Day Twenty-Six: "Like A Surgeon" from Dare To Be Stupid
Al was a quintessential underdog during his early years in the music business. He was an accordion-toting genius-geek-goofball in an industry ruled by beautiful, pouty men and even more beautiful, even poutier women. He was an oddball and an eccentric, a square peg. He was, well, weird.
And he was pursuing a career path as a professional song parodist that was, if not unprecedented, then exceedingly rare. There were lots of blueprints artists could follow for how to build and sustain a career as a rock musician or pop star. There were considerably fewer for people whose lot in life was to gently spoof the hits of the day, and to keep on lampooning the hits of the day until he’s old and gray.
“Weird Al” Yankovic and In 3-D benefitted from modest expectations but by the time Al's third feature length album came around Al had lost the element of surprise. He’d already gone farther than anyone could have imagined. By Dare To Be Stupid Al had a career to protect and a lot to lose. He’d damn near cracked the top ten with “Eat It” and picked up a Gold and later Platinum plaque for his breakthrough album. It also won Al the first of four Grammys and counting, again for “Eat It.”
By the time Dare To Be Stupid came out Al had stumbled upon a winning formula he would follow for decades to come. It was the second album to feature a polka medley, but the first to feature a medley of recent hits, a strategy Al would continue to pursue on all his new albums with the exception of UHF, which substituted the usual contemporary hits montage with one focussed exclusively on the songs of the Rolling Stones.
The half parody/half original songs template was similarly firmly in place by Al’s third album, as was his predilection for parodying recent hits rather than golden oldies. The exception, of course, is “Yoda”, which has the curious distinction of being a parody of a decades-old pop song about a movie that was itself a few years old by the time of its official release, but there were extenuating circumstances: “Yoda” was a pre-album track Al couldn’t get off the ground until a few years after Empire Strikes Back left theaters.
Like In 3-D, Dare To Be Stupid opens with an MTV and top 40-radio-ready parody of one of the biggest smashes of the decade. From a commercial standpoint, it was a no-brainer for the first single and video. Dare To Be Stupid, like its immediate predecessor, opens with its most commercial song. While formula generally has a negative connotation, it doesn’t in the case of Al. He found something that worked spectacularly well for him, and continues to work spectacularly well for him decades later. A brilliant business mind in addition to being a comic genius, Al would be unwise to deviate too far from what made him easily the most successful person in the history of his field.
For its lead-off track and first single and music video, “Like A Surgeon” followed the blueprint of In 3-D. Al had once again locked in on the artist of the moment, and the song of the moment. He plugged into the cultural zeitgeist with trademark canny and a sensibility that was one part MTV, one part Catskills.
That formula similarly applied to “Eat It.” If “Eat It” was all about how you should enjoy a nosh, then “Like A Surgeon” was grounded in another perennial in Jewish humor and the Borsht Belt: the doctor joke. Only instead of one doctor joke, “Like A Surgeon” featured a whole bunch of them; it was a doctor joke song.
Also like “Eat It”, “Like A Surgeon” deliberately eschews Al and his band and producer’s generally successful attempts to sound as much like the original as possible with sound effects (in this case hospital noises) that betray almost instantly that this is not Madonna’s iconic, scorchingly sexy anthem of empowerment but rather a good-natured goof-em-up by a man who had already established himself as something approaching rock and pop’s official parodist.
“Like A Surgeon” operates on the principal of escalation. That’s true of the sound effects as well. The song begins with what appears to be the reassuring beeps of the heart monitor of a patient who is, at the very least, appears to still be alive. That is no longer true by the end of the song when that reassuring beep-beep-beep is replaced by the ominous hum of a flatline.
Late in the song, the singing quack concedes, “It's a fact I'm a quack/The disgrace of the A.M.A./‘Cause my patients die, yah my patients die/Before they can pay.” That’s a line at least as old as vaudeville if not older. It is a quintessential dad joke, but also a reminder of the homy comfort dad jokes provide.
Dad jokes are of course the ingratiatingly dorky domain of men who have produced offspring but just as dads would not exist except for the children they spawn, it’s impossible to conceive of dad jokes without the children who are their best audience, excluding, of course, the dads themselves. Dad jokes need children just to qualify as dad jokes and as an eight-year-old obsessed with “Weird Al” Yankovic, it felt like Al was an ideal surrogate father figure dispensing an endless series of musical dad jokes to his symbolic progeny.
“Like A Virgin” is such an intensely sexual song that you almost can’t spoof it without addressing that ripe sensuality on some level. Part of the humor in “Like A Surgeon” comes from the surreal incongruity of an exemplar of awkward male masculinity like Al emulating, at times, Madonna’s breathy, sex-kitten delivery.
This speaks to an interesting quirk in Al’s career. He’s never been one to limit himself to one gender when choosing artists to parody with the meticulousness that characterizes every phase of his life and career.
That has resulted in Al spoofing the music, and sometimes the image, of a fair amount of female pop stars. When I was working with him on Weird Al: The Book around the time Apocalypse came out most of the artists he was parodying were female pop stars in their teens and twenties—Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and Lorde—so there was an interesting element of cross-generational, cross-gender parody at play. But when Al recorded “Like A Surgeon” and vamped his way through the video, he and Madonna were generational peers and fellow MTV fixtures.
This features prominently in Al, the fake-trailer Funny Or Die put out about a Walk Hard-style biopic of “Weird Al” in the screamingly, sobbingly hyperbolic tradition of Ray, Walk The Line and pretty much every movie about a self-destructive musician ever. What makes the trailer hysterical, beyond its loving recreation of music movie melodrama cliches and tropes, is Al’s enduring status as the least self-destructive pop star imaginable.
Musical biopics tend to have a one-size-fits-all shape and structure that transforms wildly different artists from wildly different eras and milieus into the same drunken, angry, over-sexed monster of id and ego but this is an area where Al once again breaks the mold. He is a model of self-discipline and self-restraint, the least traditionally rock star-like rock star in the world, and "Like A Surgeon" is a terrific kick-off to an album that ranks alongside In 3-D as one of Al's true masterpieces.
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