Day Nineteen: "I Lost On Jeopardy" from In 3-D
How powerful was Al at his mid-80s prime? He was so powerful that he was able to bring the dead to life. That’s a power that previously only Gods and Herbert West, the Re-animator himself, have possessed. Well, and Dr. Frankenstein from the poorly received 1985 Bride Of Frankenstein remake The Bride, but only that particular Frankenstein.
Oh, and also Dr. Blackenstein if such a creature should exist and why shouldn’t it? I’m certainly not racist enough to imagine that a black mad scientist couldn’t bring the dead back to life in violent defiance of God’s will and the laws of nature just as easily as a mad scientist of Caucasian or Western European descent. It’s not about race, it’s about madness and science and mad science.
Whereas Dr. Frankenstein brought the dead back to life in the form of Frankenstein’s Monster (or Frankenstein, for short) and Dr. Blackenstein in the form of Blackenstein’s Monster, Al, in necromancer Herbert West mode, brought back to a life a game show called Jeopardy.
Today Jeopardy is famous for several things. It’s famous for being smart. It’s also famous for its success and longevity, as well as its host, a quietly smug and superior mustachioed Canadian named Alex Trebek. Yet there was a time when the show was hosted by the outrageously clean-shaven Art Fleming and was cancelled not once but twice, first in 1975 after an eleven year run and again in 1979 after The All-New Jeopardy lasted only a single season.
The Jeopardy that you’re almost assuredly familiar with, involving old Smarmy McMustache pretending he knows all the answers when you know his interior monologue is all, “Duh, I like to eat pie! Fireworks make pretty colors! My name is is Alex!”, actually represented the third iteration of the show, and the one that would stick.
The Alex Trebek-hosted syndicated show debuted on September 10, 1984, the same year In 3-D was released and only a few months after the release of “I Lost On Jeopardy” as a single and a music video featuring appearances from Al’s parents, Dr. Demento, Don Pardo and Greg Kihn, whose Band recorded the smash Al is parodying.
Am I going to claim that “I Lost On Jeopardy” led to Jeopardy being revived for an astonishing run that has yielded a Peabody and over thirty daytime Emmy awards? I sure am. Then again in the tens of thousands, hell, the hundreds of thousands of words ahead I’m also going to make the case that Al is responsible not just the resurrection of Jeopardy but for all of the following as well:
the fall of Communism
comedy on MTV
Michael Jackson’s success
James Blunt’s failure
Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance
the D.B Cooper heist
Within the context of this project, bringing back Jeopardy from the dead actually represents one of Al’s lesser accomplishments. Indeed, when Al recorded “I Lost On Jeopardy” the show had been off the air for five years yet made a deep and extensive enough impact on the American public that Al could make jokes about it and its features like the Daily Double and “Potpourri” category and trust audiences to get them.
Like so much of Al’s oeuvre, and my favorite songs, as both a “Weird Al” obsessed eight year old the year In 3-D and today, “I Lost On Jeopardy” is a story song. The song’s premise is right there in a title only a few letters away from the original. Over a hypnotic disco-funk groove that combines sinister, “Superstition”-style synthesizers and scrappy, ominous guitar to create an air of free-floating paranoia and self-loathing, Al sings darkly of matching intellects on national TV with “a plumber, and an architect, both which a Phd.
The plumber-with-a-Phd joke is one of the most exquisitely dad-like in all of Al’s oeuvre while the reference to an architect as a brainy profession feels like a nod to Al’s college days. Ever the pragmatic soul, Al got a degree in Architecture just in case his impossible dream of making a good, sustainable career out of making silly songs goofing on the hits of the day proved, well, impossible.
In an alternate timeline Al gave up on making parody music his career somewhere along the road, either some time in the 1970s when it was still just a goofy, giddy teenaged nerd’s dream or sometime early in his stint as a recording artist, when the music industry proved predictably cruel. In this alternate timeline, successful architect Yankovic sometimes takes out his accordion and softly, slowly and sadly performs a somber solemn solo instrumental version of “Gotta Boogie” or “Stop Draggin’ My Car Around”, and other songs he recorded before deciding to do the responsible, adult thing and give up his dream and get a “real job.”
This world where “Weird Al” is retired so that Alfred Yankovic can make a respectable living might have some cool new architecture in it but it would lack a lot of joy. It would be a world much colder and crueler to geeks, a world where Al wouldn’t exist as a distant but dependable friend to help them get through the hard times and remind them that they are not alone, and that sometimes being weird is a hell of a lot better than being normal, whatever that means.
It’d also be a world without “I Lost On Jeopardy”, which locks into the sweaty, coke-sweat paranoia and shadowy darkness of Greg Kihn’s original to tell a much brighter but still ominous tale of failure and humiliation on a national scale. Al replaces the romance-noir of the original with an epic exercise in self-deprecation and self-flagellation as he recounts how he panicked under pressure and disgraced himself.
The song’s MVP may very well be special guest Don Pardo, who engages in a wonderfully hammy bit of self-parody during a spoken word bit where he tears into Al (who is specifically referred to as Al here, in sharp contrast to the many songs where he’s clearly playing a character) for losing.
Pardo didn’t spend many decades as the voice of Saturday Night Live without learning something about timing and delivery. Pardo really tears into his material, filling the word “Loser” with vast eternities of contempt when deriding Al or taking malicious, sadistic glee in chronicling all of the wonderful prizes Al wouldn’t be taking home on account of being such a complete loser.
In a perfect world, Merv Griffin’s estate would send Al a million dollar check on the anniversary of the release of the “I Lost On Jeopardy” single as a thank you for making him tens of millions of dollars. This is not a perfect world, so I doubt Griffin has sent Al so much as a single million-dollar check but Al seems to be doing pretty well all the same. And if Jeopardy benefitted from Al’s tribute, he got a lot out of the show as well. It provided him with the basis for one of his funniest and most successful early parodies and in return he helped bring Jeopardy back to life.