The Ministry of Weirdness, Courtesy of The Rev. Alfred Yankovic

Or, the Gospel According to Weird Al

David Zahl / 4.16.20

“Even as a child, I understood on some intuitive level that Weird Al was not merely the Shakespeare of terrible food puns (“Might as well face it you’re addicted to spuds”) or an icon of anti-style (poodle fro, enormous glasses, questionable mustache, Hawaiian shirts) but a spiritual technician doing important work down in the engine room of the American soul. I could not have said why, but I felt it.”

Thus reads a key passage of the masterful profile of Weird Al Yankovic that Sam Anderson penned for The NY Times Magazine last week. CJ mentioned the article in last Friday’s round-up and we discussed it at length on The Mockingcast, so consider this the full court press to read about America’s favorite pre-Internet pop music parody icon.

Absurd as it sounds, Alfred Yankovic may constitute the final link in the holy trinity of 80s American pop culture alongside Dolly Parton and Fred Rogers. What I mean is he appears to be that rare celebrity who understands–and fulfills–his role as a spiritual calling. A vocation, if you will. Because what Anderson describes in the article is nothing short of a ministry. This is a man whose art and presence, under the auspices of pure ridiculousness, imparts grace to those who come into contact with it. And not a superficial form either.

There’s a clear link here between the unlikelihood of the messenger and the depth of the resonance, something dead serious (and good!) transpiring under the aegis of the absurd. The Nazareth Principle in action, big time.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Like many in my generation, my main exposure to Weird Al was the music videos he made in the 80s, “Eat It,” “Fat”, “Like a Surgeon”–parodies that now seem both incredibly tame and genuinely, well, weird. He was the court jester of that entire MTV scene, and we loved him for it. Then came his movie UHF, which my older brother made us rent from the video store probably ten times the year it came out. We watched it so often, in fact, that it took a full three seasons of Seinfeld before I stopped thinking of Kramer as a faster talking Stanley Spadowski.

No one could have predicted Al’s staying power. When grunge came along, he rose to the occasion with “Smells Like Nirvana” (another amazing video). Then a few years later he brought us “Amish Paradise.” Then a decade later, “White and Nerdy”. The hits somehow kept coming, even after YouTube gave us an army of knock-offs.

What strikes me now about Al, more than the punchlines or even the aesthetic (which has dated better than almost anything of that era!), was the sheer gratuity of it. His stuff was so gloriously unnecessary. What I mean is that if in 1975 you convened a committee to forecast the pop culture landscape of the future, no one would have suggested, “well, we have to make sure we fill the ‘near-sighted accordian-playing parodist who sells millions’ slot.” There was no reason for him to exist as anything more than a cult figure, and yet there he was, a semi-major cultural force for decades. And he made our lives all more colorful as a result. A gift, pure and simple.

Anderson distills Al’s appeal this way:

As his name suggested, Weird Al’s comedy operated right at the hot spot of my childhood agonies: weirdness versus normalcy, insider versus outsider. What a Weird Al parody did was enact a tiny revolution. It took the whole glamorous architecture of American mainstream cool — Michael Jackson’s otherworldly moves, Madonna’s sexual taboos — and extracted all of the coolness. Into that void, Weird Al inserted the least cool person in the world: himself. And by proxy, all the rest of us weirdos, along with our uncool lives.

We want our fantasy and our escape, in other words, but we also want communion and laughter. To, er, have our lunch and eat it too. I guess you could say Al served as a release valve for Me Decade pretensions.

And yet… I don’t think that’s enough to account for his longevity. For a clue about what’s really going on here, you have to go to the fans.

The first inkling I got came after A Mess of Help came out. I had spoken at an event somewhere, and afterward, a middle-aged woman approached me to asked me what I thought about… Weird Al. The gleam in her eye told me it was less of a question and more of a secret handshake. If it was a test, I failed. But I heard from her a few months after the event, saying that she’d put a copy of the book in his hands at a meet-n-greet, and then asking me to pray for him, since he was on the road and far from his… church. Huh, I thought, filing that last tidbit away for a rainy day reddit investigation.

Well, Anderson’s article has officially spared me that investigation. His testimony of what Weird Al meant to him growing up–as well as what Al meant to Andy Samberg, Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Michael Schur (Parks and Rec, The Good Place)–stopped me in my tracks. And Al’s own “origin” only made matters more profound. This wasn’t that cruel subversion known as nerd-cool, nor a novel strand of seculosity. It was something far more beautiful, more akin to a ministry of grace than anything else. That the grace in question might be based in something deeper than human kindness, well, it’s enough to make this grown man feel like a kid at Spatula City.

Do yourself a favor and read the entire article, but don’t miss the end, which reads almost like a living translation of 1 Corinthians 1:27 (“But God chose the foolish weird things of the world to shame the wise normal; God chose the weak things bedwetters of the world to shame the strong cool”). PtL:

One of many incredible pictures from the NY Times profile

The only real exception to Weird Al’s self-isolation [while he was on tour] came late at night, after the shows, when he would interact with fans in elaborate V.I.P. sessions: photos, autographs, chats. Yankovic would do basically anything fans wanted. He would mug for the camera or flex like a bodybuilder or sign people’s arms. He signed posters, cassette tapes, action figures, accordions, spatulas, glow-in-the-dark snorkels. I saw him sign a package of bologna and an exact replica of a “Star Wars” storm trooper helmet. These were not autograph hounds but true devotees, exactly the kinds of people Yankovic placed at the center of his songs: nerds, misfits, weirdos. Many fans seemed to have just emerged, for the first time in forever, from tiny rooms of their own. They were less interested in a photo op than in a sort of spiritual transfer.

Most of all, the fans thanked Weird Al. They thanked him for his music, for not dying of heatstroke onstage, for voicing the character Banana Man on the cartoon “Adventure Time,” for helping them survive cancer, for helping them survive their mother’s cancer.

“I got introduced to your music when I was going through — struggles — in my life,” said a young, balding man wearing a brown suit, and the word struggles was surrounded on all sides by an unfathomable gulf of feeling. “You helped me pull through.”

Weird Al listened with deep eye contact. “Thank you,” he said. “That means a lot to me.”

“Thank you for all the joy you bring to the world,” said a woman in Minnesota.

“Thank you for making my best times brighter with your songs,” said a young man in North Dakota.

“Thank you for letting us all be ourselves.”

“Thank you for being you.”

Weird Al’s bond with his fans is atomic. He will stop and speak with them anywhere — at airports, outside the tour bus — for so long that it becomes a logistical problem. The fans approach him like a guru, and Weird Al responds with sweet, open, validating energy.

Joel Miller, the friend who defended Yankovic from college bullies, said the relationship between Weird Al and his hard-core fans is deeply personal. “He’s giving them validation,” he told me. “They feel a kindred spirit. When they’re at his concerts, they are in a safe space. They are able to be stupid or outlandish or whatever, exactly as they want. And nobody judges them. In fact, it’s the opposite. People appreciate them for what they are, not for what they aren’t.”

The connection is so deep that it is more like a merging, and after a while it struck me that Weird Al has spent basically his whole life making his music for exactly these people, which is to say for his childhood self. For many decades, he has been trying to delight Alfred Yankovic, the bright, painfully shy kid who grew up alone in his tiny bedroom. For the benefit of that lonely boy, he reshaped the whole world of pop culture. His ridiculous music sent out a pulse, a signal, and these were the people it drew: the odd, the left out. A crowd of friends for that lonely kid. As I watched him with his fans, sometimes I felt as if Weird Al was multiplying all around me, multiplying inside of me. We were one crowd, united in isolation, together in a great collective loneliness that — once you recognized it, once you accepted it — felt right on the brink of being healed.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


5 responses to “The Ministry of Weirdness, Courtesy of The Rev. Alfred Yankovic”

  1. Bryan J. says:

    Yes. All of this. I, for one, would love to watch UHF with any of the Zahls… and now it’s time for “WHEEL… OF… FISH!” Quarantine co-watch? I think it’s free on Amazon Prime!

  2. Josh Retterer says:

    Wow, excellent!

  3. Vicki says:

    I love this so much! I posted the link to my FB for my sons, who loved Al when they were kids (the older of the two, nearly 40, still does), and for others my age-ish (late 60s) who have always loved Al. This essay makes me very happy. Btw, the older son has a photo of himself and his wife with Al after a show in Seattle a couple of years ago. It makes me happy too.

  4. Pierre says:

    Thank you for this. The NYT article is a delight to read. I grew up in the 90s when Al’s music was already a staple and listened to his stuff all the time, but last summer I finally got to see him perform live. He was at Red Rocks with a full symphony orchestra, and it was an incredible sight to see a venue with so much cool cachet filled with 8,000 weirdos waving their arms to “Amish Paradise.” I won’t soon forget it.

  5. John Golden says:

    Really encouraging. With nerd culture having been popularized so much, I think it’s lost some of the refuge qualities of which this reminds me. Plus always nice to hear about a god guy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *