Written by Parisa Eshrati
Play It By Ear is an ongoing series by T&E writer Parisa where she shares musical discoveries along with informational tidbits, casual musings, interactive dialogue, and whatever else spills out of her brain.
This very special "Weird Al" Yankovic themed blog may seem like a long-winded fanatic story about the "Weird Al" meet-and-greet experience (it kind of is), but it actually weaves narratives and obscure factoids from all around the music world that somehow connect to the Al Universe.
You’ll read about ancient Balinese traditions, desert cowpunk bands, unintentional recordings in music history, and even an interview with videographer Charley Brown, the producer of an '80s variety sketch and musical public access program called the TWIT show in Tucson, that may or may not have been an influence on Weird Al’s cult classic movie UHF.
This and so much more, only on Play It By Ear!
Please note: If you are reading this blog from a mobile device, the embedded videos will not show up for some tech reason beyond my understanding. This blog is best read and listened to from a computer or laptop.
Ever since 2019, when Weird Al did his first Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour and offered a VIP meet-and-greet package, I’ve had $350 set aside in my bank account. No matter how tight I got on funds, I kept that money aside in case Weird Al ever came back to Tucson for a meet-and-greet. Sure enough, last year he announced The Unfortunate Return of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, and I bought my tickets the day they went on sale. I had been looking forward to this day for a year (but really, my whole life).
My love for Weird Al began with the Running with Scissors album, as I’m sure goes for most anyone in my age range. It’s still my favorite in his discography, partly for the nostalgia but I also feel like it’s just got all the best hits. Here are some of my sporadic thoughts on the album:
My million dollar idea is that Orville Peck should cover the “Truck Driving Song”:
I'm drivin' a truck
Drivin' a big ol' truck
Pedal to the metal, hope I don't run out of luck
Rollin' down the highway until the break of dawn
Drivin' a truck with my high heels on
My diesel rig is northward bound
It's time to put that hammer down
Just watchin' as the miles go flyin' by
I'm ridin' twenty tons of steel
But it's sure hard to hold the wheel
While I'm still waiting for my nails to dry
A country western song about driving trucks with high heels…I mean, c’mon. You’d almost think this was written for Orville. I can already hear it in his voice.
I also think “Albuquerque” is “Weird Al”’s greatest original song (though “Dare To Be Stupid” might be a close second…or shoot, maybe a tie).
Again, for many people my age, this was the first time I had heard a song that was longer than 3 - 4 minutes. In a way, this was a gateway into getting into experimental 12-minute prog songs with bizarre interludes and time changes later in my life. I also think what makes this one of his best songs is that it is genuinely “weird”. Obviously all of his music has a sense of humor, but a long stream-of-consciousness, sorta-nonsensical musical stand-up shaggy dog story about life in Albuquerque is unlike anything most any mainstream artist would dare to do on a major-label record. According to the AV Club, “The long, meandering story was not expected to be popular and instead Yankovic wanted to compose a song "that's just going to annoy people for 12 minutes", making it feel like an ‘odyssey’ for the listener after making it through to the end.” (Kind of how this blog is coming out to be, hah!.) Despite that, it became a cult-classic and instant favorite amongst his fans.
One thing I love about that live video above that’s worth noting too is how much fun the band is having with this song. I love the scrappy “Mary Had a Little Lamb” solo, seeing them improvise and riff along with Weird Al’s extended lyrical delivery. There’s definitely something to be said about how the band has been a consistent lineup since 1981. You have to be pretty genuine and kind people to get along and work together well for all those years. I’d be curious to think of any other band that’s kept the same lineup for forty years. Can any of you think of a band that kept its consistent lineup for that long? (You can respond in the comments to any of the questions posed in this article by the way, I try to make Play It By Ear interactive like the ol’ fashioned blog days.)
While “Albuquerque” isn’t directly a parody, it’s done in the style of “Dick’s Automotive” by San Diego cowpunk band The Rugburns. For some reason that isn’t very well known, but it’s a great song:
Being from Arizona, I obviously have a big place in my heart for cowpunk bands like Meat Puppets (whom I’ve interviewed here) and Violent Femmes (who I’ll make mention of again in a minute). Though since I’m on a tangent already, here’s one of my favorite cowpunk groups of yesteryear that got criminally overlooked outside of their local scene:
If you’re from Tucson, you already know who Al Perry is. If not, dig it. I also recommend reading the book Denvoid and the Cowtown Punks by Bob Rob Medina about the '80s and '90s cowpunk scene in Denver, which I mentioned already in a previous Play It By Ear blog.
“Albuquerque” was also influenced by George Thorogood, who up until recently I honestly had never heard anything aside from the radio hits and never cared to delve deeper because I figured it’s just dad rock I didn’t need to explore much further. This live performance changed that for me though, ‘cause man, that’s some feel-good shreddin’. Is there something about turning thirty years old and suddenly being into '80s bar rock? Is this who I am now? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The final thing I’ll say on “Albuquerque” is how much I love that you can hear guitarist Jim West laugh at the end of the recording. Yankovic had said about it that “I thought it would be a good way to end the album. He's cracking up because of the stupid chord he played at the end of the song." Some of my favorite moments in recorded history are those unintentional background reactions. Like at the end of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Oh Comely”, where you hear producer Robert Schneider say “HOLY SHIT!” after watching Jeff Mangum perform that song in a single first take (that's been disputed by some…but that’s the story I like to stick with). Or hearing Billie Joe Armstrong mess up the chords at the beginning of “Good Riddance” and you hear him murmur “...fuck!” before starting the song. I’m sure there are countless examples of this, but I love the humanity it brings to recorded music, like a sneak-peek into what’s going on in the studio. What are some of your favorite unintentional recordings in songs?
Back to the show. Without getting into every single detail that’s probably not interesting to read, I have to say that this was the best day of my life, and not just for the meet-and-greet. The “Weird Al” VIP experience became less of just a concert perk and more like a place for people like me - aka nerds who mostly don’t understand their place in their world - to feel a true sense of community. It may be a very cliche thing to say, but it couldn’t be more true to say that his fanbase is the most diverse out there. All backgrounds, all ages, all coming together to enjoy sheer stupidity, and to me, there’s nothing in the world more precious than that.
The night started off with “Weird Al” Jeopardy. I had assumed from the email that it would just be a low-key hangout with the other VIPs to sit around and play, but it was a whole ass production! An entire interactive on-stage set-up, whacky props, skits, and prizes to test your “Weird Al” trivia knowledge. The host was a natural, he had a larger-than-life persona on and off the stage that made the event so fun. Here are a mashup of some videos I took:
There was also a sweet goodie bag given upon arrival that included a laminate VIP badge, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Jack Park Espresso (a play on his song “Jackson Park Express”, an original song in the style of Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” or a Yusif Stevens song), a mug shaped as his face, a tour poster exclusive to VIPs to be signed after the show, and a token for a free non-alcoholic drink (that came in a souvenir cup from the venue, ooh la la!). I also kept the Jeopardy card that you would fill out to participate and the card they gave you with the link for your photos because I’m obsessive and want to keep every single memento possible lol. All pictured below, plus an enamel pin I got for $5. This, plus the fact that I got to sit in the front row (I’ve never been front row for anything in my life!!) was already well worth the ticket price.
The show opened with a stand-up set from the legendary Emo Phillips, one of my all time favorite comedians. What I love about his standup is there is an inherent musicality to it. He oftentimes is playing with some sort of prop as he’s delivering a joke, like trying to put together a trombone or unravel a microphone cable he’s tangled up in. His fidgeting around the prop has nothing to do with the joke itself, but the movements along with the intonation of his voice add this incredible element of timing, balance and movement to his joke. It may all seem coincidental or just acts of randomness, with genius like is definitely all intentional.
Have you ever thought about musicality in other forms of artwork, such as stand-up comedy? Where else do you find musicality in your lives that doesn’t necessarily pertain to music?
This joke from Emo Phillips has been claimed to be the best religious joke of all time. I don’t disagree:
Have any of you reading this seen “Weird Al” in concert before? It’s the biggest production - costume changes, props, and video collages from the Al TV takeovers. I had seen him once before at the Arizona State Fair back in 2007 and it’s still one of my favorite concerts I’ve ever seen. This tour, however, is a stripped back and more intimate performance of all his original songs. And it absolutely RULED. It showcased both his talents as a writer and the talents of the band. We also got a lot of great moments of chatting and story-telling between songs that you wouldn’t get at a big stadium show. I managed to grab a setlist so you can check it out:
Every song was great, but one of the highlights was his wild extended rendition of “Craigslist”, a song done in the style of a Doors mashup. He added a four minute LSD-influenced spoken word tangent channeling Jim Morrison in a “When the Music’s Over” freakout performance, and I actually heard the person behind me ask his friend, “Wait…is this supposed to be referencing something?” I couldn’t stop laughing. That was the best possible quote I could have heard at a “Weird Al” show.
By the way, the recording of “Craigslist” actually had Doors founder and legendary keyboard player Ray Manzarek on it. Here’s a great video of them recording together. You can hear Al giggle a few times, you can tell he’s just so humbled and stoked in that moment.
I know a lot of people out there really don’t dig The Doors (a common slack that I don’t fully understand but whatever!), but Ray Manzarek is one of the best. Here’s a great video of him telling the story of writing “Riders on the Storm” as he’s playing the song.
Another thing to note on the setlist - check out the first song on the encore. Never in my life have I seen Al do a full on cover song (or at least, that wasn’t in one of his accordion medlies). Not a parody, not an Al-ified rendition, just a cover. It was amazing.
The Unplugged Medley was genius too, including another rendition of the “Yoda Chant” which is a mega-medley of the song “Yoda” with a bunch of other songs, chants, and gibberish. It’s a tradition he’s been doing since 1991, each tour incorporating different styles of chanting and oddballness. I loved that on this tour, he incorporated a Balinese chant called Kecak, also known as the Ramayana monkey chant. If you’ve seen the movie The Fall (one of my top five favorite movies of all time), you may remember this extraordinary scene that shows it (that scene is the reason I could instantly recognize the chant when Al started doing it). Here’s another visual example:
Kecak was originally a trance-inducing exorcism ritual accompanied by a chorus which was later adapted as a musical drama and performance piece. The hour-long performance depicts a battle from the Ramayana, in which the monkey-like Vanaras, led by Hanuman, help Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. It’s a powerful testament to the human voice as an instrument, and the healing and trance-inducing qualities of repetition in music.
The meet-and-greet portion came after the show. I was so nervous. Literally every time I’ve thought about this moment in the past year I’d start crying tears of joy. I know I sound like such a tool, and I always talk about how much I hate celebrity worship, but this isn’t that. Or maybe it is. I don’t know, but anyway, I prepared for such a moment in case I saw him and completely froze. Here is an index card I wrote down with talking points, including our names in case I *really* froze:
I tried to come up with a few unique talking points so I didn't just stand there and gush (which would've been fine too). I was wearing my battle jacket (as seen in the first picture in the blog) with my self-made Bad Hair Day backpatch to the show. I had once met director Penelope Spheeris (Decline of Western Civiliation series, Waynes World, etc.) when I was wearing it and she said, "That's punk as fuck." I wanted to tell Al that Penelope loves him and they should collab together for a fourth Decline of Western Civilization. One could dream...
I was hoping to get the index card signed, but there was a strict poster-only no substitutions rule for signatures, which I totally understand. First, we all got in line to take a photo. When it was my turn, I just said, “wow….HI!” and had to take the photo fast because that’s just the way these things work. There was a partition between us, so I had some fun poses in mind but didn’t account for the partition (which was edited out in post) so I just stood there cheesin’. Then we got in line for the signature. I realized literally no one else was saying anything and just getting their signature and walking away. When it was my turn, I knew I only had a minute or less, so I skipped right to my favorite talking point on my list…the TWIT SHOW! (...to be continued)
Back years ago, I co-wrote a piece with T&E writer Greg about the Tucson hardcore punk (THC) scene in the ‘80s. The piece was originally for the Southwest Terror Fest zine we made, because THC band Malignus Youth (an incredible band whom I interviewed here) was reuniting for the fest. The research led me to this video of local band Useless Pieces of Shit playing live in 1984 in the middle of downtown Tucson to a bunch of young punks in crazy costumes. The footage is pulled from a public access show called the TWIT show. I later learned that one of my co-workers at The Loft Cinema was the co-founder and director of the TWIT show, and was given a DVD of some of the remaining episodes.
When I saw it, I was floored. I felt like I had stumbled across an absolute gem that everyone needs to see. To me, it speaks on the true essence and beauty that was public access television. Public access television offered people to showcase their creativity in a completely unhinged, vulnerable and free-format way that until then, had never been offered before. Everything is different now, of course, because anyone can create a YouTube video and post it (which isn’t entirely a bad thing I guess), but public access television captured a moment in time of cultural creativity that is just unparalleled. Thanks to many VHS diggers like Everything is Terrible (who I interviewed here) or Found Footage Festival, so many of these amazing, oftentimes bizarre and even psychotic, moments have been foraged and saved from complete obscurity for us to witness. I think the TWIT show should too, see the credit it so deserves. There’s musical performances from some amazing Tucson bands that fell into complete anonymity, archival footage of '80s weirdo culture, and genuine curiosity and creativity explored in such a unique way.
The TWIT show first began as a small segment on an avant-garde, 30 minute live public access program called Compendium back in 1982. It began with three friends that met through drama school and producing local plays - Charley Brown (my previous coworker), Dave Bukunus and Randy Harris. Eventually it became its own program called the TWIT show, or Tucson Western International Telethon, that aired Friday nights from 9 - 11 pm. The variety show featured interviews, sketches, live musical guests, a call-in feature, and weekly themes.
What also got me so interested in learning more about the TWIT show is seeing that “Weird Al” was a guest in 1984. Here’s a clip of him singing “Happy Birthday”:
And a longer clip featuring backstage interviews with the Al and the band:
I know there’s tons of “Weird Al” footage out there in the world, but I’d figure this extremely rare footage would be a goldmine for his fans to find. I also couldn’t help but see some connection between Weird Al’s cult classic movie UHF with the TWIT show, which was released four years after that footage was filmed. I’m not at all claiming that “Weird Al” plagiarized, but when I watch videos for TWIT show parody commercials like Frog Flakes, I can’t help but think of Spatula City! I also wondered if Al was inspired by TWIT's variety show format, and how amazing it’d be to think that a local Tucson public access show may have played a role in his life.
Below is an interview I did with Charley Brown back in 2018. This was supposed to be included in a feature-length piece about TWIT show that I was going to write with another T&E writer, but that writer got busy and the piece never came to be. So I figure what better time to salvage this information than in my Weird Al-themed blog!
By the way, here’s Charley in 1985 doing an original song and video for TWIT show that’s an absolute ripper outsider music gem:
Q&A with Charley Brown on The TWIT Show
Who would you say were the core people of the TWIT show?
David Bukunus was the reason this all started. Randy Harris was his partner, who was really a talented sketch writer and singer. He created an extended theme called Father Randy’s Universal Oasis, and that was supposed to be like our own church. We called it the Universal Life and Casualty Church, and people would call in and do confessions. We also made up a sponsor called Generic Brands and made up generic products to go with it. We had Frog Flakes, Frog Balls, and so on. Everyone would pitch in to make their own products and commercials.
So yes, David was the founder and person who started it all. He was sort of like the Michael Richards character in UHF. Randy Harris, who still lives in Tucson, was a graphic artist for the Tucson Weekly for many years. He was the biggest contributor out of everyone. He was a seriously talented actor who would have just blended right into the SNL cast.
We also had Carol Lee, who goes by The Scarlette Harlette, and she’s a performance artist and a sex worker activist in San Francisco. She’s quite a big name in that world because of her activism. She was the one that interviewed Weird Al. (Editor note: I love that clip)
There was Connie Breeze, she was a disc jockey on KHIT at the time. We found her just by listening to her radio show and figuring she’d be a good fit. She actually lost her job as a DJ for joining our show, but now she lives in Las Vegas and won the Broadcaster of the Year award.
Another friend of mine who got involved was Dianna Fuzzy Brown. There would also be people who would come in with a crew and product or direct for just one show. Larry Biser was one of those people, he was responsible for bringing in a lot of the good bands, like Neon Prophet, who was a great reggae band.
Was there anything else on Tucson public access like this?
No, there was really nothing. There was a preacher who had a religious program, but there wasn’t really a live video at all. I remember the public access station would rent out equipment to people, but would always be shocked whenever David would request literally every piece of equipment they had.
The station was located downtown across the street from the Fox Theater. I remember we’d be out on that street with big wireless ‘80s phones, and that’s how we’d take calls on the show. We’d stand out there filming us saying “We’ll take your calls, call us now!” People weren’t used to being able to call in on live TV, so people really played along and engaged with the show that way.I have boxes and boxes of quarter inch broadcast tape of the show, and now that I go back and listen I can recognize a few of the voices. There were some people who would make up a new character every time they’d call in.
When the break dancing phenomenon hit in ‘84, it was a huge thing in the show. The kids would dress up in matching jumpsuits, so when one troupe came on and got on tv, they’d challenge others to come down too. Before we knew it, we had like ten troupes every week for like six months straight. Some were really talented, and would also sing and rap, and we invited a lot of troupes back on for repeat performances. West Coast Cowboys was one of my favorites, they were quite talented. So yeah, what ended up happening was that bands would call people down and say things like, “if you have an act that’s better than this, come down and show us!”. So we kept getting new bands coming in to perform.
What are some themes you recall from the show?
One of my favorite nights was called Brain Damage Cafe. The show was a “cafe” where people would go to after they somehow got brain damage, and throughout the show you would hear everyone’s stories of what happened to them. It was all based around a Tucson band called Brain Damage who was the musical guest of the night. They were a really great kind of ska, reggae rock band; they had a saxophone, trumpet, guitar, and were quite popular in Tucson then.
At that time, “Who Shot JR?” was a big thing for the show Dallas, so we did a “Who Shot Charley?” as one theme. We had another fun horoscope themed one where we all dressed up as different planets. We had an astrologer, Susie Cox, she is actually a celebrity astrologer now, used to come down and do our charts, so we did the whole show based around our star charts.
Did you ever have touring bands on the show, or just local Tucson bands?
No touring bands, if we ever did it’s just ‘cause we lucked out, but it was all Tucson talent. My favorite was a band called If. I still listen to their recordings from the show all the time. The singer, Spanna Mo, was the lead singer and is still a good friend of mine. He had been in two other bands before and toured as the opening act for The Kinks, so he had already had a pretty solid career before If.
UPS (Useless Pieces of Shit), of course, was a memorable one. That show came about because one of the producers, Denise Webb and her daughter Erin Webb, were a little more into the punk scene than I was. We really weren’t expecting such a big ordeal, but I showed up and was like, “What the hell is going on?!” They had blocked off the street and were moshing. They were pretty wild. Lenny, one of the members, works at a tattoo shop here in Tucson. Dennis McGowan, aka Slug, has a record label too.
What impressions did you get from seeing all these different bands about the Tucson music scene?
First impression was that they’re starving for venues. There was the DPC (Downtown Performance Center), but still that would often get closed down and was really the only venue. Being on camera was also a really new experience for these artists. You didn’t see cameras and editing equipment regularly then, so if they saw you with a camera they assumed you had a lot of money, which wasn’t the case because it was all from Access. But regardless, people were just really excited to be on camera and be on video.
The music scene was just really excited about exposure. It was probably easier to get someone on the show then than it would now, now people would probably have a lot of questions for you. There were a lot of bands that came and went, and I bet some of them toured and got more famous than I even know. One band called Naked Prey got kinda famous, I remember seeing them in Rolling Stone once.
I just thought of another cool musician story of TWIT lore. The son of Solomon Burke, Solomon Burke Jr., was a regular cast member for a while. He came to Tucson straight off a musical tour, singing backup vocals for B.B. King and his father. JR had gotten in a fight with his dad over money and what he was being paid for the tour and just said “fuck if” and moved to Tucson. Later JR moved back to LA to become a regular Bridge Crew member on the Star Trek series with Scott Bakula. I did a duet with JR on TWIT to my song “Dancing Plastic People”, with the Band If as back up, live in 1986. He had an amazing voice and I was in disbelief that he wanted to hang out with me and a bunch of TWITs.
Watch a full episode of the TWIT show here:
There are more videos on Charley’s YouTube channel and the TWIT Facebook page. Last I spoke to Charley, he was working on digitizing more episodes and clips. He had lent me a DVD of some episodes that haven’t been uploaded to YouTube, here’s hoping there will be more uploads in the future for more people to see!
Massive shout out to Charley Brown for the interview and for keeping all this great footage safe. I wish the full article had come to life like I had planned, but I hope this post inspires y’all to look into the world of public access television and the overlooked local bands of your town. And if you have any favorite public access clips you’d like to share, please do so in the comments!
Before I get back to the main story, do y’all remember Raul’s Wild Kingdom on UHF? The Found Footage Festival showed this clip that shows what that scene looks like in real life:
I forgot the backstory of how they found this clip or what public access station this came from, but it’s one of my favorite public access oddities. It is so stressful and chaotic and absolutely insane that this was a real show. I wonder if he ever made poodles fly…
So, there I was, knowing that I only had a minute or less to make an impression on Al, so I led with my favorite question on my cue card:
“Hey Al, do you remember being on the TWIT show?
“The TWIT show..? Oh yeah, wow, wasn’t that a really long time ago?”
“Yes it was, back in the ‘80s.”
“I do remember that!”
I wanted to ask if it all inspired UHF, but I saw the line behind me and I knew I had to move it along, so I just remarked, “That’s great, that’s my favorite Tucson/Weird Al connection. Anyway, thank you for the show, I love you very much.”
Have you ever met one of your all time favorite artists? What was it like? I kind of felt like Riff Randell meeting the Ramones in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, minus the pizza:
“I’ll cherish this moment forever!”
I knew that it was going to be a quick interaction, that’s how meet and greets go, but to me, it was all so worth it. Being able to share your love and appreciation for someone who has shaped your life is an incredible thing (assuming that your hero doesn’t turn out to be an asshole in real life!)
You know, turning thirty this year has brought big life questions to mind, as I’m sure it does for us all. I’ve been reevaluating what’s important to me, what brings me joy, and how I can use those things to make me a better person in this world. This entire “Weird Al” show experience has answered those questions for me in a very concrete way. Being able to cherish the absurdity of this whole stupid existence is what makes life so goddamn special. Being able to cherish your inner child by indulging in things like meeting your childhood heroes is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. So I guess this whole post is just to say that we should all “dare to be stupid”, to appreciate the absurditiy of life, to harness your sense of humor above all else, or maybe all I really wanted to say is…
Love you all, ‘til next time.