Day Seventy-Three: "I Can't Watch This" from Off the Deep End
With the possible exception of food, which, rumor has it, is the only thing he eats, few subjects have bewitched Al like bad television. You know, like that show Bewitched. Boy, did that suck. We’ve explored the intersection of Al and TV extensively here, without, curiously enough, doing more than mention MTV’s “AL-TV” specials from the 1980s. Eh, that’s for the inevitable The Weird Accordion to Al book.
We’ve touched upon the many different roles television plays in Al’s music. We’ve revisited songs about weirdoes who love TV (“Cable TV”, “Isle Thing”, “Here’s Johnny”), a rare cover of a cult children’s show (“George of the Jungle”), a harrowing account of a man who humiliates himself and his family by losing on a popular game show (“I Lost on Jeopardy”), and various songs that recount the premises of popular TV shows, like “Money For Nothing/Beverley Hillbillies” and even a song that both recounts the premise of a popular TV show and centers on someone with an irrationally intense hatred of said TV show in “The Brady Bunch.”
So when Al decided to revisit the apparently bottomless well of comedy that is television for the “U Can’t Touch This” parody “I Can’t Watch This” he did not have novelty or freshness on his side, but he did have an almost irritatingly catchy bit of pop-rap built on the hypnotic baseline of Rick James’ “Superfreak” as the musical backbone of his latest attack on the rampaging idiocies of the vast wasteland that is television.
This is one of Al’s first rap parodies. He benefits from being able to step inside the comically baggy gypsy pants of a rapper with a flow whose difficulty level never got past “beginner.” Hammer is about as genial as rappers get. The song is as much a time capsule of the era that created it as a well-worn copy of TV Guide from the era.
The TV-hater singing the song rails good-naturedly against the yuppie whine-fest that was Thirtysomething, Arsenio Hall’s mindless enthusiasm and talk shows that are “rude, crude and vile” and inspire him to want to keep flipping on the dial.
Some of the TV detritus that Al bemoans on the song have dated in fascinating, tragic and unexpected ways. As I write this, the widely beloved Showtime Twin Peaks revival is one of the hottest and most talked about shows on television. So it’s very strange to hear “Heckling TV Critic Al” Yankovic of a quarter century ago grumble that he “can’t stand Twin Peaks” and wishes they’d “lynch” those “donut-eating freaks.”
Al briefly morphs into “Open Mic Al” when he turns his attention to another bizarrely deathless TV institution that’s somehow still with us, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and quips,“I can't believe my eyes/When I see the kind of stuff that wins first prize/Somebody's poor old mom/Falls down off the roof, lands right on the lawn/Face first on a rake/I hear they've got it on the seventeenth take.”
Al was ahead of the curve in letting us know that the “reality” of television is more accurately a carefully contrived fiction.
The televised film criticism duo of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel are both blessed and cursed with the halo of early, dramatic deaths. Ebert in particular became an inspirational, even heroic figure after Cancer robbed him of his big, booming, beautiful voice and laugh but his mind and writing evolved in wondrous and surprising ways.
Ebert is a hero of mine but in 1992 he was a cheap pop culture reference with a cheesy but enduring trademark musicians couldn’t help but invoke while dissing him. So it is not at all surprising that, among his other complaints about the deplorable nature of television, the singer here complains that those “Siskel and Ebert bums” “oughtta go home and sit on their thumbs.”
Considering the exhaustive emphasis I’ve placed here on commercials and commercialism and consumerism in Al’s work, it’s not surprising that my favorite part of the song is a sonic collage of commercials from around this era. There’s an almost Negativland-for-Beginners quality to the rapid-fire assemblage of assaultive commercial pleas.
This commercial medley—which mashes together “classic” soundbites like Kelly LeBrock’s “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” and some old geezer’s cry of “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”— instantly brought back a flood of memories and images: It’s as if Al is giving a solo not to a musician but to the entire commercial industry:
“I Can’t Watch This” is about the innate disposability of television. Yet a quarter of a century later we’re still talking about the donut-eating freaks of Twin Peaks, we’re forever mourning those Siskel and Ebert bums and some of us are apparently still watching America’s Funniest Home Videos, since it’s still around. Most importantly, we’re still listening to, and occasionally even reading about “Weird Al” Yankovic, who seems destined to outlive all of the pop culture detritus he’s lovingly spoofed, even when they prove weirdly enduring boomerangs like Twin Peak, which streaked across pop culture like a comet , only to reappear a quarter century later, apparently no worse for wear.
Support Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place and the Weird Accordion to Al over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace. It doesn’t even have a TV.