As an Al(ex) who has always appreciated humor and wanted to make people laugh, there are any number of reasons to have Weird Al, and this song specifically, register as an important part of my musical education. Mr. Yankovic was sort of formative in understanding the ways music is formed. His musical chops exceed his humor, so even now I can get a kick out of his spot-on stylistic parodies without caring that the song probably relies on his particular brand of “wackiness.” His band really is that good (take a moment to listen to a Weird Al song for the sheer musicality, and realize they recreated every note and effect in the original to sound accurate). Of course, this isn’t to necessarily denigrate his humor either. Every album, even as I get older, comes with some laughs, and indeed some of his best parodies have been from his more recent albums (“White and Nerdy” almost borders on societal critique). As for “Mr. Popeil” specifically, I’ve had bouts of insomnia best characterized by lounging on the couch blinded by TV until infomercial hour, so it fits relevantly into parts of my life. Furthermore, damn if this didn’t help foster my prodigious Fred Schneider impression. But the bigger thing about this song is really HOW I got into Weird Al.
I’m about age 10 in this scenario. My friend Skip (to this day one of the goofiest, most jovial guys I’ve ever come across) comes over for New Year’s Eve. He brings “In 3D,” and a Fisher Price microphone and stand. I feel like the intention of the toy was more karaoke based, but he used it for comedy, in completely characteristic form. Details are fuzzy, as all young moments are, but I recall, “In 3D” over and over that night. This song caught me even then, for whatever reason. Possibly it was catchy enough to grab me off the bat (like what I’m pretty sure was Skip’s fave at the time, “Midnight Star”), and maybe I even realized the inspiration for the song was the B-52s. I definitely did not understand that Ron Popeil was anyone I should know (still an arguable statement), but I grasped the idea of him being a TV pitchman, which inherently comes with ridiculous products. Kid humor looooves ridiculous, and I immediately loved Weird Al.
This is a trend that continues on two paths: the first was my love for Yankovic’s brand of humor, which sucked me in easily as a music fan from an early age. I remember transcribing lyrics from my cassettes, to try to properly learn the songs. My grandmother got a total kick out of me singing along with the tapes at her house. When we got a CD player, the first disc that was mine alone was Weird Al’s “Polka Party.” There were also other nights of comedy with Skip, most notably around junior high, when a bunch of my friends spent literally all night trying to write ineffably painful parodies of mid-90s classics. The most memorable (as evidenced by my remembering it at all) remains Skip’s rendition of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” as a diatribe against the strawberry nougat candies in every chocolate sampler ever. This was also the night we were introduced to the film rendition of Clue, a movie I’ll still end up watching anytime it shows up on TV. It’s one of those indelible memories of childhood, that night, and it will always feel epic, in its youthful way… which is to say, in a way which, if I tried to describe it to someone who wasn’t there, would sound kind of silly instead of epic.
It’s also one of the last times I hung out with that group of early friends. Junior High saw me leave to attend a different school, and soon after I began to realize that I didn’t really have much in common with most of the people I knew before. So it goes. It’s a natural course of action that happens in high school, in our twenties, and any life stage when we start realizing we are someone different than we were previously. As time has passed, it’s interesting how coming into contact with friends from this era feels both alien and comfortable. I suppose maybe we have a connection, having grown up together, formed ideas of ourselves together, literally developed together. It’s a different connection than high school acquaintances. It’s as though, even as we’ve branched off dramatically to be many very different people, we have a sort of evolutionary ancestry.
I bring this up because, about six years ago, Skip passed away. It doesn’t matter how distant you become with someone, that sort of shit zaps you right back to the past even faster than it makes you realize your inevitable future. This was well before the first of my high school classmates passed on, and I am lucky to say I have not lost a friend since. That January, though, threw me for a loop. Suddenly, for a moment, I was tossed into a surreal time warp that I wanted desperately to escape. I’ve always been a bit of a ball of social neuroses, and this was exactly the sort of situation that made me want to retreat into my shell. Something just felt wrong about taking that course this time, though: again, that pseudo-evolutionary connection at play. But it was that moment that gave me, in a strange way, one last gift from the man. In gathering to celebrate one of the most seemingly positive spirits I’ve known, I found myself growing more comfortable, despite being surrounded by people I’d seen so long ago as to make them strangers again. I wanted to talk, although I had no proud accomplishments to document. I felt like someone people wanted to hear, and people believed it. In that moment, something I feared doing became an odd comfort. I don’t know what clicked, but it was somewhat of a turning point for me socially. I don’t believe in fate or the power of someone to help you from the grave, but I do think that subconsciously something about the man we were celebrating sparked a different side of me.
Weird Al is perhaps a weird way to get here, but in other ways, not so much. He’s a person who seems to always sort of exist; it would be weird without him. He’s also someone who shows the line between seriousness and humor; you can have a band be serious about music while creating comedy albums. In reality, a moment can switch over just as quickly. But these connections trivialize the reality a tad. Truth is, I’ve long wanted to give a tribute to a guy who will never be able to read it. Some events just complicate your every feeling for a long time to come. It’s been good and bad and weird above all, but it’s happened. I can think of no more fitting angle to approach these reflections than through an artist who not only totally reminds me of the spirit of the man, but one whose world was opened to me by him. It’s just one little thing among many I won’t forget.
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