Day Forty-Six: "Fat" from Even Worse
A lot happened for Al between the releases of the 1986 disappointment Polka Party! and his 1988 comeback album Even Worse. He did that whole month-long vision quest thing for ultimate truth that yielded the Even Worse album cut “(This Song’s Just) Six Words Long.” He married and divorced notorious pop culture seductress Morganna, the Kissing Bandit, a toxic and mercurial romance that played out in screaming headlines on the covers of lurid tabloids.
The union of opposites was doomed, ironically enough, by Al “surprising” his iconic wife while she was making her “Woman of the Year” keynote address for the National Organization for Women by chasing her around the podium and demanding a smooch, something she described as a “terrible invasion of my privacy and personal space” as well as “something I never realized inflicted so much psychic pain.”
For a couple of months, Al wore the cowl of The Batman and battled crime on the streets of Gotham City as the Dark Knight. Of course, the first rule of being Batman is that you never talk about your time as The Batman (something pretty much everyone other than that blabbermouth Dick Cavett hasn’t had a problem with) so Al is too modest to discuss defeating such arch-villains as Harley Quinn, Scarecrow and Deadshot, just as he's reluctant to talk too much about his months as an astronaut.
But mostly Al spent the in between years plotting his comeback. Even Worse, the album that brought Al back, reflected a curious cultural moment that found Al spoofing a simultaneously random and weirdly specific group of songs. In addition to the tried and true Michael Jackson parody (the “Bad” spoof “Fat”), Al lampooned a solo Beatle with an annoyingly catchy, repetitive bubblegum song (George Harrison’s “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You”), a mall-rat teenybopper with an annoyingly catchy, repetitive bubblegum cover of an annoyingly catchy, repetitive bubblegum song by Tommy James and the Shondells (Tiffany’s plastic take on “I Think We’re Alone Now”) and a New Wave rave-up cover of an annoyingly catchy, repetitive bubblegum cover of an annoyingly catchy, repetitive bubblegum pop anthem by Tommy James and the Shondells’ (the “Mony Mony” spoof “Alimony”, which more specifically parodied Billy Idol’s live version of the song). Finally, the album featured a very “Lucy”-like ethnic food-themed accordion showcase in the “La Bamba” parody “Lasagna”, which, come to think of it, is another parody of a cover, in this case Los Lobos’ cover of Ritchie Valens' smash from the biopic of the same name.
The music world was only going to give a kinky-haired, accordion-playing pop parodist like Al so many chances, commercially speaking. So it was of the utmost importance for Al to score a big hit that would help the world forget Polka Party’s under-performance with critics and the public. Al once again found inspiration in a familiar source: the giant bowl of cocaine he snorted to kick off every songwriting session on a “high” note in the sense that he was “high” on all of the cocaine he was doing.
That is not true, of course. In the late eighties, Al was the one pop star whose ascent and descent were not both fueled by a debilitating addiction to booger sugar. No, instead Al found inspiration in the hits of Michael Jackson, a former child prodigy with some unfortunate personal idiosyncrasies who helped give Al his biggest hit.
“Fat” is not my favorite “Weird Al” Yankovic song, and not because I’m one of those effete snobs who refuses to like the big hits out of some contrarian need to feel special and different. When it comes to cleverness or comic invention, the song has nothing on “Christmas At Ground Zero” or “Dare to Be Stupid” but as the all-important first song, single, music video parody from what would turn out to be Al’s big first comeback album, it had commercial expectations it needed to fill and it filled them splendidly, and with as much as inspiration, ingenuity and personality as the song’s conceit would allow.
“Fat” did what it needed to do and while the conceit of turning “Bad” into “Fat” is not an elegant or an unexpected one, Al makes it work through a characteristic blend of comic craftsmanship, Catskills shamelessness and full-throated conviction. The jokes in “Fat” are older than Al’s great great grandpappy, and have been passed around more than a doobie at a Wiz Kalifa show, but a comeback hungry Al sells them largely through delivery, energy and attitude.
As with “Eat It”, part of the humor in spoofing a song like “Bad” lies in the weird incongruity of a guy like Michael Jackson, with his, um, unique interpretation of masculinity (to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from The Critic) releasing yet another anthem of swaggering tough-guy machismo. Yankovic’s interpretation of masculinity is similarly unique, if not quite as unique as Jackson’s, so the comedy here comes from a white geek getting brash, defiant and proud describing not his toughness and affinity for violence but rather his comically over-the-top corpulence, his obesity, his blob-like physique.
Actually, when you really think about the man singing the song, the tough-guy swaggering of “Bad” becomes as ridiculous and absurd as the fat-guy bragging about being the “King of Cellulite” (a distinction the singer grants himself before MJ dubbed himself “King of Pop.” Coincidence?) and having “more Chins than Chinatown” in “Fat.”
That “more chins than Chinatown” is what is known in the comedy as a “street joke.” That’s a joke that everyone has been telling for so long, and in so many contexts, that no one really knows where it originated, or who created it. It’s a joke book joke, essentially, and it’s not the only street joke in the song. It is, after all, about a man who brags, “When I walk out to get my mail/It measures on the Richter scale” and “When I go to get my shoes shined/I gotta take their word.”
Those jokes certainly did not originate inside Al’s beautiful brain but they nevertheless become part of the grand gestalt that makes “Fat”, like so many of Al’s singles, particularly his parodies, far funnier and more appealing than they have any right to be. What allows “Fat” to transcend the groaningly familiar fat joke, even as it contains its share of groaningly familiar fat jokes, is the swagger Yankovic brings to the character and to the performance.
Yankovic could seemingly inject lard into his bloodstream on an IV drip for months and still remain skinny yet the round mound of sound singing the song is not embarrassed or ashamed to be a larger gentleman. He does not writhe in self-hatred because he does not fit into society’s conception of what constitutes conventional attractiveness.
No, the character Al brought to vivid life in the song’s video, and was subsequently cursed to have to bring to life (with the aid of the hardest working fat suit in show-business) countless of times in concert owns being comically obese. Sure, he insists that his shadow weighs forty pounds and boasts that he needs his own zip code but he also yells defiantly, “The whole world knows I'm fat and I'm proud.”
Now, I am not suggesting that “Fat” is some landmark in fat pride. I’m not saying that Al was like a proto-Lindy West trying to get people to love and accept and embrace a body type different than the kinds that are relentlessly pushed down our throats as desirable by society and the many industries rooted in trying to give us all eating disorders through their relentless promotion of skinniness at all costs.
But I am saying that some chubby kid somewhere probably went to a “Weird Al” Yankovic show with their parents and saw their hero scream, “The whole world knows I'm fat and I'm proud”, and maybe that meant something to him. Maybe it still does, to multiple generations of kids delighted to be given permission to be fat and proud, even if it’s only within the context of a parody of a hit pop song.
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