The curly-haired prince of parody, “Weird Al” Yankovic has forged a decades-long music career by turning popular earworms into comedic gold. Armed with an accordion and a wicked imagination, Yankovic pokes fun at hit songs—but he always asks for the artist’s permission. “Most artists look at it as a badge of honor or a rite of passage to get their Weird Al song parody,” he says. His fourteenth and latest studio album, Mandatory Fun, has been his most successful to date. With hits like “Tacky,” a riff on Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” and “Word Crimes,” a grammar-based take on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Yankovic continues to challenge the parameters of parody. He arrives at the Kravis Center on June 4 for a high-energy evening of polka pastiches, costume changes, and multiple iterations of the one-and-only Weird Al. Tickets start at $22.
Yankovic sat down with PBI.com to discuss song-parody secrets, the origin of his name, and the one artist who always refused to be parodied.
PBI.com: You started playing the accordion as a child. Why did the instrument appeal to you?
Yankovic: I don’t think I was begging my parents for accordion lessons, but I shared the same surname with Frankie Yankovic, who was well known at the time as America’s Polka King. Because my name already had an association with the accordion, I think my parents thought there should be at least one other accordion-playing Yankovic in the world. So they started getting me lessons. I think my first lesson was the day before my seventh birthday. I took lessons for three years, [and] that’s my formal musical training.
How did “weird” become part of your name?
That was in college. My sophomore year, I took a shift at the college campus radio station, and most of the DJs had some sort of wacky air name—like there was the Sheriff and the Captain and Macho Mike. I played sort of weird music during my shifts, and I thought “Okay, Weird Al—that works.” And it just kind of stuck.
What do you mean by weird music?
My show was sort of the surrogate Dr. Demento show for the college campus because we couldn’t pick up the Dr.’s show in San Luis Obispo, California. And if you don’t know Dr. Demento, I was a big fan of his growing up and obviously still am, but he plays all sorts of comedy and novelty records from his personal collection. Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, Stan Freberg, Tom Larrah, Frank Zappa, Monty Python, Shel Silverstein—it was that kind of music that really struck a responsive chord with me and influenced me to do the kind of music I did then and still do today.
When did you realize you had a gift for parody?
Some of my friends were encouraging me to send in my songs to the Dr. Demento show, and I thought “Aw, well, what could it hurt?” I sent in some stuff, and the first thing that I sent in I don’t think even made it to the air. They were pretty primitive and frankly bad. Dr. Demento was very encouraging and he saw some glimmer of hope there, so he encouraged me to send in more and over time my material got better. Then one day I sent in “My Bologna” and that actually became a bona fide hit on the show and there were people other than me who were calling on the request line asking for my song. And things got better from there. I like to think that I’m still improving. I don’t know if it’s accurate or not but for a long time I would say that every album that I put out was the best thing that I’d ever done because I’m [always] trying to top what I did before.
Mandatory Fun has been one of your most successful albums ever. Did you anticipate it becoming such a hit with fans?
I never in a million years would have anticipated it going to No. 1. That was something that I thought was beyond the realm of possibility because it had been over 50 years since a comedy album ever even hit No. 1. Mandatory Fun was literally the only comedy album in history to debut at No. 1. So, it’s unprecedented. I was hoping it would do well, I had no idea, but going to No. 1 really took everybody by surprise, especially me.
Why is it important to you to get permission from the artist before doing a parody?
A number or reasons. First of all, legally it’s a gray area. I like to make sure that the artist is okay with what I’m doing. I just don’t want to be in any kind of position where they could come back and sue me because we live in a very litigious society and people can sue even if there’s no legal ground. If they just wake up one morning and go “Oh, I think I’m going to sue Weird Al,” they can do that. And also it’s the right thing to do. Karmically, I’m a songwriter and I respect other songwriters and I wouldn’t want them to have hurt feelings or feel like I’m stepping on their toes. And I want to make sure that they feel like they’re in on the joke and they enjoy what I’m doing. Thankfully, at least these days, virtually everybody does.
Has anybody ever said no?
There were a number of times in the late ’80s and early ’90s when I wanted to do a Prince parody. I had three or four ideas that I pitched, which I thought were pretty good. In fact, in my movie UHF the original set piece was supposed to be based around a Prince parody, but he just never was up for the idea of a parody. I never got any kind of real rationale behind it, but it was always a flat refusal. To this day, he remains the one guy who has never allowed a parody.
What are some tips for writing parody songs?
It’s got to be funny for the whole song. I try not to go with an idea that basically is over after you hear the first joke. There’s got to be enough potential there where you can still be saying funny things in the second verse and the bridge and the third verse. It can’t peter out after the first chorus. Picking your target is also important, because you want to find a song that’s mainstream enough that people are familiar with it. Here’s another thing: Even if people aren’t familiar with it, it should be funny. It shouldn’t be dependent on whether you’re familiar with the source material. Those are two big things.
What’s your process for writing original songs? How does it differ from your process for working on parodies?
It’s a whole different process because obviously I’m writing the music as well. I tend to write a lot of pastiches now. I write songs in the style of another artist or group, but it’s still an original composition. I try to put on their skin and write a song that sounds very reminiscent of their style and yet it’s an original composition. And that to me is a real challenge because I have to really study an artist’s body of work and try to figure out what are the little idiosyncrasies, musically and lyrically, that define that sound. That’s really a fun puzzle for me to try to solve.
You were making viral videos before viral videos were a thing. In what ways have music videos played a role in your career?
For one thing, artistically, music videos allow me to add a lot of different dimensions and levels to the comedy because not only do you get the joke in the lyrics but you get the joke visually and you can even build in other sight gags. You can build in background gags, things that are happening that you don’t even see until the seventh time you’re watching the video. And videos, obviously, in the days when MTV was playing videos, that was a huge promotional tool. That gave me an enormous bump for my first several albums the fact that MTV was giving me that kind of exposure. It made me into a recognizable figure. Before “Eat It” went into heavy rotation on MTV, nobody knew who this Weird Al guy was or what I looked like and then literally overnight everybody did.
Has the advent of YouTube changed the way you approach making videos?
Now there is a level playing field and anybody can upload a comedy video or a parody video, [so] there’s just a lot of competition. There’s are tens of thousands of people doing music video parodies, so I don’t have the game to myself. That does two things to me: It makes me step up my game and realize that there’s a lot of other people trying to get attention. Also, it makes me not go for the low-hanging fruit. There are a lot of song parodies that are obvious. The most obvious parody of “Beat It” would be “Eat It” and I couldn’t do something that obvious now because there would be a million other “Eat It” parodies up there. So I try to think outside the box a little bit and think of something that’s a little less obvious when I do my parodies now because I just realize that anything that’s obvious will have already been beaten to death.
Do you think that pushes you to do better parodies?
I like to think so. That’s sort of what I did with the “Word Crimes” video. Everybody was doing parodies of “Blurred Lines” and kind of making fun of the misogyny in the video. I knew I couldn’t do anything like that because by the time my parody came out “Blurred Lines” was a year old so anything that even smacked of that would feel very dated. But I thought “Well, I bet nobody’s ever taken that song and done a treatment of it where they’re talking about the proper usage of grammar.”
As a writer, I have to thank you for that song. Do you fancy yourself a stickler for grammar?
Yeah, that was fun for me to do because I do get bothered by bad grammar and I am a bit of a stickler. And I need to point out, because I’ve been taken to task by Grammar Girl and a few other people, that I am not the character in the song. I am playing a character and it’s an exaggeration. So I probably wouldn’t hit you with a lead pipe if your grammar wasn’t up to par but it does bother me from time to time.
You’ve acted quite a bit. What keeps pulling you back to the craft?
I love doing the song parodies and I love doing funny music, and the recording and the music videos and the touring is all fun, too, but I love to branch out and do stuff I haven’t done before. It’s nice when I can branch out and do something that still has my sensibility but is just something a little different. Given the opportunity to be in movies or TV is always fun. I’m doing Comedy Bang Bang now, which is a real treat for me. So I get to do scripted comedy and I get to do improv and I have a lot of fun. I get to work with some of the funniest people in the world. I feel like I get to stretch a little bit and have a great time.
Do you have any plans for what you’ll be doing while you’re on tour in Florida?
I do very little actual sightseeing when I’m on the road because the tour schedule is so hectic, I tend to save my energy. I used to do that. I used to go out and hit the town and I’d wonder why I’d be so tired when it came to show time. Now I basically save my energy for the two hours I’m on stage.
What can audiences expect from your show?
If they were able to see the show last year, it’s the same show. It’s still the Mandatory Fun tour. But if they’re not familiar with it, it’s two hours of high-energy, rocking comedy. We do a lot of stuff from the latest album. We do, I think, probably a little something from all my albums dating from the very first one. So it’s a kind of greatest hits show. There’s a lot of costume changes, a lot of props. There’s film clips on a big screen. It’s a very theatrical show, there’s a lot of production. We try to make sure there’s never a dull moment and make sure people get their money’s worth.
All photos by Robert Trachtenberg and courtesy of Weird Al Yankovic