by LIZA MITCHELL
It’s hard to imagine Weird Al Yankovic as anything other than, well, weird. The average Joe would be hard pressed to pull off Coolio braids or traditional Amish dress without appearing a little peculiar unless they are actually Coolio or Amish.
The artist and comedian known to the world as Weird Al Yankovic seemingly mastered the art of weird by turning weird into art. He makes it cool to be ‘White and Nerdy,’ as he did in his spin-off of Chamillionaire’s hit ‘Ridin’ [Dirty].’ In 30-odd years, Yankovic has spoofed the best pop culture has to offer, memorably morphing Madonna’s iconic ‘Like a Virgin’ into ‘Like a Surgeon’ and Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ into the butter-churning anthem ‘Amish Paradise.’
Alfred “Weird Al” Yankovic isn’t weird at all. He is a polite, educated and well-spoken father of one who just happened to parlay his childhood practice of poking fun at popular music into a lengthy and lucrative career. He also plays a mean accordion. In a telephone interview from a New Hampshire production office, Yankovic insists his good fortune was not by design but the result of a well-timed series of lucky breaks.
“It was certainly not a serious master plan to make a career out of making fun of songs on the radio when I was eight years old. I did it to amuse my friends. I never thought I would make a 30-year career out of it,” he said. “I actually have a degree in architecture. I was going to be a grown-up but after I sent in a few of my songs to the Dr. Demento radio show, I built sort of a cult following and the lucky breaks just kept coming.”
An early comedy enthusiast, Yankovic began submitting homemade tapes of original material to the Dr. Demento radio program when he was still in high school. He received some air time and later went on to host his own college radio show where he adopted the professional persona known as “Weird Al.”
In 1979, Yankovic took advantage of the acoustics in a college restroom and recorded his answer to the Knack’s chart topper ‘My Sharona’ with his accordion. His first single ‘My Bologna’ was released as a single by Capitol Records following positive feedback from Dr. Demento’s listeners and a chance meeting with Knack front man Doug Fieger. It was Fieger who pressed Capitol suits into signing the little known comic.
“‘My Bologna’ was actually the first song that became a bonafide hit on the show beyond my own circle of friends that called in to request songs,” Yankovic says. “These were people I didn’t know that actually liked my songs.”
Yankovic earned notoriety for his ode to bologna but didn’t pull in much cash for the undertaking. “I think I was paid a total of $500 for the master recording,” he says, noting that years later, he had to fork over $1,000 to Capital Records to be able to re-record the song. That’s when he knew he’d hit pay dirt.“It got me thinking, ‘I don’t want to be an architect any more. This is way more fun’.”
Yankovic enjoys his work and takes his craft seriously but he makes sure never to take himself too seriously. He knows that some people may disregard his material as relevant art. He’s always said he doesn’t want to make “serious music.” Yankovic is happy in the role of the court jester. Especially now that he’s getting paid to do something he did as a kid to get a laugh from his buddies.
“I never had any hidden agenda,” he says. “Some other bands release a novelty song and then go ‘I’m glad I got your attention. Now here is what I really want to do’ and they put out their real music. I love comedy and I love music. To be able to do both and parlay that into a career is outstanding.”
Yankovic is always grateful when an established artist allows him to parody their material. In turn, several artists consider being satirized by Yankovic as a benchmark of their own success. Others, like Prince, have consistently refused permission to spoof his stuff.
“Every couple of years I check in and see if he’s lightened up,” Yankovic says. “He always says no and never gives a reason. If you ever interview him, please ask him for me.”
Chamillionaire even credited Yankovic for his Grammy win for ‘Ridin’,’ stating in the press that “Weird Al is not gonna do a parody of your song if you’re not doing it big.”
Coolio, however, went on record saying he never granted Yankovic permission to cover his hit ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ although Yankovic maintains that his label did. The resulting video for ‘Amish Paradise’ featured Florence Henderson in the same stare-down role first played by Michelle Pheiffer in the Coolio cut.
When asked how he managed to hook Carol Brady in a bonnet, Yankovic said, “I figured Michelle Pheiffer was busy that day and Florence Henderson is the next go-to actress for these kind of things.”
As an artist, Yankovic is unpredictable. You never know what he will come up with next. But he always has a few irons in the fire. He is finishing up his current tour and wrapping up writing songs for his new release due out next year. He is tight-lipped about who might crop up on the next record but one thing is for sure: it won’t be Prince.
when the going gets strange…
by LIZA MITCHELL