How Weird Al's song Spam nearly killed my kid brother

The CBC's Elizabeth Withey tells the story of the time her younger brother was inspired to eat a canned meat sandwich and nearly died, thanks to Weird Al Yankovic.

But maybe Weird Al Yankovic wasn't actually to blame....

Elizabeth Withey recalls listening to Weird Al through the thin walls of her family's bungalow, as her brother Graham rocked out in his room. (CBC; Associated Press)

Let me tell you about the time Weird Al Yankovic nearly killed my brother.

It was back in the early '90s, when Weird Al was at his musical peak singing cheeky parodies of popular songs, including Like A SurgeonEat It, and Smells Like Nirvana.

My brother Graham was obsessed with the Grammy-winning singer. He had all of Weird Al's albums. He knew the lyrics by heart, and had watched Weird Al's cult classic, UHF, countless times.

As his sanctimonious older sister, I felt it was my duty not to like the things my brother liked. But the walls in our bungalow were thin, and Graham's bedroom was right next to mine.

Elizabeth Withey pictured here with her younger brother Graham, who was a big Weird Al Yankovic fan growing up. (Submitted)

It was before the days of noise-cancelling headphones, and I couldn't drown him out with Mariah Carey. So I had little choice but to listen in as Weird Al crooned.

Despite my best attempts to fight off Weird Al's weirdness, I'll admit, the singer grew on me. I'd often find myself singing along.

'It was all because of Weird Al'

My favourite Weird Al song was Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota — an original that pays musical allegiance to a random tourist attraction in the Midwest. I swore I'd visit that Twine Ball someday with Graham — followed by a tour of the mythical Spatula City.

It all seemed pretty harmless until, one night, my brother ended up in the ER.

Graham was an accident prone kid. And, in fact, he'd only recently gotten out of the hospital after his appendix ruptured.

When he complained of abdominal pain, we thought it was a complication from surgery. But no, it was all because of Weird Al.

Spam sandwich

See, Weird Al had this song called Spam, a parody of R.E.M.'s Stand.

Not only was it one of Graham's favourites, it made my brother want to eat Spam. My mom bought him a can at the grocery store, and the next day Graham took a Spam sandwich to school for lunch.

Little did we know, Graham had microwaved the sandwich that morning ... then left it to fester in his locker for hours.

Needless to say, by the end of the day, he had a nasty case of food poisoning. To this day, I like to say that Weird Al nearly killed my brother — though Spam, microwaves, and my mother also played a role.

Withey recalls her brother's love for Weird Al's songs like Spam. (Submitted)

I've always wanted to tell Weird Al that story, if only to let the legend know the impact of his music in ways he might never have expected. When I heard Weird Al would be in Calgary, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to interview him, and tell him my Spam sandwich story.

'Utterly genuine'

"First of all, I'm sorry, and I certainly never intend for anybody to actually eat that stuff," he said. "And I hope he took it out of the can before he microwaved it. But for whatever role I played in that, I'm extremely sorry."

It felt great to get that tale off my chest. And I really just thought we'd share a laugh about it. But Weird Al was truly sweet: unnecessarily apologetic, concerned, and utterly genuine.

The singer, for the record, doesn't eat Spam — he's been a vegetarian for years.

"Full disclosure: I probably wasn't vegetarian when I wrote Spam, that would have been '88, '89. But I still have no compunction about singing My Bologna in the show. I'm playing a character that would eat baloney sandwiches."

As to whether he would play The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota at his May 31st gig at the Grey Eagle Casino, Weird Al was coy. My chances were 50/50, he told me, based on a rotating set list for his Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour.

"It's pretty amazing, if you're ever going through Darwin, Minnesota, that's definitely a place to stop," he said.

"It's kind of funny, because a lot of the things I mentioned in the song I just kind of made up, but then they decided to change things to match my song. Now you can buy a postcard that says 'Greetings from the Twine Ball, wish you were here.' There didn't used to be a Twine Ball Inn, now there is. It's kinda funny, it's like art changed to reality."

'This tour is just a big palate cleanser'

Having Spam on the set list would be less likely, I learned, because this Weird Al tour is largely focused on his original songs, not his parodies — something that's been freeing and highly enjoyable for the singer.

"This tour is just a big palate cleanser. We just wanted a change of pace, because we've been doing the same kind of tour essentially since the very beginning."

Weird Al Yankovic posed for a portrait in Los Angeles in July 2014 as his album Mandatory Fun debuted at No. 1 on the weekly U.S. Billboard 200 chart with just under 104,000 units sold. (Casey Curry/Invision/AP)

The shows kept getting "bigger and bigger," he said, and this time around they decided on something a little different.

"We thought, wouldn't it be kind of cool, just for once, for a change of pace, just to go out and go a whole different direction, just do a totally no-frills tour, where we just walk out on stage and just play, like musicians.

"This tour we're mixing it up and playing all the songs that the hardcore fans have been waiting for, for like 20, 30 years, but they've just never gotten a chance to hear."

Expect a parody medley at the end of the show, he said, and perhaps a "bona fide parody" at the very end. "I hate to give away any surprises."

As for my involuntary fandom by association with my brother, Weird Al was a gracious star.

"I'm glad you came around," he told me, with a raucous laugh. "Thank you."


Elizabeth Withey

Journalist/Associate Producer

Elizabeth Withey is a journalist and associate producer with CBC Calgary's The Calgary Eyeopener.