Day Twenty-Three: "Theme from Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser)” from In 3-D
My intense childhood nostalgia for “Weird Al” is rooted primarily in my deep and abiding love for the man and his work. But it’s almost as grounded in an overlapping love for everything around it, from the artists and songs he was parodying to the pop culture touchstones he integrated into his parodies.
In the case of “Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser)”, my love of the Survivor parody is inextricably intertwined with my affection for Rocky Balboa, the quintessential underdog Philadelphia galoot turned world-beating champion, Sylvester Stallone and the larger-than-life supporting characters that made the Rocky franchise a pop culture institution that has lasted an astonishing four decades, just barely beating out Al’s career in terms of longevity.
Despite its name, “Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser)”, Al’s parody of Survivor’s ultimate inspirational anthem and the Rocky franchise is actually a parody of “Eye Of The Tiger”, the Oscar-Nominated theme from Rocky III. That means I will forever associate the song with Sylvester Stallone, a minor obsession of mine, but also with the real-life cartoon characters in the film's outsized (literally) supporting cast: the God-like Mr. T and the less God-like, but still enjoyable “Hulk” Hogan.
The Rocky franchise is currently on its seventh entry, if you include Creed in the series. Given Creed’s extraordinary and surprising success, it wouldn’t be surprising if the film is followed by a sequel. “Theme From Rocky XIII” (or Creed II) suggests a way forward for the venerable franchise with a narrative that builds upon the established mythology of the series but takes it in some surprising directions.
Though he is never identified by name, “Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser)” follows the continuing adventures of Rocky Balboa after he gets “fat and weak” and loses confidence in himself and his fighting ability to the point where he sells his gloves, a gesture as dramatic as it is silly.
Rocky famously clobbered massive cuts of beef in Rocky. The experience must have left an indelible impression on him, because in “Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or The Kaiser)” he decides to forego boxing entirely so that he can make his living from selling meat instead of physically assaulting it.
As with so much of Al’s oeuvre, the hilarity of “Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or The Kaiser)” comes from the incongruent seriousness the song’s alternate-universe deli-pimping Rocky Balboa brings to his new job/sacred duty carving up meat and selling it to discriminating corned beef lovers.
Where Rocky once had his eye on the championship belt, in “Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or The Kaiser)” his aspirations begin and end up with being your “catering advisor.” There are phrases in Al’s songs that make me happy regardless of context. There is an almost scientific preciseness to phrases like this song’s “catering advisor” or the singer in “The Brady Bunch” inviting viewers to check out TV Guide for a “capsulized review” that just plain makes me happy.
Malcolm Gladwell likes to talk about “stickiness”, that weird, ineffable quality that separates something that is quickly forgotten or never catches on from something that endures, that makes an indelible impression, that lasts. Al’s music possesses “stickiness” for me, and for the word at large, for a number of reasons.
I’m bonded permanently to Al’s music because he was one of the first artists whose music I fell in love with. I’m an Al guy forever because my first show was “Weird Al” opening for the Monkees and that show changed my world. But Al’s music embodies stickiness as well because there are all these weird little phrases and ideas and jokes that took up residence in my brain several life times ago and never left.
“Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or The Kaiser)” contains a number of winking allusions to the Rocky franchise and the iconic, anthemic music it produced. The narrator sadly observes that the champ “Ain’t gonna fly now, he’s just taking up space", a reference to Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now (Theme From Rocky).” Later, the narrator observes that Rocky “never eats while on the job, he heard it’s good to stay hungry”, referencing specific lyrics from “Eye Of The Tiger.”
This downsized yet still hungry (in more ways than one) survivor isn’t just the owner and proprietor of the neighborhood deli, and a man who really wants to be your catering advisor: he’s also an unusually frank, kibbitzy waiter happy to suggest an appetizer and willing to accept substitutions without a fight.
“Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or The Kaiser)” applies to the rock-solid comic logic that food is funny. Jewish food is even funnier, and food served in a Jewish deli, my God, that is automatic hilarity. “Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or The Kaiser)” is one of the most Jewish songs in Al’s overwhelmingly Jewish oeuvre, right up there with “Pretty Fly For A Rabbi.” Let’s face it: singing about salami and rye bread and delis is way more Jewish than singing about Rabbis.
The parody is filled with references to Sylvester Stallone’s iconic pugilist, a man who won all of our hearts by getting punched in the face repeatedly, like when, in the final verse, the singer concedes that Rocky “dreams of his past days of glory/Goes in the back and beats up liverwurst” while repeating the mantra of the song’s chorus.
Beyond musical and film satire and some indelible turns of phrase, “Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or The Kaiser)” has a hint of poignance rooted in its defeated hero’s sepia-toned memories of his days as a champ. Al and Rocky were made for each other; just two albums later Al would be parodying the theme from Rocky IV for one of his least successful and most surgery-specific singles, “Living With A Hernia.” Decades later The Lonely Island tackled the Rocky saga from a much different angle but with similarly hilarious results with “Rocky.”
Al the pop-culture prognosticator similarly seemed to have foreseen that the Rocky movies would endure the same way his music has. If Creed 2 follows Apollo Creed’s son after he gives up boxing to make pastrami sandwiches and homemade chicken soup, I hope they at least they give Al a story credit.
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