourself — his love for musical parody burns as bright as ever.
So it makes total sense that Yankovic wanted to talk about the Jerry Zucker–Jim Abrahams–David Zucker spoof Top Secret! as part of our Underrated series. Starring a fresh-faced Val Kilmer as cocky American singer who gets mixed up in an underground resistance faction while performing in a cartoonishly oppressive Germany, Top Secret! served as trial balloon for how far the broad absurdism of the ZAZ brand would work with audiences. It was less adored and eventually overshadowed by both their Airplane! and Naked Gun series, but Yankovic feels its wildly inventive set pieces, insane joke count, and dumb but delightful musical numbers deserve all the praise.
Out of all the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker films, Top Secret! might be the least recognized and referenced. Why do you think that is?
I think one of the reasons why it didn’t do so well in the box office is that it’s really hard to describe what it’s all about. It’s not really high-concept in the traditional sense. It’s sort of a mash-up of surf movies and spy movies and WWII movies and Elvis movies, and the plot’s very convoluted. It’s not an easy movie to explain. In fact, when they were promoting it, the art department for some reason decided that the best image to convey the spirit of the movie would be a cow wearing boots. Apparently that didn’t bring the audience to the theater in droves! The directors lamented how Top Secret! didn’t connect with audiences and they considered this movie a failure, which is hard for me to absorb because I think it’s the funniest movie ever made. In their mind, they thought the plot was too convoluted or difficult for people to latch onto. For that reason, they think that it didn’t work. Maybe it didn’t work for a lot of people, but I didn’t mind a lack of cohesive plot. It just really appealed to me.
Even by ZAZ standards, there is an overwhelming amount of bits in Top Secret! Like, there is some type of visual gag or turn of phrase every five seconds. Is there a particular bit that you could call the best or your favorite?
It’s just jam-packed. I mean, there’s so many it’s hard to pick. The eyeglass bit — which kicks off the whole backwards scene in the Swedish bookstore with the whole shot filmed backwards, which you learn as you continue watching it — that was a brilliant piece of work. The underwater bar room fight scene was amazing. Just a lot of sight gags and a lot of bizarre wordplay. There’s one line in the movie, which might’ve gotten cut from the theatrical release, but I’ve seen a version of the movie that features somebody saying “Your life will be worth less than a truckload of dead rats in a tampon factory.” I might’ve paraphrased that, but that’s just gorgeous imagery right there.
The songs you write and their accompanying music videos are distillations of the ZAZ brand of farce and parody. When you’re crafting these lyrical jokes and their visual punch lines, is there any rhyme or reason to when you decide to go big and broad versus pulling back?
It’s hard to articulate how and when to do those kind of gags. Certainly the ZAZ one is the machine-gun approach — as you said, there’s a gag every five seconds. But all the humor, all the gags are very fine-tuned. They’re not all clever, and that’s okay. Some of them are dumb because it’s nice to mix the very clever comedy with dumb comedy. That’s my favorite balance. Monty Python did that all the time. That’s my favorite thing. It’s dialed in and not everyone can do it, which is evidenced pretty strongly by everybody that tried to copy them over the years. To me, Top Secret! is the zenith of that particular brand of comedy. The last couple of decades, you don’t even really see that kind of comedy much anymore, but for a while there were a lot of people trying to do comedy in that vein. It was pretty obviously a pale imitation. It’s not easy to get that kind of sensibility exactly spot-on. They basically pioneered it.
How much of the ZAZ DNA directly influenced UHF, the 1989 cult film you wrote and starred in?
Their comedy was a huge influence on me. There are certainly several gags in UHF where you could say, “Oh that’s like an Airplane! gag,” which is shorthand for any kind of humor they would do in their movies — those kind of absurdist sight gags, especially in the fantasy sequences. I think those are pretty strongly modeled after that ZAZ brand of humor. You can draw a direct line between their work and my work especially in those instances.
As you just mentioned, we don’t really see this style of silly satire anymore. The ZAZ train ended with Mafia! in 1998. The last high-concept spoof we got from Mel Brooks was Dracula: Dead and Loving It in 1995. Keenen Ivory Wayans, who directed the classic blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in 1988, briefly breathed new life into this legacy with Scary Movie in 2000. While some of these movies made a ton of money and are referenced often, they’re mostly written off as comedy fluff. Why do you think this subgenre of comedy is relegated to the sidelines?
Honestly, I think it speaks to the larger point that comedy by itself has always been deemed lesser than. A brilliant and hilarious comedy is not as heralded as a brilliant drama. The funniest movie in the world is probably not going to get the Oscar for Best Picture, and the same is true for comedy music. Whatever respect I have in the business now is mostly just a factor of me hanging around for enough decades that people went “Okay, I guess he’s not going away!” Comedy music has never been a respected art form, and to a lesser extent, I think comedy movies suffer the same problem.
The same way Top Secret! and the ZAZ sensibility had a profound impact on the art you would go on to create, you too have influenced a new generation of comedians. Are there any current musical-comedy performers that you’re impressed by?
I certainly wouldn’t presume to say that I influenced anybody or that anybody is carrying on my torch, but I think there are a lot of artists that are doing brilliantly in the genre of comedy music. I especially love the Lonely Island, Tenacious D, and Flight of the Conchords. But I mean, there are a lot of acts that are doing quite well and putting out some brilliant work.
Stitcher Premium just added the audio from your last tour, The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, to their library. How does this tour stand out from the acts you’ve taken on the road previously, and what can listeners expect once they hit play?
This tour was certainly a large departure for me because usually I do big production shows with costumes and film clips and props. It’s very theatrical. On this particular tour, it was really all about the music. The guys and I just literally walked out on a stage, sat down on stools, and played for 90 minutes to two hours. And it’s almost all original songs. This tour was really about focusing very intently on the music. So the fact that there’s an audio record of the entire tour is a pretty cool thing. Knowing my fan base, I bet there’s a handful of fans that are going to sit down and listen to all 140 hours. I don’t know how long the entire thing is, but it’s 77 shows and they’re full concerts. I wouldn’t recommend listening to the whole thing. I think most people would surf around or search for their favorite songs or just kind of check in here or there. There’s a lot to go through. Every single show on the tour was different. We mixed it up from night to night and tried to give people a real variety.
You’ve been writing and performing for over 30 years, and you’ve never really had to reinvent yourself or change course to remain a household name. What is it after all these years that still gets you out of bed excited to create new material?
What’s exciting for me is I get to do exactly what I love to do for a living. I can’t imagine anything in the world I’d rather do. I’ve always been obsessed with comedy and obsessed with music, and the fact that I get to do both and make a living and people are still excited about coming to the shows and excited about hearing the new material … that’s amazing to me. After all this time, people still care.
My style hasn’t changed a whole lot. But I like to think that I’ve gotten better at what I do — a better musician, a better singer, a better writer. But the sensibility is pretty much the same, I think. The industry has changed. The way music is delivered has changed. The way music is enjoyed is much different now than it was when I first started out. I’m trying my best to move along with the times and embrace new technologies and trends and give the people what they want.
Is there a comedy philosophy that you’ve adhered to throughout your career that you could share with any aspiring musical comedians that might be reading this?
Normally I give some kind of stupid or goofy joke answer, but for this I’ll tell you a real thing. I’ve made rules for myself for when I’m doing parodies. This applies to song parodies and this applies equally to movie parodies: It’s gotta be funny even if you aren’t familiar with the original source material. When I first saw Top Secret!, I don’t think I’d ever seen The Great Escape, which a lot of the movie was modeled after, but it was still very funny to me because the gags held up on their own independently. A lot of the people that were trying to copy the ZAZ structure didn’t learn that lesson, and a lot of the comedy was what I call just “reference humor,” where the entire joke is “Hey, remember this? Remember when that happened in pop culture?” and they don’t embellish it or add to it or make it clever in any way with their own voice. It is just basically them going, “Here’s a thing. Remember this thing?” My humor is sort of an offshoot of my personality, so you need to do what works for you. But always make sure that it’s you that’s shining through.