by Skylaire Alfvegren
IT WAS WITH A MIXTURE OF NOSTALGIA and trepidation that I approached the helium-filled figure looming over the midway at the Orange County Fair. Hawaiian shirtclad arms pointing heavenward, poodle perm plastered to plastic skull, he beckoned. I'd have thought that the accordion-playing satirist "Weird Al" Yankovic had fallen off the cultural radar, but looking up at his giant inflated likeness at the entrance to the Weird Al Experience, I began to realize that I must be mistaken. And then a docent confirmed it: "He's big, bigger than ever!"
Al's appearance at the fair two years ago had broken all previous attendance records. "He was so popular, people would stand in line for two hours just to get into the show," said Kevin Cable, a Yankovic look-alike from Santa Ana. "The line stretched all the way across the fairgrounds!" And this year's Experience, which combined a huge collection of memorabilia and a week's worth of sold-out appearances, broke records yet again: 163,000 people pushed through the turnstiles. Obviously, "Weird Al" deserved another look.
Inside the exhibition hall, a time line took us through Al's humble beginnings in Lynwood, California, straight through to the gold and platinum albums. An endless loop of videos, both old ("Eat It," "Like a Surgeon," "Fat") and newer ("Amish Paradise," a send-up of Coolio's "Gangster's Paradise" and "Bedrock Anthem," which melds the glitter-desert stylization of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away" with the story of the Flintstones), seemed to transfix all who entered. Most were long-time devotees -- like Amanda Cohen, the organizer of fan convention Alcon III, who flew out from Chicago -- but not all. "[The Experience] has shown a lot of Al to a lot of people," said Cohen. "Some of them know him, and some of them . . . their jaws are just agape! It's wonderful to watch people discover him."
You began to get a sense of "Weird Al"'s appeal when looking at the costumes used in his videos and stage show. The black, buckled "Fat" getup, the Devoesque hazmat suit of "Dare To Be Stupid," the torn jeans and blond wig from "Smells Like Nirvana" provide a sort of cracked illustration of pop music history in reverse. Yankovic's success, by and large, has outlived that of the artists he's parodied. His true accomplishment might well be, as one fan put it, "to humble all the big-egoed rock stars, knock them off their soapbox."
But can one seriously ponder an artistic legacy built from goofs on computer nerds ("All About the Pentiums"), Star Wars ("Yoda," "The Saga Begins") and processed-meat products ("My Bologna")?
Apparently so. "He's sort of got his own little world," said Julia Reines, an original fan who has passed her enthusiasm on to her young son. "I think because he's so intelligent in the way he uses words, he seeps into peoples' conscience . . . that it's so incredibly . . . beyond pop culture. It's parody on a whole other plane."
On that score, surely everyone can agree. And speaking of planes, "Weird Al" fans flew in from 13 states for the experience of taking snapshots of his high school cap and gown, pointing at the original single of "Another One Rides the Bus" (recorded live on Dr. Demento's KMET show in 1980) and admiring dozens of Yankovic's gaudiest Hawaiian shirts. And some went beyond: "Just today, we went to Al's boyhood home, his high school, his junior high, we did a full minitour of his background," enthused Cid Strickler, a local woman who organized out-of-town fans.
For Fred, a convenience-store manager from Chicago whose van is adorned with album covers and portraits, this was her 65th "Weird Al" show. She first discovered his "genius" in 1992, when a friend left a tape in her car. "I took a month off work for the Running With Scissors tour. Forty-eight shows." To illustrate her dedication, Fred pulled out a scrapbook containing dozens of photos taken at the various shows. "Remember the version of Peter and the Wolf he did with Wendy Carlos? I have the cover tattooed on my leg. Al signed it."
At the end of the day, I still didn't have a handle on what makes "Weird Al" such an enduring figure. Then, a 20-ish hipster named Gabriel provided an answer: "He's nutty, funny, kooky, zany all rolled into one frickin' ball!" Which is probably why Gabriel's father predicted his son would outgrow "Weird Al." Gabriel wasn't having any of that though. For one thing, his father listens to Kenny G. For another, he said, "This is the greatest moment of my life."