prog_schlock (prog_schlock) wrote,

LJ Idol Week #15 - Topic: "Stop laughing"

This is my entry for week #15 of therealljidol.


"They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. Well, they're not laughing now." - Bob Monkhouse

If you don't know how to play a musical instrument, you're probably not qualified to invent a new one.

As it happens, I'd had a year of French horn in fourth grade and maybe six months of piano as a high school freshman so by age 14 I was confident I could build one. I sat in the loft I used as a bedroom feverishly combining different objects to build my new instrument. I took a clear dome from the front of my old Micronauts Hydro Copter, inserted a black hobby paint brush into one of its holes, stretched a big red rubber band from the tip of the paint brush to the around the dome and taped an ancient microphone to the contraption.

By hitting the rubber band in different spots with a second paint brush, I could create different bass-like tones. Not that there was a whole lot of difference between a high note and a low note on this particular instrument. Everything sounded sort of like "BOING."

Also, since I'd plugged the microphone directly into my recorder, I had no idea what notes I was producing. I couldn't hear what I was playing until I listened to the recording. Furthermore, I didn't actually have any knowledge about playing stringed instruments. Thus, this ended up being more of a rhythm instrument. The rhythms seldom matched the songs because I didn't know how to play drums either.

In essence, I'd built an instrument but had no idea how to play it. That didn't stop me. Mad with the power of invention and love of music, nothing could stop me.

Fortunately (?), I wasn't much of a singer either. Also, my "recording studio" was an old Panasonic cassette recorder with a built in microphone (sort of like this one). Since I'd been listening to a lot of Cheech and Chong, I decided to try to sound like them on all my songs. Thus, I sang in two voices and named those characters Chuck and Dave.

I called myself "Chuck and Dave and the All Voice Band." I recorded probably six albums worth of "music." I hesitate to call it music, but I was pretty dedicated to recording as much of it as I could.

As for the songs themselves... Well, I listened to the Dr. Demento Show religiously in the early 80's and had just heard some parody songs by this new guy, Weird Al Yankovic:

His songs were hilarious to me so I decided I'd write song parodies, too.

It should be noted that an argument can be made that many of Weird Al's best known songs may not, in fact, be parodies. A parody pokes fun at its source material. Thus, Weird Al's parodies of Nirvana and Lady Gaga are certainly parodies, while the songs "Eat It" and "White and Nerdy" may not be parodies under this strict definition. The videos of the latter two songs, however, are certainly parodies of the originals.

Weird Al Yankovic is a genuine comedic genius and I don't bandy that term around lightly. I think he proved this in 2014 when he had his first #1 album after 38 years of making music. He's one of a small handful of comedians and one of a small handful of musicians (and, with perhaps Steve Martin, one of two comedian/musicians) whose new work is still relevant as he enters his fourth decade as a professional entertainer.

I've spent a great deal of time pondering what makes Yankovic's work great. I could write a book on this subject, but I'm just going to focus on three things right now.

Warning: Nothing - nothing - and I mean nothing ruins comedy more than trying to explain it. Well, your ever-lovin' Uncle Prog_Schlock is here to ruin comedy for you. Fasten your seat belts because this Fantasticar is traveling all the way to Latveria. Its clobberin time.

First, he takes the musicianship and song production seriously. Strip away the lyrics and you'll hear that he and his band are tight. Yankovic himself is a gifted accordion player. The accordion is an easy instrument to mock, but when its played well its actually pretty impressive.

You can really hear his band shine on Weird Al's "style parody" recordings - the ones where he mimics a bands' oeuvre instead of a specific song. For example, "Lame Claim To Fame" (inspired by the band Southern Culture on the Skids), "Skipper Dan" (inspired by Weezer), "Dare To Be Stupid" (inspired by Devo) or the delightful "CNR" (inspired by The White Stripes). Warning: none of these feature accordion.

Second, Yankovic has an excellent sense of what popular songs would make fertile ground for parodies. In general, Yankovic works with songs that are enormous hits that have made some sort of significant cultural impact. I figure his calculus is that he maximizes the potential audience for his parodies if the song he's working with is ubiquitous. If people don't know the song he's working with, part of the fun of the parody is gone. For example, despite the odious nature of "Blurred Lines," its popularity is part of what makes "Word Crimes" work so well. In fact, "Word Crimes" allows you to enjoy the catchiness of the original song without having to deal with the problematic nature of the original.

Third, Yankovic has, over the years, adopted an "of the moment" writing strategy. To whit, many of his lyric have an expiration date on them. The line "my MySpace page is totally pimped out" from "White and Nerdy" is an excellent example of this. This line was very funny in 2006, but ten years later its lost a lot of its comedic value. Of course, many of the songs Yankovic has parodied over the years have faded into obscurity too, for example his Greg Kihn parody, "I Lost on Jeopardy," and his The Presidents of the United States of America parody, "Gump," don't work as well now as they once did.

Finally, he has a fine sense of how to make his rhymed punchlines deliver the maximum comic payload.

A payload dropped right into the heart of Latveria! Take that, Dr. Doom!

Inspired by "Another One Rides The Bus" and "Yoda", I wrote probably 50 song parodies and recorded them using the advanced technology I described above. I didn't have any of sensibilities that Weird Al had regarding song selection at the time so I couldn't quite figure out why my brilliant parodies of "How Can I Refuse" by Heart ("Fill Me Up With Booze") and "The Look of Love" by ABC (mine was a song about the Dungeon Master's Guide from Dungeons and Dragons) didn't get the response from my friends that I thought they should. As it happened, my friends just didn't know those songs.

Furthermore, it took me a couple of years to figure out that the punchlines should happen at the ends of verses. Also that forcing a line in to the lyric just to allow a rhyme to occur was a dreadful comedy strategy.

My more successful songs (ranked on the "How loudly did they make Jimmy Watson in my biology class laugh" scale of success) were parodies of Thomas Dolby (I wrote a rather ribald piece called "Grinded My Appliance" about an orthodontist making a retainer) and Hall and Oates (I turned "Say It Isn't So" into a song about a friendly devil worshiper called "Satanism Joe"). I also wrote several that are so offensive and dreadful that I cringe when I think of them to this day. I won't be repeating those titles here, but suffice to say I held some alarmingly reactionary views when I was a teenager.

One of the reasons I can never run for political office is for fear of somebody discovering my cache of old cassette tapes. Not only were many of the lyrics offensive, but - as I mentioned - I was trying to sound like Cheech and Chong when I sang so a full half of the songs are me trying to sing like Cheech Marin, accent and all. Plus, the constant BOING BOING BOING in the background of the songs is enough to induce migraines. These songs could be classified as public nuisances.

Its more than thirty years later and now I'm in an actual band that plays comedic rock here in town. We're still not especially good, but being able to get up in front of an audience and sing something that makes people laugh is an amazing feeling. Someday, I might even experience that feeling.

Excuse me while I go sob in the corner for a few hours..

I still don't know how to play any musical instruments. But that's not stopped me yet. Thank you, Weird Al, for inspiring me to dare to be stupid.


One skill I have learned from years of comedic song writing is how to quickly compose short bits of doggerel. If you'd like me to compose a short, silly stanza for you, let me know what subject you'd like me to cover in the comments. One minorpiece (which is the opposite of masterpiece) per comment.
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