Day Six: "Mr. Frump In The Iron Lung" from "Another One Rides The Bus" EP and "Weird Al" Yankovic LP
During the “My Bologna” single and Another One Rides The Bus EP, Yankovic stage of his career, Yankovic was the king of the Dr. Demento Show’s “Funny Five”, its all-important weekly countdown of the most popular silly songs as voted by listeners. Though he somehow found the time and energy to graduate valedictorian from college, The Dr. Demento Show was Al’s world, and the world that helped create and nurture him.
In the 1970s, The Dr. Demento Show was a meritocracy, a zany place where an ambitious kid with an accordion like Al could share airtime with men of distinction like Loudon Wainwright III and Al’s idol Frank Zappa if their music was good enough. The Dr. Demento Show was a safe, happy place for weird kids with perversely old-timey senses of humor.
"Perversely old-timer" is the perfect description for “Mr. Frump In The Iron Lung”, one of four numbers to make the jump from the Another One Rides The Bus EP to Al’s self-titled full-length debut. The title goes a long way towards establishing the song's retro, Borsht Belt tone. It’s one part Shel Silverstein (whose songs, not surprisingly, were a Dr. Demento Show fixture), one part Dr. Seuss and 100 percent vaudeville.
As a young man, Al was already a connoisseur of the ancient, the outdated, the strange, the gloriously, exquisitely anachronistic. In that respect, he’s a lot like DOOM, whose Madvillain classic “Accordion” Al once helped The Roots perform on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. Like a true vaudevillian, Al saw the endless comic potential in things that weren’t just outdated and old and creaky, but also colorfully awful.
It’s easy to imagine “Weird Al” Yankovic closing out an epic vaudeville show by ambling onstage with his accordion, Gene Shalit-worthy mustache, nerd glasses and Hawaiian shirt, looking for all the world like a sight gag, and closing out the shenanigans with a little tune about his pal Mr. Frump. Like “Happy Birthday”, “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung” is an Al speciality: a cheerful sounding number about something almost comically depressing.
The comically depressing aspect of Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung” is, of course, the iron lung of the unfortunate title character. The narrator, and once again we can safely assume that Al is signing as a character and not as that elusive figure known as his true self, doesn’t seem to mind too much that on a technical level, his pal doesn’t actually do anything.
He mostly just exists and breathes, although even that might be overstating it, since the iron lung seems to handle an awful lot of the whole “breathing” deal itself. “Mr. Frump In The Iron Lung” is a duet where the narrator is an expressive, energetic and affectionate fellow, a faithful friend who boasts cheerfully of how he treasures his relationship with the title character, particularly his absence of negative qualities like gullibility, dishonesty and disagreeability and his duet partner is the dispiriting thump of an iron lung in action.
As the title telegraphs ever so slightly, there is a reason Mr. Frump is “never a chump or a tease” and answers the narrator’s questions about world events with the wordless heavy breathing/eerily metallic respirating that are his default answer to everything, because, you see, he’s in an iron lung, dying a slow, painful death that finally arrives in the last verse and is the song’s sick-joke capper, or at least Mr. Frump’s dying sound is.
For a song about friendship, albeit of the decidedly one-sided variety, “Mr. Frump In The Iron Lung” is a little on the dark side. So “Mr. Frump In The Iron Lung” has the curious distinction of being at once too nice and a little too mean. Or at least, it would seem too mean if Yankovic’s preternatural affability didn’t rescue it from being hopelessly mean-spirited, even cruel.
Al would never give up the organ-grinder vaudevillian old-time part of his shtick entirely. The accordion forever tied him to those roots, but that side would never be as pronounced and pure as it is on “Mr. Frump In The Iron Lung” even if the song already had many of the hallmarks of his later compositions, singles and album cuts alike. As with many of Al’s later songs, the narrator is gleefully demented and giddily unselfconscious, with a skewed perspective on the world and an utterly inappropriate cheerfulness. It’s a happy-sounding song about something soul-crushingly depressing that delights in both wordplay and the language and technology of the increasingly distant past.