“Weird Al” Yankovic
Polka On My Mind:
Georgia, Accordion to “Weird Al” Yankovic
Although I realize such misguided people exist in this woebegone world, anyone who claims to steadfastly dislike “Weird Al” Yankovic, or at the basic level professes no appreciation for him or understanding of his ongoing appeal, is someone whose judgment I will always view with suspicion.
This guy has the funnest job in the world. On top of that, he’s really great at it. It’s one thing to poke fun at pop songs and pop culture; they’re an endless supply of easy targets. It’s another thing altogether to do it with such inspired, consistent, offbeat wit that sends both children and adults into helpless giggling fits. Sure, Yankovic’s parodies and frenzied polka mash-ups are exceedingly silly, but they’re also pretty sharp. Even the ones about food. (And no, they’re not all about food.) In fact, I would maintain that most of Al’s parodies are actually better than the original songs. They’re certainly more entertaining.
The truth is, “Weird Al” Yankovic has done what conventional wisdom would consider improbable at best: he’s outlasted a good many of the very acts he’s satirized. “The irony of my life!” Al quipped during a recent phone conversation. “When I started out, nobody wanted to give me a record deal. They said, ‘Oh, comedy music? Yeah, good luck. You’ll be gone in three months.’” Instead, nearly 40 years after the great Dr. Demento first began giving national airplay to young Yankovic’s early songs like “Belvedere Cruisin’” and “My Bologna,” Weird Al’s become what he terms a “novelty dinosaur.” His latest, fourteenth studio album, 2014’s Mandatory Fun, imaginatively spoofed acts ranging from Robin Thicke and Iggy Azalea to Crosby, Stills & Nash and Southern Culture on the Skids; it was his first number one album, and won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album. His music videos – which have long been a huge, vital component of his output – continue to be a nutty joy, and best of all, like nearly everything else nowadays they’re instantly accessible on YouTube. Speaking with him, it’s obvious that he’s still as enthusiastic as ever, and God bless him, he’s still keeping it all clean and kid-friendly. Not that I’m a prude, but I just find it immeasurably admirable, in this decaying day and age, that he resists the temptation to foul himself up like everything else. He cares about the image he projects. That’s almost unthinkable anymore.
Back on tour this summer with his loyal, longstanding band (Al met his drummer, Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, in 1980, while guitarist Jim “Kimo” West and bassist Steve Jay came on board in ’82; joining in 1991, keyboardist Ruben Valtierra is the “new guy”), Yankovic, 56, will bring his multimedia circus to the Fox Theatre on Sunday, June 19th. Being that he’s satirized the songs of numerous Georgia-based acts over the years, I decided to ask him about of few of them…
“Mr. Popeil” (“Weird Al” Yankovic in 3D, 1984): An original song about Veg-O-Matic inventor Samuel Popeil and his son Ron, founder of Ronco, done in the style of the B-52’s
“I’ve always been a huge fan of the B-52’s, they’ve always been very inspirational to me. I’ll never forget being in college radio and getting their debut album. At the time, it was so unusual, very new wave, and I loved it, but a lot of people (laughs) couldn’t stand it! Which made it even better! It felt like something just for me. But I mean, those first couple albums, I had them completely memorized. That was on constant rotation around my dorm room.”
“Living with a Hernia” (Polka Party, 1986): Parody of James Brown’s “Living in America”
“James Brown and I were on the same label, we were both on Scotti Brothers, so there was that connection there when I did the parody. But a few years later, I was on Celebrity Wheel of Fortune with James Brown. My manager had asked me if I wanted to be on it, and I said, ‘…No, that sounds kinda cheesy – I’d rather not do that.’ And he said, ‘Well, you’d be playing against Little Richard and James Brown.’ ‘Oh yeah? Definitely, I’m there – that’ll be amazing!’ And when James Brown showed up to do the show, he had no clue how to play Wheel of Fortune. I don’t think he’d ever even played Hangman in his life! So they had to go over the rules of the show with him. They did a practice round with him – this was before the cameras were rolling. They just kinda went through the show, and James would spin the wheel, and it would land on a number, and he would go, ‘Ahhh, gimme a…Gimme an A!’ And they’d say, ‘Well, no, James – when you spin the wheel you have to pick a consonant. And he’d say, ‘Oh, uhhh… Europe!’ Ha ha ha! And the show wasn’t much better than that, it was just the most surrealistic piece of television ever, and I’m glad to be a part of it! It was sooo bizarre.”
“Spam” (UHF Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff, 1989): Parody of R.E.M.’s “Stand”
“I met Mike Mills many, many years ago. It was kinda cute – he came up to me and he started telling me how much he liked whatever album I had out at the time, and then he kind of stopped himself and said, ‘Ugh – I hate when people do this to me!’ He felt himself fanboying and then he kinda stopped himself! Which was really sweet. He’s a really great guy. They’ve always been one of my favorite bands, and I think it’s pretty obvious, because I’ve done a full-on parody, I’ve done a pastiche with ‘Frank’s 2000” TV’ – that’s an original song that’s supposed to sound like R.E.M. – and I’ve done a couple of their songs on the polka medleys. I did ‘Losing My Religion’ and also ‘Bang and Blame’ at some other time. So they’ve been well represented in my body of work.”
“Phony Calls” (Bad Hair Day, 1996): Parody of TLC’s “Waterfalls”
“I co-presented with them at… I wanna say the American Music Awards one year. It was me and the girls from TLC. Dick Clark at the time told me that I had to be the ‘authority figure,’ (laughs) because he wasn’t sure if they were gonna go off the rails or not. So he said that I had to kind of hold it together and make sure they stayed on point. Which is kind of weird, when you’re looking to Weird Al to be the adult in the room! Ha ha ha!”
The Black Crowes – music video for “Only a Fool,” directed by Yankovic in Atlanta in 1999
“You know, I’m a video director as well. I’ve directed most of my videos since the early ‘90s, and some other bands took notice of that, and they wanted a little bit of my sensibility in their videos. So, the video I did for the Black Crowes was not a ‘comedy’ video, but you know, it had some quirky stuff in it, and it was interesting visually. I’m not sure exactly why they sought me out, but they did, and I had a great time directing it. They allowed me to do some pretty ridiculous things with them, and we all had a pretty great time. I remember there were Krispy Kreme donuts on the set, hahaha!”
Were they filled with pot? Or just there for their constant munchies?
“I have a vague memory of that as well, that sometimes it took them a little longer to get out of the dressing room! That might’ve been it, yeah.”
“Confessions Part III” (Straight Outta Lynwood, 2006): Parody of Usher’s “Confessions Part II”
“I think the last time I actually ran into Usher was backstage at some Grammy party when Justin Bieber was just coming on the scene, and of course Usher was very involved with that, and I got to meet Usher and Justin at the same time. And Usher obviously has a great sense of humor, and enjoyed the parody. I’m very thankful to all these artists for having a good enough sense of humor to allow me to do what I do.”
“Whatever You Like” and “Another Tattoo” (Alpocalypse, 2011): Parodies of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” and B.o.B’s “Nothin’ On You,” respectively
“Rap is really good for parody, because there are a lot of words to play with. A lot of pop songs are a bit repetitive, or they don’t have a lot of syllables, and it’s sorta hard to get a joke across if you don’t have enough words to play with. But with rap, there’s obviously no shortage of words.
“The T.I. parody was notable, because that was my first shot at digital distribution. This was before the album came out. I thought, well, now that iTunes is around, and we live in such a digital age, I wonder if I can just come up with a parody, and just get it out there while the original song is still a big hit. So I did that with T.I. His song hit number one, and I came up with an idea, got it approved, went into the studio, put it out there, and within two weeks my parody was online, was on iTunes. It was really nice to be able to do that.
“I finished my record deal with my last album. I signed my record deal in 1982 – it wound up being a 14-album deal, and Mandatory Fun was my fourteenth album, so in just 32 short years, I was able to fulfill my contractual obligations! I’m not on a label now, I’m indie, I don’t have to do any more albums – I’m completely unbeholdin’ to anybody, and I think going forward, I’m probably just going to release things digitally, maybe just a single at a time, or maybe an EP or so, but I don’t wanna be tied down to albums anymore. I think it wouldn’t behoove me to wait ’til I have 12 songs and then release them all at once, because a lot of those songs are somewhat timely and topical, and I don’t want them to seem dated.”
Photo by David Becker.