It seems hard to believe, but there was a time when comedy albums routinely went to No. 1. In the early ’60s, Bob Newhart, Allan Sherman, and Vaughn Meader shared the top of the charts with Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and the soundtrack to West Side Story. Even Bill Cosby made his name as a recording artist before he got into TV and movies.
That would never happen today. Because contemporary comedy is so much more dependent upon visuals, most stand-up doesn’t really stand up when heard on the stereo. Maybe that’s why Seinfeld on Broadway was a hit on HBO and a dud on CD.
The sad state of comedy recordings ought to be bad news for ”Weird Al” Yankovic, but it’s not. True, his videos are often funnier than the songs they illustrate, but that hasn’t kept him from selling albums — and for good reason. Because as Running With Scissors demonstrates, Yankovic’s jokes are eminently listenable.
That’s more a matter of the playing than the punchlines. Never mind that the soul of Yankovic’s song parodies is the wacky words he writes to replace the original lyrics, turning skinny Michael Jackson’s ”Bad” into the food-obsessed ”Fat,” or remaking ”Like a Virgin” as ”Like a Surgeon”; the real kick is that he gets the music exactly right, so that even if his jokes aren’t hysterical, hearing them turn up in such a familiar song is.
For instance, imagine that Don McLean had written ”American Pie” about Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace and you’ll sense the elaborate silliness of Yankovic’s ”The Saga Begins.” It kicks off by setting the opening text of Stars Wars — ”A long, long time ago/In a galaxy far away…” — to the first notes of the McLean oldie. Moreover, the song gets better as it goes along, partly because the ups and downs of George Lucas’ rambling story fit McLean’s false-climax arrangement to a tee, but mostly because Yankovic perfectly captures McLean’s vocal mannerisms. Likewise, the ”One Week”-based ”Jerry Springer” delivers Barenaked Ladies’ sound with K-tel precision, right down to the rapid-fire raga sections.
Yankovic seems considerably less inspired when the melodies he’s working with are his own. ”My Baby’s in Love With Eddie Vedder” is paint-by-numbers zydeco, while the transvestite trucker tune ”Truck Drivin’ Man” is just generic C&W, and ”Germs” is carried by a host of Nine Inch Nails licks.
But then, originality has never been Yankovic’s strong suit. Indeed, certain kinds of gags recur with clockwork predictability on his albums. Like Mel Brooks and Mad magazine, for example, Yankovic believes that inappropriate Jewishness is an automatic laugh getter, so he makes sure to have at least one piece of kosher comedy per release. Here, it’s a ”Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” parody called ”Pretty Fly for a Rabbi,” which includes a whole lotta Yiddish (”I could plotz!”) and a handful of hoary stereotypes (”He has to find a bargain ‘cause he won’t pay retail price”). On paper, the lyrics are fairly stupid, but when Yankovic cranks the guitars and pushes his voice up to Dexter Holland range, the result is so absurd you’ve got to laugh.
Besides, Yankovic’s approach has worked so well over the years that it’s hard to begrudge him not wanting to change the formula. So in the tradition of ”I Think I’m a Clone Now,” we get the science-oriented ”It’s All About the Pentiums” (a parody of Puff Daddy’s ”It’s All About the Benjamins”); continuing the string of food jokes is ”Grapefruit Diet” (a ”Zoot Suit Riot” riff); and following in the footsteps of ”Hooked on Polka” and ”Polka Your Eyes Out” comes the medley ”Polka Power!” which polka-cizes ”Tubthumping,” ”Ray of Light,” and ”The Dope Show” among others.
Okay, so it’s not exactly Noel Coward. But compared with most comedy recordings these days, Running With Scissors is a cut above. B