By Donald Liebenson
In considering the more than 40-year career of “Weird Al” Yankovic, we will refrain from using the dread n-word: novelty.
“Novelty” is the unfortunate designation usually employed to categorize songs with a comedic bent; songs like Rolf Harris’s “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport,” Napoleon XiV’s “They’re Coming to Take Me Away,” and Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater.” They tended to be one-hit wonders that brightened Top 40 AM radio.
Yankovic is a hit-after-hit-after-hit wonder who has built a devoted, multigenerational fan base one song parody at a time. It is a testament to his longevity that he has outlasted many of the musicians he has spoofed. Earlier this year, he won his fifth Grammy (Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package) for his aptly titled 15-disc career retrospective Squeeze Box, which came in a package designed like his accordion. His last three albums, Straight Out of Lynwood, Alpocalypse, and Mandatory Fun, ranked in the top 10 on the Billboard charts, with Mandatory achieving number-one status. It was not only his first album to achieve that lofty position, but also the first comedy album to debut there and the first to reach the top of the charts since Allan Sherman’s My Son, the Nut in 1963.
He was born Alfred Matthew Yankovic in 1959, and at the age of 12 he came under the influence of Dr. Demento (a.k.a. Barry Hansen), whose syndicated radio show trafficked in the “mad music and crazy comedy” of off-center artists like Sherman. Yankovic would record parody songs in his bedroom and send them to Dr. Demento. In 1970, while a student at California Polytechnic State University, Yankovic had his first hit with his accordion-driven take on the Knack’s “My Sharona,” called “My Bologna.”
He does not parody without permission, and over the decades has received blessings for his songs from Michael Jackson (“Eat It”), Lady Gaga (“Perform This Way”), Pharrell Williams (“Tacky”), and even talk show host and game show maven Merv Griffin (“I Lost on Jeopardy”).
Yankovic is still crazy after all these years, a certifiable and beloved pop culture institution with 14 albums, one cult-classic film (UHF), a fondly remembered but short-lived Saturday morning TV series (The Weird Al Show), and countless hilarious cameos in movies and TV shows ranging from The Naked Gun, 30 Rock, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to, of all things, Halloween 2. Homer Simpson may have said it best: “He who is tired of ‘Weird Al’ is tired of life.”
Yankovic reflected on his singular career with Ravinia via email.
What can Ravinia-goers expect from your Strings Attached show?
This is our biggest show ever, and probably a once-in-a-lifetime event. I’ll be on stage with the same band that I’ve had since the very beginning, and we’ll be doing our normal high-production show with a giant video wall, costumes, and props. But for the first time we’re traveling with female background singers, and we’ll be backed by a full symphony orchestra. I got the idea a few years ago when I played a couple of shows with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. The sound coming from the stage was so unbelievable that I wanted to do a full tour like that.
Usually, artists with extensive catalogs are expected to stick to the hits. But last year, you did your Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, which focused on your original material, and the fans came out and supported you. That kind of bond doesn’t just happen overnight. Could you comment about this wholly unique fellowship?
I’m always so amazed and gratified by the support of my fans—it’s overwhelming sometimes. I’ve been around long enough that I always have several generations of fans out in the audience. Some follow me around the country like I’m the Grateful Dead. I’ve met dozens of people with “Weird Al” tattoos. It blows my mind. As much as they love me, I love them right back.
Did you grow up in a musical household?
My dad once bought an old guitar for $10 at a garage sale even though he had no idea how to play it. He would sometimes strum it tunelessly and sing at the top of his lungs. So I don’t think I got my musicality from him, but that’s perhaps where I got my shamelessness.
The story goes that your parents bought you an accordion from a door-to-door salesperson when you were six.
I’m sure I wasn’t begging my parents for accordion lessons, but I probably also didn’t realize how patently uncool the accordion was at the time. I assume I just went with the flow. Of course, that decision wound up being a good thing for me, because it made me stand out from the crowd.
How did you come across the Dr. Demento radio show?
A junior-high-school friend of mine told me, ‘Hey, you have to check out this weird radio show on Sunday nights.’ After I heard it, I was hooked. I had found my people. That radio show changed my entire life in a very dramatic way.
What other comedy influences did you have growing up? Did MAD magazine loom large in the Yankovic household?
My comedy influences were the people I was exposed to on the Dr. Demento show: Allan Sherman, Tom Lehrer, Spike Jones, Stan Freberg, Monty Python, Frank Zappa. When I was very young, I loved watching all the dopey prime-time sitcoms—all the Sherwood Schwartz stuff [Gilligan’s Island]. And Laugh-In; any comedy show, really. And I can’t overstate the influence that MAD magazine had on me. It altered the DNA in my brain. I started collecting as many back-issues as I could. This is in the pre-internet days, so I had to beg my mom to drive me around town from used bookstore to used bookstore to see if they had any in their storage rooms. When I was on the cover (and guest editor!) of MAD for one of their issues a couple years ago, that was definitely a high point of my life.
You’ve called yourself a prototypical nerd growing up. So the late ’70s passed with no teenage rebellion?
I wasn’t the “lashing out” kind of teenager. I was more the ‘quietly withdrawing into myself’ kind of teenager. [I am an only child and] my parents loved me dearly, but I was probably slightly resentful at times because they were so overprotective. I graduated from high school and started college at age 16, so I guess my rebellion was just getting out of the house and living on my own at a very early age.
Can you listen to the radio just for pleasure, or is there a part of your brain that is always seeking new material? What are the key elements that a song needs to get on your radar? Do we dare hope for a “Weird Al” parody of “Old Town Road”?
No, I’m not constantly trying to figure out how I can mess with things! I love music, and I can certainly shut off my brain and enjoy songs on their own merits. It’s hard to articulate what makes a song a good candidate for parody, but ideally, it’s got to have a recognizable musical or lyrical hook, some innate quality that makes it jump out when you hear it on the radio. When I determine that a song is a good target for parody, I’ll try to think of a few dozen ideas based on that song; a twist on the song title, or concept, or hook. If I’m very lucky, one of those ideas will be good enough to provide comic fodder for an entire song. I’m not sure that I’d do anything with “Old Town Road.” I’ve read a few comments online where people are saying it already sounds like a “Weird Al” song!
Is it true Madonna herself suggested “Like a Surgeon”?
It feels like an urban legend at this point, but what I was told is that Madonna was walking around New York with a friend of hers one day, and she just happened to wonder out loud, “When is ‘Weird Al’ gonna do ‘Like a Surgeon’?” Her friend happened to be a friend of my manager’s, so word got back to me, and I thought, “Hmm … well, not a bad idea!” [The sitcom How I Met Your Mother even parodied the origin of this parody, positing that central character Ted Mosby had suggested the title in a fan letter.]
I loved the 30 Rock episode where Jenna and Tracy tried to come up with a song that is “Weird Al”-proof. Has there ever been a song you wanted to parody but just couldn’t crack it?
That happens constantly. I can think of plenty of parody ideas for any song—just not always good ideas. I’m pretty picky about what I put out, and more often than not, I can’t come up with a parody concept that I think is worthy enough, so I just have to let it go. My polka medleys are filled with songs for which I just couldn’t come up with satisfying enough parody ideas.
What was your That Thing You Do moment when you first heard one of your songs played by Dr. Demento?
Funny, I usually reference That Thing You Do when I talk about the first time I heard one of my songs on the radio. I just started running around the house, screaming like a madman. “My Bologna” premiered when I was in college (where we couldn’t pick up Dr. Demento) so I didn’t even know it was a hit until I got a postcard from him telling me as much. I think KROQ in Los Angeles was the only place, other than Dr. Demento, that played my stuff in the very early days. This is before radio got tightly formatted, of course. I could just walk into the station and hand a record to the DJ, and sometimes they’d play it right then and there! I believe the Insane Darrell Wayne would play “Another One Rides the Bus” or the deservedly unreleased “It’s Still Billy Joel to Me” on occasion.
Where were you when you learned Mandatory Fun had hit number one?
I was backstage at the Comedy Central show @midnight. They had put together a small surprise party in the green room to break the news. My wife, my daughter, and my in-laws were all there. It was very emotional for me. Something I never dreamed would happen in a million years.
Was this always Plan A for you? At what point did you know that—to quote Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II—this was the business you’ve chosen?
I always thought I’d have an “adult” job. When I was 12, I decided I was going to be an architect. I went to college and got a degree in architecture. But I never really loved it; I loved comedy and music. So after graduating, I took minimum-wage jobs while trying to find out if I could make anything of myself in the recording industry. I guess you could say I got serious about it when I finally quit my day job. It was the same day that my single “Ricky” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
After HBO’s Michael Jackson documentary, do you still perform “Eat It” and “Fat”?
That’s a decision we’ve been grappling with for awhile. We certainly don’t want anyone uncomfortable during the show. I don’t know if this is a permanent thing, but currently we’re leaning towards removing those songs, at least for this summer’s tour.
I don’t know what dreams of stardom you had when you were recording songs in your bedroom, but from 30 Rock and The Naked Gun to the Weezer “Africa” video, what “Weird Al” cameo request was the most surprising to you? Which one most delighted you?
The Halloween 2 cameo was the most out-of-left-field. The director Rob Zombie had to find the most random celebrity cameo he could for a TV talk show scene, and I’m about as random as they come! The cameo I was most excited to do was Naked Gun. My favorite TV show was the short-lived Police Squad, and when I heard that they were going to be making a movie based on it, I begged the producer (my friend Bob Weiss) to get me literally anything in the movie. Then they wound up writing that whole wonderful scene at the airport just for me—“They’re not here for you, Frank. ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic is on the plane!”
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull once sang of being too old to rock and roll but too young to die. You’re turning 60 this year. Can you imagine yourself still touring like Tony Bennett, who played Ravinia this year at the age of 92?
I don’t know if I’ll still be doing a high-energy show into my 90s, but I love performing, and hope to be doing some version of it until I’m dead, and if I’m lucky, even after that! ▪
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based entertainment writer. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, and on RogerEbert.com. The first Ravinia concert he attended without his parents was Procol Harum in 1970.