Day One hundred and ten: "Jerry Springer" from Running with Scissors
One of the nice things about covering Al over a period of nearly forty years, as we’re doing here, is that we can track the evolution of technology, culture, food, television and music through Al’s work. Or, in the case of tabloids, we can trace the de-evolution through Al’s tongue-in-cheek tributes to the scummiest recesses of the press, or, as they are now confusingly known, FAKE NEWS.
We first encounter the grubby underbelly of the Fourth Estate in Al’s definitive statement on the subject, the early Weekly World News/Inquirer homage “Midnight Star.” That song was made with a degree of affection for its subject matter that is not found in the Barenaked Ladies “One Week” parody “Jerry Springer.”
The song found the grubby, literally incestuous tabloid world migrating to television and syndication in the form of disgraced former Ohio politician Jerry Springer’s notorious syndicated phenomenon. Twelve years later, Yankovic returned to this subject matter on his “You Were Meant for Me” parody “TMZ”, by which point the cultural poison that is the tabloid industry had conquered/corrupted the world of online “media.”
Like “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi”, “Jerry Springer" found Al parodying a song that was itself already a comedy song, a goof, an annoyingly catchy novelty ditty from folks who didn’t take themselves too seriously. “One Week” doesn’t just try to be funny: it tries way too hard to be funny. It’s like the sonic equivalent of a Friedberg/Seltzer spoof, with an improvised white boy Try-N-rap that piles one glib, annoying pop culture reference on top of another, including Aquaman, Swiss Chalet, LeAnn Rimes, Bert Kaempfert, The X-Files, Harrison Ford, Frantic, Sting, tantric sex, Snickers, Vertigo, Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai, Sailor Moon, A Tribe Called Quest's song "Scenario", and Birchmount Stadium. Shout out to Wikipedia for the list and the correct spelling of Bert Kaempfert.
Some of those aren’t even American! I’m with Donald Trump in thinking that everything non-American is by definition anti-American and must be destroyed, including the Barenaked Ladies.
The most interesting part of “One Week” is its structure, where a sung, college-rock chorus about a complicated romantic relationship alternates with improvised, completely unrelated stream-of-consciousness geek rap verses.
“Jerry Springer” keeps the sonic structure of its inspiration, with crooned choruses and rapped verses, but this time everything, unfortunately, is rooted in some of the least original subject matter this side of Spam and Ed McMahon: the parade of human oddities and deplorable nut jobs that constituted The Jerry Springer Show in its Clinton-era heyday.
In “The Jerry Springer Show” “Wholesome Al” Yankovic descends into the gutter of tabloid television and ends up getting a little soiled by its tawdry ugliness. In “Jerry Springer”, Al use words and phrases you never thought he would, and that he clearly never come close to using again.
Then again, 1999 was a very different time, particularly where gender, sexuality, language and cultural sensitivity are concerned. It was a time when phrases like “She male”, “crack ho”, "midget" and “slut” were certainly not considered polite or used in mixed company, but also weren’t considered anywhere near as taboo or offensive as they are today.
It’s nevertheless jarring hearing Al sing those words. They feel terribly out of character for Al as an icon, performer and an artist but are of course in character for somebody obsessed with The Jerry Springer Show, an ugly exercise in underclass exploitation that delighted an American public that never gets tired of laughing at dumb poor people.
In an inverse of “One Week”, the rapped verses here are a lot more clever than the sung hook, which would feel cheap and easy even if they weren’t full of language that is problematic by today’s standards. The verses don’t always connect with the song’s King Kong sized comedic target but they at least are full of Yankovician wordplay, like rhyming “They all exhibit reprehensible behavior” with “They get so violent they have to sign a waiver.”
“Jerry Springer” could use more subversively smart, and appropriate words like “reprehensible” and a lot fewer cheap shots and uncharacteristic vulgarity. There’s even a bleeped out profanity.
The subject matter for “Jerry Springer” is so exhausted that there’s a limit to how funny even the most clever and inspired parody of it can be, and Al and his bandmates brush up hard against it here.
Ironically, while “One Week” inspired one of Al’s weaker parodies, it’s opening two words (that forceful “It’s been…”) has been transformed into comic gold as a deathless Comedy Bang Bang running joke by Al’s pal and frequent collaborator Scott Aukerman. So at least someone in the Comedy Bang Bang family got something special and lasting out of one of the more annoying hits from an unusually annoying period in pop music.
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