In a recent NPR interview with “Weird Al” Yankovic, he responds to a question about Cookie Monster‘s parody of “Call Me Maybe” with “Yeah, Cookie Monster is my No. 1 competition right now.” Apparently he’s forgetting that Cookie Monster did “Hey Food” back in 1982, a year prior to Al’s first album.
My family had a 1983 Sesame Street cassette that had that song on it, as well as such parodies as “Born to Add” (performed by Bruce Stringbean and the S Street Band), “(I Can’t Get No) Co-Operation” (by Mick Swagger and the Sesame Street Cobble Stones), and “Letter B.” None of them used the exact original tunes, though, while I believe “Share It Maybe” did.
Of course, song parodies have a rich history, dating back to the thirteenth century when someone named Madde Albert wrote “Grummore is Acumen In” about Sir Grummore from the Arthurian legends. No, seriously, according to Wikipedia, the term “parody” was originally used for any imitative work of music, only more recently coming to mean one with humorous intent. Weird Al has cited several other parody artists as influences, although they varied somewhat in how they approached the idea. Spike Jones was known for arrangements of popular songs that incorporated silly sound effects and unusual instrumentation. Stan Freberg usually kept the styles the same, but made fun of particular elements of the songs, often with arguments between two people. Allan Sherman changed the lyrics to songs (or occasionally added funny lyrics to instrumental pieces, as with his biggest hit “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!”, sung to the tune of part of Dance of the Hours), usually making them about fairly mundane aspects of culture rather than making fun of the songs themselves. Tom Lehrer did a few songs using existing music, like how “The Elements” used the tune of “The Major-General’s Song” by Gilbert and Sullivan (which, of course, was already supposed to be funny), but mostly stuck to mocking the conventions of different musical styles. Lehrer was particularly known for being intellectual, perhaps even pretentious, in his parodies; but it’s not surprising that a lot of musical comedians come off as rather nerdy. After all, parody requires a certain amount of separation from popular culture in order to recognize its absurdities, although at the same time there’s also a level of immersion in that same culture. One thing I do find interesting about Weird Al when compared to his predecessors is that he seems to be more willing to adjust to changes in popular music. These earlier artists seemed to share some level of contempt for rock and roll. On the other hand, when rap became popular, Al embraced it. Indeed, I would imagine he pays a lot more attention to what the youth are listening to than most people in their fifties.
Despite my interest in musical parody, I can’t say I’ve come up with much on my own. I can think of lots of parody titles, but that’s about as far as it goes. I remember back when I was hearing Ace of Base’s “The Sign” and Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” pretty much constantly, and thought good parody ideas in the Weird Al vein would be “The Line” (about leaving a store because the lines were too long) and “Mail Away,” but I never attempted actual lyrics. I think it’s an art form that seems a lot easier than it really is.
The picture at the top of the entry is The Persistence of Cookies by Joel Schick, obviously a Salvador Dali parody, which I found on this page.