At the Weird Al Yankovic show Friday, for perhaps the first time in music history, the entire audience stayed for the encore. Everyone. As soon as Yankovic ended his set, people stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered and hollered.
“We love you, Weird Al,” someone shouted from the upper balcony. In response, a person below shouted, “Whoo! Whoo! We love you!”
And nobody left during the show, either, so every one of the 1,700 people at the sold-out concert would witness the song, and not one would believe what they were hearing.
Yankovic prefaced the song with a story about his first appearance on The Tonight Show, then hosted by Johnny Carson, in 1985. The Tonight Show was a cultural megalith at the time, and Yankovic and his band appeared the same night as Charles Nelson Riley and Michael J. Fox, who was there promoting Back to the Future.
“It was one of the scarier moments of my life,” Yankovic said, “because, you know, when I performed the song and I looked into that camera, it was really like looking into America. It was like you were looking at America and America was looking back at you. It was pretty daunting.”
Two months after that performance, Yankovic got a call from Jim McCauley, the talent director at The Tonight Show, whom hundreds of comedians credit with making or destroying their careers.
McCauley wanted Yankovic to fill in for James Taylor and play Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” Yankovic declined the offer, a little perplexed that he was asked. He was just starting his comedy music career, and covering a song about the suicide of a childhood friend might confuse a few people — the only way it could’ve been funny is in an Andy Kaufman sort of way, 20 years down the line.
“So I wouldn’t sing it for Johnny Carson,” he told the audience, “but I’ll sing it for you tonight.”
The twangy acoustic melody started, a melody you have heard all your life, at weddings, funerals, parties, in offices and living rooms. The entire audience leaned back as he started singing, “Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone. Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you…”
When the chorus hit, the song haunted everyone there, and it was a little confusing to be tearing up at a Weird Al concert. But it was even more confusing when it happened full-force during the last song, the “American Pie” parody that exchanges images of Chevys, levies, whiskey and rye for expert-level Star Wars references.
The show was the 44th stop in Yankovic’s Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, featuring comedian Emo Philips. It had been billed as a departure from previous Weird Al performances. No props, no jumbotrons, no costumes — just smaller, more intimate theaters. And, perhaps most surprising, the shows would comprise mostly original songs.
The Majestic Theatre was as perfect as it was bizarre. The crowd wore shorts and baggy jeans, T-shirts and Rangers hats at a tuxedo of an opera house that has the word “majestic” in its title. But none of that mattered. Everyone had a refreshing, church-like friendliness, something congregational and genuine and impossible to dislike.
Throughout the night, the theater’s attendants, bartenders and ushers felt energized by the optimism around them.
“Every single person I’ve met tonight has been so nice, so friendly,” one said. “And in a genuine and ‘I really care about other people’ kind of way.”
The Yankovic crowd seemed generally more interested in getting merchandise than beers or liquor. Everyone wanted a T-shirt, something to wear around until the color faded and the cotton sagged and the city names fissured.
Everything about the concert was wholesome. If a song makes you happy, if it makes your life better, then it is, by definition, good music.
The stunning beauty of the Majestic Theatre brought a holiness to the occasion. Before the show started, people took their seats and didn’t leave. From the balcony, you could peer down and see the band. The view was pristine.
The second-level seats put you just above eye-level, like a plane about to glide onto the runway. The floor seats arch with a high-chair-like perspective of Weird Al, who remained seated and accordion-strapped for most of the show. From every angle, the view was personal. Every person felt close to Yankovic.
This was an audience that, like many of us, grew up with Weird Al cassette tapes they played till the thread disintegrated and they had to buy a new one. CDs they listened to on road trips and while cleaning. Songs that brought people together, that made everyone listening smile or laugh.
Anytime Weird Al spoke between songs, everyone listened in deferential silence. And when he said something funny, which of course happened often, the entire theater shook with the sound of hands slapping against thighs and the squeak of chairs as people swung back or forward with laughter.
During the songs, people didn’t laugh. At first, it was strange, almost eerie. They were serious through Antichrist jokes in a Clapton Unplugged promontory and tongue-in-check irony over Pantera chug. When people sang along, they were rejoicing over all the moments those words had cheered them up, and cheering someone up is no small task.
Throughout the show, Yankovic and his bandmates traversed genres and styles with ease. “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” had the feel and linguistic prowess of a song by They Might Be Giants, with a word-per-minute rate just short of auctioneer. They closed the set with an MTV Unplugged-style medley of Weird Al's parody hits: a Latin-jazz take on “Amish Paradise," an acoustic Clapton version of “Eat It,” a coffee shop rendition of “Like a Surgeon.”
Most striking of all, however, was the last song, the parody of “American Pie.” Somehow, it felt more American than “American Pie” — American like Bruce Springsteen is American, like baseball and Hollywood and blue jeans are American.
As Yankovich crooned about Jar Jar and Darth Vader, the audience swayed in unison. Fans belted out every word with an emotional intensity you rarely see, especially in strangers.
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A man at the back of the floor-level seats clapped along, smiling so deeply that he missed a few of the words. On the second tier, a woman and her daughter bobbed their heads in unison as they sang, as if to each other, as they’ve likely done so many times before.
One of the ushers in her regal theater outfit leaned forward as she sang, her hand over her heart. She was singing along with a lifelong hero — she wasn’t about to just stand there rigid and tidy. Everyone shook off the world outside the theater, a world smacking with politics and war, a world full of nags and jobs and money and illness and heartbreak, a world full of unpredictable outcomes that often change everything.
For those 90 minutes, that elegant cavelike theater in Dallas offered an experience that was both communal and instructive. Every person walked out with a little more positivity than he or she had walked in with. In many ways, that shift resembles the feeling Yankovic had during his performance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson all those years ago: When he looked into the camera, it was like looking into America. It was like you were looking at America, and America was looking back at you.
Nearly all of Yankovic’s 2018 shows have sold out. If the Dallas show represents what the tour will accomplish, that is an incredible thing. There’s no single word for it, but you can feel it, and you can see it, and the more you feel it and see it, the happier you’ll be. Isn’t that lovely?