March 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
For “Weird Al” Yankovic, life is certainly good. He’s got a happy marriage, a beautiful daughter, and after 13 albums, and 30 years in the business of musical satire, the bestselling record of his career. It’s not exactly what the 14-year old Alfred Matthew, writing goofy ditties on the accordion in his Downey bedroom back in the mid-1970s, might have imagined.
“As a kid, I certainly never thought that I would get to spend my life doing something fun,” reflects Mr. Yankovic, sitting amid the sleek, glass-walled splendor of his Hollywood Hills home, “I was very serious and adult-minded and practical and pragmatic. I was straight A student and really into doing the ‘right thing’. I think I just assumed that I would grow up and have a real job and do something…I don’t know…useful.”
Instead, at the urging of his high school pals, Al submitted a tape to the hugely popular Dr. Demento radio show. Hosted by musicologist Barret Hansen (AKA “Dr. Demento) the eclectic program features fringe and comic classics, as well as the occasional home recording.
“I had made these joke songs on an old tape machine,” remember Yankovic, “onto a bunch of crappy tapes I’d get for ‘3 for a dollar’ at Thrifty’s. And they were horrible songs, poorly recorded, primitive in every definition of the word. But for some reason, Dr. Demento decided to play them on the radio.”
“What I noticed first was the accordion,” remember Hansen, who still hosts his radio show on www.drdemento.com, “Accordions were as un-hip as you could get in 1976. But with Al, it didn’t seem to matter. Of course it crossed my mind that he might be related to the Polka King, Frankie Yankovic (he’s not, of course).
As I listened to that first song, I noticed how very good he was at what he did. The lyrics were funny, and they fit the music perfectly. Most neophytes don’t get that part right, and a lot of people never do. And the song got funnier as it went along, another thing most beginners can’t manage. The recording was crude but plenty good enough.”
Good enough for Hansen to continue to feature a series of Al’s early song attempts on the air, despite the fact the comic/musician was still in his teens.
“Dr. Demento obviously had a huge impact on my life,” admits Yankovic, “my whole life would have taken a much different trajectory had he never existed. “
With the mentorship of the good Doctor, and enthusiastic feedback from Demento show fans, Al eventually transformed himself into, “Weird Al”. Clad in an array of gaudy Hawaiian shirts, with his halo of curls and his wire-rimmed nerd glasses, Al set about to skewing pop hits with clever lyricism and remarkable natural musicianship.
Since his first hit in 1979, an exploration of luncheon meat entitled “My Bologna” (to the tune of The Knacks’, “My Sharona”), Weird Al has been taking popular culture and turning it inside out, regurgitating the Billboard charts and spewing out hilarious takes on Top 40 hits that are simultaneously sly, silly…and smart.
There was “Another One Rides the Bus”, (based on Queen’s hit “Another One Bites The Dust”), the infamous “Eat It” (based on “Beat It”), “Like a Surgeon”, (“Like a Virgin), “Fat” (“Bad”) and of course, the beloved, “White And Nerdy” (a brilliant parody of the hip hop track, “Ridin’” by Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone, which became a hit on his acclaimed 1996 album, Straight Outta Lynnwood.
“It was tough prior to Michael Jackson,” admit Yankovic, when explaining the challenges of his particular oeuvre, “It was a rough time with the first album, difficult to get phone calls returned. But Michael Jackson really turned the key for me in a lot of ways. Once he gave me the permission for ‘Eat It’, it really opened the door for me. And when we did the video for “Eat It”, which went into heavy rotation on MTV… I mean, people talk about overnight fame, but it was pretty literal for me. That video played on MTV and the next day people were pointing at me on the streets and saying, ‘Look! It’s that, ‘Eat It’ guy!”
A true Song and Dance (and acting and writing etc.) Man, Weird Al, over the last three decades, has – in addition to winning 3 Grammys and creating 31 gold and platinum singles – also toured the world, hosted a TV show, (The Weird Al Show) starred in his own movie (UHF), directed a themed attraction (Al’s Brain: A 3-D Journey through the Human Brain), headlined the popular alt-music fest, All Tomorrows Parties, written a best-selling children’s book, (When I Grow Up published by HarperCollins and available as an Iphone app) and starred in a Comedy Central special documenting his current live tour.
He also has 2 million Twitter followers.
“Over the years, for all my projects, the process has remained more or less the same,” says Yankovic, whose look has now evolved to include contact lenses and lush, flowing locks reminiscent of Kenny G’s. “I just like to think I’ve gotten better at it since I was 14 years old. As with most things, if you practice long enough at it, you’re likely to get better at it. I spend more time on my work and my thought process has probably gotten more efficient. “
For Yankovic, that process includes intense inundation of contemporary hit songs, followed by a solitary period of methodical research and list making.
“I’m very analytical, I’m very precise. I make charts of songs that are good candidates, good targets, so to speak. Then I try to come up with ideas for parodies, some weird tangent or turning the concept upside down. And 99% of those ideas are horrible. I don’t censor myself at that point. But every once in awhile I come with an idea and I think, ‘Mmmm. That just might work.’ And if the next morning it still seems like a good idea, then those are the ideas I try flesh out.”
“He brings us songs that are totally evolved,” says Yankovic’s drummer and archivist Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, who has been playing with Weird Al since the two met on Dr. Demento in 1980, “he does all the concepting, all the writing. He knows what he wants and he’s very, very, specific.”
“Al is extremely detail-oriented,” agrees Barret Hansen, “He’ll work on a lyric for weeks until every line is perfect, and funnier than the one before it. He’s the biggest workaholic I know, with the possible exception of the late Frank Zappa. Al’s success is truly 5% inspiration, 95% perspiration.”
“Maybe I’m duping myself, but I like to think that every album I put out is better than the one before,” says Yankovic of his own career, “And that’s one of the reasons why it takes me longer between albums now, because I feel a lot of internal pressure. I do what I can to make them better and also do what I can – not to repeat myself. I’m on my 13th album now, and it’s hard not to rely on the same tropes and memes, so that’s always challenge as well.”
Yankovic’s newest, Alpocalypse, which includes a hilarious take on the classic sound of The Doors, (with Ray Manzarek on keyboards!), has been a bestseller in large part to a highly publicized management snafu in regards to the album’s Lady Gaga parody, “Perform This Way”. Although the pop star’s people initially refused Yankovic permission to cover the song, the Lady herself was apparently never asked.
When she got wind of the mix-up, Gaga immediately gave her blessing – telling Rolling Stone;
“I love Weird Al. It’s sort of a rite of passage to the next level of your career when Weird Al performs one of your songs. And although he was parodying the song, he’s also standing up for me as well.”
Here Gaga hits something key to Yankovic’s longstanding success. Despite the sharpness of his satire, Weird Al is never cruel. And it’s exactly this sweetness at the center of his comedy that makes him so unique, and so continually relevant.
“Al’s music is timeless,” says Barret Hansen, “he designs it that way. He’s happy to let other people do songs about Charlie Sheen or the Kardashians that will be forgotten in a week or two.”
In other words, in an era of easy targets, it’s Weird Al’s inherent goodhearted-ness, (as well as his hard work, fearless self-invention and an uncanny knack for parody), that has enabled him to evolve from a novelty act, into a beloved and enduring comedic icon.
“I think what all the artists really realize is that what I’m doing is never meant to be mean-spirited,” says Yankovic, gazing out over his home’s stunning view of the Los Angeles basin. “Even when I’m poking fun at an artist like Nirvana or Lady Gaga, they realize it’s done with respect and I’m not trying to step on their toes. I won’t say I’ve never made jokes at someone else’s expense, but I do try to make jokes without throwing people under the bus. “
“I like to say what I do is more like a poke in the ribs – than a kick in the face.”
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times