When music video was young, in its infancy, there were very few people who foresaw the immense cultural impact that the medium would have in the coming years. And yet, as we all now know, the birth of MTV in 1981 would herald a new era in music, where the marriage of audio and visual would completely change how we quite literally looked at artists.
It’s possible that “Weird Al” Yankovic was one of those prescient people who saw this new landscape for what it would become and took advantage of video as another place to turn his parodic eye for material. Or it could just be that, as with other acts of the time, music video was simply another opportunity for exposure. With radio typically turning a deaf ear to novelty music, limiting the chances Al had for taking his comedy to the public, video may have simply been a back door into the minds of audiences.
Whatever the case, it is undeniable that “Weird Al” and music video quickly formed a happy alliance. And while music video probably made Al’s career, Al also brought a sense of self-reflexive humor to the medium that added a layer of fun to video’s more serious role as commerce. “Weird Al” was music video’s resident comedian, and while he’s mostly known for parodying other artists’ songs, that popular recognition relied heavily on his use of music video and presence on MTV. And, as the DVD liner notes here reflect, Al’s video debut, “Ricky” (an I Love Lucy-themed spoof of Toni Basil’s number one hit “Mickey”), is possibly the first comedy video to air on MTV.
Still, while Al’s earliest videos — “Ricky”, “Like a Surgeon”, and “I Love Rocky Road” — used the medium to make goofy videos out of his songs’ topics, it was 1984’s breakout hit video for “Eat It” that solidified Al’s place as King of Parody, as well as video pioneer and household name. His first collaboration with director Jay Levey, the video followed the song’s parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” by spoofing “Beat It”‘s video as well, putting Al’s trademark curly hair, glasses, and moustache into the same red leather jacket and pool-hall settings as Jackson, with Al mimicking the King of Pop’s signature dance moves, and even ending with a quick nod to the video for “Thriller” as Al turns to face the camera and sports the yellow cat’s eyes. The video’s success helped propel the song up the charts and it eventually won a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording, but more importantly it set the tone for parody in the video age, where song and video had become a singular entity and parody had to follow suit.
The Ultimate Video Collection gathers up 24 of Al’s videos and a couple of television clips to assemble the video output of a career of tongue-in-cheek oddball comedy. Although not arranged chronologically, the videos here range from “Ricky” on up to “The Saga Begins”, Al’s video for his Star Wars: Episode 1-themed play on “American Pie”, and even includes last year’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” parody for the all-palindrome song “Bob”. All the hits are here, such as “Smells Like Nirvana”, “Amish Paradise”, (Grammy winner) “Fat”, “It’s All About the Pentiums”, “Jurassic Park”, and “Bedrock Anthem”, as well as other fan-favorites like “One More Minute”, “Christmas at Ground Zero”, “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”, and “Dare to Be Stupid”.
In some ways, from a fan’s perspective it’s disappointing that Al’s originals were never as popular as his parodies of other artists, but it’s hardly surprising. A part of audiences’ enjoyment of parodies is the tearing-down of songs that have achieved a popular culture ubiquity. That “Weird Al” handles parody with such deft aplomb virtually ensured that they would be his main legacy. If his comedy continued on into original songs — with fans always cheering for a new “horrible break-up” song — general audiences weren’t as easily convinced without a “real” song to reference.
Still, it’s meant that Al’s ventures outside the confined of MTV parody haven’t fared so well. While his feature film UHF may have a level of cult worship, it tanked in theaters. His many appearances as the “take over” host of MTV and VH1 were popular enough that he was able to land a Saturday morning kids’ show, The Weird Al Show, but that didn’t last long either. Instead, Al has become something of an icon in his own right, working from the fringes of mainstream culture to highlight its silliness and provide some good-natured levity.
This DVD does little to really explore Al’s place in this whole scheme. Aside from the videos themselves, the disc includes a clip of Al’s first television appearance, a 1981 performance of “Another One Rides the Bus” from NBC’s The Tomorrow Show, and a couple of brief bits from The Weird Al Show. The only special features are an option to display the lyrics on-screen as the videos play.
As such, there’s not much to recommend this DVD beyond the videos. While Yankovic has been the vehicle for some of the most clever videos on television, it’s tough to see anyone other than fans going out of their way to own these. Al would probably be better served by a documentary collection, something that included these videos as well as his many MTV and VH1 performances, some of the VH1 Behind the Music footage, and more from his other media excursions.
However, this is simply billed as The Ultimate Video Collection, and that’s exactly what it is, no more no less. For Al’s dedicated fans, this DVD will be a nice way to have all the videos in one place. We’ll just have to wait for a more complete release to come along and argue for his genius in the future.