The title of a 1986 live album by the late, great Frank Zappa posed the question, “Does Humor Belong in Music?” When it comes to his fellow musician anarchist and certain humorous descendant “Weird Al” Yankovic, the answer remains a resounding “yes.” Mocking hit songs and pop culture for nearly 40 years, Yankovic has sold 12 million albums, scored four Grammys, released a 1989 cult fave film UHF, and issued a series of hit singles and equally lauded accompanying videos, all while earning an unwavering loyal fanbase — which I am hereby naming “Yankheads.” Yankovic’s latest release, Mandatory Fun, sets its sights on artists ranging from Robin Thicke and Lorde to Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Pixies. Yankovic returns to The Florida Theatre on Aug. 16 on his aptly named Mandatory Fun tour.
Undoubtedly threaded through the lineage of previous comedic-melodic geniuses including Spike Jones, Homer and Jethro, Tom Lehrer, and Zappa, Yankovic is a master of lampooning the ever-shifting music scene. And, like his aforementioned predecessors, the now-55-year-old Yankovic has created an estimable catalog that rivals, if not surpasses, the very musicians who’ve been the targets of his good-natured takedowns. And did we mention he’s a shredder accordion player?!
Folio Weekly spoke to Yankovic via phone before he headed out on the road. We talked about moving on from the world of major labels, the criteria of satirizing a song, and how looking directly at Prince is a forbidden act.
Folio Weekly: I want you to know that I modeled these questions after your Al TV interviewing technique.
“Weird Al” Yankovic: Uh, oh. [Laughs.] Now I’m worried.
I’m a little confused by some things I’ve read about the new album. The Washington Times seemed to imply that Mandatory Fun is your last record and an NPR segment seemed to rebut that. Do you think this will be your last record or last on a major label?
Well, I don’t know about the NPR thing rebutting it. I never really said I was retiring or stopping recording, I just meant that, and I didn’t mean to draw any kind of hard line in the sand and say I’m absolutely not doing any more albums, but I would say at this point that it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever again release a conventional album. Especially because of the kind of music that I do, it doesn’t behoove me to have 12 songs and release them all at once. I think it’s better for me to be topical and timely and release things in spurts or maybe a single at a time or a couple tracks at a time. And because I had an album deal for all these years, I was sort of beholden to the state of that format. I’m not saying that the album as a medium is dying; I think it’s probably on the wane. But for me, it doesn’t seem like the best way for me to get my stuff out there. So yeah, to answer your question, this probably is my last conventional album — but I’m still going to be putting out material.
In a way, it seems like you’ve come full circle, starting with your earliest days on Dr. Demento’s radio show. You were surely an “indie” artist in the sense that he was playing your homemade tapes. Fast-forward 35 years; you post these eight videos on YouTube, which in turn propels the new album into a No. 1 hit. Are you naturally comfortable with this grassroots/DIY sensibility?
Well, that’s sort of the way it’s come to be, because the record industry has had to reinvent itself in the last 15 years or so. The whole industry’s imploded and everyone’s back to the drawing board to try and figure out, “What works? How do we sell ourselves? How do we promote? How do we exist and still stay in business in this day and age?” And what I did last year on YouTube with the “eight videos in eight days” thing was just a promotional thing that I thought would work well. And it worked better than my wildest expectations. Instead of having a record company have a budget for some expensive video, I found that working with partners who need content was the best way for me to get my videos made. And it made the partners very happy, too.
It’s baffling to me, since you’re known so much for your videos. They’re as iconic as the actual songs. So RCA wouldn’t fund your videos?
Well, I wouldn’t say completely they wouldn’t fund them, but after my Lady Gaga parody [“Perform This Way,” a sendup of her hit, “Born This Way”], which was kind of an expensive video, they sent the message loud and clear that you’re not going to do any more big-budget videos. So I’m sure if I wanted to do one or two videos on the cheap, they would come through, but I got the impression that they weren’t very happy with some of my videos. [Laughs.] So that gave me the impetus to reach out to all of these partners and still turn out quality product but not have to do it on the label’s nickel.
Is your new song, “Mission Statement,” which combines industry jargon with a parody of Crosby, Stills & Nash, pulled directly from those types of meetings?
Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] I’ve been in enough marketing meetings with business people where I’ve gleaned “business-speak” over the years.
You’re geared toward being very current. A hit song will come out and you’re right behind it with your parody. Do you feel like you have to like the song? Or is it more a matter of just mocking it?
You know, my personal feeling is that I feel that doesn’t really enter into it. Basically, I’m there to poke fun at whatever’s popular. But having said that, I tend to gravitate toward songs that I like, especially since I might be playing them onstage for the rest of my life. [Laughs.] I have to say I’m not one of these people that actively dislikes any kind of music. I think that’s more of a thing when you’re younger. You get very passionate about things that you don’t like: “Oh, I hate that music!” I just don’t have that kind of emotion. If it’s something that doesn’t appeal to me, I say, “Well, that’s not for me.” But to answer your question, I can’t say I’ve parodied something I never liked.
Does it ever seem weird to you that your songs have long since outlived the careers and popularity of many of the very artists you’ve parodied?
Well, it certainly seems ironic. [Laughs.] It’s very odd, particularly considering how I started my career. Basically, I tried for some time to get my record deal and universally what I heard back was, “Oh, you’re very funny, this is very clever, but we’re looking for people who are going to be around for a while. And you doing this novelty stuff is going to be here today and gone tomorrow. We’re looking to build careers.” So just the fact that, now 35 years on, and I’m still hanging around and a lot of people who were big in 1982 … [Laughs.]
Yeah, Aldo Nova has sailed on. This is my Hollywood Babylon question, so bear with me. Did Prince actually send a telegram from his lawyers forbidding you to look at him during the American Music Awards ceremony?
That sounds like an urban legend but that’s absolutely true. I’m not sure if it was his lawyers, but it was definitely from his office, requesting that I not establish eye contact with him. And I found out after the fact that I wasn’t singled out. I found out later that there were people seated in his vicinity who received the same telegram. So there was a whole cluster of people [Laughs.] that got “Don’t Look at Prince” telegrams.
Does this mean that a pay-per-view “Weird Al” versus Prince staring contest is completely out of the question for 2016?
[Laughs.] I’m up for it! I’m on board, but you got to ask him.