Day Seven: "Ricky" from "Weird Al" Yankovic
With “Ricky” we officially move from the Dr. Demento Show era of Al’s career to the MTV/album phase in a big way. “Ricky” was the first real music video Al ever made, and also quite possibly the first comedy video played on MTV and it’s worth mentioning that the music video, and the song that inspired it, are products of TV.
With “Ricky”, Al was purposefully moving out of the ghetto of the novelty music world and into the more challenging world of pop music. Oh sure, even at this young age, Al already had a Capitol single to his credit and had opened for Missing Persons, but the Capitol single was essentially a pair of accordion-based semi-home-demos and his EP was self-released with a loan from Dr. Demento.
“Ricky" was bold and calculated in its efforts to win an audience for whom being an all-time champion of the Funny Five meant nothing. Since Al wrote “Yoda” years before he put out his first album but didn’t release it until 1985, “Ricky” was the first of Al’s multi-media mash-ups where he took the melody of a classic pop song to chronicle something ubiquitous in another medium.
In launching his assault on the pop charts, Yankovic was savvy enough to combine two things just about everyone knew. In that respect, the song reminds me of a line and scene I think about often. It’s the moment in Ishtar when the hapless musical duo who are the film’s main characters are told by an agent played by Jack Weston that they should at least perform songs people know, so that way, even if audiences don’t like them (which is a near-certainty, given their act), there would still be something for them to enjoy.
Incidentally, I brought up Ishtar to Al, and particularly the lines “If you know how to play accordion/Nobody wants you in a rock and rollband” and he agreed that the music in Ishtar is funny and kind of brilliant, but overlooked and misunderstood because it is supposed to be bad. Now at this point, you may be asking yourself, “Is Nathan going to mention literally every exchange he had with “Weird Al” Yankovic?
The answer, not surprisingly, is yes. I don’t want this column to just be some jerk waxing unbelievably self-indulgent about every “Weird Al” song ever. I want this to be the self-indulgent meanderings of a dude “Weird Al” once had the questionable judgement to hire to write his story. Am I also going to find space to awkwardly shoe-horn in at least one reference to the weekend I spent at Robert Evans’ home in the pre-crushing-failure stage of my career as well? You bet your sweet behind I am.
Audiences, however, didn’t just like Al. They loved him. They took to him in a way they hadn’t taken to a pop parodist since Allan Sherman. Sherman’s example proved educational to Al in multiple ways. He learned much from the man in terms of song craft and parody but he also learned from Sherman’s example about what not to do.
In pop culture terms, Sherman was a comet. He burnt bright, then faded away. He exploded onto the pop music scene like few artists before or since. Seemingly overnight, this hefty Jewish wordsmith was one of the biggest pop stars in the world, but his time at the top was brief. Sherman’s subsequent fall was dramatic, although he did leave a legacy that’s much more complicated now than it was earlier: he helped give Bill Cosby his big break. For that, we should all be alternately thankful, angry, confused or some combination of the three.
Sherman was a libertine of outsized appetites where food, booze and women were concerned. He was the kind of high roller (if you’ll forgive the pun) who uses his fame and money to ensure that his joints aren't just immaculately rolled, but on rolling papers with his initials on it. Al is a skinny, sober (I once saw him drink two beers over a four hour span but that’s as crazy as it got) vegetarian who looks like he could not gain weight if he tried.
Sherman managed his career terribly. The heat and intensity of his early fame would have been impossible to sustain but there’s no reason he had to burn out as spectacularly as he did. For a brief idyll, Sherman was a huge star with three number one albums in a mere two years. By 1966 it was over for Sherman.
Sherman and Al were like the rabbit and the hare. Sherman raced to one of the most astonishing fast starts in musical history yet faded quickly while slow, steady, responsible, self-disciplined Al defied the highest expectations to have not just a hit song but a lasting, important career.
“Ricky” hit MTV late in the first term of Ronald Reagan, a movie star first and foremost but also a creature of television. It was as a television anthology host that the former Democrat first started to make inroads into Republican politics. Reagan was the smiling, friendly and obscenely accessible embodiment of our country’s cozy, black-and-white 1950s past. The same could be said of I Love Lucy.
Yankovic came of age comedically during the waning days of the monoculture. This was a time before pop culture fractured into a million weird little subculture and niches. “Ricky” hit airwaves and the pop charts at a time when just about anybody who listened to it was almost undoubtedly familiar with the pop-culture staples it combined. At the risk of generalizing, everybody knew I Love Lucy and everyone knew Toni Basil’s “Mickey” whether they wanted to or not. Television was, and remains an integral component of who we were as a people. It’s worth mentioning that Al’s first two specially themed compilations covered TV (The TV Album) and food (The Food Album). For Al and the hyper-consumerist sensibility he was both parodying and exploiting, television was as essential to human life as food, or air, or oxygen.
This brings us, inevitably, to “Ricky.” The song is a spoof but there’s nothing remotely mean-spirited about it. Al wasn’t making fun of I Love Lucy. On the contrary, the song is a loving homage. As with “Happy Birthday” and “The Funky Western Civilization”, the source of the humor is fundamentally the same as its inspiration. It’s not making jokes at I Love Lucy’s expense; it’s making jokes in an I Love Lucy vein, about I Love Lucy.
Al wasn’t taking the piss out of “Mickey” or I Love Lucy so much as he was lovingly addressing the surprising amount of overlap between “Mickey”, the maddeningly infectious song of the moment, and I Love Lucy, a sitcom for the ages.
What the young Al, in his very first time up at bat, MTV-wise, and his team of geeky dreamers lacked in money, they made up for in ingenuity. Every moment of the video was planned out methodically in advance to look as much like its inspiration as possible on a tiny budget. That verisimilitude would prove to be an oft-overlooked elements of Al’s longevity. No matter how ridiculous his subject matter, Al attacked it with a sense of meticulousness that never called attention to itself.
This realism extended to Al doing the unthinkable and shaving off his signature mustache to play a disconcertingly suave Ricky Ricardo for the video. Musically, Al’s parodies and pastiches are The Fly-like mutations that combine his creative and musical DNA with that of everyone from Bruno Mars to Tonio K. Visually, that’s true as well. In his post-“Ricky” videos, Al struck a strangely palatable compromise where he made videos where he was clearly both inhabiting the larger-than-life persona of the artist he was parodying (Michael Jackson stands out, of course) while at the same time also clearly being mustachioed, bespectacled, curly-haired Hawaiian shirt enthusiast, accordion-player, pop parodist and national treasure “Weird Al” Yankovic.
On “Ricky”, however, he deliberately eschews all his visual trademarks (which were of course far less well-known to the public than they would become in the years ahead) when he’s playing Ricky Ricardo. His wild mop of kinky hair is tamed into a slick pompadour. His signature mustache and glasses are nowhere to be seen. His wardrobe has been upgraded from class clown to upscale Miami nightclub debonair.
The “Ricky” music video finds Yankovic taking on the dual roles of Ricky Ricardo and “Weird Al” Yankovic, head banging, accordion-playing madman and egghead darling of the Dr. Demento set in sequences that alternate between performance footage of Al and the band that, remarkably, continues to tour and record with him thirty-four years later, and Al as Ricky opposite Tress MacNeille as Lucy.
Though in many ways “Ricky” established the template for Al’s subsequent singles and videos, in some ways it’s anomalous. As I established earlier, Al boldly eschewed his visual trademarks to play Ricky Ricardo. As a duet with Tress MacNeille, who would go on to later fame as malevolent matriarch Agnes Skinner on The Simpsons, the song is another anomaly. Al doesn’t do duets as a rule, but then the Al of the early 1980s is both recognizably the geek icon he would become and something of a work in progress.
Al has always been adept at making the most of his resources. In “Ricky” he benefited from the visual aesthetic of old sitcoms being claustrophobic and stage-bound. The use of black and white is true to I Love Lucy and the era it is lovingly spoofing/honoring (with Al, the two can be interchangeable) but it also goes a long way towards covering up the cheapness of the video.
“Ricky” proves you do not need money to be visually dynamic. Black and white sets the video apart, as does the gimmick of having Al as Ricky run into room where Al and his band are performing the song while in pursuit of Lucy. Now it is entirely possible that a hole in the time-space continuum was ripped open shortly before the video was shot, and Al briefly split into two discreet human beings, allowing him to play Ricky and himself in the same scene.
Alternately, it’s possible that the trick of making it look like Al is chasing himself was accomplished through editing and a body double. Now I’m no astrophysicist, merely a person who has been to a lot of Insane Clown Posse shows and lived in his in-laws’ basement for over a year, so I am going to go with the hole-in-the-space-time-continuum theory.
This invites the question: if Al split into two to film those sequences in the “Ricky” video, then what has this other Al, this suave, Ricky Ricardo-lookalike, been doing for the past thirty four years? Has he been seducing wealthy widows and robbing them of their jewels? Yes, yes he has.
“Ricky” is a loving homage to I Love Lucy that finds a Cuban-accented Al crooning of both his wild desire and his eternal frustration with his daffy spouse. It’s a song whose affection for its source material comes through in every note but even in this cozy, nostalgic homage to our halcyon black and white past there’s a note of New Wave anti-consumer prickliness when MacNeille-as-Lucy reminds her hubby in one of the many meta lines dotting Al’s discography, “Every day’s a rerun and the laughter’s always canned.”
It’s a reminder that even the best, most beloved shows are consumer products and fictional constructs designed to sell soap ads as much as they are to entertain or, god forbid, educate. In the best “Weird Al” tradition, the “Ricky” video is both perfectionist and lovingly homemade. The video begins in black and white but at a certain point it pulls a Wizard Of Oz and monochrome switches to vivid color and the glam-power-pop stomp of “Mickey” is replaced by the nostalgia-stroking strains of the I Love Lucy theme song.
To make the transformation complete, Dr. Demento enters the frame, dancing with a beautiful woman in a white gown as other kooky characters similarly invade the scene and a domestic duet becomes a raucous party.
The video ends with Al-as-Ricky playing the accordion for the first time instead of Ricky’s trademark bongos. As the video ends, Al laughs Ricky Ricardo’s signature laugh. But what, truly is he laughing at? Existence? The pain buried deep within his soul? His implicit understanding that he is a fictional character devoid of agency, a fraud, a lie, a shadow on the wind? Is it a howl of existential rage disguised as a chipper guffaw? No, I’m pretty sure it’s just a reference to Desi Arnaz’s distinctive laugh. Not everything has to be so dramatic.