In 1997, nearly a decade after the success of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, CBS approved production of its first new children’s program with a live host. Hoping to replicate Pee-Wee‘s mix of innocence and irreverence, the producers turned to song parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, who had demonstrated that he could carry a show some years earlier as the host of the MTV cult hit Al TV.
For Yankovic, it was the realization of a pet project that he had been pitching since 1984, in which he would marry loopy fun humor appealing to kids to sharp satire appealing to adults, much like Yankovic’s music. As a big fan of Pee-Wee, Yankovic, along with his creative team, hoped to create something similarly edgy that could appeal to everyone.
Unfortunately for Yankovic, 1997 was also the year that the FCC issued a mandate, requiring that at least three hours of every network’s programming be “educational”. Naturally, CBS decided that their Saturday morning line-up would be the perfect spot for that, and thus the order was handed down to the Weird Al Show to tailor each episode accordingly. Now, rather than providing “grown-up humor with a nice little lesson at the end”, the Weird Al Show was required to spend every episode meeting government regulations — hardly a formula for fun. As Yankovic himself put it,
“Because we were constantly forced to shove these educational objectives down people’s throats, we wound up with a show where my humor was often compromised, and the educational content itself was sometimes questionable, so it sort of wound up being a show for nobody.”
Though the result was indeed awkward, calling it “a show for nobody” is selling it short. While the Weird Al Show may have turned out to be a constant struggle for Yankovic and his team, the finished product was still relatively close to their original intentions. Compromised or not, the show’s humor is edgier than even Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
What’s more, it’s rife with parody and pop culture references that would have likely sailed over the heads of its target audience, which — due to its incredibly early time slot — was apparently 2 to 5 year-olds. (As Yankovic quips on the DVD commentary, “Why didn’t we just get a set of car keys and dangle them in front of the camera?”) But now with the DVD release, as with other similarly abandoned shows, Weird Al has a chance to capture the cult audience it deserves.
The premise of the show is set up via one of Yankovic’s trademark surrealist accordion ballads in a wildly animated credits sequence. Weird Al and his pal Harvey the Wonder Hamster both live in a sewer. Through a series of outlandish events — including Al working in a nasal decongestant factory and on a tater tot farm, finding love with a dental hygienist with a spatula tattooed on her arm (a sly UHF reference for fans) — Al manages to save a TV producer from a bear trap, for which he is rewarded with his very own show.
From his underground lair, Al hosts a string of C-list celebrities and series regulars in his eye-popping, cartoonishly decorated home (which, not so coincidentally, shares a designer with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). At the beginning of each episode is a title card with the day’s lesson spelled out on it; narrator Billy West (Ren and Stimpy, Futurama) reads it “as obnoxiously as possible,” and the show then reiterates it at every given opportunity. Yankovic is usually the only one to break the fourth wall and talk directly to the cameras, meaning he is often the one responsible for making sure the show stays “on lesson”, a task which he executes with barely masked resentment.
During one episode, for example, Al talks with his neighbor the Hooded Avenger, a stay-at-home superhero. After learning that a party he’d thrown had gone poorly because Al had neglected to listen to his guests’ problems, the Hooded Avenger chides him, saying, “When one person shares and the other person listens those two people get to be better friends.” Al thus looks directly at the camera, exclaiming, “You know, that’s so darn sappy it’s just got to be true!”
Perhaps the show’s most trenchant dig at all the forced moralizing, though, is through Yankovic’s frequently appearing character Fred Huggins, a composite parody of children’s television hosts in which Yankovic — in a Mr. Rogers cardigan and Captain Kangaroo facial hair — pulls out a ukulele to sing anemic songs, such as one about how “Water is Wet”. In a typical bit, Huggins asks his two grimacing puppet co-hosts if they’d like to sing his new song “I Like You”. “Didn’t we just sing that song, like five minutes ago?” the puppets exclaim, while tearing out their hair. Similar parodies of Bill Nye: The Science Guy (“Today’s lesson: grass is green!”) further reveal Yankovic’s disdain for most children’s TV shows, and illustrate the sort of pressure they were under to replicate them.
It’s these throwaway moments of parody that give the show its edge, and ultimately what earns it its pedigree as cult favorite. In a surprising move, Yankovic gave airtime to several members of the West Coast underground comedy scene, and this is probably the only children’s show where one will see cameos from people like comedians Patton Oswalt and Mary-Lynn Rajskub (24, Mr. Show).
Plenty of Evening at the Improv stars such as the Amazing Jonathan, Cathy Ladman and Charles Fleischer show up as well, along with nerd icon Eddie Deezen, heard but not seen as The Guy Boarded Up in the Wall. Fellow accordionist/comedian Judy Tenuta even has a recurring character as “Madame Judy”, a faux-psychic who, unfortunately, recycles Tenuta’s tired schtick of talking in a Glenda the Good Witch trill and switching suddenly into a Bronk honk. Tenuta is also, for some reason, given ample opportunity to do her even then outdated impressions of Roseanne Barr and Barbra Streisand, for the show’s no doubt baffled audience of preschoolers.
As Yankovic and director Peyton Reed note, The Weird Al Show also shared a soundstage with The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and as such they frequently recruited Leno‘s guests to do walk-on bits by ambushing them in the hallways. As a result, celebrities as diverse as Alex Trebek, Teri Garr, Drew Carey, and Fabio pop-up from time to time, albeit often in blink-and-you-missed-them throwaway gags. The show also made room for musical guests, with bands often dropping by Al’s sewer lair to perform with little to no explanation.
Barenaked Ladies (shortened to “BNL” by the censors) wrap up the first episode, while a young Ben Kweller’s act Radish performs a set that Yankovic terms “pretty rocking for eight in the morning.” Fans of what-the-hell television moments, however, shouldn’t miss the “Talent Show” episode, where Al, his elderly mother, Tenuta, the Hooded Avenger et al. are forced to awkwardly sway to a silky smooth performance by R&B group Immature. The scavengers over at TV Carnage should be all over this one.
Overall, the Weird Al Show is a schizophrenic beast. It’s too goofy and beset with moral lessons for the hip and ironic crowd, but also far too winking and full of deadpan humor for the children for whom it was designed. Much of it also exists in that realm of absurdity encapsulated by Yankovic’s music, the conceit of which is ultimately so light and inconsequential that it’s only good for a few chuckles before becoming totally forgettable. The music videos that end every episode, spanning Yankovic’s career from his “Dare to Be Stupid” days all the way up to “Gump,” illustrate the ephemeral nature of this kind of humor, which is so often based on the wackiness of word juxtapositions like “jellybean and pickle sandwich” and similarly cheap laughs.
The surprising revelation about the Weird Al Show, however, is Yankovic’s capacity and appreciation for satire that often bordered on the sardonic and giddily nihilistic. As further evidenced by the commentary here, Yankovic is clearly much smarter and self-aware than people give him credit for. It’s interesting to see these glimpses of Yankovic’s dark side, and one wishes he would have been allowed to explore them further — though, perhaps somewhere other than Saturday morning.