20 Facts About "Weird Al" Yankovic

http://guardianlv.com
http://guardianlv.com

Starting with his first professional recordings and appearances on the Dr. Demento radio show decades ago, "Weird Al" Yankovic has managed to stay on the pop culture map and change with the times, even while so many of the bands and artists he has parodied lost the spotlight. Here are some facts about "Weird Al" Yankovic and his songs.

1. WEIRD AL'S PARENTS CHOSE THE ACCORDION FOR HIM

The legend—verified by Al Yankovic in the liner notes of his 1994 box set Permanent Record: Al in the Box—reads that on the day before Al turned 7, a door-to-door salesman came through Lynwood, California, to solicit business for a local music school, which offered its pupils a choice between guitar or accordion lessons. Because Frankie Yankovic shared the family's surname and was known as "America's Polka King," Al's parents chose the squeezebox for their son. Al would gradually learn how to play rock n' roll on the instrument, mostly from Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, playing it "over and over" and trying to play along with it. Frankie and Al weren't actually related, but the two would eventually collaborate, with Al playing on "Who Stole the Kishka?" on Frankie's Songs of the Polka King, Vol. 1, and Frankie's "The Tick Tock Polka" played by Al as a lead-in to Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" on the Alpocalypse track "Polka Face."

2. YANKOVIC SKIPPED THE SECOND GRADE

Al attended kindergarten one year early and skipped the second grade, and his scholastic promotion was not popular with his older classmates. "I got my fair share of verbal abuse, but I learned to run pretty fast so I didn't get beat up a lot," Yankovic once explained. Al claimed that when he wasn't running away, his second grade (actually third grade) recess was spent pretending to be Mr. Terrific, a TV character that took a power pill to make him a superhero. Yankovic would graduate Lynwood High School at the age of 16 as valedictorian.

3. HE GAVE HIMSELF THE NICKNAME "WEIRD" IN COLLEGE

Yankovic was referred to by his full first name "Alfred" throughout childhood. It wasn't until he attended California Polytechnic State University looking for a degree in architecture that "Weird" became attached to Al Yankovic permanently. Al got a gig with the campus radio station playing records on Wednesdays from midnight to 3 a.m. and needed a DJ name, christening himself "Weird Al." It would take Yankovic time to sneak in any "weird" music that was not considered a part of the college station's format (New Wave music), but the moniker was his tribute to the comedy and novelty song playing radio broadcaster Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen), who gave Yankovic's earliest compositions some airplay.

4. "MY BOLOGNA" WAS RECORDED IN A BATHROOM

During his senior year in 1979, Yankovic recorded his parody of The Knack's "My Sharona" in the acoustic-tiled bathroom across the hall from the college radio station, finding a microphone cord long enough to reach back to KCPR-FM's tape deck to make it possible. The song got a huge positive response on Dr. Demento's show, but "My Bologna" was the song that turned Yankovic's hobby into a career thanks to a backstage meeting with The Knack after a campus concert. Fortuitously, Rupert Perry, the VP of Capitol Records, was also present when Knack lead singer Doug Feiger professed to liking Al's parody. Yankovic remembered Feiger turning to Perry and saying, "'You guys oughta put this song out on Capitol Records." Perry agreed, and Al soon signed a six month contract.

5. YANKOVIC DOESN'T LEGALLY HAVE TO SEEK OUT PERMISSION TO PARODY SONGS, BUT ASKS FOR IT ANYWAY

Under the "fair use" provision of U.S. copyright law, Yankovic and others do not need permission from original artists to satirize their work, as long as royalties are paid. But to stay on friendly terms with other artists in the industry, Weird Al asks for permission before recording anyway.

When he was still wet behind the ears, Al also discovered that if you don't seek out original artist approval, you can have a tough time getting a label to release your latest single.  In 1981, Weird Al released "Another One Rides The Bus," a parody of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," without asking the band, and before TK Records agreed to a deal. It would turn out to be TK Records' last single release, as the company abruptly closed down citing financial trouble. Yankovic decided to go ahead and make his first national TV appearance on April 21, 1981 on Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, and Queen eventually gave the song their blessing (though guitarist Brian May referred to him as "Mad Al").

6. SOME MUSICIANS AND RECORD LABELS HAVE SAID NO

Yankovic has said that only "about 2 to 3 percent" of the time does he get a "no" from an artist or record label, but there have been notable rejections. Even though Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is a fan, he indicated he would not approve of a polka medley of Zeppelin tunes. Still, a sample of "Black Dog" was allowed in a "Trapped in the Closet" parody. Paul McCartney didn't give permission for Wings' "Live and Let Die" because the altered version would have been "Chicken Pot Pie," which would have gone against McCartney's vegetarianism.

In some cases, the artist agrees but is overruled by the label. James Blunt initially said that it would be a "huge compliment" to have "You're Beautiful" changed to "You're Pitiful," but Atlantic Records rescinded authorization (Yankovic released his version as a free MySpace download to avoid starting trouble with Atlantic).

In an example of a no being turned into a yes, Daniel Powter initially refused to have his "Bad Day" parodied as "You Had a Bad Date," but changed his mind. Powter had the change of heart "literally the day before" Weird Al recorded "White & Nerdy" (the music video of which has Al vandalizing Atlantic Records' Wikipedia entry), and by then "the train had left the station."

7. ONE GROUP'S FANS THREW THINGS AT WEIRD AL AND HIS BAND FOR 45 MINUTES

In 1982, Weird Al and his newly formed band played at their first major gig—and it was a profound disaster. The band opened for the then-popular New Wave band Missing Persons at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, where they were on the receiving end of assorted thrown objects for their entire 45 minute set. Yankovic remembered his band scrambling for the loose change as soon as the curtain went down.

The ignominy didn't end indoors: "I was walking to my car in the parking lot, and this 12 year old boy comes up to me and says 'Are you Weird Al?' I said yes, and he said 'YOU SUCK!' That was the capper of the evening." After that, the band agreed to never play as anyone's opening act and to just be the headliner of smaller shows—a rule they wouldn't break for five years until agreeing to open for The Monkees in 1987. Their fans were far more civil.

8. "I LOST ON JEOPARDY" HELPED PUT JEOPARDY! BACK ON THE AIR (MAYBE)

This is the general timeline of events: Jeopardy! started as a daytime game show on NBC from 1964-1975, hosted by Art Fleming, with Don Pardo (later of SNL fame) as the announcer. On December 12, 1983, Weird Al recorded "I Lost On Jeopardy." The single, which referred to the NBC version of the show, was released on June 4, 1984; the music videostarring Fleming and Pardo, had been filmed two weeks earlier. Sometime in between the recording of the song and the shooting of the video, Griffin was asked to pair his already-popular Wheel of Fortune with another half-hour game show, and at some point he re-discovered Jeopardy!. Griffin invited Yankovic to perform his song on June 29, 1984 and talked with him briefly afterwards, saying that with the great success of the single, Jeopardy! was coming back on the air. Whether Griffin was being tongue-in-cheek, or just exaggerating, or hedging his bets if the revival failed, Jeopardy! returned on September 10, 1984 with new host Alex Trebek. Despite some programmers initially putting the show on during unpopular morning and late night hours, the revival would become an television institution, and generate many losers.

9. "LIKE A SURGEON" WAS MADONNA'S IDEA

Reportedly, Madonna and an unnamed friend made history while talking one day. Madonna wondered aloud when Weird Al would turn "Like a Virgin" into "Like a Surgeon." The friend was a mutual friend of Yankovic's manager Jay Levey. Levey then told Yankovic, and soon it became the first single and video from the Dare To Be Stupid album. It was the first and last time a musician successfully offered a suggestion to Yankovic, who openly discourages people from giving him parody ideas.

10. MICHAEL JACKSON WAS A BIG FAN

Weird Al didn't think that Michael Jackson would agree to a parody of "Beat It," but was pleasantly surprised to hear from his representatives that Michael thought "Eat It" was funny. Years later, when Yankovic came up with the idea for "Fat" for Jackson's "Bad," Jackson not only agreed to the parody, but told him he could use the set from his "Badder" music video for "Fat," which went on to win the 1988 Grammy for Best Concept Music Video.

The two met in person twice: The first time was backstage at one of Michael's shows, where Weird Al presented Jackson with a gold record of the album Even Worse. The second time was after a TV show taping, where Jackson said he would screen UHF to his friends at Neverland Ranch. When the two were studio neighbors working on their respective albums, Al would occasionally receive a little note in the door reading "Hello from next door," signed "Love, MJ."

11. BUT HE WOULDN'T LET AL RECORD A PARODY OF "BLACK OR WHITE"

"Snack All Night" was slated to be Yankovic's interpretation of "Black or White," but Michael "wasn't quite so into it." The fact that Jackson considered "Black or White" a "message" song made him uncomfortable with any comedy undercutting it. Weird Al later admitted that Jackson did him a "huge favor," helping him avoid becoming someone just known as the guy doing Michael Jackson parodies, and steering him towards his commercial success in 1992 lampooning Nirvana instead. While "Snack All Night" has never been recorded in a studio, it has been played a few times at Weird Al shows.

12. WEIRD AL WROTE A SONG IN 1986 CALLED "CHRISTMAS AT GROUND ZERO"

The 1986 single off of Polka Party! was a response by Weird Al to the Scotti Bros. record label, who had been trying to get him to record a Christmas song for two years. There's debate on whether or not radio stations banned the record, but the macabre nature of the song, which is set in a world where a nuclear war is about to break out, limited its commercial airplay anyway. The term "ground zero" changing from a general description of where some sort of detonation took place to a term associated with the events of September 11th made radio airplay even scarcer—although Dr. Demento claims it's still a favorite of his listeners, and was the most requested Christmas song since "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."

13. NIRVANA REVITALIZED WEIRD AL'S CAREER

After the commercial failure of 1989's UHF (despite its Neverland Ranch popularity), Yankovic returned to the recording studio in June 1990 to record original songs for a new album. When it came time to record the parodies, he ran into a problem: There was nothing good to make fun of. After getting turned down by Michael Jackson with "Black and White," Al was open to discover Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which Yankovic changed to "Smells Like Nirvana." The song made fun of the fact that it was nearly impossible to understand Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain's words. The Nirvana album Nevermind and its instantly iconic cover of a baby chasing a dollar bill underwater gave Al the concept for his album, which he titled Off the Deep End, alluding to the cover art of Yankovic swimming after a doughnut on a fishhook. In the "Smells Like Nirvana" music video, Al even used the same janitor in the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, as well as some of the cheerleaders.

14. COOLIO WAS NOT AT ALL COOL ABOUT 'AMISH PARADISE'

After "Amish Paradise," Weird Al always made sure to speak directly with the artists and never to rely on their management. The 1996 song based on "Gangsta's Paradise" annoyed Coolio at the time, saying something that indicated Michael Jackson's influence: "I ain't with that. No. I didn't give it any sanction. I think that my song was too serious. It ain't like it was 'Beat It.' 'Beat It' was a party song. But I think 'Gangsta's Paradise' represented something more than that. And I really, honestly and truly, don't appreciate him desecrating the song like that."

Weird Al apologized, claiming that Coolio's managers and label gave Yankovic the belief that Coolio was OK with the parody. One year later, Coolio rapped the couplet, "Fools be in the bars unadvanced with a switch/Uppercuts and fight kicks with Weird Al Yankovich" on his song "Throwdown 2000." Coolio eventually got over it, and approached Yankovic at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show to make peace.

Asked later about the whole incident, Coolio said he really thought it out. "I was like, 'Wait a minute.' I was like, 'Coolio, who the f—k do you think you are? He did Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson didn't get mad,'" adding that complaining about "Amish Paradise" was "one of the dumbest things I did in my career" and that the parody was "funny as sh--." Coolio claimed that Al invited him to appear in Weird Al's 3-D film Al's Brain, but the money figure wasn't to the rapper's satisfaction.

15. PRINCE HAS REPEATEDLY REFUSED TO BE PARODIED, AND DOESN'T WANT WEIRD AL TO EVEN LOOK AT HIM

Throughout the '80s and early '90s, Yankovic repeatedly asked for permission to satirize Prince's work, but was always denied—to the point where he eventually got the hint. To seemingly indicate that it was personal, Al received a telegram for Prince's lawyers the night before an American Music Awards demanding that he not make eye contact with the Minnesota native. Yankovic would later learn that other musicians that were also seated within Prince's vicinity received the same note, and admitted that he looked at him a few times.

16. EMINEM DENIED PERMISSION TO MAKE A MUSIC VIDEO FOR THE "LOSE YOURSELF" PARODY

Even though Eminem agreed to allow "Lose Yourself" to be parodied in audio form as "Couch Potato," he refused permission to make a music video of the song. Yankovic claimed that Eminem's reasoning was that it would "be harmful to his image or career." The video would have been a pastiche of scenes from other Eminem videos. Because every first single from Yankovic was typically heavily promoted by a music video, this scrapped all plans to make "Couch Potato" the lead single on Weird Al's 2003 album Poodle Hat.

17. "WHITE & NERDY" IS THE HIGHEST CHARTING SONG OF WEIRD AL'S CAREER

Chamillionaire couldn't be happier when Weird Al parodied his "Ridin'," claiming that it gave the song "mega-record" status and credited it for giving him the 2007 Grammy for Best Rap Performance By a Duo or Group. The "White & Nerdy" video has amassed over 86 million views on YouTube as of this writing, and features Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele years before their popular Comedy Central show Key & Peele went on the air. It was and currently is Yankovic's only Billboard Top 100 hit to make the top 10, peaking at #9 on the chart in the United States.

18. WEIRD AL MISTAKENLY THOUGHT LADY GAGA DID NOT APPROVE OF THE "BORN THIS WAY" PARODY

Al was finished with writing and recording his 2011 album Alpocalypse, his follow-up to 2006's Straight Outta Lynwood, but delayed its release for months to wait for one big hit to record a parody version of to release as a first single to start the album's promotion. "Perform This Way" was his take on the suddenly popular Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," but after being told by Gaga's manager that she wanted to read the lyrics and hear a recorded version first, Yankovic was ultimately told he was denied permission in April 2011. Resigned to having to delay the album's release further and record another song, Al posted "Perform This Way" on YouTube so his work wouldn't completely go to waste. Within the day of its posting and its subsequent positive reviews from social media, it came out that Lady Gaga never heard the song in the first place, and she actually loved it. By the end of that day, Alpocalypse's release date was set.

19. DON McLEAN HAS CONFUSED HIS OWN SONG WITH WEIRD AL'S VERSION IN CONCERT

"The Saga Begins" finds Yankovic as Obi-Wan Kenobi recounting the plot of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace to the tune of Don McLean's "American Pie." Yankovic managed to write the lyrics based on spoilers he had read on the internet leading up to the movie's release. He attended a $500-a-ticket pre-screening for charity just to make sure his information was correct, and claimed to only need to make a couple of minor tweaks to the song. George Lucas was a fan, but Don McLean might no longer be so much of one. According to Yankovic, McLean's children started to play "The Saga Begins" so much in his home that when McLean performed "American Pie" in concert, he would lose focus and sing bits of "The Saga Begins" by accident.

20. THE NUMBER 27 COMES UP OFTEN IN YANKOVIC'S WORK

At first, Yankovic used the number 27 just because it fit well as a lyric and because it was a "pretty funny number." When a fan called attention to the references to 27 in the "Like a Surgeon" and "This is the Life" videos, Weird Al started to use the number more often. Some references are straightforward, such as Al claiming to have eaten every Twinkie on 27th Avenue in "Fat," or the seeing a Take 27 on the clapboard during the faked moon landing scene in the "Foil" video. Some connections are tenuous, such as the factoid that Yankovic traveled 28,457 miles in his 2010 tour, 2 and 7 being the first and last digits of that number.

The 15 Best TV Series Finales of All Time

Ursula Coyote, AMC
Ursula Coyote, AMC

What makes a great TV series finale? It depends on the show, of course. But no matter what series you may be watching, you want a finale that ties up loose ends without being annoyingly completist, gives you heart without seeming overly sentimental, and of course makes you feel just as happy, sad, thrilled, or compelled as you did with each previous episode. It’s a very tricky needle to thread, and some series have undoubtedly done it better than others.

In celebration of what it takes to deliver a great final episode, here are (some of) the greatest series finales of all time.

1. The Sopranos // “Made In America”

“Made In America” is, infamously, the episode of television that made millions of viewers briefly think that their cable had just gone out at some crucial moment, when in reality what happened was creator David Chase simply decided one seemingly random moment was the exact second where Tony Soprano’s journey would end. The series finale of The Sopranos spent the better part of its runtime wrapping up a mob war that crippled the family, and then devoted its final minutes to a family dinner set to Journey. Fans still debate the meaning and merits of the final scene, but the sense of palpable unease Chase built up in those last moments—signifying Tony’s perpetual state of watching his back—were a brilliant way to end a show that began as a meditation on existential dread in the first place.

2. Six Feet Under // “Everyone’s Waiting”

The final minutes of “Everyone’s Waiting” are among the most famous in the history of television, and even if the rest of the episode had been a disappointment, they would still rank among the greatest farewells in the medium. As it is, Six Feet Under's final episode with the Fisher family is a gripping, heartfelt, and bitterly funny gem, all building to that last montage. As Sia’s "Breathe Me" plays, we see the deaths of every member of the main cast, which reminds us that death takes many forms beyond mere tragedy, all culminating in the last breaths of Claire. Just thinking about it is enough to make fans of the show burst into tears.

3. Breaking Bad // “Felina”

Few series finales have ever faced such high expectations and managed to rise to meet them so powerfully as Breaking Bad did with its final episode in 2013. “Felina” has everything you could ever want from a Breaking Bad send-off: Walt’s final conversation with Skyler, that incredible revenge shoot-out featuring the rigged machine gun, Jesse’s defiant cry of freedom as he drives away, Walt’s collapse, and that little smile of victory on his face. Some series finales deliver what you want; others deliver what you need. “Felina” somehow manages to do both.

4. M*A*S*H // “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”

M*A*S*H was on longer than the Korean War was actually fought, and was more than 250 episodes into its run by the time “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” aired and became one of the most-watched television events in the history of the medium. You’d think the staff of the 4077th might have run out of things to say after such a run, but the series finale manages to be absolutely jam-packed, featuring everything from Hawkeye’s dark repressed memories to Klinger’s wedding. It all builds to that final shot of “GOODBYE” written in stones, which still ranks as one of the most iconic moments in TV history.

5. The Americans // “START”

The Americans quietly became one of the best shows on TV before finally winning a bunch of awards for its final season, and with good reason. The final adventures of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings as they contemplated a return to Russia and an end to their double lives in America were among the best the series ever delivered, all building to a final episode that stuck the landing in every possible way, from the thrills of their final escape to the emotional payoff of their daughter Paige’s big decision.

6. The Wire // "-30-"

The Wire was never going to end anything in a clean, cut-and-dried way, but its series finale did mange to wield the various talents at play in the series to end everything on an ambitious and fairly comprehensive note. The finale reckoned with many of the same questions the entire series did—from the nature of justice to the fragility of power systems and how far people will go to keep them in place—as it worked to resolve the homeless serial killer hoax, illegal wiretapping, and the all-important future of Tommy Carcetti. One last montage reminds us that life goes on in Baltimore, whether the show’s characters have reshaped it for the better or not.

7. Seinfeld // “The Finale”

The series finale of Seinfeld is also among the most divisive in the history of television, and it all begins with an amusing swerve. The show leads off by making us think Jerry and George are about to embark on a typical sitcom sendoff, bidding New York City farewell as they head to California to make a television series, but then the real plot kicks in as the show’s quartet of main characters is arrested for literally doing nothing as a man is carjacked.

The brilliance of the show’s protagonists getting in trouble for the very same thing they’d been doing for nine seasons in a “show about nothing” then pivots to a trial that does play by the sitcom rule of allowing old fan-favorite characters to come back as witnesses, then launches into a wrap-up that mocks the characters, the show’s fans, and the show’s own place of seeming importance in the pop culture landscape. Sitcom finales are usually more like curtain calls; "The Finale" was a provocative final joke.

8. Battlestar Galactica // “Daybreak Parts 1-3”

The finale of Battlestar Galactica might be a little too metaphysical in nature for some viewers, but there’s something about the sense of totality running through it that makes it a perfect sendoff for a series that always placed everything on the line with every single story it told. As the surviving humans of the fleet finally defeat their Cylon enemies, Starbuck sends them to a new home, and they agree to abandon all of their old technology and live among the primitive humans already present on what turns out to be our Earth. It’s a beautiful blending of victory, bittersweet goodbyes, seismic changes to everyone’s lives, angels, the future, and—believe it or not—“All Along the Watchtower.”

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation // “All Good Things…”

“Encounter at Farpoint,” the series premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a famously slow, bloated affair that was a sign of things to come for the relatively weak first season. “All Good Things…” brilliantly repurposes that story as a time travel saga in which Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) learns that Q, the alien being who put humanity on trial back in the premiere, is continuing his test of the human race by placing Picard in three different eras of his life. It’s a brilliant conceit that makes an elegant circle out of the series while also allowing Picard to give viewers a grand tour of the series’ entire history, including his own future.

10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer // “Chosen”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer spent weeks setting up its series finale, laying out a last stand that would either end Buffy and her gang of allies forever or wipe Sunnydale off the face of the Earth—or both. The final battle itself has since been dwarfed by more epic series like Game of Thrones, but what makes “Chosen” so magical isn’t its fight scenes, but its heart. With her own army of potential Slayers at her back, Buffy asks Willow to perform a spell that will give them all the powers of a Slayer, leading to one of the most empowering montages in the history of television. Then, even while mourning absent friends, Buffy is able to look toward tomorrow.

11. Newhart // “The Last Newhart”

So many sitcom series finales are all about final goodbyes. Very often characters leave their longtime TV homes for somewhere new, leading to tearful farewells or at least a final moment for everyone to spend one last day together. Newhart absolutely blew that premise up with a twisty, joke-filled finale that includes the entire town being turned into a resort, a five-year time jump, and that brilliant final scene which reveals all of Newhart to have been the dream of Dr. Bob Hartley, Newhart’s character from The Bob Newhart Show. The level of ambition is admirable. That the ambition translated to genuine laughs is wonderful.

12. Twin Peaks: The Return // “Part 17 and Part 18”

Twin Peaks famously ended its early ’90s run with a cliffhanger, which then led to the joyous reception that accompanied The Return, an 18-hour monument to creative freedom which everyone hoped would finally provide some answers. In true David Lynch fashion, though, the answers we got were often difficult to parse. And by the time it was all over, we were left with even more questions. The final two hours of The Return are among the most mind-meltingly intense episodes of television ever devised, all building to a daring and stunning final scene that still has fans talking.

13. The West Wing // “Tomorrow”

The West Wing played the long game with its series finale thanks to a year-long election storyline, which meant that its final episode was always going to be the combination of both an end and a beginning. The intense election story—which included a live debate episode—culminated in the inauguration of a new president, and a farewell to Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet, but the sense of transition inherent in the plot managed to imbue the series with a new sense of potential energy as it made the turn toward home. Watching “Tomorrow,” you can’t help but fantasize about what it will be like for Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn to be together in the White House again, changing the world in all new ways. That emotional weight meant that, after seven years, we actually all felt like we could use a little more of The West Wing.

14. Halt and Catch Fire // “Ten of Swords”

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire
Bob Mahoney, AMC

Halt and Catch Fire never got the audience it deserved when it was airing, which means many people likely don’t know just how brilliant and daring the show got in its final seasons, which included a time jump, a shocking death, and the dawn of the internet age. “Ten of Swords” is all about closing old chapters and starting new ones, and sends the show’s trinity of remaining major characters in promising new directions, even as they all come to terms with the fact that they can never again recapture what they once had.

15. 30 Rock // “Last Lunch”

30 Rock was one of the most acclaimed comedies of its era in part because of its outright refusal to ever be straightforward about anything. Every plot was jokes on top of jokes and references on top of references, creating a show that rewards viewers who can’t get enough of rapid fire wit (and deserves rewatching). “Last Lunch” continued that tradition while also managing to inject some genuine emotion into the affair, as Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) reconcile their friendship in a half hour packed with so many gags and callbacks you could watch it half a dozen times and still not catch everything.

10 Surprising Facts About J.R.R. Tolkien

Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are plenty of things even the most ardent fans don't know about The Lord of the Rings author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. In honor of Tolkien Reading Day (March 25th), here are 10 of them.

1. Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic.

As a linguist and expert on Old English and Old Norse literature, Tolkien was a professor at Oxford University from 1925 until 1959. He was also a tireless instructor, teaching between 70 and 136 lectures a year (his contract only called for 36). But the best part is the way he taught those classes. Although quiet and unassuming in public, Tolkien wasn't the typical stodgy, reserved stereotype of an Oxford don in the classroom. He went to parties dressed as a polar bear, chased a neighbor dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior, and was known to hand shopkeepers his false teeth as payment. As one of his students put it, "He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall."

2. Tolkien felt many of his fans were "lunatics."

Tolkien saw himself as a scholar first and a writer second. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were largely Tolkien's attempt to construct a body of myth, and their success caught him largely unaware. In fact, he spent years rejecting, criticizing, and shredding adaptations of his work that he didn't believe captured its epic scope and noble purpose. He was also utterly skeptical of most LOTR fans, who he believed were incapable of really appreciating the work, and he probably would have been horrified by movie fandom dressing up like Legolas.

3. Tolkien loved his day job.

To Tolkien, writing fantasy fiction was simply a hobby. The works he considered most important were his scholarly works, which included Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and A Middle English Vocabulary.

4. He was quite romantic.

At age 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, three years his senior. His guardian, a Catholic priest, was horrified that his ward was seeing a Protestant and ordered the boy to have no contact with Edith until he turned 21. Tolkien obeyed, pining after Edith for years until that fateful birthday, when he met with her under a railroad viaduct. She broke off her engagement to another man, converted to Catholicism, and the two were married for the rest of their lives. At Tolkien's instructions, their shared gravestone has the names "Beren" and "Luthien" engraved on it, a reference to a famous pair of star-crossed lovers from the fictional world he created.

5. Tolkien's relationship with C.S. Lewis was complicated.

Tolkien's fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) is often identified as his best friend and closest confidant. But the truth is, the pair had a much more troubled relationship. At first, the two authors were very close. In fact, Tolkien's wife Edith was reportedly jealous of their friendship. And it was Tolkien who convinced Lewis to return to Christianity. But their relationship cooled over what Tolkien perceived as Lewis's anti-Catholic leanings and scandalous personal life (he had been romancing an American divorcee at the time). Although they would never be as close as they were before, Tolkien regretted the separation. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote in a letter to his daughter that, “So far I have felt ... like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

6. Tolkien enjoyed clubbing.

Well, the extra-curricular, after-school sort. Wherever Tolkien went, he was intimately involved in the formation of literary and scholarly clubs. As a professor at Leeds University, for example, he formed the Viking Club. And during his stint at Oxford, he formed the Inklings, a literary discussion group.

7. He wasn't blowing smoke about those war scenes.

Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War, and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th (Service) Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was also present for some of the most bloody trench fighting of the war, including the Battle of the Somme. The deprivations of Frodo and Sam on their road to Mordor may have had their origins in Tolkien's time in the trenches, during which he contracted a chronic fever from the lice that infested him and was forced to return home. He would later say that all but one of his close friends died in the war, giving him a keen awareness of its tragedy that shines through in his writing.

8. Tolkien invented languages for fun.

A philologist by trade, Tolkien kept his mind exercised by inventing new languages, many of which (like the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin) he used extensively in his writing. He even wrote songs and poems in his fictional languages. In addition, Tolkien worked to reconstruct and write in extinct languages like Medieval Welsh and Lombardic. His poem "BagmÄ“ BlomÄ" ("Flower of the Trees") might be the first original work written in the Gothic language in over a millennium.

9. Tolkien been published almost as prolifically posthumously as he was when he was alive.

Most authors have to be content with the works they produce during their lifetime, but not Tolkien. His scribblings and random notes, along with manuscripts he never bothered to publish, have been edited, revised, compiled, redacted, and published in dozens of volumes after his death, most of them produced by his son Christopher. While Tolkien's most famous posthumous publication is The Silmarillion, other works include The History of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

10. Tolkien called Hitler a "ruddy little ignoramus."

Tolkien's academic writings on Old Norse and Germanic history, language, and culture were extremely popular among the Nazi elite, who were obsessed with recreating ancient Germanic civilization. But Tolkien was disgusted by Hitler and the Nazi party, and made no secret of the fact. He considered forbidding a German translation of The Hobbit after the German publisher, in accordance with Nazi law, asked him to certify that he was an "Aryan." Instead, he wrote a scathing letter asserting, among other things, his regret that he had no Jewish ancestors. His feelings are also evidenced in a letter he wrote to his son: "I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler ... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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