Thirty-five years later, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s singular brand of musical parody still resonates with America’s snarky pop culture
The most interesting aspect of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 35-year career is its constancy. Since the late 1970s, the California native and biggest-selling comedy recording artist of all time has repeatedly mined musical-parody gold, lampooning chart-topping hits by everyone from Michael Jackson to Nirvana to Coolio to Lady Gaga.
It all started innocently enough, with childhood accordion lessons, a few demos on the radio show of famous Los Angeles disc jockey Dr. Demento, and a send-up of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” called “My Bologna.” By 1984, when Yankovic’s uproarious scene-for-scene rendering of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” renamed “Eat It,” became a hit on MTV, Weird Al’s curly hairdo, geeky glasses and pre-hipster mustache cemented his place in the pop-culture pantheon.
Since then, Yankovic has earned three Grammy Awards and rung up six platinum records, starred in the cult cinema classic “UHF” and penned two children’s books.
Folio Weekly: For the uninitiated, what does a “Weird Al” Yankovic live performance look like?
“Weird Al” Yankovic: It’s a high-energy multimedia rock ’n’ roll show with live music, video elements and a ton of costume changes — probably more than Lady Gaga at this point.
F.W.: You’ve been quoted as saying that new “Weird Al” records depend on “a dramatic shift in pop culture.” Has that happened since 2011’s “Alpocalypse”?
W.A.Y.: I’ve got three new original songs done, but I’m not working on any parodies yet. Anything that’s out right now might be old hat by the time the next record comes out. So, time is a critical factor, and that’s hard when you work in the context of an album. After my contract is over, maybe I’ll just release songs as soon as I think of them. That way, I’d be more timely and topical.
F.W.: When you choose a song to parody, does it have to be a No. 1 hit?
W.A.Y.: That’s certainly the most effective way to do it. I usually start with a list of songs that have somehow captured the zeitgeist and try to figure out if there are any variations on a theme or left turns I can take. Not every song is fodder for a good parody — my idea has to be somewhat clever to work.
F.W.: Why are you meticulous about asking permission of the artists whose songs you parody, even though it’s not required under the fair-use doctrine of U.S. copyright law?
W.A.Y.: Several logistic reasons, but the most important is it’s a sign of respect. I want the artist to know it’s done in good fun and not meant to be an insult. Now that I have a track record, even Lady Gaga calls it a rite of passage to get a “Weird Al” parody.
F.W.: You’ve wholeheartedly embraced social media in recent years. Was that difficult?
W.A.Y.: I like new technology, and I truly love Twitter. I enjoy the idea of thinking up something stupid and then putting it out there for 3 million people to read.
F.W.: How about your love of music videos?
W.A.Y.: I grew up along with MTV, so we both figured things out together. [Mine] were the first comedy videos they ever played — I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
F.W.: When you first started playing novelty songs on the accordion, did you anticipate such a long and prosperous career?
W.A.Y.: At the time, it was just for grins. I had unrealistic hopes and dreams, but when I was sending tapes to the Dr. Demento show, I never thought that it’d become a lifelong career. I was getting my degree in architecture [from California Polytechnic Institute], so I thought, “I’m going to grow up, be an adult and have a real job.” So far, that hasn’t happened yet.
F.W.: Dr. Demento said you’re “the biggest workaholic in the field.” Do you take pride in being the best musical parodist around?
W.A.Y.: I probably have the longest record, but nowadays, there are lots of people on the Internet pulling in money by making fun of pop culture. I like to think I’ve inspired people, but I’m not the only game in town anymore — actually, it’s becoming more difficult to compete. But it’s nice that everybody now has a chance to get their material out there.
F.W.: Do you think you’ll ever retire?
W.A.Y.: I guess I would hang it up when it’s no longer fun, but so far it still is. Ideally, I’ll keep doing it as long as people will have me. The general population will let me know when the time comes to gracefully bow out.