‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Talks About Everything
Somewhere along the line, it became cool to like ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. (Al himself thinks this happened around 2006.) This is something that I wish I could relay to my 10-year-old self as some sort of early validation. (“Hey, there’s no need to hide ‘Dare to Be Stupid’ behind ‘Licensed to Ill’ when your friends come over, you won’t know any of these people in ten years anyway,” I’d tell myself.)
Yankovic’s first video off of his 14th full-length studio album, ‘Mandatory Fun’ (available now on Amazon and iTunes) — a parody of Pharrell’s ‘Happy’, titled ‘Tacky’ — received a swarm of media coverage. Yankovic’s modern day popularity is a cross between newfound respect for a guy who’s been successfully parodying music for over 30 years and that Yankovic’s videos were tailor-made for the Internet.
It’s almost impossible to stay on topic when interviewing ‘Weird Al’. He’s a walking encyclopedia of popular culture knowledge and every answer leaves multiple alleyways to explore. Ahead, the topics covered include ‘Star Wars,’ ‘UHF,’ Charlie Kaufman, Malcolm Gladwell, Bruce Springsteen, ‘The LEGO’ Movie, his favorite movie of all-time, Joe Piscopo, ‘The Naked Gun,’ ‘Rocky’ and a host of other topics that don’t have much to do with one another.
I’ve been a listener of your music for over 30 years. You’ve outlasted 95 percent of the people you’ve parodied.
[Laughs] It kind of seems that way. That’s sort of the irony of my life, because when I first started out no record label wanted to sign me because I did comedy music and, “Oh, that’s novelty; that’s here today, gone tomorrow.”
Well, for most artists, it is.
Well, yeah, historically that’s true. I’ve become sort of the novelty dinosaur. I’ve managed to hang around exponentially longer than most people would have thought.
It’s “cool” to like you now. And I feel this is part of a bigger cultural event with the prominence of nerd culture and superhero movies in recent years. Do you notice this?
I didn’t know if I was imagining it. But, I’ve definitely kind of felt that — like, in the last decade. And I think you’re correct, I think it’s partly because the rise of nerd culture. When I did ‘White and Nerdy’ an 2006, this wasn’t premeditated, but the timing just seemed to work out great because that was sort of the tipping point for nerd culture, I think. At that point, people realized, well, hey, nerds are cool and nerds rule the world. And, all of a sudden, people were like trying to establish their nerd credentials. Like, “Hey, I’m a nerd!” People were like it was something they were always striving to be all of a sudden. I had never experienced that at any point prior in my life.
And you’re not hurting for coverage for this new album. I see it everywhere without even looking for it. It’s like you’re in vogue now, and when I bought ‘Dare to Be Stupid’ as a little kid, I never thought that would happen.
Yeah, to some extent. It took a long time before people sort of got the idea that I wasn’t going away. And then it sort of becomes a nostalgia thing. And now it’s sort of like I’ve become an elder statesman of sorts for this kind of comedy and music, I suppose.
But the people that have followed you haven’t become quite as popular as you. Why is that?
I don’t know. I’d say to give them time. I have a bit of a head start. I have an unfair advantage. I started much earlier and if you go by the Malcolm Gladwell saying, I’ve put in my 10,000 hours. But there are a lot of people out there right now that are doing funny music that are great that I love. I mean, The Lonely Island is at the top of their game. Tenacious D, Flight of the Conchords.
But all of those acts, that’s not their main gig anymore. For all of them, that’s become their side projects.
Perhaps. I mean, I do other things as well, but this is my main thing. I love comedy music and this is my dream day job.
You mentioned 10,000 hours. Do you find this easier than you used to?
Well, I guess it’s more automatic. The synapses of my brain are now wired to think in these terms and to write songs like this. But, it’s more of a challenge on a number of levels. Because, number one, because I have been doing it for so long, I’m trying to be funny in different ways and not just repeat the same tropes and concepts that I’ve done in the past, if I can help it. And also because of portals like YouTube, I have to make sure that whatever I do kind of stands above everything else. Because there’s 10,000 people doing a parody of any given song these days and I have to be unique in some way.
You wait longer between albums than you did in the past, which seems to have created a true anticipation.
It feels like every album that I do is a “comeback” album.
But that’s not true.
But people perceive it that was, “Oh, Al’s back.” And it’s just sort of a nice thing. I give people a long time to recuperate from the last album and miss me a little bit, hopefully. In the ’80s, I released an album virtually every year. And I think a lot of that came out of fear, because it was drilled into me that I was going to be here today, gone tomorrow. I wanted to make sure people weren’t going to forget me. So, here’s another album! And here’s another album! Sometime in the early ’90s, I kind of was feeling more comfortable, “Well, I think I might be able to stay around a little while, so I’m going to take a little bit more time and really make every album an event.” So, it became more of a three to four year release schedule at that point.
It’s the 25th anniversary of ‘UHF.’
It’s unbelievable. It feels like yesterday.
I re-watched it last night. I was surprised by how structurally normal the narrative is — it’s not a Tim and Eric movie. Does that make sense?
It does. If I had it to do over again, I probably would have done it much differently. Because the actual plot was very traditional and very cookie cutter and I should have been lampooning plots like that. But, the original concept was that we’ll have a very straight, conventional plot structure and they’re just going to hang all these parodies and takeoffs off of the plot structure. Which is what we did, but I think that the parodies worked well on their own. But, yeah, if I had it to do over again, I think I would have had the plot itself be a little more left-of-center.
So it would have been a more esoteric movie?
Well, I don’t know. After ‘UHF’ bombed at the box office, every single night before I went to sleep I thought, I should have done this! Or, I could have done that! You know, Monday morning quarterback for quite some time. So, I know that I would have changed it somehow and I can’t articulate exactly what that would have been.
Its cult status doesn’t change your mind that you might have done it the right way?
Well, I stopped having the nightmares. I stopped waking up in a cold sweat saying, “Oh no, the third act was wrong!” So, the cult status and the love from the fans goes a long way toward mitigating that. I’m at peace with it now. I remember the week before the movie came out, I was talking to some interviewer and we had a pleasant interview, and at the end he’s like, “This is going to be a great cult movie.” And I was offended at the time because I was thinking, Oh, what are you talking about? This is a summer blockbuster!
He spoke the truth.
He was completely right and, you know, I’m thankful that it did become a cult classic.
If you look at the movies it was up against: ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,’ ‘Batman,’…
Yeah, if ‘UHF’ had come out at any other time of the year, it probably would have done quite a bit better. But it just got swallowed up.
You kind of poo-pooed the plot, but I think people like it because with all this weirdness going on, there’s a sweet story in there.
Yeah, there’s something to be said for that as well. I’ve got to combat my George Lucas tendencies to want to redo everything I did early on.
You love ‘Star Wars,’ don’t you?
I do, yes.
In your song ‘Yoda,’ the line about “I’ll be making these movies until the end of time,” shortly after its release was when George Lucas scrapped the idea of nine movies and said it would just be six. And I remember thinking, Oh, Weird Al was wrong.
Oh, I knew!
Now, you’re right again.
Also, for the ‘Theme from Rocky XIII,’ I had a thing about Rocky getting old and working in a deli. To this day, I have not seen the last Rocky movie, but I think he is actually working in a deli in that movie.
I think he opened a restaurant.
Maybe that’s it. But, pretty close!
I would bet they serve sandwiches.
I can’t figure out your relationship with Bruce Springsteen. You’ve never parodied one of his songs, but you did that fake interview with him and you’ve done original songs kind of in his style. I’ve never seen him on those “15 People Who Won’t Let Weird Al Use Their Songs” lists.
No, no, no. It’s totally fine. That’s one of those cases where it’s just never worked out for me to do a straight-on Springsteen parody, for whatever reason. Either the timing wasn’t right or he didn’t have a big enough single at the time my album was coming out. Or I just flat out couldn’t think of a clever enough idea for one of his songs. So, yeah, that seems like a glaring omission, but I never got around to doing that. But it’s not because he doesn’t have a good sense of humor, he’s got a great sense of humor.
Which is why this always confused me.
He’s really cool. I got to meet him very briefly after he stepped off stage. I was invited to one of his shows and I got to say hi and shake his hand, very briefly, which was a thrill. In fact, there was a Rolling Stone cover story on him — and this is back in the ’90s — and they were talking about how he was on stage complaining about his poor record sales.
He mentions you and Kris Kross.
“I see Weird Al and Kris Kross!”
And Def Leppard.
Right! It was Def Leppard!
I have the bootleg of that, he was singing ‘Glory Days.’ He called you “Weird Al Yankocitch.”
He can call me Yankocitch. He’s got permission.
Do you remember ‘The Dana Carvey Show”?
Yeah, it was really good.
They had Steve Carell, Steven Colbert…
And Charlie Kaufman.
That’s who I wanted to mention.
I know what you’re going to bring up.
On that show, he wrote an unaired sketch about your little brother, “Weirder Al,” who parodies your songs by changing them back to their original form.
I had read about that. I would die to see if that ever made it to dress rehearsal, I would have loved to have seen a tape of that. [Laughs] I’m very honored that Charlie wrote that.
Then there was “Weirdest Al,” who sang in gibberish.
Charlie Kaufman should just write all television.
Your short scene in ‘The Naked Gun’ still holds up.
I was just excited to be in ‘The Naked Gun’ because ‘Police Squad!,’ the TV show it’s based on, was flat out my favorite TV show of all time and still is. It was six episodes, but just perfect. I love the show so much, and Robert K. Weiss, who worked with the Zucker brothers, I was working with him on another project called ‘The Complete Al’ and Robert actually co-directed some of my videos early on. But, I found out he was going to be working on ‘The Naked Gun’ and I said, “Bob, I don’t care what, but I need to be in this movie. Put me in the crowd scene. I’ll do craft services, I just want to be on the set.” And he relayed that to the Zucker brothers and they wrote that scene in for me, which was amazing. I read the script and I think I probably got weepy because this is my dream come true.
What movies do you watch? Do you see ‘Transformers’ or ‘Planet of the Apes’?
I don’t go to a lot of movies. Normally I like comedies and I have an 11-year-old daughter, so I loved ‘The LEGO Movie.’ I just love the fact that it appeals to everybody, regardless if you’re a toddler or a grandparent.
You should work with those guys, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord.
Oh, I’ve got to tell you this Phil Lord story. I met him at a party like a year and a half ago. And I didn’t know who he was. And we’re just chatting and he says he’s a director and I say, “Oh, that’s great. What are you doing?” He says, “Oh, I’m doing a LEGO movie. It’s a movie all done in LEGOs.” And I was like, “Well, that’s nice.” And I said, “I think there’s a White Stripes video all done in LEGOs.” He’s like, “Yeah, I’ve seen that.” And I said, “Oh yeah, well, good luck with that. Have you done anything else?” He goes, “Oh, yeah, my previous movie was ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.’” And I’m like, “Oh.” So, I felt very, very stupid. And David Wain’s movie, I went to the west coast premiere, ‘They Came Together.’ A lot of spoof movies in the last couple of decades are more like reference movies. “Oh, remember this pop culture moment?” And they’re not funny. They’re just pointing to things going “ha ha.”
Do you remember ‘Top Secret!’?
It’s my favorite movie. Are you kidding me? My absolute favorite movie.
To your point, the third act of that movie spoofs ‘The Blue Lagoon.’ But it doesn’t matter that ‘The Blue Lagoon’ is barely remembered because it’s still so funny.
That’s one of the big rules of parody, it has to be funny even if you’re not familiar with the source material. If it’s dependent on you knowing something, forget it.
With your songs though, do you have to know ‘Like a Virgin’ to find ‘Like a Surgeon’ funny?
It’s funnier if you’ve seen ‘The Blue Lagoon,’ but those scenes in ‘Top Secret!’ are still funny if you haven’t. And I like to think the same with my parodies. Any parody on the new album, I would like to think it stands on its own merit even if you’re not familiar with the source material. But, if you are, obviously that’s an added plus.
You did the theme to ‘Johnny Dangerously.’
Oh, yeah! ‘This is the Life.’
I find that movie funny, but it didn’t do well at the box office. Does that change how you feel about the song?
I mean, the song was the song, regardless of how the movie does. And I enjoyed the movie as well. My friend Amy Heckerling directed that and I think she did a great job and that movie stands up. It’s still a very funny movie and I’m proud to have a song in it.
Joe Piscopo has some funny lines.
Yeah. I remember the movie studio was kind of saying, “Oh, you know, we thought Al’s song was going to get big MTV airplay.” I’m like, it sounds like a song from the ’20s! Because it’s supposed to be relevant to your movie! Therefore, MTV didn’t feel like they should put it in heavy rotation. So, I’m sorry it didn’t fit your marketing plan.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.