Like chewing gum that lost its flavour on the bedpost overnight, funny music is out of fashion. Top 40 programming no longer knows from dead skunks and disco ducks, purple people eaters and woolly bullies, or yellow polka dot bikinis of any size, be they itsy-bitsy or teenie-weenie.
It’s a sad but true fact that radio killed the silly. The novelty of novelty tunes has long worn off.
“I don’t know if I would articulate a reason,” says the sensible man who calls himself Weird Al. “Comedy albums were once a staple of radio, but programmers started getting a little more serious. It had all but dried up by the early eighties.”
And then came Alfred Matthew Yankovic, a polka-loving parodist who charted in 1982 with I Love Rocky Road (a spoof of I Love Rock ’n’ Roll as recorded by Joan Jett and The Blackhearts). Weird Al broke big two years later, thanks to MTV and Eat It, a lampooning of Michael Jackson’s Beat It.
Yankovic, 51, is still at it. He’s just released his 13th album, Alpocalypse, a CD/DVD notorious for its single Perform This Way. The spoof of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way – “I strap prime rib to my feet, cover myself with raw meat; I bet you’ve never seen a skirt steak worn this way” – received much publicity when Gaga refused (then relented) Yankovic permission to parody.
Because of Gaga’s dithering, a video for Perform This Way wasn’t included with the Alpocalypse package. But it’s available online, and is sure to be screened as part of Yankovic’s live shows Saturday at Massey Hall – concerts that will be filmed for later broadcast.
As for novelty songs in general, Yankovic points out that music – rock music and socially conscious folk music in particular – became a more serious breed in the late 1960s and the 1970s. “I don’t know if it became unhip or passé to do funny songs, but when I was starting out it wasn’t expected, or, in large part, appreciated.”
Novelty songs enjoyed popularity on radio beginning in the 1920s and culminating in its Golden Age – from 1956 to 1966, according to radio DJ Dr. Demento. After that, there were still oddball and satirical hits – by Frank Zappa ( Dancin’ Fool and Valley Girl), Randy Newman ( Short People), Steve Martin ( King Tut) and C.W. McCall ( Convoy) – but they were the last gasps from the silly side.
There was a new market, however, in the 1980s, when the fledgling MTV network needed content. And so, goofy videos, either from “serious” artists such as ZZ Top or the wacky-inclined Yankovic, went into heavy rotation.
But if the music-television innovation was a boon to Yankovic, novelty tunes were increasingly rare on mainstream radio (other than holiday staples such as Monster Mash, Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer and Bob and Doug’s The Twelve Days of Christmas).
According to Demento, the change was a result of mainstream radio’s move toward female listeners, as opposed to their flatulent, snickering counterparts in the other locker room.
“Top 40 targets young females,” he says. “They’re less conspicuous consumers of novelty music than young males. If you go to a Weird Al show, you’ll see a lot of 10-to-15-year-old males. The girls are off listening to Justin Bieber instead.”
Demento’s syndicated program, which gave Yankovic his first radio exposure in the 1970s, was something of an island of misfit toys for novelty songs. “It started as an oldies show,” explains Demento, an ethnomusicologist whose real name is Barret Hansen. “At the beginning the emphasis was not entirely on funny music. But the more funny music I played, the more popular the show got.”
Broadcast syndication of Dr. Demento ceased in 2010, but weekly podcasts are available online – the current repository for comic song and video. YouTube and various humour sites are the place to see such things as Alanis Morissette’s 2007 video parody of the Black Eyed Peas’ My Hump or Jimmy Fallon’s dead-on Neil Young impersonations.
The Internet is the obvious new repository for novelty music, new and old, but the content is spotty. Anybody can with a half-baked notion and the basic computer tools and aptitude can upload a ditty. “What that accessibility means to me is that I will never be unique again,” says Yankovic, his weirdness now less singular.
Finding the true gems online though is to try to drink water from a firehose, with the best silly songs of today never to stick in our collective pop-conscious as they once did. Some might say good riddance, that comic music is base and unworthy. (Others would argue that hits by people like Katy Perry and the Black Eyed Peas are larky – the novelty songs of their time. But that’s an argument for another day.)
Is it good riddance to nutty music, then? I wouldn’t say so, and likely neither would Ray Stevens. He sang The Streak and Ahab the Arab, and he also sang that every thing is beautiful in its own way – Weird Al’s music, presumably, included.
Weird Al Yankovic plays Toronto’s Massey Hall on Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Novelty music covers a variety of styles, some nuttier than others. Herewith, a rundown of the subgenres and the songs.
Absurdist: T hey're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!; Fish Heads; My Name Is Larry.
Satirical: Short People; Valley Girl; Cover of the Rolling Stone.
Topical: Dancin' Fool; Disco Duck; The Streak; Convoy.
Zany Pop: Charlie Brown; The Purple People Eater; King Tut; Cotton-Eyed Joe.
Seasonal: Monster Mash; Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer; Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.
Parody: Eat It; On Top of Spaghetti; Smells Like Nirvana.
TV/Film: The Rockford Files Theme; Time Warp; Welcome Back (theme to Welcome Back, Kotter).
Editor's note: The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version incorrectly identified the album Alpocalypse as Apocalypse. This online version has been corrected.