It seems like a perfect match, doesn’t it? Take the zany, occasionally sophomoric (but generally pretty clever) comedic sensibilities of pop music parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, put them into the context of a Saturday morning kids’ show, and let the fun begin! Right?
Well, sort of. But not entirely.
Not that the thirteen episodes of “The Weird Al Show,” just released by Shout! Factory, aren’t fun; in actuality, they had the ingredients to make it the best and hippest thing to appear on Saturday mornings since the demise of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” (and that’s in no way because the show’s set was designed by the same guy who created that aforementioned Playhouse). There were commercial parodies, fake movie trailers, musical performances by Barenaked Ladies, Hanson, and Radish (featuring Ben Kweller), and guest appearances by Drew Carey, Gilbert Gottfried, Fred Willard, Michael McKean and David L. Lander (that’s Lenny and Squiggy to you), and Patton Oswalt.
So what went wrong? To find you, all you need to do is listen to the audio commentary on this set; Al, along with director Peyton Reid and producer Tom Frank, provide an audio track for each episode, and over the course of the series, believe me, they gladly tell you everything that went wrong.
That might sound like it’s nothing but a non-stop bitchfest, but, in fact, it’s some of the most illuminating commentary you’re likely to hear. It provides an insider’s view on how a network – in this case, CBS – can start off with a great show, then ruin it by providing a million memos on what to change…and once the show’s creators offer as much compromise as possible and manage to churn out a finished product that they’re relatively happy with, the network reciprocates by contributing almost nothing in the way of promotion.
In reality, Al should’ve seen the writing on the wall from the beginning. He’d been pitching a kids’ show since 1984, it took thirteen years for CBS to show any interest, and when they finally did, it occurred (not coincidentally) just as the FCC instituted a mandate that the networks offer three hours of educational programming as part of their Saturday morning lineup.
“They said, ‘We’d like to buy your show, but we’re only buying educational shows,’” reveals Al in the commentary on the series’ first episode, “at which point we said, ‘This is an educational show!’ So we prostituted ourselves a little bit to get on the air, but being educational was something we took on gladly, thinking, ‘Oh, it’ll be like Pee-Wee’s show. It’ll be personality-driven show that appeals to kids and adults; we’ll be able to be irreverent and funny, but, at the same time, they’ll learn a little lesson by the end of the show.’ But that wasn’t the way it came down exactly.” (Adds Reid, “We kind of assumed that we’d be able to give our audience some credit for having the intellect to discern the message…as opposed to sort of using a ball peen hammer to hit in them in the face with it again and again and again and again.”)
As a result of CBS requiring Al and company to constantly force the moral of each episode down the throat of the viewer, the show is definitely a watered-down version of their original vision; additionally, the network was also concerned about possible “imitatable” behavior by Al and his cast, so every comedic bit had to be approached by wondering, “Is this something a kid might try at home?” (Al’s position on the matter was, “I do get the thing about imitatable behavior, but, really, if your kid is that easily influenced, you should just throw away the TV set.”) In the end, the single greatest critic of the show is Yankovic himself, who at one point sums up the show by saying, “My humor was often compromised and the educational content itself was sometimes questionable, so it wound up being a show for nobody.” He quickly backpedals, however, by admitting – quite accurately, it should be noted – that there’s a lot of really good stuff in the show. The commercial parodies are particularly hilarious, the trailer for a fake disaster film called “60% Chance of Rain” is spot-on, and the musical performances are all highly enjoyable…even though you’ll cringe when you discover that CBS wouldn’t allow the name “Barenaked Ladies” to be spoken aloud. (They’re referred to either as BNL or simply the Ladies.)
If you’re a longtime fan of Al’s, you might be disappointed that it’s nowhere near the heights he sent in his various “Al TV” specials on MTV, but if you’ve got kids, it’s a fun show that you’ll be able to endure watching far more often than a lot of the available alternatives. Just don’t be surprised if your kid asks, “Daddy, do they think I’m stupid? Is that why they keep repeating the moral over and over and over again?”
No, honey, you’re not stupid. It’s just the network suits.