By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
I called "Weird Al" Yankovic at his home in L.A. last week to talk about his new album, Poodle Hat, which includes a parody of Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" about constipation that I don't like as much as Lavigne's song, as well as a version of Eminem's "Lose Yourself" called "Couch Potato" that's also not as good as the original but gets in a good joke about CSI: Boise. As you can imagine, I was expecting a nonstop party machine on the phone--I mean, he's wearing a poodle hat on the cover of Poodle Hat--but the Al that answered was actually a very reasonable, very articulate man who cares deeply about his life's work.
At what point in your fandom did you realize that you wanted to sort of respond to the music you were hearing?
It wasn't quite so premeditated as that. I mean, song parodies were something that I just kind of did as a goof to amuse my friends when I was 11, 12 years old. And one day a friend said, "Why don't you send some of your songs into Dr. Demento?" He's a disc jockey who's been syndicated for 30 years now and who plays all sorts of comedy and novelty songs on the radio. And I was a big fan of his show growing up, and I thought, "Well, it wouldn't hurt." So I recorded a couple of my songs on a cheap cassette-tape recorder in my bedroom with just me singing along with my accordion-playing, and to my amazement he played one of my songs on the radio. He encouraged me to send in more, and over the years the songs got better; by the time I graduated from college I actually had a couple of nationally released records out.
What's your relationship with your band like? Have you been with the same guys for more than a record or two?
I've had the same band since the very beginning. I met my drummer, Jon Schwartz, on September 14, 1980, and I remember that date because that was the night we played "Another One Rides the Bus" live on Dr. Demento's show. He banged on my accordion case, and I said, "Hey, that was pretty good banging there--you can be my drummer." And I auditioned for my guitar player and bass player a couple years later, and I've had the same guys since 1982.
What's the rehearsal process like going into making a new record? Are the other guys as keyed into pop culture as you are?
Well, it's a lot more work to do the originals as opposed to the parodies, because for the originals I'm writing the music as well, so I have to do demos, I have to give them to the band, and we many times have to rehearse to lock into an arrangement. With the parodies, essentially I'm buying CDs for the guys in the band and saying, "Here, learn this." Many times when they're recording it in the studio, they don't even know what the parody's gonna be about. So sometimes I'll give them a copy of the finished album and they'll go, "Oh, I get it: lasagna!"
Part of the comedy in the parodies derives from their closeness to the originals; they're not half-assed approximations of the real songs. Is that technical accuracy important to you?
Yeah. In the very beginning, with the first album or two, we kind of went the other direction--we would throw accordion on every single song; we wouldn't pay quite so much attention to detail. But we've gotten to the point where we feel it's a challenge to try to match the original song in terms of production as closely as possible. I get a kick out of people listening to the parodies on the radio and thinking that it's the original version of the song, and then all of a sudden the lyrics kick in, and they go, "Hey, wait a minute, this doesn't sound quite right."
Has the balance between the parodies and the originals been pretty constant?
Yeah, since the very beginning it's always been about half originals and half parodies, with the occasional polka medley thrown in there. And that's always seemed to work well. I enjoy doing the parodies as much as I enjoy doing the originals. The parodies seem to get the most attention, but the hard-core fans actually seem to gravitate more toward the originals. The medleys seem like plenty of work.
It all takes effort, and the polka medley certainly takes a lot of work in terms of arranging. I'm not really writing any new music or new lyrics, but obviously there's a lot of arranging going on, and I try to have the songs segue from one to another either as smoothly or as comically as possible, and I have to arrange the horn parts and figure out where the banjo and the tuba solos should come in and all that. And that's probably my manager's hardest job, because he's got a folder several inches thick just from clearances that he needs to get on that one song, because we have to get approvals from everybody in the medley and work out the deals. It's a lot of effort, actually.
How much time do you spend pursuing that sort of business stuff?
That's more my manager's job than my job. Once I determine which songs I wanna go after I let him know, and he goes through the process of trying to get clearances. Sometimes if he has a hard time getting through to somebody, he'll come back to me and say, "We can't get through to so-and-so. Can you maybe put in a personal call?"
Has that worked before?
Sometimes. On several occasions that's happened, where he couldn't get through to somebody's management or somebody's management wasn't returning phone calls, and I would run into the artist at an awards show, and the artist would be like, "Oh, I would love for you to do a parody, that would be great!" A lot of times management or publishers or whoever are overprotective of their artists, when in fact the artist would be excited to have the parody done.
Eminem's refusal to let you do a video for "Couch Potato" has gotten some attention lately. Have there been other instances over the years where you weren't able to do things you really had your heart set on?
It's pretty rare. I've been actually very lucky in my career. In the very beginning I was getting turned down right and left because I was just this goofy kid from L.A. trying to do parody songs, and I didn't have a track record and nobody knew who or what "Weird Al" Yankovic was. But right about the time Michael Jackson gave his approval, that was kind of the magic golden key, because all of a sudden people were like, "Oh, if Michael Jackson was OK with it, then we certainly don't have a problem with it." And from that point on, people realized it was a real kind of honor to get a "Weird Al" parody; it was a real sign that they've achieved a certain level of success in their chosen field.
Do you ever worry that stars are getting too silly and self-reflexive on their own?
That's the reason it took me so long to get around to doing Eminem, because he was certainly big enough to lampoon a year ago, but you can't really make fun of a song like "Without Me" or "The Real Slim Shady," because there's a certain amount of self-awareness there, and they're already tongue-in-cheek swipes at pop culture to begin with; it would've been sort of redundant to do a parody of that. Whereas "Lose Yourself" was a very serious kind of anthem, and those are always the best to make fun of--it's always better to get a very serious song and to inject a little humor into it.