Day One Hundred and Six: "The Saga Begins" from Running with Scissors
Well, folks, with “The Saga Begins” we have officially made it to our tenth album from American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic. Give yourself a hand. It takes a lot of stamina, patience and endurance just to read that many long, typo-written, self-indulgent articles about one human being, even someone as endlessly fascinating as the king of pop parody.
We’re up to 1999 in our timeline, when a charismatic hillbilly named "Slick" Willie Clinton delighted the nation with his cornpone antics, we trembled in fear of the impending technological apocalypse known as Y2K (with the single exception of the singer of “All About the Pentiums”) and a silly-talking space frog named Jar Jar Binks taught us all how to laugh.
It is at this point in the story that the careers of your writer and his subject begin to overlap. When Running with Scissors was released, I had an opportunity to leverage to my nascent power as the twenty-three year old head writer of The A.V Club into getting to meet “Weird Al” Yankovic, first when he stopped by the Onion office to visit a sacred satirical mecca (as a Dr. Demento-level student of comedy, he had appropriate reverence for The Onion in the 1990s, before it went all corporate and whatnot) and visit my then-editor Stephen Thompson (now NPR music editor and one of the hosts of Pop Culture Happy Hour), and then later that night, when we got to meet Al backstage after seeing him in concert.
It was one of the biggest thrills of my career and life up to that point. Who could have imagined how much our paths would cross in the decades ahead?
So I’m nostalgic for 1999's Running with Scissors because of my incredible fondness for that period in my life, when all things seemed possible and the world radiated a rosy glow. But I’m also, weirdly enough, nostalgic for The Phantom Menace, the prequel that inspired “The Saga Begins”, which is a little weird, because that movie is terrible.
I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I’m nostalgic for The Phantom Menace as a cultural event. I’m nostalgic for the incredible wave of excitement and anticipation it created, and then the crashing disappointment that followed. Geeks didn’t have quite the stranglehold on pop culture back then that they do now. These days, pretty much everything seems custom-made for geeks. Geeks are the mainstream but back in 1999 Phantom Menace still felt like something the Gods had created for the fans.
I'm not just nostalgic for 1999's Phantom Menace fever and Al's inspired parody of "American Pie." I'm also, coincidentally, nostalgic for the throwback sex comedy American Pie, which, in one of a series of meaningless/meaningful coincidences littering this entry, was released in, you guessed it, 1999.
It seems appropriate that Al chose as the vehicle for his Phantom Menace anthem a song that was itself permeated in nostalgia. Don Mclean’s oldies station favorite was released in 1971, not long after the sixties mercifully ended (if I recall correctly, the conventional wisdom still holds that Altamont murdered the 1960s dead) and looked back wistfully at another of the many moments in our society when we lost our collective innocence: the tragic plane trash where Waylon Jennings nearly died and novelty musician Big Bopper did die, on that terrible, fateful day back in 1959. Apparently there were other musicians onboard the flight as well. Jimmy Vallens and Bobby Hooey or somebody.
A mere twelve years separated the day “The Music Died” and Mclean making his career off one of the quintessential American story songs. That’s roughly the same amount of time that passed between another milestone for pop culture nostalgia, 1973’s American Graffiti, which famously asked audiences longing for the comfort of a fondly, fuzzily remembered collective past, “Where were you in ’62" and the year it took place.
George Lucas followed up the triumph of American Graffiti four years latest with another unashamed exercise in nostalgia, this time a zippy tribute to the science-fiction serials of the 1930s and 1940s called Star Wars.
Needless to say, dear reader, when it comes to “The Saga Begins”, the Force of nostalgia is strong with this one.
Yet at the time of its release, “The Saga Begins” was, if anything, almost suspiciously timely. The song came out a little over a month after the film was released, when the cultural consensus hadn’t yet devolved from “Well, this is not quite what we expected but it looks good, I guess? And the special effects at least are impressive” to “This is the greatest insult to the franchise since Star Wars Holiday Special. I demand a personalized apology from Mr. Lucas, and a refund of all the time and energy I wasted looking forward to The Phantom Menace.”
A direct line can be traced between George Lucas making The Phantom Menace and Disney buying his creations and being all, “Hey, thanks for Star Wars! We’re going to make billions! Also, we won’t be needing your services any longer. Yeah, thanks, bye! You might want to go look at some Jar Jar Binks character sketches if you’re wondering why you’re not allowed to play with Star Wars anymore."
With “The Saga Begins”, Al’s timing was perfect. He was latching onto the hottest and most lucrative thing in pop culture, something that he had a long, distinguished, happy history with already. In “The Saga Begins”, Al did something borderline miraculous. He alchemized the tin and rusted aluminum that are The Phantom Menace’s plot and characters, two of the film’s many, many, many, many, many fatal flaws into the musical and comedy gold of one of Al's best-loved and most enduring songs. It's one of the songs I'm guessing Al is happy to not have to perform during his upcoming tour.
The plot of The Phantom Menace is terrible: convoluted, overly complicated, bogged down with unnecessary subplots and characters and so difficult to follow that Lucas had to resort to one of the most rightfully mocked opening scrolls this side of Alone in the Dark just for it to have it make a lick of sense.
Yet on “The Saga Begins”, Al transforms Lucas’ leaden mythology and hopelessly clumsy plotting into a freewheeling, light on its feet adventure ditty that skips along merrily where its inspiration lumbered.
Listening to “The Saga Begins” in 2018 I found myself grateful that I was merely listening to one of my favorite musicians glide breezily through The Phantom Menace’s plot instead of having to actually watch all of the nonsense involving Midichlorians and the Federation. Al undercuts the pretension and self-seriousness of what he’s singing about by describing Lucas’ melodrama in hilariously casual language, like when he observes of film’s climax “In the end, some The Gungans died/Some ships blew up and some pilots fried/A lot of folks were croakin’/The battle droids were broken.”
Al succeeded where George Lucas failed. Unlike the racist stereotype-based physical comedy of Jar Jar Binks, “The Saga Begins” genuinely made people laugh. And unlike The Phantom Menace, “The Saga Begins” ended up pleasing Star Wars fans in the short and long term. “The Saga Begins” might just be the element of The Phantom Menace that has aged the best and endured the most.
Given the importance of trilogies within the Star Wars universe and the success of his previous two geek anthems, I can’t help but wonder if Al is ever tempted to turn his Star Wars oeuvre into a proper trilogy. God knows he’s got enough new movies to work with and be inspired by, and there’d be a rapturous online audience for a new Star Wars-themed “Weird Al” Yankovic song. But as George Lucas can wearily attest, there are all kinds of dangers in revisiting past triumphs decades later.
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