Day Twenty-Five: "This Is The Life" from Dare To Be Stupid and the Johnny Dangerously soundtrack
The decade? The eighties. Reagan, baby! Morning in America! Howard Jones dominated the pop charts. One man taught a shattered nation to laugh again after the culture-wide funk that followed President Carter’s “Malaise” speech. The man? This was no man. This was a God among men, a Jersey jester, a muscled-up mirth-maker, a steroid-addled stand-up who worked his magic live every Saturday night.
I am talking, of course, about Joe Piscopo. Y’all may not believe me, but at one point, Joe Piscopo was the most popular and successful human being alive. How popular was Piscopo? He was so popular and so beloved by Lorne Michaels that he decided to make Piscopo’s hilarious catchphrase, “Live, from New York—It’s Saturday Night Live!” a fixture of, literally, every opening for decades to come. All in tribute to Piscopo.
It was the age of Piscopo. We all worshipped Joe, because he was that rarest and most unique of creatures: a young stand-up comedian who became famous impersonating celebrities on Saturday Night Live. Joe was the first, and, I believe, possibly also the last funnyman to make a Frank Sinatra impersonation a cornerstone of his act. Before Joe, no one realized that there was anything funny about Sinatra. Thanks to him, however, we now know that there are actually several amusing things about him, like his violent temper and also the way he talked.
Joe Piscopo in his prime was like George Carlin if Carlin was more interested in blasting his quads and working his delts than incisive social commentary. And also wasn’t very good at stand-up comedy. Nevertheless, Piscopo was going on a rocket ride to the moon, and he was nice enough to let a fellow young Saturday Night Live cast member named Eddie Murphy hop on his back and enjoy the ride along with him.
The small screen wasn’t big enough to contain a talent as explosive as Piscopo’s, however. After directing Al Pacino in Scarface, Brian De Palma decided that he finally wanted to direct a movie starring a real man, so he gave Piscopo the lead in Wise Guys. The results? Well, actually, it was kind of a big flop.
Piscopo had other chances. There was that movie where he was the partner of a zombie cop. That one didn’t turn out too well. But that wasn’t the Jersey jokester’s only major motion picture vehicle. Just before Christmas in 1984, 20th Century Fox gave the gift of laughter to an adoring and appreciative public in the form of Amy Heckerling’s Johnny Dangerously.
The movie paired Piscopo—whose magnetism at the time can only be described as Piscosplosive—with a former stand-up and rising comedy star in Michael Keaton. For the all-important theme song they hired another man of the moment, but also a man whose moment would stretch out into infinity: that’s right: I’m talking about pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Boy, bet ya didn’t see where that was going, in this, the 25th entry in the project. With the exception of Michael Jackson, who was the hottest artist of 1984, both in the sense of being the most popular artist alive and also in the sense of literally having spent part of the year on fire while filming a Pepsi ad, Al was the hottest artist around.
Al had so much heat that he was forced to spent much of his time in an underground bunker hiding from obsessed fans who would literally tear his clothes off, then rip him apart in a frenzy of violent devotion like in the climax to the movie Perfume: Story Of A Murderer, if given the opportunity. But never mind about that. Just forget that I wrote anything about Al constructing a series of elaborate underground tunnels somewhere in the Southern California in the mid-1980s because that’s just silly and we’re here to talk about “This Is The Life.”
To put things in 30 Rock terms, Al was Reaganing when he was asked to write and perform the theme song for Johnny Dangerously. Or, considering the nature of the film and the era, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he was Piscopoing. Though Johnny Dangerously was not terribly well-received critically or commercially, being asked to write the theme song for it was still a coup.
20th Century Fox was footing the bill for a video much more expensive and elaborate than Al’s previous efforts and the song was one of two tracks from Dare To Be Stupid to be promoted as singles for major motion pictures (the other being "Dare To Be Stupid" from the Transformers movie) aimed at Al’s growing fanbase. Johnny Dangerously aspired to be to gangster movies from the 1930s and 40s what Al’s music was to the hits of the day but had to settle for having a largely unmerited cult following, a lot of squandered potential, and, thankfully, for our purposes, a pretty damn great theme song.
That sweet, sweet, movie money allowed Al and his collaborators to do do things musically that they would not be able to, otherwise. “This Is The Life” is no mere song: it’s a full-on production, complete with banjo courtesy of Al Viola, whose credits include playing the mandolin on the Godfather soundtrack and working extensively with Joe Piscopo's hero Frank Sinatra.
But if “This Is The Life” is a lovingly produced, fleshed-out musical voyage back to the Great Depression, it’s also unmistakably a ditty, a goof, a sassy little number about a guy who has it made and isn't shy about letting the world know. The song is sung from the point of view of one of Al’s many creeps, one of his trademark crazed narcissists. We know he’s a creep, because in perhaps the song’s most memorable lyric, he brags, “You can tell I’m a living legend, not some ordinary creep.” Only an ordinary creep would feel the need to tell the world that he’s not a creep.
And really, everything that this blessed gent says further confirms his self-absorbed creepiness, but because this is “Weird Al” there’s something incongruously appealing about his crazed narcissism. Like so many of Al’s eccentrics, he’s defined both by his consumerism and by his consumption in the most comically literal way imaginable. He’s so intent on flaunting his incredible wealth and privilege that he wastes ridiculous amounts of money solely for the sake of wasting money.
Al cements his reputation as the Cole Porter of over-consumption with an opening couplet crowing, “I eat filet mignon seven times a day/My bathtub's filled with Perrier/What can I say/This is the life!”
This gentleman is what we in the Jew business call a “Big Macher”, an egoist perpetually high on his own preposterously inflated self-regard. The music nails the infernal catchiness of Tin Pan Alley songcraft. It’s a wonderfully retro ditty, at once pleasingly simple and elegantly adorned, that breaks the period mood with a pair of purposefully anachronistic, contemporary touches: a totally bitching hair-metal guitar solo and what I believe is the first instance of scratching in Al’s work.
Al made the most of a pretty awesome opportunity with “This Is The Life.” It’s certainly not his fault that the movie the song promoted did not live up to the music he created for it. As for Joe Piscopo? Well, let’s just say that things didn’t turn out too good for him. But, for a brief idyll, the future radiated nothing but blinding potential for Piscopo, and Al was blessed just to have his own trajectory overlap with Joe’s. They were a little like the tortoise and the hare, with Piscopo racing out to a huge lead but old slow and steady Al winning the race by a decisive margin.
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