Dare To Be Current: What Every Screenwriter Can Learn From Weird Al Yankovic

“I am deathly afraid of being the old guy who talks about the 8 Track cassette or the fax machine or the mimeograph.”

-Paul Heyman on The Stone Cold Steve Austin Show April 2014.

I can remember watching the “Eat It” video for the first time as a kid. I believe I was laughing so hard I was literally, not figuratively, hitting the floor. It was 1984, and Michael Jackson’s ubiquity in pop culture was firmly cemented so when Weird Al Yankovic’s parody reached MTV airwaves, it was cheered for by the masses like he was Hulk Hogan heading to the ring to vanquish the Iron Sheik.

Having a smash hit like “Eat It” or his album “Weird Al In 3-D” on its own would be a hell of an accomplishment. But Mr. Yankovic has been nominated for 11 Grammy’s and owns 4. He’s also has a collection of 4 gold records and 6 platinum. He was valedictorian in high school, studied to be an architect and can really play the accordion.

He’s sold tens of millions of albums. He’s an accomplished music video director (and not just for his own stuff, he’s directed Ben Folds, The Presidents Of The United States Of America and The Black Crowes). He’s movie “UHF” was released during a golden movie summer of 1989 and is an underrated cult classic. (It’s considered a box office flop, but when I saw it, the theatre was packed and loved it)  By the time I saw “Eat It”, Weird Al was already well established on the music scene thanks to his parody “Another One Rides The Bus” and being a fixture for Dr. Demento. And if that’s not enough, when the Autobots reunite and celebrate with the Junkeons in the original Transformers Movie, it’s Weird Al’s “Dare To Be Stupid” that they dance to.

His parodies are not dirty or vulgar. And Mr Yankovic doesn’t skewer artists behind their back. He seeks out permission and is man enough to back off when they say “no” (depriving the world of his “Live And Let Die” parody “Chicken Pot Pie” but we persevere). He’s overcome deep personal tragedy and infuriatingly, looks much younger now in his mid-fifties than many other people do in their 30’s (maybe there’s something to vegetarianism being anti-aging after all.)

Most admirably, Weird Al looks forward not back. His parodies while timeless in some ways, are always current for today’s audiences whenever today might be.  In other words, you don’t ever have to have heard “Eat It” to laugh your ass off to “Smells Like Nirvana.” He also understands the internet and how to use it:

Weird Al

So what does all this have to do with screenwriting?

One of my biggest pet peeves is the “They’ll never let you make that today.” It comes up in numerous conversations about movies and the industry. At a film festival last year, I overheard several people I deeply admire talk about “Dog Day Afternoon” (5 out of 5 stars, see it now) would never get made today – at least not by a major studio. And you know something, they’re right. No major studio would make “Dog Day Afternoon” today. But when “Dog Day Afternoon” was released in theatres, “Breaking Bad”, “Orange Is The New Black” and “Game Of Thrones” were not on the small-screen.

The business changes. Every day. The business is changing as I write this. And with all due respect, “Oh well, it’ll never happen” is absolutely the wrong way to greet the ever changing landscape. An artist has two choices 1) Pack it up and go home 2) Navigate the changes in the business.

It’s a scary thing to write scripts that are completely different/unique from what’s being released.  When I saw “Godzilla” a few weeks ago, there were about 8-10 trailers. Each one was either a comic book movie or a disaster flick. I’m someone who likes to write intimate dramas about people dealing with the ruination of their lives, so those trailers basically felt like one giant “NEXT” billboard in the face of my writing.

(Speaking of comic book movies, remember the 1990’s? When comic book movies were basically over-the-top jokes. James Cameron couldn’t even launch an X-Men movie back then. “They’ll never let you make that” is NOT a permanent diagnosis.)  

But then I take a look at the lineup on FX, AMC, HBO, Showtime, Netflix, Starz and some nights, A&E. Hours upon hours of dramas about a myriad of characters who’ve ruined their lives, caught themselves in a tangled web and all kids of other stuff I love to write about. A giant billboard of “PLEASE COME IN” to my writing.

I’m a trained feature writer. The 90-100 page Three Act structure was always a natural to me and fitting stories within that structure, while not always easy, made sense to me. Compacting a story within 50 or so pages leaving room to continue next week was not so natural.  (And as I said in last week’s interview, I think sitcom’s 30 page format is terribly difficult. Bless the funny people, they work very hard)

But guess what? If TV is where I have to go to tell my stories, then sweating over the 4 act, 45 minute structure it is. My current portfolio features 2 pilots of life-wrecking drama and 2 features of varying budget because I’ve not given up on the drama feature. And with good reason.

Many of my colleagues have worked on films this past year that have dealt with issues such as an artist suffering post traumatic stress, quarterlife suicide and sexual identity in millenials. Despite reports of indie film being dead, I’ve seen it alive exploring brave new material. Granted, the commercial nature of indie film is still very in flux with the advent of VOD and the dust still needs to settle there but I’ve seen and heard of too many great movies to believe the axiom that powerful dramas are dead in cinema. They’re still there, how they’re delivered to you is certainly not the same as even 5 years ago. I’ve heard rave reviews of “Snow Piercer”, not heard many complaints about how they saw it.

Actually, the more I think about it – a man holds up a bank to get money for his lover’s sex operation…In 2014? Honestly, that story is more relevant and topical than ever.  Nope, I’m not convinced that no major studio would touch “Dog Day Afternoon.” Remake may be heading your way soon.

The business changes and one can’t sit there waiting for yesterday’s chances to emerge from tomorrow’s trends. One has to adapt and change to the marketplace while keeping their creative vision alive.

One of the very best examples of that is Weird Al Yankovic.

Is he sitting at home going “Oh well, Michael Jackson has died” or “there’s no way I can parody today’s music. It’s passed me by”? Is he sitting at home listening to hip hop going “I don’t understand this stuff”? Is he nostalgically watching the “Eat It” Video saying “They’ll never let me do this anymore”?

On his Behind The Music special, much credit was given to MTV for Weird Al’s success. And rightfully so. His videos were and are a huge part of the overall experience of his parodies.  But MTV doesn’t play videos anymore. In fact, there’s no mainstream outlet for music videos anymore. It seems most visual exposure for music these days is commercials.  So what did Weird Al do? Pack it up and go home saying “well, it was good run.”

Nope. Weird Al went to WORK.

Weird Al even manages to make Fox News watchable as he explains his new album’s marketing strategy of releasing a video a day:  

Is Weird Al a genius? Maybe he is. I don’t have an argument against. He’s certainly a very intelligent, very clever and very funny man. But much of his viral internet strategy comes from good old-fashioned, common sense. Keep the jokes current and get them in front of as many people as possible. Instead of lamenting the loss of MTV, Weird Al and his people probably looked at his internet numbers.

The viewership from his official YouTube Channel:

-Smells Like Nirvana: 10. 3 Million

-Eat It: 11.5 Million

-Perform This Way: 16.6 Million

-White & Nerdy: 86.7 Million. 86.7 MILLION VIEWS.  If that video played during the Super Bowl pre-show, it would have less eyeballs on it.

And from his new album:

-Word Crimes: 9.1 Million Views in one week.

(Side-note: Dr. Arnold T Blumberg, a friend of mine who’s a college professor has already added it to his syllabus. He’s also an expert on zombies and pop culture at large, but that’s another story for another time.)

Yup. Dropping videos on various platforms taking advantage of viral marketing has been a huge smash for Weird Al and the result looks like it will be his first number one album in his long and enviable career.

Of course, Weird Al’s exact strategy for releasing an album doesn’t directly apply to releasing new movies. But that’s not the lesson here.

The landscape changed. The roadmaps of 1984 look completely different from the roadmaps of 2014. But Weird Al is an artist who figured out how to read those new roadmaps without compromising the stories he wanted to tell.

If a screenwriter needs to adapt to a different screen, so be it. The demand for great stories is never ever ever going to go away no matter how much the delivery systems change. No writer should ever listen when they’re told the business has changed too much or those days are gone. Yes, those days are gone but that doesn’t mean one should be swept under the carpet with them.

“They don’t make musicals anymore,” Chicago, Glee, Smash, Rock Of Ages.

“They don’t make romantic comedies anymore,” The Fault In Our Stars, Begin Again, The Mindy Project 

And one of my favorites – “There’s just no way a show like Doctor Who would work in today’s pop culture.” That was mine, I actually said that in the late 90’s. Thank the Heavens I was so very wrong.

Because the trick is if a screenwriter or filmmaker can figure out how to read the ever changing roadmaps, they just might be able to find the people, the producers/directors/executives who will absolutely “let you make that today.”

Links to purchase Weird Al’s new album “Mandatory Fun” on his homepage. And if you’re not convinced to buy, the videos Mr Yankovic have posted on the internet will probably talk you into it:

http://www.weirdal.com/home.htm

 

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