I haven’t heard this album, per se, but I saw the TV special of the same name and presume it’s identical. Jeselnik has a very well-defined schtick. He delivers “conventional” jokes, rather than telling stories, etc. His humor is based largely on misdirection, a bit like Rodney Dangerfield, etc. But his version of misdirection takes on a new dimension. He usually takes positions that are considered socially taboo or even undiscussable and feigns being a sociopath (as others note, just a step beyond Craig Kilborn et al.). Often that means jokes premised on hilarious false/extremist dichotomies. So, he implies he’s a rapist, that christianity is worse than pedophilia, and that others’ deaths and disabilities are an inconvenience to him. Often he does this by simple grammatical errors, like substituting the present tense “has” for the past-tense “had” to send the audience a false message before the punchline of a joke. What was kind of interesting in the TV special routine was that in the middle of the show he does this has/had joke involving his brother as a character, but then he finishes up the show with a very similar joke where he kind of “calls out” somebody else for doing essentially the same thing (using “is” instead of “was”). Jeselnik drops hints all over the place that almost everything he says is a complete fabrication (though I wonder about his comments about being an atheist). What I like about him is that he’s found a way to actually create some kind of rudimentary social space to discuss or at least think about some (liberal) social taboos, at least by calling attention to them. It’s a kind of mild meta-humor that recalls Neil Hamburger just a little, but with more general social norms on the table in place of specifically comedic norms. [Edit: it seems like Adam Kotsko‘s book Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television makes an argument similar to this review]
Rick and Morty (2013- )
Rick and Morty is a sci-fi comedy cartoon that revolves around the adventures of Rick Sanchez (Roiland) and his grandson Morty (Roiland), increasingly also joined by his granddaughter Summer (Grammer). Rick is a kind of genius mad scientist who works out of the garage of his daughter Beth Smith (Chalke) and her husband Jerry (Parnell). He is kind of an alcoholic, and regularly drools and belches. He has invented the means to travel to other dimensions in which parallel versions of all the characters exist. The characters encounter many aliens. Most of the episodes are spoofs of popular films and TV shows.
Rick is an existentialist, convinced of his own superiority. He travels around different universes for lulz, seemingly indifferent to consequences — other than ensuring his own safety — and enjoying whatever pleasures he can along the way. His most abiding characteristic is a deep cynicism towards everyone and everything around him. He fits perfectly the observation about “the secret seductive lure of cynicism: living in truth and goodness is boring; the only authentic challenge is that of Evil, that is, the only space for extraordinary achievements is to be found in transgressive idiosyncrasies.” (Slavoj Žižek, Revolution at the Gates). And yet the entire series is kind of about how Rick is really more than a cynic, that he has empathy and bigger plans. But he recognizes how most people are basically just stupid or evil or both, even as they pretend or try to be otherwise. In spite of Rick’s high intelligence, his grandson Morty — constantly ridiculed by Rick (that is, all of the Ricks of all the dimensions) as being stupid — has a higher sense of morality. Most episodes revolve around the interplay between Rick’s intelligence run amok and Morty’s bumbling yet morally constant skepticism. Morty regularly calls out Rick’s moral ambivalence and the pair almost rights all the wrongs they commit — as the seasons progress, there is much wreckage accumulated from their past adventures.
What sets the show apart from many others, cartoon or live action, is the psychological depth of the characters. In spite of the zany sci-fi plots, usually absurdist takes on familiar pop culture films, TV shows, etc., Rick’s moral shortcomings are generally called out and he grudgingly redresses them. In one episode from season two, “The Ricks Must be Crazy,” the show offers a (sideways) critique of capitalism and accumulation of power, told through a story about Rick creating a miniature universe (“microverse”) inside his vehicle’s battery, with the universe’s inhabitants decived into creating electricity for him. The season three episode “The Rickshank Rickdemption” (based on The Shawshank Redemption), has Rick (supposedly) inventing all his gadgets to find a way to recreate a limited-time fast-food dipping sauce created to promote a movie. So, this presents him not as a simple hedonist, but someone who enjoys simple pleasures that come along tangentially in his adventures seeking the mythic sauce. It is about avoiding being imprisoned by illusions, as Beth and Jerry seem to be.
This is one of the best and smartest shows on TV, due to the great characters, the intriguing parody/satire plots, and (especially) the biting critique of cynicism.
Twentieth Century Fox
Director: Warren Beatty
There are two political films from the 1990s that took on added intrigue around the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Bob Roberts and Bulworth.
In Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins provides a realistic satire of a right-wing populist running for political office. The film seeks to skewer the hypocrisy and rapacious aims of such a candidate. Looking back on the film in 2017, there are many resemblances (and some differences) with the successful candidacy of President Donald Trump. But Robbins’ sanctimonious liberal critique does get a little tedious, and for all the complaining the film does it stops well short of offering any sort of meaningful alternative.
Bulworth came along a few years later. It was the work of writer/director/star Warren Beatty. Beatty is kind of an old Hollywood icon, known for his egotistical preening. But perhaps more than any other such big, preening Hollywood star, he repeatedly made films with some sort of connection to leftist politics. In Bulworth, Beatty plays incumbent U.S. Senator Jay Billington Bulworth from California, who is running for reelection. Early on, the film reveals him to be a kind of apostate leftist, whose office has photos of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. He is now a corrupt Washington insider, doing the bidding of big business campaign funders to sustain his reelection campaign and coddle his estranged family members. He gets an insurance company lobbyist to give him a big life insurance policy in exchange (i.e., as a bribe) for stalling some insurance regulations in legislative committee. Beatty’s character then hires a hit man to have himself killed. But he has a change of heart, and over the course of the next few days goes around suddenly speaking bluntly and honestly about corruption in Washington and sensible left-leaning social policies. Amiri Baraka makes a cameo as a homeless man shouting advice to Beatty’s character, which Beatty’s character then applies by starting to deliver speeches and interviews as hip-hop raps — Beatty does a superb job making these raps as awkward as they are enlightening. Much of the film relies on zany comedy bits, reminiscent of another Beatty film from a decade prior, Ishtar. Almost all of the characters and many broad plot points are contrived and unrealistic — the polar opposite of Robbins’ mockumentary Bob Roberts. The characters are especially one-dimensional for the most part. But the characters and broad plot points are really just pretexts for Beatty’s Jay Billington Bulworth to suddenly speak sensibly in individual scenes, highlighting how that doesn’t seem to happen in contemporary “real life”. What, exactly, does he talk about?: corrupt campaign financing, lack of journalistic integrity, the need for socialized health care, the need for corporate regulation, the decimation of manufacturing jobs, outsourcing, exploitation of the third world to extract natural resources, the hypocrisy and deceptions of the Democratic Party, etc. Most if not all of what he says became the platform of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary. In the film, Bulworth’s hip-hop rants gain him enormous popularity, even as party insiders and big business insiders try to contain or repudiate him. At the time the film came out, the realism of those portrayals might have been questioned. Would such a candidate really be popular? The Sanders primary campaign and its aftermath demonstrated the underlying realism. A candidate standing for such things (minus the hip-hop flamboyance) would be enormously popular. That is why the establishment and big business always seeks to prevent such a candidate from ever being treated as viable. The contrived part of Bulworth requiring the audience’s suspension of disbelief is that an incumbent politician from the establishment, with a history of big business collaboration, would suddenly shift back to the political left, thereby being inherently “viable” (and setting aside all so-called “third party” campaigns of this sort, like those of Henry Wallace and Teddy Roosevelt). But this plot contrivance is no more a problem than Jimmy Stewart‘s character getting appointed to the senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Another interesting this to consider about this film is the way that Beatty suggests a left-leaning candidate could gain popularity through sensational and outrageous public acts. Could it be that he got the idea based on what he experienced as part of filming Madonna: Truth or Dare? Beatty was dating pop singer Madonna around the time she filmed the behind-the-scenes documentary. Beatty appeared in it as kind of an out-of-touch old timer. Is Bulworth his answer to how an old timer can use vaguely Madonna-like spectacle to put forward a left-leaning political platform?
Bulworth is also somewhat a historical curiosity. Released in 1998, just before the Glass-Steagall Legislation was repealed to put Wall Street corruption on steroids, Beatty does not spend any time railing against financialization or predatory banking/finance in general — of the sort that would come to dominate American society for the next two decades. There is also nothing said about environmental destruction. And, much like the real-life Bernie Sanders, Beatty’s character also spends relatively little attention to imperialist wars (though Saddam Hussein gets mentioned). He does talk-up the anti-capitalist Black Panthers a bit — Bernie Sanders never did that.
One thing the film does have going for it is that the zany escapades of Mr. Bulworth take place over a few sleep-deprived nights, kind of like a “lost weekend” sort of scenario. In a time just before the Internet sped up the pace of new reporting (and the dissemination of gossip), there is slightly more believably that the senator could have gone along for a while as he did.
The ending of the film is unintentionally anti-climactic. However, there is something to be said about the real-life fates of most left-leaning politicians.
Bulworth may not be a great film, but it is a good one. It seems to have held up beyond its immediate time period, which is more than most political-themed films can say.
Elvis had a contract with RCA records that required him to deliver a certain number of albums on a specified schedule. The problem was, Elvis developed something approaching a fear of the studio and, with a somewhat deteriorating mental state dogged by depression, he could not deliver new music. Coming to the rescue, his manager Col. Tom Parker assembled the chaff of live concert recordings — the between-song banter — and released it as Having Fun With Elvis on Stage. Aside from all that, what is amazing is that RCA actually accepted this album and released it, perhaps desperate to make a buck off anything with Elvis’ name on it, placing it among the most bizarre major-label releases in history. It’s also rather sad in how it reveals that Elvis’ health and well-being weren’t really at the top of the list of priorities for his record label or many of the people around him.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (2016- )
Main Cast: Samantha Bee
For a time, it seemed like Samantha Bee had launched the most successful post-Colbert Report, post-Daily Show (with Jon Stewart) spinoff. It was a rare show with a feminist perspective. And yet, with her show’s unprincipled, theocratic endorsement of Hillary Clinton leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election, engaging in all the worst irrational tropes and hypocrisies, her show really undermined everything it might have achieved. The show regularly denounces Donald Trump and his supporters; Hillary Clinton and her supporters are hardly given any criticism — the tenor of the election cycle episodes has been, “well, obviously Hillary is better” without any substance to back up that sneering and superficial position. Third party candidates are occasionally mentioned, but usually only Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. They do mention and joke about Jill Stein of the Green Party, but usually that is to dismiss her (like a gag where they put the wrong name up in her place in a graphic that also showed Gary Johnson). But, see, anyone who watched the show before the post-primary election cycle was heavily underway might notice that Stein’s positions align much more closely with those expressed by the show’s humor. Maybe more glaringly, the show is tremendously hypocritical. Ronny Chieng, a correspondent for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, did an October 6, 2016 segment called “The O’Reilly Factor Gets Racist in Chinatown.” He included clips from an episode of The O’Reilly Factor show in which a reporter goes to Chinatown in New York City and basically mocks the inhabitants with “gotcha” interviews (frequently with people who clearly don’t speak English, the only language the reporter seems to know). Now, such remote location “man on the street” gotchas can be done in a funny way (Robert Smigel did a “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog” bit in Quebec for Late Night With Conan O’Brien years ago that humorously insulted French-speakers in English, with an obvious nod to the fact that the interviews were preposterous). But the Full Frontal correspondents don’t do that. Instead, they do remote segments like the one on October 5, 2016 (“Rigged!”) in which they do “gotcha” interviews with patently uniformed and ignorant Trump supporters. As Paul Street put it, “Elite commentators love to mock and marginalize the childish mindset of those who think that everyday people (the rabble’) should actually be in charge of their own societal and political-economic affairs (imagine!) and thereby deprive elites of their supposed natural right to rule.” So, there were no “gotcha” interviews with patently uniformed and ignorant Clinton supporters — the audience is implicitly pushed to draw the conclusion that there are none — not to mention any of her corrupt cronies. The issue here is not that the Trump supporters are correct (the ones shown on air are mostly stupid and self-serving, at best). They aren’t, even if they have real grievances. The issue is that the show displays an obvious partisan bias, hypocritically engaging in more or less the same tactics as the Republican political far right in the service of the Democratic political center-right (and Full Frontal isn’t even on MSDNC, er, MSNBC!). Given how genuinely funny Samantha Bee is, it is a shame to watch her show sink into a mire of self-congratulatory neoliberal stumping for a particular candidate (Clinton). What a waste of talent. Perhaps the show will become interesting again once the election cycle ends. But viewers should cast a skeptical eye on it knowing what it devolved to during the 2016 election cycle.
“Mainstream feminism has adopted a thin, market-centered view of equality, which dovetails neatly with the prevailing neoliberal corporate view. So it tends to fall into line with an especially predatory, winner-take-all form of capitalism that is fattening investors by cannibalizing the living standards of everyone else. Worse still, this feminism is supplying an alibi for these predations. Increasingly, it is liberal feminist thinking that supplies the charisma, the aura of emancipation, on which neoliberalism draws to legitimate its vast upward redistribution of wealth.“
Like a magician using distraction to perform an illusion, Full Frontal focuses on one very narrow (if still important) set of issues in order to obscure and deflect attention away from numerous other extremely important issues. It’s worth thinking about what the show refuses to mock…
This Is 40 (2012)
Director: Judd Apatow
Judd Apatow’s movies are very much within the mainstream cultural sphere, but within the necessary constraints of Hollywood, his films often explore the limits of doing what you love and how his characters can’t (or choose not to) enjoy themselves. Put another way, the characters go through this process of trying to change their desires, to go from being, essentially, adolescent young adults, to mature adults. C.G. Jung termed this “individuation”, the kind of “second puberty” that happens at age 35-40 (if it happens at all) where the individual is (re)integrated into a social collective — illustrated by Goethe‘s Conversations of German Refugees: Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years or The Renunciants. (Goethe was a huge influence on Jung, inspiring many of the latter’s theories of analytic psychology).
“Debbie and Pete (Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd) live in the American dream: they have a luxurious house, flash cars, two daughters who go to a nice middle class school, they own their own businesses – and the businesses are hip and trendy: she runs a chic fashion outlet, he runs a record company. But not everything is rosy. The businesses are failing. Debbie has deep anxieties about growing old – so she lies about her age and has a personal trainer and begins faddy eating regimes: all the things middle class Americans should do. And, typically for a male Apatow character, Pete has certain maturity issues: is his record company not so much a business as a strategy to still feel young and hip? As parents they are go from the lenient to the draconian. And their fathers bring a couple of variations: both are monstrous, one clinging and dependent, a nightmare image of a ‘failed’ adult, the other aloof and distant, a nightmare image of a ‘successful’ adult.”
The parts about work are interesting. Miya Tokumitsu wrote the most popular article ever on a magazine’s web site, and later expanded that article into a book, about the trouble with the injunction to “do what you love” for work/career. Making much the same point more generally, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek frequently states that the injunction of contemporary ruling society is to “enjoy,” that the superego perversely demands that we enjoy that which is really our duty, traumatically and painfully depriving us of free will to choose what we enjoy at the very point a choice is seemingly offered, stigmatizing us. The characters in This Is 40 seem to have the jobs/businesses they want, or are supposed to want. But they are forced to make money to support an upper middle class lifestyle. Is it that they want these jobs, specifically, or want these jobs to support the lifestyle that they really want? Or do they want a different lifestyle altogether? Is it that everyone around them wants them to have their lifestyle, forcing it on them? Is it possible for them to want something apart from what those around them want them to want?
If the central parts of the film are politicized — and why not look at the film that way? — then the conservative view is to dislike the main characters Debbie and Pete, the centrist-liberal view is to sympathize with them, and the leftist view is to appreciate them as unreliable narrators of sorts. The conservative view would be that these failing entrepreneurs are properly subject to market forces, and any of their failings in the market are their personal failings. The film is wrong then, in a sense, in sympathizing with the ambitions of the failed businesspeople, who fail because they should — they are failures. And the characters are unsympathetic because they turn against “traditional values.” The centrist-liberal view is to value the many varied people in the film, to each their own (a multicultural, identity politics paradise), and the conflict of the characters not fulfilling their promise and expectations needs to be resolved. The film is correct, therefore, to sympathize with its characters. Everyone deserves to be happy. The left view, however, sees the main characters as not particularly likeable, or at least as Onethink says, monstrous in their way. These are just a bunch of stupid people, as stupid as any, and the challenge is how to educate them to accept responsibility for creating meaning in their lives — even their professed desires may be unreliable or stupid. This reads the film to the left of the film’s ostensibly “professional” Hollywood perspective, which is centrist-liberal, by saying the main characters aren’t really as likable as they are presented to be. While Apatow doesn’t go as far in rehabilitating antiheroes as, say, Pasolini with Accatone or Korine with Gummo, then he at least takes a Hollywood movie and cracks open the possibility for this perspective from within it (and he does so with a bit more finesse than, say, The Company Men or just about any “little” Hollywood side-project film with big-name actors but little marketing).
The film has very realistic main characters, and the acting is generally excellent. Really, there are great, subtle moments from Mann and Rudd all over, helped by very strong screenwriting. The very dull moments actually help that along — the quirks of hiding from family members in a shared house, obsessions with material things, resort to therapy/counseling techniques. Some of the peripheral characters are a bit thin and one-dimensional, or implausibly exaggerated. But these minor characters are mostly present to add humor to the film, setting up jokes and gags. But this is a comedy, and it probably wouldn’t succeed as being one without those set-ups, however artificial. And there are mostly white people in this closed universe — not to say that there is something inherently wrong with that, but the restricted experiences of white people form implicit boundaries around the film’s ambitions and perspective. Give this credit though for a fairly balanced mix of male and female characters with substantive parts, and not just of a romantic type — these female characters engage each other without any males present.
The film’s ending is archetypical Apatow: it is a “Hollywood” ending, complete with facile, happy resolution of the major plot points and conflict, and yet, it actually is not entirely that at all. The film ends with a bit of a “fuck it all!” attitude, but without any guilt about it. The two main characters, at least, tentatively accept that there is no one (or no thing) that will provide meaning for their lives, or their relationship. As their fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow) loom larger in the second half of the film, the two main characters Debbie and Pete recognize that their parents can’t be faulted for failing to provide meaning for them — nothing and no one can do that. Even the angst about selling their upscale house to make ends meet is an admission that having that particular material possession won’t validate their existence. But rather than wallowing in existential dread, they reform and reassert their couple relationship, and their family structure. This is what philosopher Alain Badiou calls a “two scene”: the positive existential project to see the world from the point of view of difference rather than identity, “to construct a world from a decentered point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive or re-affirm my own identity.” This is basically a specific type of individuation. The ending isn’t the film’s strongest section, but it manages to make a compromise with the happy ending in a way most Hollywood films can’t (think about how As Good As It Gets sets up a premise for an inevitable downer ending, then winds up with the usual happy one anyway). The small kernel of radicalness in this film is that even though the married couple chooses to stay together at the end, they get there through free will. They don’t just resign themselves to social dictates. Instead they overcome the injunction to enjoy what they are demanded to do, and instead make their own choice, which happens to be to maintain a stable nuclear family, even if they aren’t strictly happy as a result — they end up with a space where they don’t have to enjoy their social duties. This is in contrast to, say, the rather one-dimensional character Desi, who is totally confined to play a particular role, without free will (note how Debbie declines that lifestyle in the film). Returning to Zizek, he says, “The problem today is not how to get rid of your inhibitions and to be able to spontaneously enjoy. The problem is how to get rid of this injunction to enjoy.” If there is danger in seeing the film’s ending as radical (think of the questions raised about asserting that a woman shopping is a feminist act), then at least the film as a whole provides enough to make the ending a kind of vector rather than a static point, it occupies the same space as that static point but it points somewhere, from where it was to where it is going.
This is 40 is a much better and deeper film that it seems. Definitely Apatow at his best.
Baskets (2015- )
Director: Jonathan Krisel
Situated between the films of Wes Anderson — sentimental tales of oddballs who fail to live up to their promise — and Louis C.K.‘s TV show Louie — eccentric, philosophical “dramedy” drawing from disparate elements of tenderness and cruelty — plus drawing on the past work of star Zack Galifianakis — full of sudden and futile yet endearingly harmless rage. Louis C.K. (co-creator, co-executive producer and a writer of the show) seems especially prominent in influencing the way the show emphasizes the grandeur in the sheer range of opposites in human emotions and relationships. It is the idea that sadness, heartbreak, anger and frustration are as valuable as satisfaction, joy and serenity. Much of Baskets revolves around a particularly compelling vision of friendship and family, one that sees deeper value in people choosing again and again to stick together through fights, failures and temptations than in one-dimensional portrayals that are all smiles, hand-holding and shared values. Pushing this a bit further, the point is that incongruous, even antithetical sentiments coexist in juxtaposition with each other without either merging into some kind of unified hybrid or one set of happy/good values victoriously dissolving an opposite set of values. Many of the best qualities of the various relationships between characters emerge only after the worst qualities come out, and only because of that coupling. The main characters stick together through often painful hurdles. It is a paradoxical sort of triumph that embraces its own messiness. Don’t wait for transcendence in this series.
The main character Chip Baskets is a “classically trained” clown (really a French mime) who moves back home to Bakersfield, California and takes a job as a rodeo clown. He transitions from being “Renoir” the clown to “Baskets” the clown. Flying in the face of the role of a rodeo clown — protecting rodeo riders from bulls — he performs pretentiously unhelpful artistic routines in the face of complete audience indifference, if not outright hostility, as the bulls run him down. Galifianakis is forced to come to terms with one humiliation after another — often entirely self-inflicted — and with his life being seen as a total failure by most of the world outside a meager handful of companions. He is hopelessly naïve. Time and again he takes foolish pride in absurd rituals, inconsequential achievements and ridiculous demands — like going to a fast-food restaurant drive-through window and trying to order from a long list of obscure drinks such a place would never have, mentoring a fellow rodeo clown into the normalcy of a low-wage fast food job, or watching a short demo video that came with a new television set over and over again to marvel at the picture quality. Despite his narrow pursuit of “classical” clowning he has almost no sense of social norms or how to earn a conventional living. At least, he seems to avoid succumbing to the dictates of norms and conventions. The show clearly has sympathy for him anyway, or maybe because of that intuitive, ersatz defiance.
Martha Kelly and Louie Anderson are fantastic in supporting roles. The show (most of the way through the first season at least) never falls short on great performances. The show comes close to a Felliniesque parade of grotesque characters, with a slant toward the pathetic.
This is one of the most arty and elusive shows on American TV. At the moment it is also one of the best.
Weird Al has forged a career much longer than anyone would have guessed when he first started making parody songs in conjunction with the Dr. Demento radio show. The essential character of his music has been to appeal to individuals, mostly young men, whose aspirations and expectations extend beyond their realistic chances for social advancement in life. He appeals to people with more time and (pop) cultural interests than money, whose lives tend to be dominated by people and forces outside their control — his career tracks pretty closely a time when a gap expanded between worker productivity and real compensation and his popularity came when the gap proved to be a real long-term trend (plus his biggest commercial successes were after the 2007-08 financial crash around the time this collection was released). His humor tends to play on an awareness of the base and trifling nature of consumer pop culture. It kind of stops there though. He winks with his audience in making fun of trashy mass media artifacts, all the while resigning himself to the dictates of that mass media and all its whims. Al’s music kind of resigns itself to the pop culture ghetto, and in many respects breeds dependency on it.
He performed parody songs but also wrote original comedy songs. Those who like Weird Al best always express a fondness for his originals. Some of this songs are more medleys of popular songs, done in a novelty manner. Take “Polka on 45” (from his second album In 3D). He does a medley of mostly pop/rock songs played as polkas with his accordion. This sort of mashup of the “hip”, contemporary pop with passé and all-to-ethnic polka might be compared to some of Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photography, or other such “high” art, but no one does. Al gets a laugh from the incongruity of throwing the different styles together that normally appeal to mutually exclusive audiences who listen to certain genres of music to separate themselves from the other genres, obliterating those attempts at social distinction. “One More Minute” (from his third, and maybe best album Dare to Be Stupid) is a retro rock/doo-wop romantic put-down tune in the style of The Mothers of Invention (like “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder” from Freak Out!), but pushed to absurdist extremes in its lyrical exaggerations.
Over time, Al kind of got formulaic. That isn’t to say his music ever got bad. But the early material was something a little new. There were no guarantees that it would be popular, any more than a passing fad. Al’s kind of self-aware musical irony was a way to normalize and humanize the vacuousness of pop culture. Over time, that seemed less daring and more of a favor to the institutions of the music industry. There are many stories of celebrity musicians being proud that Weird Al parodied one of their songs. That sort of confirms Al’s insider status. This was the same problem the pop/punk band DEVO faced.
Weird Al is kind of a great musician for kids to listen to, because his self-awareness provides good lessons for young people. Yet adults should, in theory, kind of move on to deeper, more informed critiques of pop culture. That isn’t to say this music can’t be enjoyed by grown-ups. It can. This collection, which was selected by Al himself, if nothing else proves how good Al’s band was, how astute his awareness of the nuances of pop culture was (including which songs were worth parodying), and how his broad humor managed to avoid quickly dated jokes based on easily-forgotten current events. This particular collection isn’t exhaustive, and it omits multiple albums. But it still makes a decent introduction to his career.
“Weird Al” Yankovic is kind of a cheerleader for capitalism. The cover and liner notes of Mandatory Fun utilize communist kitsch imagery, but that is only to underscore that Al puts himself on the side of the capitalists. In a way, the title “Mandatory Fun” implies authoritarianism — long associated with communist regimes during the cold war (when Al grew up) — though (perhaps unintentionally) it now connotes both the command to “enjoy” at the heart of modern times in the capitalist world and the competitive imperative to have a faculty with pop culture to seem aware and cultured. Al himself even noted that the title refers to “an oxymoron that I’ve always been amused by. It’s used a lot in corporate retreats and, I’m told, in the military.” References to business, corporate and marketing jargon reach a pinnacle in “Mission Statement” (recalling the frankly superior satire on the 1998 episode “Joshua” of the defunct TV show “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” with a tune reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash folk-rock). But you might notice the absence of any parodies of socialist realist music on the album — Al doesn’t seem familiar with that music or the cultural forces behind it.
This music tries to use rapport building to win over its audience. Take Al’s use of the accordion. He plays the instrument precisely because it is considered passé in dominant culture. So he plays it anyway, ironically. This way the audience gets to be in on the joke, so-to-speak. They are privileged to know that it is not the accepted instrumentation in an era of guitars (still) and electronics. They can enjoy transgressing the silent injunction regarding the “proper” instrumentation for pop music.
Yankovic’s early work is fantastic, at its best. It still holds up decades later. And through the years he has continually proven to be an astute and dedicated observer of popular culture, translating those observations into ironically witty musical comedy songs. Many of his songs are parodies, but some are originals. Sometimes the originals are the best ones, like “Sports Song” here, which skewers the vapid, substanceless “us vs. them” hoopla around the big business of sports. His vocals are set against the sorts of marching band “fight song” music today reserved for collegiate football (and sometimes basketball) games. Al’s take on sports seems implicitly centered around (American) football, though the way he approaches the mainstream sports culture it hardly seems different from pro wrestling “sports entertainment” with aggressively flamboyant announcers and good guys vs. heels in the ring.
In an episode of the cable TV show “The Big Interview” featuring Yankovic, host Dan Rather commented that Al’s music (and associated comedy) is very good-natured. This is an easy position to adopt because Al is not really opposed to the status quo. He jests about the nature of present society, but he never challenges it. The way he goes about that appeals to the least successful participants in the rat race. It’s a bid for knowing moral superiority for people who probably aren’t succeeding on other — especially economic and political — terms. He caters to an underclass that doesn’t want to admit it is an underclass. With the decline of the power of working people in an age of austerity politics it kind of makes sense that Al’s career has only grown through the years. Mandatory Fun was the best-selling album of his long career, earning critical praise and awards as well.
Frankly, this isn’t Al’s best. Much of its commercial success comes from timing. Yet it’s not a bad album either. It has always helped that his longtime backing band is pretty great. Plus when Al parodies songs that are pretty good to start with (like the “Tacky” parody of Pharrell‘s “Happy”) you get most of the benefits of the original song. But Al has not expanded his palette much in decades.