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Weird Al Yankovic celebrates four decades of pop music parodies at the Hollywood Bowl

“Weird Al” Yankovic
Weird Al Yankovic celebrates four decades of pop music parodies at the Hollywood Bowl performing the first of two shows, Friday, July 22, 2016.
(David Benjamin / For The Times)

“When the going gets weird,” Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson once said, “the weird turn pro,” and no one has shown over time greater aptitude at professional weirdness than “Weird Al” Yankovic.

The Lynwood-reared pop music parodist par excellence reached yet another milestone in his astonishingly long-running career with the first of two performance Friday night at the venerable Hollywood Bowl.

The booking itself demonstrated the continued upward arc Yankovic is on nearly 40 years into his career. His L.A. tour stops in recent years have taken him from the 2,700-seat Pantages Theater to the 5,800-seat Greek and now the pair of shows at the 17,500 capacity Bowl, where he returns Saturday. (His tour also stops Aug. 2 at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara.)

Yankovic’s brand of humor is a particularly welcome tonic in these unusually weird times, if just for the wit in his transformative reworkings of pop hits across the stylistic spectrum.

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His ability to remain au courant defies the very notion of the “novelty” record tradition of which he has become the world’s preeminent practitioner. Such predecessors as Spike Jones, Allan Sherman and Dickey Goodman enjoyed comparatively brief moments in the sun. 

The accordion-wielding anti-hero, who surfaced during the rise of punk rock in the late-’70s — his first hit, “Another One Rides the Bus,” came from a live-in-the-studio performance during his apprenticeship with L.A. radio host Dr. Demento — impressively has not just survived but thrived through the successive reigns of ’80s dance pop, new wave, hair metal, grunge, boy band pop, indie rock, hip-hop and today’s R&B-pop amalgam.

Much of his success stemmed from his equally inspired parody pop videos — casting himself in the early days of MTV as a Nerd Universe counterpart to Michael Jackson in his send-ups of “Beat It” (“Eat It”) and “Bad” (“Fat”). Onstage he recreated his paranoid conspiracy theorist in “Foil” (lampooning Lorde’s “Royals”) and a take-no-guff parishioner of “Amish Paradise” (Coolio’s “Gangsta Paradise” by way of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise”).

Extending that approach to live performance, his show tweaked several conventions and cliches of the rock and pop concert tradition. 

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Midway through the set, which utilized the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under conductor Thomas Wilkins to great effect in most of his numbers, Yankovic and his band abandoned the electric instruments and amplifiers, sat together at the center of the stage for unplugged renditions of “Eat It,” “I Lost on Jeopardy,” “I Love Rocky Road” and “Like a Surgeon.”

Beyond the wacky humor, there’s a deeper facet of Yankovic’s music, one that helps explain his longevity.

The segment began with a bluesy, swinging acoustic guitar intro that invoked Eric Clapton’s signature unplugged rendition of “Layla,” doubling down on the parody of his original arrangements.

Between songs, spaces that Yankovic used to switch from one costume to another, videos projected on the Bowl’s screens recounted his broad infiltration of pop culture over the years, touching on his cameos or references to him in such TV shows and movies as “Friends,” “The Simpsons,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “King of the Hill,” “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” and numerous others.

Beyond the wacky humor, there’s a deeper facet of Yankovic’s music, one that helps explain his longevity. Yankovic earned his college degree in architecture, and it’s easy to see- his skill at disassembling pop songs and rebuilding them through his own twisted vision.

Turning Don McLean’s “American Pie” into a “Star Wars”-paean “The Saga Begins,” Yankovic doesn’t simply refit it with a new storyline. He also replicates McLean’s rhyme scheme with intricate interior rhymes and cadences that reveal staggering smarts: “We started singin’ /My my, this here Anakin guy/May be Vader someday later — now he’s just a small fry/And he left his home and kissed his mommy goodbye/Saying soon I’m gonna be a Jedi.”

Weird Al Yankovic at the Hollywood Bowl performing the first of two shows.
Weird Al Yankovic at the Hollywood Bowl performing the first of two shows.
(David Benjamin / For The Times )

Perhaps his most impressive reworkings of other artists hits — which arguably elevate them over the originals — are “White and Nerdy,” which recasts Chamillionaires’s rap hit “Ridin’ Dirty,” and “Word Crimes,” the retake on Robin Thicke and Pharrelll Williams’ “Blurred Lines.”

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“White and Nerdy” could serve as Yankovic’s doctoral thesis on the joys of nerd culture: “There’s no killer app I haven’t run/At Pascal, well, I’m  Number 1/Do vector calculus just for fun.”

“Word Crimes” toasts regard for spelling, syntax and usage, an otherwise unimaginable theme of a song from “Mandatory Fun,” Yankovic’s latest album, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 pop album chart upon its — not it’s — release in 2014. 

Don’t be a moron/You’d better slow down/And use the right pronoun/Show the world you’re no clown/Everybody wise up!

In an age in which bullying is a major concern on school campuses at all levels, Yankovic offers a shining alternative for success for the often socially awkward part of society from which he emerged. 

His whole career champions the outsider, the misfit, the portion of the populace referenced in climactic scene of the 1984 cult classic film “Revenge of the Nerds,” when super-nerd Lewis informs the university jocks who’ve been bullying them: “We have news for the beautiful people. There’s a lot more of us than there are of you.”

Yankovic, too, is about inclusion, not divisiveness. And maybe that’s not so weird after all.

A cappella male vocal group Straight No Chaser opened with a 40-minute set of sharply arranged songs starting with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and touching on a variety of eras and genres including their Stevie Wonder medley of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”  and “I Was Made to Love Her” through Radiohead’s “Creep.” 

On the heels of the wondrously inventive vocal harmonies emanating from the Bowl’s stage just two weeks earlier during the Brian Wilson Band’s live performance of “Pet Sounds,” Straight No Chaser’s arrangements sometimes sounded relatively tame. But there was no shortage of enthusiasm in the presentation or choreography from the 10-man ensemble.

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randy.lewis@latimes.com

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