Weird Al and the art of food parody

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 - 4:00pm

Weird Al

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Weird Al

There is a years-old adage that has been spoken by every mother throughout history at least once, with a scowl on her face and a look of disgust: Don’t play with your food. It’s a simple ask, but for a child, the utmost restraint must be used to keep themselves from sticking stuff into potatoes or making rice mountains on their plates, pushing their green beans into patterns on the white porcelain. Though the conventions of etiquette don’t allow for any untethered experimentation at the dinner table, the frustrated parents of wild children are missing out on one undeniable truth: Food is funny. The need to eat is something we all have in common, and in that universal appeal is an opportunity for truly great comedy. No one knows this more or does it better than cultural icon and master of parody “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Weird Al, really named Alfred Yankovic, began his path into parody stardom in the late 70s and quickly grew into a media phenomenon. If you’ve ever seen a picture of him you would not forget it, with long curly hair and an ultra-expressive mug that only enhances his showmanship. The man is a natural comedian, and it’s obvious to anyone who watches his music videos or appearances on late-night television. He’s a well-loved and lauded character in American and world media alike, someone who has been creating songs that parody pop culture and art with an intelligent edge for over 40 years. For those not familiar with Weird Al’s work, it’s worth a listen ― from hits like “Amish Paradise,” an Amish-themed version of the late-90s hit “Gangsta’s Paradise,” to “White and Nerdy,”a geeky take on “Ridin’ Dirty,” the songwriter has tackled every genre and era of music with flourish and the kind of smart satire that sneaks up on you through expertly arranged jams.

Weird Al has been a solid presence in the American pop media through these parodies for decades, taking on the conventions and hits of each time period with a consistently funny and unique take. But the thing that he has always done best, even in the large scope of his celebrated career, is craft whimsically hilarious songs about food. He even released an album titled The Food Album in 1993, a collection of his best songs based on the silliness and convention of the things we eat. In fact, Weird Al’s first song that played on the radio was his version of classic 70s rock hit “My Sharona,” affectionately titled “My Bologna.” “Ooh, my little hungry one, hungry one / Open up a package of my bologna,” he sings, crooning over a ragged guitar part. Although Weird Al’s songs themselves offer funny perspectives on food, the kicker is really their accompanying videos, some of which have been ingrained in pop culture to the same extent as their base material. Part of the hilarity of food is its visual effect, and Al knows this better than anybody.

Although it would probably be considered insensitive today, Weird Al’s song “Fat,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s pivotal single “Bad,” is probably the hit that most people would know him for. Much of the tune’s success is due to its music video, a vision of Al’s ballooned body flying through the subway tunnels in a comedic version of the original Jackson video. The musician sings, “When I go to get my shoes shined / I gotta take their word / Because I’m fat, I’m fat, sham on,” in the same style as the iconic MJ, with a comedic twist that plays and contrasts with the canon to create a lasting hit. If you ignore the obvious fatphobic issues with the song, you can see Weird Al’s originality and interesting relationship with food shine through. Though there are some songs, like “Fat,” that may not have aged well as society has changed, they are still an example of how food and eating have always been undeniably funny, no matter who is listening.

This attention to detail and creative take on food parody is even more apparent in songs like “Eat It,” another Jackson parody of “Beat It,” “Addicted to Spuds” (“Addicted to Love,” Robert Palmer), “I Love Rocky Road” (“I Love Rock and Roll,” Joan Jett), “Spam” (“Stand,” R.E.M.) and even more. Lyrics include: “Spam in the back of my car (ham and pork) / Spam any place that you are (ham and pork) / The tab is there to open the can (spam any place that you are),” “Just eat it, eat it / Get yourself an egg and beat it,” “ I love rocky road / So won’t you go and buy half a gallon, baby / I love rocky road / So have another triple scoop with me.” With lines like these, any audience would know exactly what Al is talking about from the first word. Not only is his writing refreshingly simple, but it also plays on a childlike curiosity and interest in food that hides inside all of us. Weird Al knows the value of silliness, and is a clear supporter of playing with your food, no matter what your mother may have said.