It’s Cool to Be Smart — and Other Reasons to Still Idolize “Weird Al”

Well done, “Weird Al” Yankovic.

While scrolling through Twitter feeds, going through daily Internet rounds or — kicking it old-school — flipping channels this week, most people were probably were hit with one form or another of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s media blitz. The man who introduced his musical-parody genius to the world via cable juggernaut MTV 30 years ago, was now upstaging his millennial-generation pop-artist peers by seamlessly playing the viral-marketing game like a finely tuned accordion. Between the release of one new video per day on websites ranging from Yahoo to PopCrush, and appearances ranging from Conan to the Fox Business channel, it was, to steal from the man himself, an Alapalooza.

My G-d, did this business plan work. Al’s 14th studio album, Mandatory Fun, hit Number One on iTunes within one day of its July 15th release, and it is in an excellent position to become Al’s very first Number One album on the Billboard 200.

If you haven’t taken a moment to savor Al’s take on 2014 pop culture, watch these videos of two songs off Mandatory Fun. I’ll wait.

“Word Crimes”: a pitch-perfect parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” as well as a battle cry for all copy editors everywhere

“Foil”: It starts off using a common Weird Al formula (singing about food), but Al’s spoof on Lorde’s “Royals” takes an unexpected — and brilliant — shift

Sure, this was a successful marketing venture from both a financial and exposure standpoint. It’s pretty damn hard today for a 54-year-old man with corkscrew curls to trump artists half his age — and wearing half the clothing — in the entertainment industry, but Al has done it! But the heavy rotation of Weird Al on our iPhones and iPads has achieved something else, something more important. It’s caused the people of my generation (I’m somewhere around Generation X), the ones who grew up in the 1980s, for whom MTV was their Candy Crush/Twitter/Facebook/Spotify/BuzzFeed, to take a moment and reflect on how much this guy with the Hawaiian shirts, goofy glasses and mustache meant to our childhoods — and our appreciation of music and pop culture.

I was inspired to share my Al-ecdotes, if you will, by two posts this week. One was Vulture‘s “History Behind 12 Great Weird Al Videos,” which was a fun-filled romp down memory lane with insights provided by Al himself. The second was Bex Schwartz’s Awl piece 28 Years With Weird Al. Here was someone else who gobbled up “The Compleat Al” like it was candy (considering how many times my parents spent money to let me rent it from the local video store, I’m surprised they didn’t just purchase the damn VHS tape for me — I sure wore out Armonk Video’s copy back in 1985) and the one person who reassured me that there was nothing wrong with my spending this past week binge-watching Weird Al clips on YouTube.

It’s funny, in my line of work, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing a multitude of celebrities, as well as just having them cross my path. There was that time I said hi to Paul McCartney in my office lobby. Or when Mick Jagger and Elton John walked by my desk (not at the same time). I’ll never forget greeting the Edge and shaking Bono’s hand. (It wasn’t work-related, but I once saw Kate Winslet in a doctor’s office) But sadly, I have not yet had the honor of meeting (or interviewing) the guy who brought so much joy and laughter to an eight-year-old girl who stayed up way past her bedtime whenever a new AL-TV special was broadcast. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been to one of his concerts, and — don’t hate me, Al! — I’ve never purchased any of his albums.

So what was it that fueled my obsession if I wasn’t listening to the records or begging my parents to take me to see the weird one in concert? Well, why else would I write about this on my TV blog — it was the medium of MTV, namely videos, that allowed Weird Al to clinch my “compleat” and utter admiration. Sure, the songs are funny, but what really made Al stick out in my mind were his re-enactments of Michael Jackson‘s and Madonna‘s classic videos. It was his wacky “takeovers” of the network that made him a star, it was his willingness to poke fun at himself and it was his uncanny ability to consistently have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. So much so that I’m pretty certain I learned the lyrics to “Smells Like Nirvana” before I ever got my first copy of Nevermind.

The reason I felt so nostalgic for my history with Weird Al is because I realized this week that Al belongs to an elite group of music artists: The Eighties holdovers. Along with U2, Prince, Madonna and Metallica, Al’s career started and flourished in the Reagan era, and like the aforementioned artists, he has allowed himself to move and change with the times. Given his line of work, he has no choice if he wants to remain relevant in the age of YouTube, but Al’s incredible timing in poking fun at the right people at the right moment resulted in his having a more successful music career than several of the artists he’s parodied. See: Greg Kihn, El Debarge — yep, you read that correctly, El Debarge — Huey Lewis and the News and Robert Palmer.

Al made his name and career out of his playful, yet respectful, teasing of pop stars both he and the rest of the world adored. But too often, it’s his original songs that are overshadowed by tunes like “Perform this Way” and “White and Nerdy.” His Pixies style parody, “First World Problems,” got some Internet love yesterday as the sixth video released in the “Eight Days of Al” album rollout, but I highly recommend going back and listening to some of his “deeper cuts.” Here are my top five non-parody picks that showcase Al’s brilliance:

1. “Albuquerque,” Running With Scissors, 1999

This nonsensical tale about a sauerkraut-hating dude who journeys to the land of Blue Sky and Los Pollos Hermanos is a 12-minute rock epic that somehow never gets tiresome (The A.V. Club agrees). It’s one of the few Al songs I embraced without a corresponding video. Obviously this is a must-see for Breaking Bad fans, but the final shot of Al with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul is just an overdose of awesomeness.

2. “Skipper Dan,” Internet Leaks (EP), 2009

He has a sensitive side! This is the one Weird Al song that makes me all misty-eyed — a bittersweet story about an aspiring actor whose Juilliard training and unbridled ambition has only resulted in a career as a Disneyland Jungle Cruise tour guide. You try watching this without crying.

3. “Dare to Be Stupid,” Dare to Be Stupid, 2005

This was my introduction to Devo, Al’s heartfelt homage to the New Wave gods. It near-traumatized me when I first saw it at age eight on The Compleat Al, and to this day, I have no idea what is happening in this video. I just know I want to be a part of that yellow-suit clad band — hello, a guitar that also toasts Pop-Tarts????

4. “Christmas at Ground Zero,” Polka Party, 1986

I learned so much about my parents’ childhood and the “duck and cover” drills they had to do from this video. The track — a pastiche of Christmas pop songs — is just so catchy — I dreamed of being one of Al’s backup singers for it.

5. “Polka Your Eyes Out,” Off the Deep End, 1992

No Weird Al album is complete without one of his polka medleys — and this one has always been my favorite. Probably because it was the first Al polka I ever heard (Camp Chipinaw, 1992).

Thank you, Weird Al, for letting me grow up with you. Do you mind sticking around for another 30 years? We’re always gonna need your smart, on-point take on this weird world we live in.

Emmys 2014: ‘Orange’ and Blue Sky Color the Nominations, While Red Is Left Out in the Cold (War)

My thoughts on today’s Emmy nominations…

1. WTF, The Americans (or rather, lack thereof)?

Now more than ever, there are endless television options to choose from, between broadcast, basic cable, premium cable, streaming services, etc. But I still have to call foul on the Television Academy’s decision to almost completely snub FX’s Cold War series The Americans. With so many popular serial dramas ending (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) The Americans poised itself, especially in its recent stellar second season, to be the Great White Red Hope of smart, riveting television. I found it to be a colossal fail that the show was not nominated for Best Drama Series, and even more so that Matthew Rhys was left out of the running for Best Actor in a Drama. I’ve been campaigning for the Welsh actor to score an Emmy nod since April, and should you need any further convincing of the Academy’s grave error in sending The Americans to the awards gulag this year, please feel free to read any of my Americans coverage for RollingStone.com. 

Yes, I’m pleased to see Margo Martindale be recognized for her work as matronly handler Claudia in the Guest Actress category, but that in no way excuses the Academy’s decision to nominate Downton Abbey over one of the best shows on TV right now. I am as devoted a Downton fan as they come, but I also have a discerning enough eye to know that Season Four was a weak one (come on, resorting to embroiling the Crawleys in intra-palace intrigue and a possible scandal with the Royal Family? I know you can do better than that, Julian Fellowes). There is no question that The Americans had a better season than Downton Abbey: Second-generation teenage KGB operatives that don’t flinch when they kill their parents vs. Mr. Bates killing Anna’s rapist? I’m with the Russians on this one.

Ultimately, my money’s on True Detective to take the Best Drama prize, as it was the only worthy breakthrough show of the five nominees, and it’s still fresh in people’s minds thanks to McConaughey fever. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones and House of Cards, while all deserving of recognition, fall into that most awful of categories: Most Predictable Drama Series to Be Nominated. Too bad The Americans won’t even have a chance to play the dark horse card, because it’s the upsets that make all these awards shows bearable.

2. Orange Is the New Black FTW!

My Americans disappointment was quelled only by the announcement that a show set in a women’s prison might just knock America’s perfect politically correct clan off its pedestal. Look, I enjoy Modern Family as much as the average flyover state resident, but hasn’t it been honored enough? For those keeping track, it’s won Best Comedy Series a whopping four years in a row. We get it. It’s a funny show. But let’s move on and start celebrating the future of television cough streaming services cough. Orange Is the New Black picks up the torch from House of Cards and proudly marches Netflix alongside TV behemoths HBO, AMC, ABC, CBS and NBC — and I think it’s got a real shot at sending the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker family down to SHU. OITNB was also honored with a slew of acting noms (Taylor Schilling for Best Actress in a Drama, Kate Mulgrew for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama — although, it was their Season Two performances, not so much their Season One work, that are Emmy-caliber), most notably for audience favorites Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox — making history as the first transgender Emmy nominee, and Natasha Lyonne each picking up nods for Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. Next year, I want to see Aduba, Yael Stone, Lorraine Toussaint and Samira Wiley duke it out in the Supporting Actress category.

3. The Normal Heart deserves it all

The Best TV Movie win is a given, and I would be perfectly fine with a four-way tie between Alfred Molina, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Joe Mantello for Best Supporting Actor in a TV Movie or Miniseries. But, the edge has to be given here to Bomer, who was the cause of most viewers’ waterworks as he bravely showcased the agonizing deterioration of a New York Times reporter who slowly succumbs to AIDS, going so far as to drop an emaciating 40 pounds for the role. Much as I adored Parsons as “Southern bitch” Tommy Boatwright, he already has three Emmys on his mantle for The Big Bang Theory (and, no, I don’t think he needs to win for that show this year, either).

4. Who got hosed?

Matthew Rhys: I don’t care if he won the Best Actor in a Drama award last year, but Jeff Daniels does not deserve what should rightfully be Rhys’ spot in the 2014 roster.  News flash, Mr. Anchorman, The Newsroom crashed and burned, and it’s ending this season, whereas The Americans still has a bright future ahead of it. Rhys’ performance this season was absolutely electrifying — whereas Daniels’ Will McAvoy can’t even turn on a light switch without an intern close by. Regardless, and with love to Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm and Woody Harrelson, I think we can safely say that we should prepare for another round of “Alright, Alright, Alright.”

Jeffrey Wright: Considering Bobby Cannavale’s win last year for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama for his villain-of-the-season performace on Boardwalk Empire, I’m quite baffled at the Academy’s decision to not honor the actor who almost single-handedly turned the struggling HBO period piece into a captivating hour of television. Hey, I enjoyed gazing at Carson’s porcelain-white legs in that final scene at the seaside, but exactly what else did he do this season at Downton to garner Jim Carter another Emmy nom?  Tough race between Jesse Pinkman’s triumphant escape, Tyrion Lannister’s make-or-break trial speech, or Will Gardner’s death.

Elisabeth Moss: What sort of snubbery is this? No inclusion in the Best Lead Actress Drama category? Which parts of Mad Men did the Academy miss this year? Was it Peggy’s impassioned Burger Chef pitch?  That time she and Don danced tenderly to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”? The entire seventh season (Part 1)? You people are idiots.

Scandal: Everything is not coming up Mellie, it seems. No love for Bellamy Young in the Best Supporting Actress Drama category, despite her stealing every scene this season. The ABC political soap opera also came up short in the running for Best Drama, but with Breaking Bad and the Harrelson/McConaughey version of True Detective taking their final/only bows this year, it could allow Olivia Pope and Associates to slip right through to the front in 2015.

Overall, the 2014 nominees were the same predictable, institutional choices the Emmys are famous for. However, I applaud the Television Academy for opening its air-tight doors ever-so-slightly to the next generation of television (OITNB, True Detective, Fargo — Allison Tolman!!!!). As hard as it is to say goodbye to beloved favorites Breaking Bad and Mad Men, their nearing departures from the Emmy circuit will undeniably force the Academy to start recognizing deserving shows like The Americans and flying-under-the-radar actors like Tatiana Maslany.

 

 

 

RIP, Alcide. But You Won’t Be Missed

He was loyal, he was protective and he was hunky, but even those admirable qualities couldn’t save Joe Manganiello’s Alcide Herveaux from True Blood’s Dead Club. Yes, it was a shocker and yes it crushes the dreams of those fans who remained #TeamAlcide, but in terms of narrative and development, Alcide’s death is the best thing to happen to True Blood in three seasons.

“Fire in the Hole” was an improvement on the first two episodes of Season Seven. However, in no way is the show all of a sudden good again, but it gives me hope that it’s now building up to an ending that will make all former and present fans happy. So while Alcide’s death — and to an extent — Maxine Fortenberry’s, lift a huge amount of dead weight off the show (literally and figuratively), I hope the writers continue the bloodbath. For two reasons: 1. It will never reach the intensity and audience devotion of Game of Thrones, but the death factor is what got True Blood fans excited about the story in the first place. i.e. Who’s going to die next? 2. The good news on that front is there are still plenty of characters that need to go: There’s self-proclaimed new mayor Vince (he’s a good stand-in for your average gun-rights-Tea Party crazy, but raise your hand if you care what happens to him next. He’s fulfilled his purpose in riling up the people of Bon Temps), Violet (I admire her warrior-woman qualities — immediately offering to help protect a human or wash Hep V blood off Sookie — but her relationship with Jason is beyond annoying), Arlene (stop fucking screaming over vampires already! How long have you lived in Bon Temps?), Holly (unless you really can pull off some Harry Potter shit you’re of no use to your friends or to the viewers), Nicole (please mention in the comments if you even know who this character is — no one would blame you if you didn’t. I don’t even think Sam remembers who she is), and, much as it pains me to say it: Willa. I had so much hope for this character last summer, but even though she was promoted to main cast this season, I have been quite disappointed in the writers’ lack of interest in her. Also, unless James and Lafayette get together and the relationship sticks, the vamp needs to go — much as I enjoy looking at him. He’s gay, Jessica is a woman (and we all want her back with Jason anyway), so it’s time for this forced relationship to meet the true death. Same goes for Adilyn, Wade and Rocky. As long as Sookie still has her faerie light, Adilyn can spend the rest of the season making out with Wade on the faerie plain, for all I care.

It’s no secret that the goal of this season is to bring Bill and Sookie back together, and the death knell was ringing for Alcide for a while now. He had settled into domesticity with Sookie (remember when that happened with Jessica and Hoyt? Didn’t turn out so well, did it?), despite the two having zero chemistry. Especially in last night’s episode, Alcide had devolved into pure caricature — going all Incredible Hulk once realizing Sookie went off with Bill to set a trap for the Hep-V vamps (he lost his shirt, his wolfie eyes lit up and he went berserk. Am I missing anything here?). The sad truth is, as much as we all liked looking at him, Alcide was always a peripheral character — he wasn’t even in the opening credits the third season, which was his only really worthwhile appearance. The writers didn’t even know what to do with him for Seasons Four-Seven, most of the time casting him in a D-level subplot that had nothing to do with the rest of the storyline. For heaven’s sake, Sookie’s flirtatious banter while BILL WAS UP IN A TREE had more heat than any skin-on-skin contact she ever had with Alcide.

Alcide’s presence was so unnecessary and irrelevant to the storyline that Sookie literally snuck out on the man she supposedly loved with her ex-boyfriend. If your boyfriend is a WEREWOLF and you’re opting for your bloosucking ex for protection, then, yeah, you really don’t need him around. Sorry, Al.

But, I was pleased with the way he went out. 1. We SAW him die (very, very important). 2. No closing-credits music, just mournful silence. Sookie, despite admitting to Bill that perhaps she didn’t love Alcide the way he deserved to be loved, appears genuinely shattered over his death, collapsing over his lifeless body in whispered weeps. But I think the most respectful thing she did for Alcide in that moment was to reject Jessica’s offer to turn him.

Which brings me to Alcide’s death vs. Tara’s death: I still believe the writers have something big in store for us regarding Tara, even if it’s in some spooky afterlife form. My theory is based on the most prosaic of factors, but I stand by it: Rutina Wesley’s name is still in the opening credits. Yes, she appeared in a ghostly form in last week’s episode, but despite not appearing at all in “Fire in the Hole,” there she was, plain as day, appearing after Ryan Kwanten’s name. In order to promote the is-he-or-isn’t-he-dead question, Alexander Skarsgård’s name was left out of the opening credits in the season premiere (Answer: Eric’s alive, albeit infected by Hep V). If Joe Manganiello’s name is missing from next week’s credits then that is proof positive that we’re going to be seeing Tara again. Especially if Lettie Mae finds more gullible vampires like Willa. There are plenty of other body parts for her to singe.