Lily E. Hirsch realizes she’s prone to getting a little judgmental over the subject of her latest book. “If someone asked me what I was working on, and I said a book about Weird Al, and they said, ‘Oh, that’s so cool!’ I’d think, Okay, you’re a good person,” she recalls. “But if someone responded negatively, I’d think, What’s wrong with you? How could you not like this man?”
According to Hirsch, there are an avalanche of reasons to not only merely like the novelty singer-songwriter Weird Al Yankovic, but to respect him as a continually under-appreciated artiste who has defied the odds with a thriving career of nearly four decades thanks his unique brand of parody. Not to mention the fact that he’s also maintained a sterling reputation throughout those same decades, one that Hirsch realized was in short supply in a demoralizing era of #MeToo revelations. “I was becoming quite angry, and I thought it would be nice to have a reminder that there are also nice men in the world,” she tells me.
With that, Hirsch set out to take a scholarly look at Yankovic, looking beyond the horn-honk sound effects and lyrics that, on the surface at least, seem childish and shine a thoughtful light on the singer and his work. The resulting tome, aptly titled Weird Al: Seriously, is part biography, part critical analysis and encapsulates how and why one of music and comedy’s most enduring personalities is also one of culture’s ultimate underdogs.
“I have to laugh, because my CV sort of looks like a joke now, where you don’t know where the punchline is,” Hirsch says of a resume that largely consists of studying Jewish music in Nazi Germany, including a biography of Anneliese Landau, a groundbreaking figure in music who flourished in America after fleeing during Hitler’s reign. Her previous book — Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment — was on a similarly grave subject. But if there was an author destined to chronicle Yankovic as an overlooked figure in an academic way, it’s Hirsch. “There are commonalities in all of these topics,” she attests. “Like how Jewish music is often treated as a fixed entity when it’s not; I’ve always looked at problematic categories in music.”
With that in mind, Yankovic made a perfect subject. “There are genres which are just not treated right or are dismissed,” Hirsch continues. “There’s prejudice around them, and I knew humorous music was one of those categories. But it wasn’t until I met an editor at a musicology conference that I got going. I knew I wanted to write about humor and Weird Al was an obvious choice. The editor said if I was able to interview Al, he’d give me a contract.”
After getting in touch with Yankovic’s manager, a nervous Hirsch trekked to his chic adobe. “People expect his house to be weird, but it’s a very impressive house with beautiful modern art and big windows overlooking Los Angeles.”
Their conversation over the course of that long afternoon, as well as a few follow-ups and a whole lot of research, constructed the foundation of Seriously, which appropriately kicks off with a forward by the legendary radio personality Dr. Demento. It’s Demento who gave Al his start with the quirky disc jockey playing the then-teenager’s parody demos on his Dr. Demento Show. Yankovic immediately became the progam’s most requested artist, and he wound up funding his debut EP, 1981’s Another One Rides the Bus, which featured its rudimentary title track, a parody of Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust,” a global hit the previous year.
“Of the thousands of humorous songs released over the past century, most are rarely heard today, and most of the people who wrote and sang them languish in obscurity,” Demento writes. “There is nobody else like Weird Al, and there never has been.”
“His career has been longer than most people in comedy and music, period, and I think that longevity is due to a few things,” says Hirsch. “First, there’s his adaptability, where he’s rolled with new technology and has been at the forefront of the changes in the industry and how he distributes music.” Case in point: 2014’s Mandatory Fun, which featured take-offs of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” (“Tacky”) and Lorde’s “Royals” (“Foil”), became the first No. 1 album in Yankovic’s career due in part to him releasing each track via streaming platform in tandem with fully produced videos. It also won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album, Yankovic’s fourth.
But aside from readily embracing the progression of technology, his career is predicated on what’s new and now. “He blends himself with the latest hits,” says Hirsch. “You have Weird Al combined with Madonna and then decades later with Miley Cyrus, and there he is in contemporary culture again. He’s always a part of the next big thing. In that way, Weird Al is kind of ageless and defies this idea of music’s connection to youth. Most people in pop culture age out, but he appeals to generation after generation.”
While trends and social norms change and a hip song from the 1980s can seem square today, it’s humor that continues to offer an uplifting quality, with parodies in particular a uniquely American phenomenon. (Even the “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written to the tune of a popular British song.) “Parody gets connected to a Jewish humor, but it’s very American as well,” Hirsch explains. “Humorous music can be a great psychological boost for anyone going through tough times.”
Yankovic himself has experienced his fair share of rough moments, particularly the 2004 deaths of his parents due to carbon-monoxide poisoning. “He’s mentioned that music and comedy was his solace during that time, and that he’ll also have people who thank him for being there for them too, saying, ‘I was dealing with this and you saved me.’ That’s the power of humorous music in general.”
One facet of Yankovic’s career that surprised Hirsch, however, was his inherent wokeness, long before the term was coined. “I didn’t initially plan a chapter on gender, but I found that he always seemed to take on these problematic stars like Robin Thicke, Nelly or R. Kelly long before we fully knew the exploits of these guys,” she says, with Yankovic diminishing the sexual connotations of Thicke’s controversial 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” and morphing it into the intelligent parody “Word Crimes,” which focuses on our worst grammatical offenses.
Even more pointedly, he took on Nelly’s ubiquitous 2002 track “Hot In Herre” (in which the rapper tries to convince girls to take off their clothes) and turned it into “Trash Day.” “He flips the music in wonderful ways,” Hirsch notes. “Sometimes his music gets dismissed because he’s talking about food or something else that’s otherwise ordinary. But in reality, even though the music is about nothing, it’s really about everything.”
Perhaps that’s why some of the most prominent names in both music and humor, whether it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda or Jimmy Fallon, are unapologetic Weird Al diehards. (The two, visibly nervous, once professed their love to Al in the flesh and went so far as to film a stunned reaction video their first time listening to Yankovic’s polka melody of Miranda’s Hamilton.)
“Lin-Manuel has been cited for this model of genre blending, which is exactly something Al does,” Hirsch says. “Intelligent people know his work is worthwhile, and they recognize the cleverness, goodwill and subtle points. Weird Al dares you to unapologetically be yourself, like with [his signature 1985 song and album] Dare to Be Stupid, with his music very empowering to outsiders. He was really part of the sea change with the way we think of the nerd who is actually cool.”
After two and a half years of intensive research, Hirsch is equal parts sad and relieved that her journey into Yankovic’s weird world is over. “After listening to everything he’d ever done, everything began relating to Weird Al songs,” she says with a laugh, noting that the experience inspired her to focus her next book on chronicling humorous music in general. “Weird Al is such a cultural touchstone for all different people that he just cannot be denied at this point.”
Cue the horn honk.