It’s time to take Weird Al Yankovic seriously. That sounds counter-intuitive, given his parodic persona, but for too long he’s been written off as a joke.
When he debuted in 1979 with “My Bologna,” a send-up of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” record execs dismissed him as a novelty act. His brand of musical mockery — recasting mainstream pop hits with banal, oddly specific lyrics — seemed worth no more than 15 sniggering minutes of fame. Now, nearly four decades later, Weird Al is a platinum-selling, Grammy-winning, world- wide megastar who’s outlasted most of his targets (see: MC Hammer, Coolio, The Offspring).
And at 56, he’s still peaking: his latest release, Mandatory Fun, was his first No. 1 album, and the only comedy record to ever debut atop the US charts. As his calendar keeps filling up — he’s hanging with the comedy cool kids by replacing Kid Cudi as the bandleader on Comedy Bang! Bang! and is currently on another sellout tour — it appears Yankovic’s pop-skewering humour has finally fully aligned with (and possibly influenced) the zeitgeist.
Just look at the glut of YouTubers uploading song spoofs daily, or the latest Adele lampoon on SNL. Weird Al is, weirdly, more relevant than ever. And once you glean his other qualities — insightful, culturally literate, sensitive — it’s clear the man’s value is no laughing matter.
I recently watched a clip of Tom Green handing you a framed Billboard chart with your album at No. 1. You damn near teared up.
I was really holding back. I got very emotional that week because things were happening in my life I never dreamed would happen. To see the physical chart in front of me… it was really tough for me to hold it together. I just figured there was a glass ceiling for comedy albums. And it was the last album on my record contract, so I thought I’d just put this out there and quietly fulfill my obligations. But then it wound up being the biggest album of my career.
Why do you think you’re finally blowing up now? Are your parodies perhaps resonating with a generation of sarcastic millennials?
That could be! It’s hard to articulate why, after all these years, my career is starting to peak. A lot of the people who were fans of mine in the early ’80s are still fans today, and now they bring their kids to the shows. I also read a think piece a few years ago where the writer called me the godfather of YouTube, basically saying I was doing YouTube videos before YouTube existed. Maybe my sensibility has always been there, but now it’s in vogue and people are finally catching up with it.
When I was growing up, the Weird Al parody was the only parody around….
Right. I had the game to myself for a couple of decades. Then YouTube happened. And now, in a sense, I’m competing with hundreds of thousands of other people trying to do comedic and parody videos. I think it’s healthy. It makes me want to up my game. I guess the biggest change is I can’t go for the low-hanging fruit anymore. If an idea is very obvious, you can bet that thousands of other people have thought of it already. If “Beat It” had been a big hit in 2014 instead of 1984, there would’ve been 1,000 parodies called “Eat It” on the Internet. But we also don’t live in the monoculture we had in the MTV era. Back then, the videos in rotation were ingrained in your mind. Now, our culture is so fragmented that you don’t see superstars today quite on the same level. It makes it more difficult to define what the mainstream is before I can lampoon it.
There’s an inherent anxiety that comes with keeping up with what’s current in pop culture. Your music makes it feel okay to be slightly square and out of touch.
That’s been the subtext. I think there’s an underlying current of thumbing your nose at the cool kids. My message has always been that music is supposed to be fun. Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t get too full of yourself. There are lots of music fans who sometimes get a little too self-serious. If I’ve got any kind of mission in life, it’s to get them to lighten up a little. There are also some people in the music industry who’ve always taken themselves too seriously. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. But the nice thing about pop culture is it’s always ridiculous. It’s always changing, but there’s always something to make fun of, so I’ll never run out of source material.
Which artists have flat-out refused to be parodied?
The only person who has consistently said no over the years has been Prince. [Ed. Note: This interview was conducted prior to Prince’s passing in April.] And full disclosure: I haven’t approached him in about two decades. I got the message loud and clear in the ’80s and early ’90s that he just wasn’t into the whole parody thing. So I’ve just given up on asking. But I’ve had very good luck since then. Most artists these days see the Weird Al parody as a badge of honour.
“I’ve had more than a few people come up to me and say they were in a very bad place in their life — some of them were suicidal, in fact. And listening to my music snapped them out of it.”
How did you first start hearing funny lyrics? Did they just manifest in your head while listening to pop songs?
Pretty much. And it’s certainly not like I invented that. Every eight-year-old kid in the universe makes fun of the songs they hear on the radio. When I was in my early teens I was a big fan of the Dr. Demento Radio Show, and he played all sorts of funny music and parodies by people like Allan Sherman, Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer, and Stan Freberg. That was hugely inspirational. It was just one of those phases I never grew out of.
Maybe more people would benefit from never outgrowing that phase. Is our society too uptight these days?
Yeah, people do tend to get more offended today than they did a couple of decades ago. There are a few songs I wrote in the ’80s that wouldn’t fly now. They wouldn’t pass muster with the PC police. But I do feel there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed. I’m a big believer in free speech, but there are a lot of things I personally wouldn’t want to put out into the world. Most of my humour isn’t mean-spirited. It’s more kind-hearted than what you’ll see in the comedy world at large. It’s just a matter of lines we choose to draw for ourselves.
I’m surprised you even have a line. I always assumed you were an Absurdist, to whom the universe is ambivalent.
You know, I don’t think in those big terms. I choose to think the universe isn’t totally meaningless. I don’t obsess about the infinity of the cosmos too much or else my mind starts to explode! I don’t think my music is a reaction to any overriding sense of meaninglessness or lack of purpose.
What is your intent then?
[Laughs.] It’s all for grins! There is no larger meaning to what I do other than making people laugh. But even though my work is ostensibly kind of silly, it’s had a profound effect on people’s lives. I’ve had more than a few people come up to me and say they were in a very bad place in their life — some of them were suicidal, in fact. And listening to my music snapped them out of it; they were able to move on and get through whatever sombre phase they were in. Sometimes, when I think what I do is somewhat pointless, I remember those people and how even my stupid music served a real function for them.
In 2004, both your parents died of carbon monoxide poisoning. That same night, you played a concert. You didn’t cancel a single date on the tour. Why was that?
It was a real “the show must go on” mentality. It’s not just me on the road; it’s me and a whole crew who are looking at me for their livelihood. And you’ve got all those people who’ve hired babysitters and reordered their lives to be in the audience. I have to think about more than just my own pain. I decided that I had to move on, but I cancelled all the meet and greets because I didn’t want to be around anybody. For two hours every night I just lived in a state of denial and tried to pretend everything was okay. And it was a bit cathartic for me because it was a nice break from the emotional pain I was going through. Certainly fans were more than supportive. Again, my music did help a lot of fans get through dark periods of their lives. And at that point, I have to say it did the same for me.
It seems your music has always acted as a soothing balm, especially for those cynical of the mainstream. But now you’re part of the mainstream! Doesn’t that complicate things?
It’s made things odd for me because, yes, I’ve always been proud of my outsider status. I’ve always been the guy poking fun at the people inside the circle. And now, because of my success over the years, I find myself at the same parties, award shows, and functions as the people I’m poking fun at. I’m friends with them! So it does diminish my position as an outcast. But hey, I’m still giving it my best shot.