‘Weird Al’ Yankovic on His Secret to Success

By Brian Ives

In 1979, when a young Al Yankovic had his song “My Bologna” (a parody of the popular hit “My Sharona,” by the Knack) played on a radio show for the first time, no one could have predicted the staying power he would have.

Nearly four decades later, he’s going to spend the summer headlining large venues, including Radio City Music Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. “Weird Al” Yankovic is an icon of humor and music, with cross-generational appeal; these days, pop, rock and hip-hop artists know that they’ve arrived when they’ve been parodied by him.

Radio.com recently was treated to a visit from the man himself (besides this interview, he also appeared on the first episode of Play.It’s official Star Trek podcast, Engage)  and in our wide-ranging conversation, we discussed his new gig on Comedy Bang Bang, his recent tribute to George Harrison, why he doesn’t want to do any more Star Wars songs, and what the future holds for him, now that he is no longer bound to a record deal.

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Congratulations on being the bandleader for Comedy Bang Bang. Can you describe the show for those who haven’t seen it yet?

Comedy Bang Bang, it’s kinda hard to describe. Well, it started with the Comedy Bang Bang podcast, which Scott Aukerman does. He’s got over 400 episodes of that, and he’s been doing the Comedy Bang Bang TV show on IFC for five seasons; this is the fifth season. The first four seasons were with Reggie Watts as the bandleader and co-host. Kid Cudi filled in for the last 20 shows, and I am doing Season 5.

Talk about how your music has changed; these days, I know you work hard to emulate the original recording when you’re doing a song parody, but you had a different approach in the early days. 

When I first started out, my first album, I wasn’t trying really hard to emulate the original sounds so closely. Obviously, “Another One Rides the Bus” was with an accordion. There’s an accordion on virtually every track on the first album. I was sorta like, “Well, this is my thing.”

Then I thought, “Well, that’s gonna wear on people after a while. There’s only so much accordion music you can listen to.” So starting with my second album it became more like, “Let’s just really try to make this sound like the original recording.”

And we’ve gotten more anal about that over the years; we wanna make it sound exactly like the original, ’cause part of the joke I think is to hear the song on the radio and go, “Oh, yeah, I know that song… wait a minute! Those aren’t the right lyrics!”

I’m not an impressionist, but I give it my best shot. I never even attempted to do an impression of Jim Morrison until I decided, “Oh, I think I wanna do a Doors song.”

My career is based on a lot of unearned confidence. I have to just really tell myself, “OK, I can do this,” and then just go for it.

Related: ‘Weird Al’ Sounds Off On Humor Vs. Political Correctness

I think that’s a big part of show business, and especially comedy. I mean, the idea of getting on a stage with just a mic and trying to entertain people, whether in an arena, or for an eight minute slot at at open-mic night at a comedy club… 

That’s a big part of being in show business: pretending that you’re more awesome than you really are.

A while back, you were one of the performers at a big tribute concert to George Harrison; you sang “What Is Life.” Obviously that was a bit different from your usual performances: it was fun, but it wasn’t comedy. It seemed like it meant a lot to you.

It was a big deal for me. I’ve always been a big Beatles fan and a huge George Harrison fan, and I’ve become friends with Dhani [Harrison, George’s son], and the fact that I was even invited to be a part of that show was just an unbelievable honor for me.

And I had the best time that night. I think it came across in the performance. It was just such a joy to be onstage with that band behind me and the singers and the horns, and man, that was fun. I think it turned out to be a nice little moment in the show.

I was told — and this still kind of blows my mind — that George Harrison was kind of a fan of mine, which is hard for me to wrap my head around. But I was told he loved my movie UHF, which came out in the late ’80s, and he had a VHS [copy of it]. That’s the only movie that he had in his Hawaii house for some reason. But when I was told that, it was hard to compute.

I get it though; he was a guy who loved Python-esque humor, it’s not a total shock that he would like you.

Yeah, George had a great sense of humor, and he personally funded Life of Brian, and he was tight with the [Monty] Python guys. I’m really sad that I never got to meet the man, because I think we probably would’ve gotten on pretty well.

You’re touring this summer and you have Comedy Bang Bang; but I know fans are wondering if and when you’re going to do a new album, since you’ve been pretty public about the fact that you’re now out of your record deal, and you don’t owe anyone anything at this point.

Well, you pretty much covered it. I’ve been dragging my heels a bit. I haven’t been very proactive in coming up with new material. I haven’t had a whole lot of time or mental space to work on new material.

I’m sure it’ll happen. I’d like to think that after this tour is over, I’m gonna be focused more on coming up with new material, hopefully new songs, new videos. But I’m not beholden to anybody anymore. I don’t have a record contract or a record label or anybody picking me up by the back of my neck saying, “Where’s the new song?” I have internal pressure, but that’s it.

But when you hear a new hit song on the radio, do you ever feel the urge to parody it?

Yeah, every now and then like a big hit will come along, and I think, “Ah, I should do that,” and then I see that like, 14,000 other YouTube parodies have already been done. That’s the thing, now when I do a parody, I can only do it really if I can find a different angle on it, because all the obvious ideas are taken already. I can’t go for the low-hanging fruit anymore.

It really makes me wanna step up my game, because I can’t go for the obvious stuff. I have to do something to make me stand out a little bit from everybody else on the internet.

Is it true that you shot the video for “Tacky,” from Mandatory Fun, in the building that The Big Lebowski used as Maude’s house?

That’s correct. We were location scouting around downtown LA, and that was one of the buildings that we saw. And I love the big, open space, I love the windows. I’ve seen The Big Lebowski, but I didn’t make the connection.

But I thought this upstairs area is great, the street level’s great, but that [floor] was like the fifth story of a building. I thought, “I wonder how long the elevator ride is?” And I timed the elevator ride, and it was exactly as long as the bridge of the song, and I was like, “OK, this is gonna work, this is gonna work!”

So I planned it out so that the first couple verses and choruses are in that Big Lebowski area, and then the bridge is sung while we’re on the camera, and as it turns out, Kristen Schaal was going down to the elevator, and then we get down to the bottom floor and then it’s Jack Black, and then I’m there on the bottom level in a completely different outfit.

So what I had to do in the video shoot was: it starts off with me in a really tacky suit, and then as soon as the camera goes off me and on to Aisha Tyler, I’m like ripping off my clothes, and I’m running down five flights of stairs and putting on new clothes and hopefully hitting my mark before the camera’s there. It was so much fun. We did only, I think, six takes, and then we had it. It was like the quickest video shoot and the most fun video shoot I ever had.

I was wondering if any teachers have thanked you for “Word Crimes”; you point out a lot of commonly made errors in that song.

I’ve heard that a lot of teachers have used “Word Crimes” in the classroom, which is really gratifying. That wasn’t my intent, but if they feel there’s some educational value there to be had, that’s wonderful. Some people said it’s a little bit too mean-spirited to be used as a teaching tool, but you know: comedy!

Could you actually diagram a sentence if called upon to do so?

It’s been a while since I’ve done it, but I think I probably could. I used to be able to do that in high school, and yeah, I think I could probably pull that off.

One of my favorite parts is when you point out that “literally” does not mean “figuratively.”

I heard there’s some dictionary — I forget which one — is now redefining “literally” as “figuratively.” And I understand language evolves, it changes, but I hate to see it change into the stupidest lowest common denominator. Words mean things.

Most of the artists that you parody are super-famous or have at least one very ubiquitous hit. I love the fact that you did a song in the style of the Pixies (“First World Problems”).

Well, I love the Pixies. Just a couple days ago I played at [Pixies guitarist} Joey Santiago’s kid’s elementary school. So I got onstage with him, and we sang a Clash song, we sang a Pixies song. It was great.

I got turned on to the Pixies when they started out, but when I was introduced in person was when I was asked to sing “I Bleed” for a benefit show a few years ago, and they had me come onstage, and I got to sing with the Pixies. They asked me, “You wanna do a Pixies parody?” I was like, “No, man, I wanna sing a Pixies song.” So I came out and just sang a very straight version of it, and people were like, “Woah. That’s different.” But I’ve always been a big fan; they’re one of my favorite groups, and it was really cool to be able to hang out with them.

At one point, you were a very “left field” artist, but it seemed that “Eat It” really brought you to the mainstream. 

Well, certainly “Eat It” was a big turning point. Before that I was not recognized on the street. When “Eat It” went into heavy rotation on MTV, all of a sudden I was that guy. So that was a big life change right there. And it’s been sort of a gradual change for the last 30 years or so. I’m certainly playing bigger places. It wouldn’t have been the Hollywood Bowl or Radio City Music Hall even five or ten years ago.

The fans have always been the fans, but there’s been a general sense from my first 10 years or so of my career of “Oh, a one-hit wonder” or “When’s he going away?” or “That hack, he’ll be gone soon.” And now that I’ve been here for like 35 years they’re going, “Oh, I guess he’s hanging around?”

And there’s a certain amount of actual respect that comes with that, because now the fans from the ’80s are bringing their kids to the show, and even these serious reviewers are having to go, “I guess there’s some reason why he’s still here.”

When do you think things changed, regarding critical respect? 

I think there’s a number of factors. The longevity’s certainly a part of it, but there’s something that happened with nerd culture. And I think the turning point was maybe about ten years ago, about the time that “White and Nerdy” came out, oddly enough. And that’s nothing that I planned, but the timing couldn’t have been better. There was a certain point where people just sort of stopped and said, “Nerds make all the cool stuff. Nerds kinda rule the world. Why were we making fun of nerds all the time? Nerds are great!”

And all of a sudden everybody is trying to establish the “nerd cred.” Like all these hot-looking women are going like, “Oh, I’m a total nerd. I’ve always been a nerd.” And being a nerd was nothing you aspired to when I was in high school. That was not something you admitted freely.

So it was kinda nice that all of a sudden people are saying that nerds are cool, and I noticed it’s not as cool to be proudly ignorant. It’s nice that you can be smart, and most people will respect that.

I know that you never talk politics. But I think it was great that President recently said, “Ignorance is not a virtue.”

You can draw your own parallels.

I wanted to bring up another of your recent songs: “Foil” is one of the most bonkers songs and videos that you’ve ever done. It starts out one way, and then just takes a big left turn.

Yeah. You think, “Oh, another food song from Weird Al: boring!” Like, “Ah, I thought he was beyond this.” Then it takes a dramatic turn in the second half, and people go, “Wow.”

When I first heard Lorde’s “Royals,” I was like, “‘Weird Al’ is going to do ‘Mohels.'”

I already did a mohel joke in “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi.” And a lot of people were saying you should do “Mohels” and that made me think that I shouldn’t do “Mohels,” because it’s out there.

“Weird Al” talks about getting permission from Led Zeppelin to use “Black Dog,” country music, if he’ll ever do another Star Wars parody, and another upcoming project; read the rest of his interview at Radio.com.

Listen to the first episode of Play.It’s “Engage” — the official Star Trek podcast, featuring special guest “Weird Al” Yankovic.

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