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Friday, July 11th, 2014

When Johnny Carson Just Didn't Know What to Make of Weird Al

weirdal-carsonThe Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

I feel like every article written about "Weird Al" Yankovic since, oh, let's say 2001, begins with a thesis statement that basically amounts to "can you believe the "Eat It" guy is still around?!" (Maybe by this point they've updated the reference to "Amish Paradise.") And as irritating and dismissive as that sounds, this lazy article opening speaks to the incredibly impressive fact that Al has managed to sustain a recording career for more than 30 years based solely on pure silliness. Next Tuesday, Al will release his 14th (and potentially final) album entitled Mandatory Fun, so I thought it would be fitting for us to take a journey into the Paley Center Archives with the intention of looking back at Yankovic's storied career.

Unfortunately, that was more difficult than I anticipated. There's a lot of potential material out there to find, Al's various MTV takeovers throughout the years would have been fantastic, but unfortunately, there's not a lot at the Paley Center. What I did find, while light on the Al content, still reflects an important moment in Al's career and is a lovely time capsule of entertainment in 1985. Today we look back to July 25th of that year when "Welrd Al" Yankovic appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Let's begin with Al's appearance. Following Michael J. Fox's segment, Johnny returns from commercial and announces to the audience: "It is now silly time." The fact that Weird Al is about to perform on The Tonight Show in 1985 is already surreal enough. This was the TV show of record at this time. You've no doubt heard comic after comic from the 70s and 80s talk about how one appearance on the show was enough to make their entire career. At this point Al had already hit it big, but now, just as he was getting ready to perform, Johnny Carson, America's Dad, just told everyone in America that it was "silly time." If someone out there in Middle America had somehow escaped Al's work before this point, I don't know how he could get a better introduction.

The camera cuts over to the performance stage where Al stands with his accordion, alongside his band, Steve Jay on bass, Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz on drums, and Jim West on guitar, to perform a rendition of "Yoda," a parody of the Kink's "Lola," from his then newest album Dare to Be Stupid which had come out the month before. The performance of the song itself seems especially energetic, with Jim West in particular shredding quite a bit more than The Kinks' Dave Davies ever did in the original.

We return to Johnny behind the desk, who applauds enthusiastically. However, throughout his various introductions for Al, he definitely gives the impression that he's not exactly sure what's going on. I will never get to ask Johnny Carson how he felt watching a band perform an accordion-based parody of a Kinks song about a character from The Empire Strikes Back, but I imagine the response would be very similar to when I made my dad read the comic strip I created in high school about a pair of 1950s beatniks brought into the present to fight crime.

Following "Yoda," Johnny tries to establish that he's familiar with Al's oeuvre. He looks off-camera, to a producer perhaps, and says, "The ones I've seen on MTV…" and let's just stop there for a moment and have you imagine Johnny Carson watching MTV in 1986. Okay. "The one's I've seen on MTV, I think, are 'Eat It' and 'Like a Sturgeon.'" [Emphasis added to show that I didn't make a typo: Johnny replaced the word "surgeon" with the name of a type of fish. I love it so much.]

Al and his band then get to perform one last song, and it's a doozy: "Hooked on Polkas," also off of Dare to Be Stupid, which Johnny describes, with a chuckle as "a medley of current rock and roll hits as a polka." But to get that true polka sound, Al is joined by the brass section of the NBC Orchestra, and just in case a bunch of old white dudes in tuxes playing polka music while Al sings "Relax / When you wanna come" from Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax," there are also bubble machines to truly make you feel like you're watching an insane episode of Lawrence Welk.

We go back to Johnny one more time who gives the classic "I don't know what to say" response of "Ooooooooo-kay!" before making a joke implying he's on a first adjective basis with Al, "Thank you, Weird!" and then remarking that "You could tell the guys in the Tonight Show Band really felt at home there." I have no idea what he was trying to say with that one, but the audience seemed to.

As a side-note: this was Weird Al's only appearance on Carson's Tonight Show, but it almost wasn't. In an interview with PopMatters.com, Al mentions that one of his few regrets throughout his career came in the late 80s when he was asked if he could come in immediately and replace James Taylor, who had dropped out, and perform Taylor's song "Fire and Rain." He wrestled with it in the moment, thinking it could be a fantastic moment of surreal comedy, but ultimately felt, in his own words, "that not enough people would kind of find that funny and it would just be like a lot of people thinking it was stupid, but now that I look back on it, I'm like 'Why didn't I do that?  That would've just been so out there, so wrong on so many levels.'" And while that was his only appearance on Carson's show, it wasn't the last time he'd appear on that stage. The Weird Al Show, which appeared on CBS' Saturday morning block, was filmed on Stage 1 at NBC in Burbank, which was the home of Carson's Tonight Show until his last show in 1992.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the other guests of the evening, which included Michael J. Fox, and perennial talk show guest Charles Nelson Reilley (who would later be immortalized in the Weird Al song CNR). Fox was there to promote his movie that had come out a few weeks ago that you might have heard of called Back to the Future, which Carson states several times "has a fantastic premise." And while he was there he was also sure to mention that the following week he had another movie coming out that went by the name of Teen Wolf, and his show Family Ties was coming back for its fourth season, so he was keeping busy. There's a charming piece of banter between Fox and Carson in which the two have an awkward-off. Carson asks Fox if he has a current lady friend and, clearly not wanting to answer the question, Fox turns the tables and asks Johnny the same answer. "Yeah, I do," replies Johnny. "How about you?" Fox chuckles nervously for a moment, then deadpans, "Who are you seeing, by the way?" trying to deflect. For me, however, the highlight of the segment was when Michael sets up the clip from Back to the Future. It's when Marty's in the past and he's eating dinner with his grandparents, with his teenage mom trying to get him to stay the night. After doing his best to explain the complicated, time paradoxy back story, Carson accidentally slips into Dana Carvey's impression of him and says, "Your future mother is eyeing you. Weird situation…"

Poor Charles Nelson Reilley is having a really rough time, though. He was just on a TV show (he doesn't want to say which, but does tell us it's circus related, so if you remember he's a celebrity and you know your 1980s TV specials you can probably guess) and while standing atop a pony, he fell and proceeded to break his nose, arm, and hip, so he has to come out on crutches. And if that's not enough, the rest of the show took too long, so he only gets a few minutes on the couch; not even enough time to finish his anecdote about his hospital stay.

Carson may not have known what to make of Weird Al, but given the longevity of his career, America seems to. While Al never returned to Carson's show following this appearance, Al didn't forget about Johnny. On his follow up album to "Dare to Be Stupid," Al parodied El DeBarge's song from the Short Circuit soundtrack as a tribute to Carson's sidekick Ed McMahon called "Here's Johnny." No doubt every time Yankovic performed it live he remembered that special moment when the man, the myth, the legend, introduced sleepy America to Weird Al, and informed them that it was silly time.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries "Ramsey Has a Time Machine" has a very self-explanatory title.