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Posted May 4, 2015 by Jeff in Laughs
 
 

“Weird Al” Yankovic: Still demento after all these years

Weird Al Yankovic, photo by Robert Trachtenberg
Weird Al Yankovic, photo by Robert Trachtenberg

Known for his witty parodies, “Weird Al” Yankovic has been skewering classic pop and rock songs for just about 40 years now. With his latest album, last year’s Mandatory Fun, he turns Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” into “Word Crimes,” Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” into “Tacky,” Lorde’s “Royals” into “Foil” and Iggy Azaela’s “Fancy” into “Handy.” It’s arguably his best effort. We spoke to the satirist via phone and talked about his extensive career.

I think you received your first airplay in 1976. Some 40 years later, you’re still going at it. Did you have a sense then that that would be case?
I had no idea I would make a career out of it. When I first got any airplay, I was a teenager recording songs with my accordion on a cassette deck. It blew my mind that it was getting played on the radio on the Dr. Demento show. I remember when I first made the Dr. Demento Funny Five, which was his most requested shows of the night, I thought, “This is as good as it’s ever going to get. This is the high point of my life. I can’t imagine anything ever being more amazing than being on the Dr. Demento Funny Five.” I was about to go to college and major in architecture. I did go and got my degree but through college I never thought I’d have a career in show business. I thought I would grow up and be an adult and have a normal life. So far that hasn’t happened.

You performed live from the beginning. Talk about how the live show was important early in your career.
This wasn’t anything that I thought I would make a career out of but every Thursday night at the college they had what they called “the coffeehouse.” The students would go and sit and have a coffee and watch local artist and students perform. Nine times out of ten, it was some guy playing an acoustic guitar and singing a Dan Fogelberg song. It was very mellow and laid back. Then, I would come up with my accordion and sing some goofy song in my strangled voice and freak everyone out. It would always get a huge reaction because it was just so different. That’s where I first got my love of performing. I realized I could make people laugh and make people have a good time. It turned something on in my brain. By the time I graduated, I didn’t think I would do architecture for the rest of my life but I thought I could maybe do something with the performing thing.

“My Bologna” became a cult hit. Was that the song that opened the floodgates?
Pretty much. I got airplay on Dr. Demento before but “My Bologna” was my first bonafide hit on the show. That was Number 1 for several weeks on the Funny Five and that wasn’t me stuffing the ballot box or calling up on the request line and trying to disguise my voice and saying, “Please play that Weird Al song again.” That was actual people thinking it was funny. That was at the point when the guys in the Knack heard the song and liked it. Capitol Records decided to release as a single. That blew my mind. I was still in college. I hadn’t even graduated yet. They wanted to put out my record. If I was at all waffling, that really sealed it for me and convinced me I needed to take a shot at this recording thing.

I believe Mandatory Fun is your first number one album. How does that make you feel?
It’s amazing that it’s my first number one. That’s not really the headline. The headline is that it’s the first comedy album ever to debut at number one. I think of people I listened to while growing up like Steve Martin and Cheech and Chong and George Carlin and Richard Pryor. They’re legends. The fact that I’m the first one to have a Number 1 album is hard to comprehend.

What was it like to win a Grammy?
It just showed up yesterday at my house some three months after the ceremony. It’s my fourth Grammy but that never gets old. My first one was in 1985, I think. It’s nice to have the vote of confidence from your peers. It was a real tough category. I was up against Louis CK and Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman and Jim Gaffigan. Real heroes of mine. That fact that I was even mentioned in the same breath as those guys was amazing. It’s been a surrealistic year for me.

Everything that’s gone in the past 12 months has been beyond my wildest dreams.

Will it be your last traditional album?
I think that’s probably accurate. I hate to make any firm statements or draw any lines in the sand. I have said it’s my last conventional because it’s the end of my record contract. It’s the 14th album in a 14th album contract. I was under contract for 32 years. I like the feeling of freedom and knowing that I don’t have to do anything and I’m not obligated to do anything. I also feel that with comedy and satire, it’s more important to be timely or topical. The best way to do that is to release tracks or singles as soon as I come out with them not wait until I have 12 tracks. That doesn’t seem like the best way to get myself out there. If I had come up with my “Blurred Lines” parody in the summer of 2013, I would have thought it would have been a good single. When the album came out, it was still the most popular track on the album, but I wasn’t as confident about saying it’s the first single because by that time there were like 10,000 parodies of the song on YouTube. You don’t want to come out a year later with your parody.

Did any of the musicians hesitate to give you permission to record their songs?
Not at all. I had a hundred percent success rate. Everyone signed off on it. I heard from one or two that they were honored. Sometimes it’s just difficult to get through to an artist because they have protective layers around them and you have to go through their lawyer’s agent’s secretary’s answering machine. Once you get to the artist, almost without exception they have a great sense of humor and they understand what I’m doing. They get it and they see it as a badge of honor.

Did you have issues with Iggy Azaela?
Ultimately not. It was hard to get through to her. I don’t think her management was talking to her. I was low on the list of things that they were choosing to deal with that week. If I didn’t get permission, it would postpone the release of the album.  I took it upon myself to buy a ticket to Denver where she was playing a show and I hung around backstage.  TMZ says I ambushed her and that’s not too far from the truth. I introduced myself and I showed her the lyrics. She looked them over and said, “It’s okay to me.” I said, “Thank you very much.” I went back to LA. Sometimes getting through to the artist is difficult but once you get to them it’s usually fine.

“Foil” is really funny. How long did it take you to come up with the concept?
I don’t know. I mull these things around in my head. I try not to go with the first thing that pops into my head.  I thought there were different ways I could go with a song about aluminum foil. The first half sounds like one of my old school songs about food. The second half takes a very dark twist.

The polka medley is funny. Do you have extended versions of any of the tunes?
No. It’s arranged to be like it is on the record. I’ve done that since my coffeehouse days in college. I don’t do one on every single album but most of them. It’s a longstanding tradition. If I leave a polka medley off the album, there’s massive unrest and rioting in the streets by fans. It’s something that’s part of my body of work and the live show.

I’ve found that most rock songs sound better as polkas and I just run with that.

This album has been described as your best work. Do you agree?
Well, I do. I always say without any sarcasm or irony that every album I put is the best I’ve ever done. I feel like every album is better than the one I put out before. It’s not always that everyone agrees with me but this time, people are agreeing.

Which of the videos was the most fun to shoot?
They were all a blast to shoot. The most fun was the “Tacky” video. It was very easy to shoot. It was painless. That was the one time where I wished we were shooting for longer. I wished we had more hours to shoot it because everyone was having such a great time. I worked with Jack Black, Aisha Tyler, Eric Stonestreet, Margaret Cho and Kristen Schaal. Really funny people and all friends of mine. We just had a blast.

You have so many songs from which to choose. How do you pick which ones you end up playing at the concerts?
That is a bit of a puzzle. There’s only a finite amount of time. We can’t play all night long. I have to respect the fact that people’s bladders are only so big and I don’t want to build bathroom breaks into the shows. We try to feature as much stuff as we can from the most recent album. We play all the greatest hits. There are songs we have to play or people will get upset. I try to make every tour different but at least half the set is songs that people expect to hear. It’s a matter of giving people what they want and trying to promote the new material and trying to through in the occasional surprise or deep cut for the hardcore fans.

Have you worked out the details for what you do if you were to headline a Super Bowl halftime concert?
I haven’t given that a lot of thought. I know in my heart that will never happen. I don’t think I’ll be on the NFL’s shortlist. I did write a sports anthem on the new album. I didn’t have any sports-related material. I thought that should be part of my body of work. I need to have a sports song. That was my effort there.


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.