To paint a picture of your average, garden variety episode of The Weird Al Show: Open with this week's lesson lovingly calligraphed on a sheet of paper, read aloud and sporadically screamed by announcer Billy West. Maybe Al's determined to win a world record and is more concerned about being the best than trying his best, or, oh, perhaps he needs to take responsibility for his actions, pay attention to his friends' feelings, or pack up and move when pitted against a bully. Al's pushed along the network-mandated right path with the help of his buddies Bobby the Inquisitive Boy, Harvey the Wonder Hamster, The Guy Boarded Up in the Wall, Val Brentwood: Gal Spy, the questionably psychic Madame Judy, superheroic guy-next-door The Hooded Avenger, and his perky cousin Corky. In between antics best described as "zany" & "madcap" and bludgeoning viewers over the head with this week's lesson over and over and over and over and over and over, Al reads letters from viewers like you, introduces the animated adventures of Fatman, unspools overdubbed '50s educational films to answer Bobby the Inquisitive Boy's endless parade of questions along with 8mm home movies of Lil' Al, has a tween-friendly musical act drop by, and watches television (opening the door to spoofs of music videos, TV shows, and commercials that are the closest The Weird Al Show comes to UHF: The Series). At the end, after Billy West has gratingly shouted the moral a couple dozen more times, the end credits start their upward crawl and our hero comes away just a little bit wiser...until it's time to learn another very important lesson next week. The Weird Al Show is funnier than this boring description makes it sound, but...not by all that much.
Okay, I realize that as a DVD reviewer, I'm supposed to be the guy reviewing the DVD, but Al did such a spiffy job on the audio commentaries condensing my thoughts into a convenient, fun-size nugget that I'll lazily quote him instead:
"Anyway, the sad fact is that because of these concerns about imitatible behavior and because we were forced to constantly jam these lessons -- these 'educational objectives' -- down people's throats, we wound up with a show where my humor was often compromised and the educational content itself was sometimes questionable. So, it sort of wound up being a show for nobody. Actually, I mean, there's a lot of stuff in this series that I'm very proud of and I think is very funny, and there's a lot of stuff as we're watching that's going to really make us wince, but I think the key to really enjoying this series is dramatically lowering your expectations."...and that makes me feel better because The Weird Al Show really is kinda lousy, and it's no fun to write something like that about one of my heroes. (And I don't use the word 'hero' lightly. I mean, I do use the word 'hero' lightly, but I'm not right now. Promise.) This was not the show Al wanted to make, but his long-in-the-works Saturday morning show was picked up when the FCC started requiring stations to air three hours of educational programming, and the series was awkwardly retooled to fit the bill. CBS demanded changes to virtually everything in every episode, usually at the last possible minute, and they were so paranoid about the effect the show could have on children that, to name one of innumerable ridiculous examples, they were worried kids might avoid water fountains for fear of drowning. (Yet, strangely, having a puppet projectile vomit on-camera is okay, and so is a clip from Al's "Jurassic Park" video of Barney's head gruesomely being gnawed off.) The premise of the show requires Al to be an oblivious, inconsiderate jerk in every episode, which isn't all that fun to watch, and although hearing the morals repeated over and over in the space of one episode puts the "nausea" in "ad nauseam", the same sorts of lessons are continually recycled, giving the series an overall sense of deja vu. Al wanted to gear the show towards older kids, but CBS' target demographic was between two (!) and eleven, and a lot of the humor feels kind of Kindergarten-ish rather than fun-for-all-ages-exclamation-point.
Despite CBS' best efforts, they couldn't quite neuter all of the humor, and a bunch of snippets from these episodes have even been used in-between songs in Al's live show. Some of the concepts are brilliant -- my favorite, "Promises, Promises", has Al boasting to his pals that he's close, personal friends with John Tesh. To cover up his lie, Al decides to pay John Tesh to hang out with him, but Tesh's booking fee is $82,000, and to scrounge up that much cash, a Star Wars-channeling Tony Little and Ron Popeil spur Al on to star in his own infomercial. If you don't think that's funny, you're a hollow shell of a person, and I don't want you reading my long, rambling review anymore. Al's channel-surfing almost always gets a laugh: there are a handful of newly-produced chunks of music videos, and pretty much all of the commercial spoofs kill, and I mean 'kill' in the non-violent, mirthful kind of way. "Morpho Man" in particular is as hysterical and dead-on a parody as anything Saturday Night Live has ever done. I also dug Fred Huggins, a loopy, demented kids' show host: think a ukelele-wielding cross between Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo that broke out of a Methadone clinic and raided your medicine cabinet. Fred's flanked by a couple of angry, self-loathing puppets who are voiced by legendary satirist Stan Freberg and his only slightly less legendary son Donavan, the kid from the old Encyclopędia Britannica ads.
I'd also feel ashamed if I didn't mention the onslaught of guest stars along with the talent behind the camera. Director Peyton Reed went on to helm episodes of Mr. Show before moving onto feature films like Bring It On, Down with Love, and The Break-Up, and some of the staff writers would later pen scripts for better-than-average kids' shows Kim Possible, The Powerpuff Girls, and The Fairly Odd Parents along with more adult fare like NewsRadio, Futurama, and Arrested Development. The battalion of cameos include turns by Julie Brown, Patton Oswalt, Alias-nerd Kevin Weisman, Tony Little, Ron Popeil, John Tesh, Clarence Clemons (y'know, Bruce Springsteen's sax player), David Lander, Michael McKean, Emo Philips, Martha Quinn, Bill Mumy, Alex Trebek, Teri Garr, Charles Fleischer, Tahj Mowry, Dick Van Patten, Flintstone voice actors Henry Corden and Jean Vander Pyl, Fabio, Daisy Fuentes, Dr. Demento, Rick Overton, Dweezil Zappa, Fred Willard, Dick Clark, The Amazing Johnathan, Gilbert Gottfried, and...oh yeah..."Macho Man" Randy Savage. Mr. Show's Mary Lynn Rajskub and John Ennis also pop up, along with a bunch of folks from UHF, including David Bowe, Gedde Watanabe, Victoria Jackson, Cathy Ladman, and Kevin McCarthy. Since this paragraph doesn't have quite enough commas, I should probably also mention that Barenaked Ladies, Hanson, Radish, Immature, All 4 One, and...hey, Al and his band also chime in with musical performances.
There are enough laughs that I don't feel like I threw away four or five hours of my life by watching these episodes, but I didn't feel motivated to tune in every Saturday morning when The Weird Al Show was free, and it's hard to recommend that anyone other than a fiercely loyal "Weird Al" fan shell out thirty bucks to buy the show on DVD on its merits alone. But...hey, no one loves and respects his fanbase more than Al, and the extras on this set are what make it really worth the sticker price.
Video: The Weird Al Show looks eerily similar to a shot-on-video Saturday morning kids' show from 1997, probably on account of that whole that-being-exactly-what-it-is thing. Y'know: full-frame, a little aliased, and a bit on the soft side. There's also a moire effect around some patterns, such as the bass buttons on Al's accordion at times, but it's not a constant nuisance. Still, it's better than broadcast quality and outclasses the bootlegs that have been floating around for the better part of the past decade, and that's good enough for me. It's worth noting that at least on the review copy I was sent, the video breaks up a bit during "The Competition", which is annoying but not unwatchable.
Audio: The Dolby Digital stereo audio (224Kbps) cries out for an even nerdier response, peppered with stuff like "stereo imaging is pretty solid", "dialogue reproduction can be a little edgy", and "bass response is unremarkable but decent enough", but it pretty much boils down to the same thing: somewhere in the same neighborhood and probably marginally better than the original broadcasts. All of the songs from the original broadcasts are present, but the Radish performance is riddled with dropouts for whatever reason. Al mentions on the commentary that the song had to be censored since it's about a certain part of the female anatomy, but the dropouts are kind of random and don't appear to have anything to do with being Saturday-morning-friendly. (Example! And another!) Although I'd assume The Weird Al Show was closed captioned when it aired on CBS, this DVD set isn't, and it doesn't include any subtitles either.
Supplements: The Weird Al Show isn't teeming with extras, but that's because CBS and Dick Clark Productions tossed pretty much everything into the dumpster when production wrapped. Consider yourself lucky that they kept some master tapes around and that these DVDs aren't sourced from grainy Flash files off YouTube.
All thirteen episodes feature audio commentary by producer Tom Frank, director Peyton Reed, and, of course, "Weird Al" himself. Okay, here's the best way to look at it: forget that The Weird Al Show is the show. It's the overture. It's the setup. It exists purely as an excuse for these audio commentaries to pay everything off. I've listened to literally hundreds of audio commentaries throughout my seven years of DVD-dom, and these rank frighteningly close to the top of that heap. It's genuinely informative, and you hear all sorts of behind-the-scenes stuff such as how Seth McFarlane pitched the producers his Family Guy characters well before he got his own show off the ground, how the set's proximity to The Tonight Show had Al trawling the halls for celebrities to do cameos, and how Emo Philips felt compelled to take off his shirt to do the voice work for his character in a Fatman cartoon.
Yeah, that's all well 'n good, but what makes it great, great, great is the all-encompassing bitterness. They spend as much time poking fun of the show as they do talking about it, quipping about the low-rent effects, The Hooded Avenger's entrancing fake nipples, hemmoraging money during shoots that crept into the wee hours of the morning, and the network-mandated brow-beating of the weekly morals. They give CBS credit for sinking their money into the series and understand that the network had a right to...well, ruin The Weird Al Show, but ruin it they did, forcing every joke to be overexplained within an inch of its life, scheduling the show so as to make it as unpromotable as humanly possible, and shoehorning in really dumb morals (apparently, you shouldn't be a racist unless you take the time to come to a well-reasoned racist conclusion, for one). Characters committing suicide is also a recurring theme, but astonishingly, CBS wouldn't go for it. Al and company recite a Fred Huggins snippet with Papa Boolie and Baby Boolie offing themselves, and they also run through a bunch of other unaired and heavily modified bits...even characters that never saw the light of day. Al might not have been able to snag a world record in the series proper, but I think this DVD set just might land a nod for the most sexual innuendo, drug, and alcohol references on any kids' show audio commentary. They also help viewers keep a running tally of former MTV VJs with cameos and the scores of Star Wars references. Judy Tenuta, Emo Philips, and Danielle Weeks also pop up in the commentaries for a few different episodes. Really, these commentaries are so great that they shouldn't be considered an extra. They're a...primary. The opposite of an extra.
To complain about "The Competition" just one more time, though, the audio commentaries lose sync with the action on-screen in that episode and one other on disc three.
There are animated storyboards for the Fatman shorts on each disc, and you can dig through 'em with either the finished production audio or with optional audio commentary by animator-slash-director Keith Alcorn, animator Paul Claerhout, and production artist Tim Hatcher. This was DNA's stepping stone to bigger projects like Jimmy Neutron, and they talk about their company's evolution, some of the challenges of working with new animation software and on such a tight deadline with a four-man crew, and some of the notes from the occasionally-on-target network. They kinda run out of new things to say by the time the last couple of commentaries roll around, but I do have to give Keith kudos for keeping that "I'll never forget what Al told me..." mid-sentence-cut-off gag going for such a long time; I listened to these commentaries a few days apart and kept falling for it. The recorded dialogue for the unproduced "Hello, My Name Is...Evil" short was lost, so there's a jokey commentary-for-the-commentary in its place.
There's also a karaoke bit for The Weird Al Show theme, and since Al spouts off the lyrics so quickly that it's pretty tough to pull off, you can play it with training wheels (with Al's vocals in place) or without (instrumental!). All of the other extras are still galleries. Fatman gets another nod on the first disc with a set of sketches that chart the evolution of the character design in these animated shorts. Notes from Keith Alcorn are printed below each of 'em, and along with showing the different concepts for Fatman, Harvey, and company, there are also some background sketches as well as designs from an unaired segment, "Let's Kill Fatman". Disc two has a dozen conceptual sketches for The Weird Al Show's set design, and disc three serves up twenty or so different concepts for the show's logo along with an assortment of fifty-plus promotional stills, behind-the-scenes shots, and a brief smattering of conceptual art.
All of the usual options are present and accounted for: animated 4x3 menus, the episodes can be viewed individually or played all at once, and there are chapter stops where each commercial break would normally fall. If you're keeping track at home, the episodes are in the order in which they originally aired, not the vastly different production order. This three-disc set is packaged in a glossy cardboard foldout that slides neatly into an equally glossy cardboard slipcase.
Conclusion: The Weird Al Show is too watered-down, too uneven, and skews too young to appeal to pretty much anyone who's not already a devoted "Weird Al" fan. Casual Yankophiles can probably manage to lead happy, productive lives without ever sitting through this DVD set, but for the more dedicated among you (and if you've suffered through this much of my review, you qualify), the audio commentaries make The Weird Al Show a near-essential purchase.
Related Links!: If you want rundowns of each episode of The Weird Al Show, hop over to The Unofficial Weird Al Show Home Page, which Al is nice enough to plug in one of the audio commentaries.