Still Weird After All These Years: An Interview with "Weird Al" Yankovic
Weird Al, from his army days
Few names from pop culture can draw as much joy and pure glee out of people than "Weird Al" Yankovic. He's like a walking antidepressant. Just bringing up his name in conversation or mentioning one of his songs can perk up even the lowliest soul.
Telling friends you've personally crossed paths with the Lynwood, California, native can earn you even more comedy cred, even among snooty indie music fans, who enjoy hearing their least favorite flavors of the month get taken down a peg by him. Following my phone interview with Yankovic in advance of his live show this Friday at the Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie, I posted a notice on my Facebook page that read, "So if I told you that I talked to Weird Al Yankovic last Friday, what would you say?"
It didn't take long for the post to overflow with comments and "likes." If I had told all of my friends in person, they may have formed a line to touch me in hope his awesomeness would rub off.
"AAGGHHHH!!! OMIGAWD!!! I've been to 3 of his concerts," wrote one friend. "At one of them he shook my hand twice ... twice I tell ya."
"I'm having his baby," wrote another friend who's name I won't mention for obvious reasons.
It's not hard to understand why he's become such an icon in comedy. He helped the music industry find its sense of humor again.
“Back when I started out, there wasn’t any kind of track record of somebody having a career doing what I was doing," Yankovic said. "Now that I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I think that the comedy music has kind of blossomed a bit. Besides myself, there’s The Lonely Island and Flight of the Conchords and Tenacious D and a lot people doing quite well in the field of comedy music, and certainly with YouTube, there’s a gazillion people doing funny music. So it feels like a lot more accepted now when I first started out.”
Yankovic made his first big splash in music in the 1970's on the famed Dr. Demento radio show when the good doctor, AKA Barry Hansen, played the young, weird one's home-recorded songs when he was just 16 years old, according to the Dr. Demento website. Yankovic continued to make songs for the radio show through his high school and college days at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, when Capitol Records released a single of his parody of The Knack's "My Sharona," which he turned into "My Bologna." He signed his first record deal with Rock 'n' Roll Records, releasing a self-titled album in the early 1980s, but he became a certified star thanks to the release of "Eat It," a dead-on musical and video parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" that wouldn't have happened if Jackson hadn't personally given him approval to do his parody, according to his Rolling Stone biography.
Thanks to a 32-year contract he signed with RCA, he has 14 albums in his discography, including his first self-titled album. The 14th album Mandatory Fun, which includes original songs and witty parodies of chart toppers like Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," Pharrell Williams' "Happy," Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" and Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive," was released last year and became the first of his career to take the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100 charts. It was also the first comedy album to finish on the top spot since 1963, when Allan Sherman's "My Son the Nut" stormed to the top of the charts.
He's done just about every genre of music that can be recognized and mined for comedy gold.Mandatory Fun
features songs such as the Southern rock stomper "Lame Claim to Fame," the Crosby, Stills & Nash-inspired office declaration "Mission Statement" and even a marching band ballad called simply "Sports Song." (My all-time favorite is his 1985 Devo tribute "Dare to Be Stupid," and I'm posting it below because I can, so there.)
“For the original songs, I try to do as many different genres as possible and try to make the albums as eclectic as I can," he said. "So I think at this point I’ve done every genre imaginable or every popular one. I’m sure there’s some obscure ones I haven’t gotten around to yet. There’s not that much Viking music or whaling songs or anything like that.”
Of course, the industry has changed significantly since Yankovic started his career. Music is traded on digital routes and music videos aren't as prevalent on TV thanks to a certain cable channel where the "M" in "MTV" no longer holds any meaning. So it's not a surprise that after his most successful album he decided to pass a chance to extend his RCA contract.
“They made me a very, very generous offer to re-sign, and it was tempting, but I think that I would prefer to not be beholden to anybody, and I enjoy the freedom that I currently have," Yankovic said. "So I don’t think that I’ll be doing any more albums or certainly not conventional albums, but that doesn’t mean I’m retiring. I certainly intend to be releasing more material, but it will be on my own terms and at my own pace. It just feels great knowing that I don’t have anybody that I have to be filtered through or any timetable or schedule that I need to adhere to.”
Yankovic dabbled in the idea of self-releasing his own music and music videos in 2009 with his famed "Internet Leaks," a series of original songs such as his Doors' infused "Craigslist," a daft musical tale about a depressed actor working as a Jungle Cruise boat captain at Disneyland called "Skipper Dan" and a White Stripes-style parody about the toughest man who ever lived called "CNR" (Charles Nelson Reilly). All of those eventually went on his 2013 Alpocalypse album.
"It was exciting for me to do Internet Leaks, but the downside was when the album came out, a lot of people were disappointed because they had already half of them already," he said. "Going forward, it will be more like the album never comes out.”
His new freedom also gives him more opportunities to explore avenues for his comedy and art. Talk surfaced in the wake of Mandatory Fun's success that he may get the chance to construct his own Broadway musical, a move that sounds like a no-brainer for Broadway given the massive success of offbeat musical comedy hits such as Avenue Q, Something Rotten and The Book of Mormon.
Yankovic laughed when asked about his plans to storm the Great White Way.
"That word has kind of gotten out, and it’s so premature, but that’s one of my bucket list things that I’d love to do at some point," he said. "That is being bandied about, but that’s all I can say about it at this point.”
He's also used his maniac sounding voice to make appearances in cartoons, such as Dr. Screwball Jones on Disney XD's Wander Over Yonder" and the Probabilitor on Gravity Falls, which is something he said he wouldn't mind doing more.
“I’d like to continue doing what I’ve been doing," he said. "It’s not like I want to go on a whole different trajectory now. I’d love to keep doing more songs and continue touring live. I’ve been doing a lot of voice-over work, and I love doing that. I’d love to do more feature film and TV projects. I’ve got a couple of things in development that I’m not really at liberty to talk about, but I kind of have a busy slate. Ironically, when I’m on the road doing six cities a week, it’s the most free time that I’ve got because I really just focus on doing the show and the rest of the time, I’m just surfing online or watching TV and kind of soaking up pop culture and getting rejuvenated in a way.”
Yankovic still tours and records with the same band that helped him achieve such an impressive career over the last 30-plus years, consisting of drummer Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz, bassist Steve Jay, guitarist Jim West and keyboard player Rubén Valtierra who joined the group in 1991, according to WeirdAl.com. That alone is an impressive anomaly in the music industry, where bands seem to have more creative differences than a room full of cloned Kayne Wests.
“We all have a great time, and it keeps things kind of lighthearted," Yankovic said. "Having said that, even with comedy music, we’re very serious about what we do. It’s not like a party in the studio and it’s not like we’re laughing all the time. We’re doing the most ridiculous things with straight faces, but it is fun and that might be one of the reasons why we all have hung together for so long because we genuinely enjoy what we’re doing.”
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