"Weird Al" Yankovic
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Pop-music parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic has released more than a dozen studio albums over nearly three decades, outliving many of the one-hit-wonder acts he satirizes. Perhaps that's because he's more ambitious than the typical flavor-of-the-month band: He's also had a feature film (1989's UHF) and a children's TV series (CBS' The Weird Al Show in 1997). Neither were commercial or critical successes, but Yankovic remains tenacious—he's currently pitching a new movie and a TV series. Yankovic recently spoke to The A.V. Club while on tour with his latest album, Straight Outta Lynwood.
The A.V. Club: What makes one song more challenging than another to parody?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: There's a lot of different ways that a song would be a challenge to parody. There are a lot of songs that would ostensibly be a good candidate for parody, yet I can't think of a clever enough idea. Some songs are too repetitive for me to be able to fashion a humorous set of lyrics around. Some songs flat-out just don't work creatively for me. [Laughs.] It's hard to really articulate what the parameters are that make one song parody-able and another song not, but if I can come up with a good enough idea for it, I go for it, and if not, then I have to move on.
AVC: Is there one in particular you really wanted to work but couldn't?
WAY: I wouldn't say there's one in particular. If you look at the polka medleys I've released on my albums throughout the years, those are littered with songs that I thought might have been good parodies, and yet I thought "Maybe this time around, I'd just polkacize this." [Laughs.]
AVC: In a Random Rules last year, Nirvana popped up, and you expressed dissatisfaction with the state of pop music. Doesn't that in turn affect the quality of your music?
WAY: For the parodies, certainly, the source material is going to affect the final product, because it's going to sound amazingly like whatever I'm parodying. It's suffered in comparison, I guess. It's not that I think pop music today is so bad, but I guess I was such a fan of that era of music. I like the guitar-driven music of Nirvana at its peak. At that point, I thought there was a lot of really exciting music coming out. A lot of the music today doesn't excite me the same way. It's just a personal thing.
AVC: Is it harder for you to find songs to parody if you aren't engaged with current popular music?
WAY: Well, no, not at all. My personal taste doesn't enter into it a lot when I make my decisions as to what to parody. The primary consideration is whether a song is popular. Whether it's a rap, rock, or zydeco song, if it's captured the zeitgeist, it's fair game. Having said that, I tend to pick songs that I actually enjoy, because I know that I have to be living with that song for a big chunk of my life if I decide to do it.
AVC: A lot of bands say they feel they've made it when you've parodied one of their songs. When did you feel you'd made it?
WAY: I'd probably have to say when I appeared on The Simpsons. That, to me, was reaching a pop-cultural plateau.
AVC: That was only a couple of years ago.
WAY: Yeah. And, in fact, they had me back and did a little recording session for the new season. So I'm one of the few celebrities that got to do a repeat performance on The Simpsons, which I'm very flattered by. Just to do a recording session sitting next to Dan Castellaneta, to do a scene with Homer Simpson, was a pretty high point in my life.
AVC: If you could redo one of your parodies, which would it be and why?
WAY: It'd probably be something off my first album, because my whole first album was recorded extremely quickly, and without a lot of attention to detail or production value. Basically, we didn't have any money, and we were doing it as quickly as we could. The perfectionist in me would like to just re-record that whole first album, although I don't have the George Lucas impulse to actually redo everything I've done in the past. [Laughs.] I like to let things exist in their historical perspective. People like "Another One Rides The Bus" the way that it is, with my drummer banging on the accordion case. I don't think they'd really want to hear it done with Pro Tools in a 98-track studio.
AVC: You were in a Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! sketch with Bob Odenkirk. Did you have words with him about his Daffy "Mal" Yinkleyankle parody of you from Mr. Show?
WAY: I e-mailed him a long time ago about that. [Laughs.] I was flattered, in a weird way. It was a pretty savage parody, but I thought it was very funny. He really kind of zeroed in on everything that's irritating about me. [Laughs.]
AVC: There's also a racist portrayal of a Japanese man in that parody. How does that relate to you?
WAY: [Laughs.] I don't do any racist humor that I'm aware of, but I guess in order to make their parody funnier, they took some creative license.
AVC: How much of a sense of humor do you have about people parodying you?
WAY: Well, I don't really live in a glass house. I can't get too offended when somebody parodies me. I think it was pretty cool. I'm a big fan of Bob Odenkirk. I think he's very funny, and I was honored to be part of Mr. Show, in an oblique bleak way. I think it was one of the great TV series of all time.
AVC: What did you say when you e-mailed him?
WAY: Oh, I forget exactly. Just something to the effect of, "I loved your Daffy 'Mal' Yinkleyankle impersonation." [Laughs.] I'm not sure if he even responded. But I've bumped into Bob many times over the years. In fact, he wasn't one of the writers of my Saturday-morning TV show, but he was in on the first kind of conceptual—he was part of the think tank where we were generating ideas for the original pilot. So I actually got to work with Bob way back when. I think it's pretty obvious I admire and appreciate his work, and I certainly was not offended by the caricature.
AVC: Have you had any contact with Michael Richards since his incident last year?
WAY: I haven't seen him in person. We've exchanged a few e-mails, mostly not talking about the event. I think I wished him happy birthday once or twice. [Laughs.] Probably the less said the better.
AVC: The number 27 pops up a lot in your lyrics and artwork. What's the significance? Or is it just a coincidence?
WAY: The real story is, it was just a number that I happened to use a couple times in song lyrics, or maybe in a music video, without even thinking about. I guess maybe it was the right number of syllables, or at the time I thought it was a funny number, or it happened to rhyme just the right way. [Laughs.] So there was no real thought given to it. But then a few fans picked up on it and said, "Oh, Al used the number 27 like three times. This must have some kind of significance." As soon I realized that they were fetishizing this, I started doing it on purpose. I started making sure there was at least one number 27 in the lyrics on an album, or incorporated in the artwork, or making sure the video had the number 27. It became a whole cult-like attraction. [Laughs.] People have hypothesized what the number means, or the significance, but that's the honest story. It's just a number I started using that people started attaching a lot of importance to.
AVC: Several rock stars have died at age 27.
WAY: That's true as well. It's also three cubed. [Laughs.] There's a number of theories floating around, but they're all pretty much false.
AVC: Do you get sick of people asking when you'll start doing serious music?
WAY: I get asked that a lot, and I don't quite understand why I get that question so much. People never ask people doing serious music, "Do you ever think about doing funny music?" My stock answer to that is, I enjoy doing the kind of music I do. I think there's enough people in the world already that do serious music. Sometimes I get, "Have you ever thought about doing real music?" I like to think the music I do is real, it just happens to be funny.