Who knew that throughout his years on Saturday Night Live, his failed movie career and his underdog talk show, what Jimmy Fallon really wanted was to be Weird Al Yankovic? Fallon’s new album, Blow Your Pants Off, features non-stop musical parodies, with no sketches or interludes or spoken comedy bits, and it’s hard not to compare Fallon to the venerable master of song spoofs. Fallon is less inclined to create straight-up parodies (merely switching out the words to a popular song) than he is to craft mash-ups that creatively combine two incongruous styles, but the Yankovic comparison is hard to ignore, especially on some of the album’s weaker efforts.
Most of the songs on Blow Your Pants Off were originally performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and many went on to be viral hits online, so fans are likely to be familiar with a great deal of the material even before their first listen. Some very clever songs are showcased, especially Fallon’s combinations of his near-flawless impressions of classic-rock stars (Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison) with bits of pop-culture ephemera, but almost all of them are better appreciated by just heading over to YouTube (or one’s video-sharing site of choice) and searching for the originally broadcast performance. The parade of celebrity guest stars makes more of an impact when one can see them, and many of the songs were first enhanced with entertaining costumes or dance moves that can’t be experienced in the audio-only versions.
The worst example of this is closing track “Let Us Play With Your Look,” the theme song to a recurring Late Night segment. It’s literally impossible to understand what’s funny about this song without seeing the accompanying visuals; otherwise it’s just Fallon singing the title line over and over again. The audience is laughing, but there’s absolutely no indication of what they’re laughing at. At the other end of the spectrum, Fallon’s impressions sometimes come off better when he can’t be seen dressed in whatever ridiculous outfit he wore for the performance. It’s easier to imagine Neil Young singing the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Jim Morrison crooning children’s book titles when all there is to go on is the impeccably re-created voice.
As goofy as those songs are, they also show that Fallon has a real understanding of the essence of certain iconic rock stars, and he can expertly parody their images with simple juxtaposition. Dedicated progressive activist Young singing the theme of a sitcom that celebrates excess is a perfect—and yet unexpected—send-up of his style and his message, and it has the added bonus of hitting nostalgia sweet spots for two different generations of viewers/listeners. The album’s other Young parody (featuring a guest appearance from the real Bruce Springsteen) finds Young singing Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” and if one doesn’t listen too closely to the lyrics, it almost sounds like it could be one of Young’s more abstract art-folk songs.
“Butterfly in the sky/I can go twice as high” sounds exactly like a line from a Doors song, but it’s actually the opening couplet of the Reading Rainbow theme, another effective, unlikely combination of material and performer. Fallon generates humor from simply listing the titles of children’s books in the voice of Doors frontman Jim Morrison, and Late Night house band The Roots reliably mimics The Doors’ musical style. The Roots are the album’s not-so-secret weapon, exhibiting remarkable versatility on songs like the Justin Timberlake-assisted “History of Rap” and Late Night staple “Slow Jam the News,” here represented by an edition guest-starring Brian Williams (sadly, the recent President Obama “Slow Jam” appearance didn’t make the cut).
As musically accomplished as those songs are, though, they’re not nearly as fun to listen to as they are to watch. One of the greatest strengths of Fallon’s show is the sense that everyone involved is having tons of fun, even when what they’re doing is sort of dopey. Fallon audibly cracks up a few times during the songs on Blow Your Pants Off, but the interactions that drive him there aren’t visually apparent. The rendition of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” featuring Stephen Colbert and Taylor Hicks was a joyously silly moment on Late Night, but on record it’s just a mildly appealing rendition of a lame pop song.
The numbers not culled from Fallon’s show are even less impressive, and they compare the most unfavorably to the Yankovic oeuvre. Tracks like “New French Girlfriend,” “Cougar Huntin’” and “You Spit When You Talk” are built around obvious, weak jokes, and would have barely been filler-worthy for Yankovic. Fallon is great at creating an atmosphere of exuberant camaraderie celebrating the fun of ridiculous pop culture, and that feeling comes through on the album’s best moments. But make no mistake: he’s got nothing on Weird Al.