Day Two: "School Cafeteria" from "My Bologna" single
One of the challenges endemic in writing a book about Phish and Insane Clown Posse lies in the immensity of both group’s output, live and otherwise. Insane Clown Posse has put out an awful lot of music, some of it, honestly, not that great, and that’s not including side projects like Psychopathic Rydas, Dark Lotus and Killjoy Club, on top of both gents' solo output. With Phish, the studio albums are only the beginning, as its live output is infinitely more electric and essential, and that’s not even bringing Trey, Mike, Jon and Paige’s side projects into the mix.
With “Weird Al’”, however, it’s different. In his nearly four decades as a recording artist, he’s released fewer than 200 songs so it is not only possible but fairly easy to familiarize yourself with every song he’s ever written. That said, some are a whole lot more difficult to track down than others, like “School Cafeteria”, an original number for a solo Al that was released by Capitol as the b-side to “My Bologna” and shared an obsession with food.
In place of a recognizable melody or any instrumentation beyond an aggressively played accordion, “School Cafeteria” has jokes, corny, goofy, set-up/punchline jokes that are cozily ingratiating in their old-school cheesiness. The first joke comes not long after a breezily sarcastic opening gambit positing the narrator’s school cafeteria as the gold standard of the breed, one that “can’t be beat” (when it comes to hyperbolic language, the early Al is downright Trumpian) and that we learn serves “over four million burgers a year” before delivering the kicker in “Just think, that’s almost two pounds of meat!”
Some of you might be too young to remember this, but there was tremendous concern and outrage over the insufficiently beefy nature of fast-food hamburgers during the Reagan era. An old yet righteously angry old woman named Claire Peller rose to infamy with her Howard Beale-like cry of “Where’s the beef?” after being served a burger with a comically diminutive meat patty in a commercial for Wendy’s that defined not only my generation but every generation.
Yankovic was clued into the time’s obsession with sufficiently beefy hamburgers four years before the Wendy’s campaign became so successful and well-known that Walter Mondale and Gary Hart riffed on the “Where’s the beef” catch-phrase in developments that proved that President Trump did not originate the idea of politicians wasting everyone’s time with puerile nonsense.
The budding comic craftsman knew the comic value of extremes and excess, on the gulf between the very large number of burgers sold and the very small amount of genuine beef actually consumed and how it speak silently but powerfully to the comically over the top nature of this particular cafeteria’s awfulness.
Once again employing just an accordion, his voice and an agreeable excess of youthful energy, Yankovic draws a vivid picture with words. Actually that’s not entirely accurate. Yankovic doesn’t draw with words so much as he doodles with language. He’s creating the sonic equivalent of an old Mad magazine panel, and like the best/worst grossest elements of Mad, this particular picture is so vivid that you might not want to look at it, or hear it, while eating or it might turn your stomach. And even at this early age, valedictorian Yankovic was already an egghead delighting in language, like when he mock-boasts that his school cafeteria is “the only place to find artificially colored mold.”
The song gets even nerdier and verbose from there, as the sneeringly sarcastic narrator, striking a faux-patriotic pose, insists, “The school cafeteria believes in mass production/They buy those lousy soybeans by the keg” before trumpeting a new malt the school is introducing called, and I think rather counter-productively, “Boysenberry Dysentary.”
It’s a nightmare realm where “you can buy a taco and get bubonic plague” but Yankovic sings its praises with tongue-in-cheek elan. From a comedy standpoint, “School Cafeteria” is actually much more advanced lyrically than "My Bologna." There are plenty of real, genuinely semi-amusing jokes and the song has the distinction of being gross and smart in equal proportions. Yankovic was a class clown with a valedictorian’s brain and the ubiquity of vocabulary words like dysentary, bubonic plague, mold and mass production might have played as big a role in the song being relegated to b-side status as its original melody does.
Yankovic has so few non-album tracks that the few b-sides, demos and unreleased joints in his discography become more important. Hell, I’ve waited 37 years for Yankovic to officially release a disc of rarities and obscurities so I’m pleased to report that “School Cafeteria” isn’t just a pleasant surprise; I actually prefer it to the A-side, though I can’t say I’m too chagrined it was not re-recorded for Al’s self-titled debut. It’s amusing juvenilia, but Yankovic soon moved past it.