Source: Icon magazine, December 1997. Page 95.
The first thing you notice is the shirt. Even in the dim light of the editing room, the silky, short-sleeved Hawaiian number, with its landscape of purple mountains, green palms, blue seagulls and white beaches, immediately stands out. Seconds later, the rest of "Weird Al" Yankovic comes into focus. It's a bit of a shock: Slouched low in an armchair with his slip-on sneakered feet propped up on a nearby coffee table, he looks more like your hippie college roommate than a parodist on par with the greats like Spike Jones and Stan Freberg. His tightly curled hair has become a mass of frizzy corkscrews, his usual aviator spectacles have been jettisoned in favor of a smaller, Lennonesque pair, and the unbridled energy of his onstage persona has given way to a low-key, soft spoken demeanor. Only the shirt and his mustache, balanced precariously on this upper lip, remain in character. "Is that the best question mark you could find?" he asks, fixing his gaze on one of the room's several video monitors.
He's wrapping up post production on The Weird Al Show, his new Saturday morning children's program. With the help of four technicians, Al is engaged in the time consuming task of tweaking the title fonts for one of the episodes. This one includes a parody of the "Got Milk?" advertisements, and Al is making sure that the typeface of the parody ("Got a Lard?") closely matches that of the original. "Make the T, L, and D all the same height," he instructs, his soft voice betraying slight traces of a lisp. While the technicians stretch the letters, Al busies himself with autographing a pile of 8x10 glossies provided by Jay Levey, his manager of 16 years. Within minutes, the "Got Lard?" lettering is perfected, and Al's attention turns to the titles on "60% Chance of Rain," a spoof of disaster-movie commercials. He wanders over to the editing desk, and takes a long look at the overhead monitor. "That's kind of vampire-y," he decides. "It's not supposed to be like monster-movie stuff; it's a disaster movie."
"Al's an absolute perfectionist, very oriented to details," says Barry Hansen, better known to fans of novelty music as the titular host of the nationally syndicated Dr. Demento radio show. "He'll work and work over the lyrics of a song to make sure that every line is funny, that no lines are fillers."
"I have a notebook computer with little catch phrases -- words, phrases, and titles that spark ideas," explains Al. "I have another list of song styles, things that I haven't done yet -- ska or zydeco or whatever -- and I'll try to match up ideas with song styles. Then, once I have a concept for a song and a musical direction, I'll spend a week or two coming up with ideas and gags and rhyming couplets that would work well in context. It's a pretty drawn-out process for me, because I'm pretty anal. You hear about these songwriters who say, 'I wrote this song in 10 minutes over breakfast.' I try to spend as much time as possible thinking up every possible variation on a theme."
Such thoroughness has proved extremely lucrative: Since his self-titled debut in 1983, seven "Weird Al" Yankovic records have sold upward of 500,000 copies and four have surpassed the 1 million mark, earning him seven Grammy nominations and two awards.
Al met accordion on October 22, 1966, when proud parents Mary and Nick Yankovic took seven-year-old Alfred to his first lesson. (Contrary to popular rumor, Al's father is not polka great Frankie Yankovic.) "I wasn't resisting it," he says. "But somehow I can't imagine that I begged my parents for accordion lessons." Al took lessons for three years, then began arranging Top-40 tunes on the accordion on his own. His ambitions to become the next Elton John waned in 1973, when one of his young pals turned him on to Dr. Demento's radio show on KMET-FM. "I was immediately hooked. I'd been writing stupid songs and parodies ever since I was eight or nine years old. But my mom was horrified -- she heard some of the songs that were a little off-color, and forbade me from ever listening to the show again. So I had to listen in bed, with my sheets pulled over my head. That was my entire Sunday evening, every week."
Graduating as the valedictorian of his high school class at age 16, Al enrolled in California Polytechnic State University's highly ranked school of architecture. "My GPA kind of took a parabolic curve downward in college. I learned that I didn't love architecture as much as the other people in class. They'd see a building and start analyzing. 'Oh, the form is following the function.' And I'm thinking, 'Yeah, big deal -- it's a house!'" Further distracting him from his intended major was the campus radio station, where Al -- dubbed "Weird Al" in homage to Dr. Demento -- mixed contemporary hits with favorite novelty songs on his weekly show.
It was during one of these shows that Al came up with "My Bologna," a parody of The Knack's "My Sharona." Recording the tune in the radio station's tiled restroom, Al submitted his parody to the De. Demento Show, where it quickly became a hot request item.
"Al sent me a cassette. He found my address -- I don't know how -- and I got this tape in the mail," recalls The Knack's Dough Feiger. "It was him, playing 'My Bologna' on the accordion, and I just thought it was amazing." Feiger met Al shortly after, when The Knack played a show at Cal Poly. "Dough gave me a big hug," remembers Al, "and he introduced me to the vice president of Capitol Records."
Though Feiger's intercession, Capitol released "My Bologna" as a single. Al's next tune, "Another One Rides the Bus," a parody of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," was equally popular on the Dr. Demento Show, but labels took no interest in it. "Nobody wanted to touch me," Al remembers, "because they figured that I would have one hit, and then never be heard from again." But Al continued with his parodies, and eventually Scotti Brothers Records (still his label) gambled on the 23-year-old, and struck paydirt with his second LP, "Weird Al" Yankovic In 3-D, The record featured "Eat It," his remake of Michael Jackson's "Beat It," the 1984 single that, in Al's words, "broke me wide open."
Al was an MTV and Top-40 mainstay until his fourth album Polka Party, tanked. "Living with a Hernia," his parody of James Brown's "Living in America," failed to excite, and may of Al's fans may have been under the mistake impression that the album was made up of traditional polkas. In any case, the album peaked at No. 177 on the Billboard charts, and then dropped away. "That was actually a scary part in my life," Al admits. "I just thought, 'Well, that's the end of it.' It was kind of sad for me, because I thought, 'Well, I got as famous as I'll ever get; it was nice while it lasted.'"
After so many years in the public eye as "Weird Al", off-duty Al can get locked into his character. "Yeah, I'm kind of a walking cartoon," he admits. "I like wearing Hawaiian shirts; if I really don't want to be recognized, I'll maybe wear a solid color. But this is the way I like to look, this is the way I do look, and if I try to disguise myself, people usually see through it. Sometimes I wish I could shave off my hair, but then it takes so long to grow back. I'd like to shave off my mustache every now and then, but then I have to think: 'Well, it takes three weeks for it to grow back in adequately. Do I have any TV appearances? Do I have any photo shoots?' I'm kind of trapped into it, in a way."
Strangers regularly accost Al on the street, wanting to share their creativity with him. "Whenever anybody thinks of a parody idea," he says, "they think in the back of their heads, 'Gee, maybe one day I'll meet "Weird Al" Yankovic, and I can tell him!' I try to discourage that. Ninety-eight percent of the suggestions that people do offer me in the supermarket are pretty bad. For a while, after the Michael Jackson parodies, everybody was giving me 'Thriller' ideas. 'Ya gotta do 'Phyllis Diller,' or 'Chiller,' or 'Driller.' Thank you! I couldn't have thought of that on my own!"
"It does tend to make you a little egocentric, because you start feeling like everybody recognizes you, or everybody's aware of who you are. It was a defining moment for me when I was driving down the street and somebody started honking at me. I turned around and gave him a wave and a nice cheery smile, and they shouted, 'Stay in yer own lane, you idiot!' "
Al claims that there is little difference between his on- and offstage personas. " 'Weird Al' is not a character that I put on, per se; it's not like the difference between Pee Wee Herman and Paul Rubens. I like to use the metaphorical volume know; I kind of crank it up when I need to, and leave it at low when I don't."
Asked if he would describe himself as happy, Al answers, "Yeah, I would. A lot of people find that very irritating about me, in fact. I've had girlfriends who are like, 'Why are you happy all the time?' Well, what's not to be happy about? It's a beautiful world, woo-hoo!"
Al is known almost exclusively for his parodies, but half of his material consists of originals. "It's a pet peeve of mine that a lot of people don't even realize that I do original material," he says. "They think that all I do is screw up other people's music. No, I screw up my own, too!"
Another misconception is that most artists are offended by his retooling of their originals. Al always tries to get their approval beforehand, and drops the idea if the artists don't assent. He's still visibly upset about Coolio's icy reaction to "Amish Paradise," a parody of his "Gangsta's Paradise" (itself a version of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise").
"I was given the impression that he was fine with the parody, but that his management had some kind of problem with it. My record company assured me that they'd iron things out. And after the fact, I saw Coolio backstage at the Grammys basically saying that he had never given permission and that he thought it was a horrible thing I was doing by disrespecting him and making fun of his song. I was shocked and horrified I immediately sent him a letter of apology, explaining that I didn't mean to desecrate his song. I haven't heard back from him. I'm kind of keeping my distance from him, because the last thing he said in his public statement was, you know, he wishes me the best, but I better just stay away from him." Al laughs nervously. "So, I'm staying away from him!"
Most artists are happy to have Al rewrite their material, however. Take Kurt Cobain, whose unintelligible wail on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the butt of Al's "Smells like Nirvana." "He was really flattered that Yankovic parodied his song," says Michael Azerrad, author of Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. "It was the most indisputable acknowledgement yet that he had arrived. And he thought it was quite funny."
To date, the only artist who has turned him down without and explanation is The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Rather than accept rejection, Al has repeatedly asked The Artist over the years for permission to use his songs, all the while firing barbs at him in interviews. (In 1994, for example, he told the L.A. Times: "First he was Prince, then he was a symbol, this week I think he's an odor.")
So what would happen if The Artist walked into this room, right now?
The very suggestion causes him to make a sound halfway between hysterical laughter and a high-pitched squeal. "You haven't set this up, have you? You got me nervous, now!"
Would that be awkward?
"Yeah," he says, calming down again. "It would probably make me a bit uncomfortable. I've never been one for confrontation."
But if they gave you a reason, you don't mind if people say no to you?
"Well, I don't like it!" he huffs, eyes bulging behind his glasses. "But I respect them if they have a reason. I approached Paul McCartney to let me put 'Chicken Pot Pie' on an album, as a parody of 'Live and Let Die.' He said no, but it kind of pained him to say no because he like my work. But he and Linda are such strict vegetarians, he couldn't condone a song about the consumption of animal flesh. But he had a logical reason, which I can respect. If you just say 'No,' that just says to me that you don't have much of a sense of humor."
Like the McCartneys, Al is a strict vegetarian. He regularly attends a non-denominational church, doesn't smoke, and rarely drinks. And recently, he turned down a $5 million to do an endorsement for Coors Light.
"It was very painful to do; I don't know if I'll ever see that much money in one big pile again. But it's a bit of a role model thing -- you don't want kinds to say, 'Hey, I saw Al with a gin and tonic!' I still would turn them down, but I wish I could have felt better about it. It's like, I know I'm doing the right thing, but $5 million!"
And unlike, say Andrew Dice Clay, Al has never used obscenities in his parodies; not even, he claims, when he was a kid. "probably the bluest parody I ever did was [laughs] -- you're probably going to print this, but I'll tell you anyway -- it was a parody of Jim Croce's 'Time in a Bottle.' [Sings, giggling] 'If I could make love to a bottle / the first thing that I'd like to do/ I'd search the world over to find one that had the exact same circumference as you.' That's about as much as I remember [laughs]."
Al's career didn't end with Polka Party; 1988's Even Worse resuscitated it, becoming his biggest-selling album to date, while the video for the single, "Fat" -- a take-off of Michael Jackson's "Bad" -- won a Grammy. In 1993, Al began regularly directing his own videos, and started to receive offers to direct for others.
In 1996, Al directed the James Bond-spoofing opening titles for the feature film Spy Hard, as well as the video for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Wail."
"When I did the Jon Spencer video and it was well-received, people were all of a sudden like, 'Wow! He's a video director!" Due to time constraints, he says he has turned down directing gigs for Megadeth, Sammy Hagar, and Blues Traveler.
Still, unless The Weird Al Show becomes a household favorite, Al will probably always be known as a parodist -- an appellation, he admits, that offers little in the way of respect.
"People look at parody as lowest common-denominator humor; it's like, 'Oh, my five-year-old kid writes song parodies.' Whereas satire is a bit more respected and more cerebral. I think my better songs edge into satire--the ones that somehow have a point of view. I suppose even 'Smells Like Nirvana' you could say is trying to say something, as opposed to the songs that are just goofy, like 'Eat It' or 'I Want a New Duck.' "
He would still love to have a hit with one of his originals, but accepts that it will probably never happen.
"That would be very life affirming for me, but I've kind of stopped holding my breath. We've tried several times to release a single of one of my original songs."
Though his work has always combined music and comedy, he finds that he's still something of an anomaly in both worlds. So is he a musician or a comedian?
"I'm two mints in one," he fires back. "Um, I don't really fit too comfortably into either circle. A lot of record stores don't know whether to rack me under comedy or rock. The Grammys don't even have a category for me -- I'm not even eligible under the comedy category, because it's for spoken-word comedy. I just kind of fall between the cracks somehow."
"I guess it would be nice to be accepted; I still get invited to the
awards shows and parties and things like that, but I don't really feel
like I belong anywhere."