“Weird Al” Yankovic
More Set List
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- Prolific producer Prince Paul on almost being fired, De La Soul classics, and working with his son
- Marshall Crenshaw on songwriting, covers, and the album cover he absolutely hates
- The Police’s Andy Summers on his songs, Sting, and being ripped off by Puff Daddy
- Graham Parker on reuniting with The Rumour, constructing the flow of an album, and more
In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.
The Musician: “Weird Al” Yankovic crawled his way out of the novelty music ghetto to become a pop icon and one of our most consistent and least likely hitmakers. Few would have pegged the Dr. Demento Show breakout star for longevity when he released his 1983 self-titled debut, but 28 years later, Yankovic is still at the top of his game, artistically and commercially. For nearly three decades, Yankovic has served as a human funhouse mirror that reflects our pop culture’s obsessions and compulsions back to us in agreeably twisted and contorted forms. In a remarkable act of pop-art ventriloquism, Yankovic has been able to slip inside the skins of everyone from Michael Jackson and Madonna to Lady Gaga and Chamillionaire without losing his identity, winning three Grammys (from nine nominations) and scoring six platinum records in the process. He also co-wrote and starred in the cult comedy UHF and created the terrific but under-watched kids program The Weird Al Show. Yankovic recently made headlines when Lady Gaga’s camp first denied, then ultimately granted Yankovic permission to parody “Born This Way” as “Perform This Way,” the first single for Alpocalypse, the pop icon’s first album in five years.
“Skipper Dan” (from 2011’s Alpocalypse)
“Weird Al” Yankovic: “Skipper Dan” is a bit more poignant than what I usually write. I still think it would qualify as a comedy song, but it’s definitely a little more bittersweet. It’s kind of a character study. I was inspired one time when my family and I actually did go on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland, and the skipper that we had just offhandedly referred to his failed acting career. Immediately, the bells went off in my head, and I thought, “Well, here’s a song right here.” So I created a whole backstory for this guy, and made him a very bitter failed actor who once had a promising career, and now his life has devolved into basically doing a seven-minute bad comedy routine 34 times a day.
AVC: Do you ever think, “That could have been a path that I may have taken had things not worked out?”
AY: Well, hey, it’s not actually a bad gig. [Laughs.] I don’t want to dis the Jungle Cruise skippers. In fact, I’ve got nothing but positive reinforcement from actual Disney workers. At one point in my life, I probably would have jumped at a gig like that.
“Party In The CIA” (From 2011’s Alpocalypse)
AY: That was just one of those cases where “Party In The U.S.A.” was an omnipresent hit, and I felt like I needed to have a little bit of Miley on the album. I think, someone pointed this out, that this was the first time I ever parodied a father and his daughter during the course of my oeuvre. [Laughs.] I decided if I was going to do a parody of a Miley Cyrus song, I had to make it very dark. That had to be part of the joke: I’m taking this kind of pop, bubblegum-y fluff of a song, and making it very dark and twisted. You’ve heard the song, but you haven’t seen the video yet have you?
AY: The video is done by Roque Ballesteros, who works for Ghostbot, and they’re the people who do animation like Happy Tree Friends, are you familiar with that at all? It’s like cute, happy little animals, and they get into these ultra-violent adventures. It’s really dark, and I thought, “These are the people who should be doing this video,” because it’s kind of happy and poppy on the surface, but it very quickly goes in a very dark direction.
AVC: Does it feel weird to be parodying songs by teenage girls? Do you feel like there is some weird element of inter-generational ventriloquism?
AY: [Laughs.] It is kind of odd, you know? Assuming the roles of people who don’t share common life experiences with me. But that’s what my whole life is. I assume all these characters, and it doesn’t even strike me as strange that I just shot a video [for “Perform This Way”] last weekend where, ostensibly, I’m a 25-year-old woman. [Laughs.] That’s just the life I’ve chosen, I guess.
AVC: How did the video shoot go?
AY: It went really well. I can’t wait for you to see it; it’s pretty crazy, and as I said in my blog post, I think people will find it disturbing on many levels. Without giving away too much, it’s pretty crazy and there’s probably more effects in it than any of my other videos to date. I finished editing the video, but now it’s going to be in post for four weeks, and it should be out about the same time the album comes out.
“Craigslist” (from 2011’s Alpocalypse)
AY: “Craigslist,” yeah. That was obviously my Doors homage. It used to be a three-ringed notebook, and now it’s folders on my laptop, but I keep lists of things, and I keep lists of bands and artists that I think would be fun to at one point do a pastiche of. I also have a list of topics that I think would be kind of fun to tackle. Sometimes, I’ll sit and look at both columns, and I’ll draw a line from column A to column B, and see if anything feels like an amusing juxtaposition. And as soon as my eye went from Doors to “Craigslist,” immediately, I thought that there was something there. That just seemed so wrong, so anachronistic that it struck me as funny. And that was really all I had. I wanted to do a song in the style of The Doors about Craigslist, and my first thought was, “Let’s see if Ray Manzarek will do this.” And we contacted Ray Manzarek and he agreed to it, and based on that, I didn’t even have a concept, I was like, “Eh, let’s do a song about Craigslist,” and he said, “Okay, I’ll play on it.” [Laughs.] I think about a week later he was like, “Ehh…maybe you should send me some lyrics or something.” [Laughs.] He wound up being fine with it of course, and we had a great session, and man, what an honor, I mean, such a legendary guy, and we had a blast in the studio.
“Why Does This Always Happen to Me?” (from 2003’s Poodle Hat)
AY: Right, which was supposed to sort of be my Ben Folds sound-alike. Ben and I are old friends at this point, and of course I sought his keyboard work for that song. So he came in and knocked it out. I think that’s an F-Sharp, so he was kind of mad at me for that. [Laughs.] Not a very keyboard-friendly key. But yeah, that was a lot of fun to record as well. Again, not a real laugh-out-loud kind of song. Another very, very dark song, and that came from the place of every now and then I would have these moments—I like to think I’m a pretty nice guy, but I have these moments where I, in my own head at least, I show an astounding lack of empathy. Like, I have had moments, which I think most people have, where you’ll be watching TV, and it’ll be interrupted by some tragic event, and you’ll actually find yourself thinking, “I don’t want to hear about this train being derailed! What happened to The Flintstones?” And there’ll be a horrible car accident, and all you can think of is how you’re going to be late to work, and these are real moments where I find myself being horrified by my own brain, having so little empathy for other people.
AVC: So you take the ugliness within your own soul, and you make it funny?
AY: Yeah, and then I kind of amp it up, and every verse is worse than the last, and by the end the guy’s just a full-on monster. But you know—I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before—I wrote this song before 9/11 just because I felt a lot of that selfishness in our culture, and immediately after 9/11 it felt like our national attitude had changed, and everyone was pitching in and being helpful, and being supporting and loving, which lasted about a week. [Laughs.] But at that point I thought my song was obsolete. I thought, “Well, this is not the way people are behaving anymore. We’ve become this loving utopia.” Well, like I said, that didn’t last a very long period of time, and now we’re back to our own selfish ways again.
“Frank’s 2000 Inch TV” (from 1993’s Alapalooza)
AY: That’s my R.E.M. sound-alike, and that’s my paean to consumerism and envy. Having the latest, greatest thing. Just a consumer electronics anthem. It’s been pointed out to me that there have been some TVs, maybe not made specifically for home use, but certainly monitors that have exceeded the 2,000 inches in the song, so it may not be quite so absurd as it was when I first recorded it the early ’90s.
AVC: There’s obviously some satire of consumerism, but also a certain fondness, it seems.
AY: It’s a definite love/hate thing. You know, I’m obviously making fun of the fact that it’s ridiculous to want a 2,000-inch TV, but part of me is going, “That would really be cool!” [Laughs.]
“Albuquerque” (from 1999’s Running With Scissors)
AY: Oh, we played it every night on our last tour; that was our big encore. But I don’t want to get into the habit of playing that all the time because, you know, it wears me out. That’s kind of a draining song. That was one of those songs where I thought it wasn’t going to be a big fan-favorite. I specifically put it on the end of the album because I thought that I’m going to make this song so long that people are only gonna want to hear it once. It would be like an odyssey that they go through once, and they go, “Ah, I survived. I made it all the way to the end,” but it wound up being one of my more popular songs, and people listened to it over and over, they memorized the words. People have gotten actually kind of obsessive about it, which is the reason we put it into the set list on the last tour. This song is meant to be sort of in the style of The Rugburns and Mojo Nixon and George Thorogood and any other kind of hard-driving rock narrative. And you know, I made it a little more ridiculous than the normal kind of rock narrative, but nonetheless, it’s in that vein.
AVC: When you write a song like that, where it’s narrative, but also digressive and free-flowing, what’s the songwriting process like? Are there a lot of drafts?
AY: That’s more of a free-flowing song than most other songs, because for a song like that there are specifically no parameters. I write and write and write, and then I edit it down to the parts that I think are amusing, or that help the storyline, or I’ll write a notebook full of ideas of anecdotes or story points, and then I’ll try and arrange them in a way that they would tell a semi-cohesive story. But that was kind of a fun one to write just because I didn’t feel a lot of pressure. I just thought, “Okay, I’m gonna write a song that’s just going to annoy people for 12 minutes.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you feel like you succeeded?
AY: Well, even better, a lot of people actually liked it, but I would hope that at least a few people were annoyed.
AVC: Your music is conducive to a certain kind of obsessive sensibility. When you write, do you play to that at all?
AY: Yeah, which is kind of one of the reasons it takes me longer and longer between albums these days, because I’m continually more cognizant of it, for myself as well. I know now that everything I write, I’m going to put out, and I’ll have to live with it for the rest of my life. So there’s a little bit of a legacy thing there as well. When I did something like “Another One Rides The Bus,” I would crank out the lyrics in half an hour, and play it on the air the next night, and not think twice about it. Now I realize that everything I do has some sort of lasting value, and a lot of people actually care about the specific thing that I do. And so I put as much effort into it as my wife will allow.
“Don’t Download This Song” (from 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwod)
AY: That was in the midst of all the controversy about the R.I.A.A. really getting down on all the peer-to-peer sharers, and all the big lawsuits where they were suing grandmothers, and it was on the news. I wanted to write a song that occupied a grey area, where you wouldn’t really know whether I was coming down on the side of the downloaders or the side of the R.I.A.A. The whole thing was very tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic and ironic, and you walk away without really knowing what my viewpoint is, which is all by design. To further compound the irony, we gave that song away as a free download on my website. That was just one of those kinds of songs where I was amused by the conceit of doing a sort of a big overblown, fully produced, kind of ’80s charity anthem about the R.I.A.A. as if they were these starving children.
AVC: Was “We Are The World” an inspiration?
AY: Yeah, I was mostly listening to “We Are The World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “Hands Across America,” so those are like the three iconic ’80s charity power-ballad anthems that informed the feel of the song.
“You Don’t Love Me Anymore” (from 1992’s Off The Deep End)
AY: Ah, that was a very tender ballad about a relationship, obviously, gone awry. I don’t know what else I can say about that other than I really liked the song, and I really wanted the record label to release it as a single after “Smells Like Nirvana,” which they begrudgingly said, “If you’re going to do a video for it, can you at least make the video a parody?” I was like, “Uhh, really?” [Laughs.] “I can never break out of this parody box, can I?” So even thought the song was a complete original, the video for it was a parody of the video for “More Than Words” by Extreme, so my guitar player put on the Nuno Bettencourt wig and the long polished black fingernails, and we performed the video in that style. And I remember, it’s kind of my thing to break a guitar at the end of the song, and because we didn’t want to break a cheap guitar, it was supposed to be the guitar that [guitarist] Jim West had been playing the entire time, which was this really nice, $1,000 Ovation guitar. I actually had to smash a $1,000 guitar at the end of the video. Which was difficult for me to justify, but otherwise it just wouldn’t have matched. That also meant I didn’t get more than one take. I’m not going to smash two $1,000 guitars, but it didn’t break very easily. Most of the guitars I had broken at that point were cheap guitars, and this one did not smash, but I knew I had one take, so you’ll see me whack the thing like 20 times, like, “You’ve gotta break! This is the only take! I’m gonna smash this thing if it takes me all day!”
“Everything You Know Is Wrong” (from 1996’s Bad Hair Day)
AY: My They Might Be Giants homage. What can I say about that? TMBG is one of my favorite groups. I know they don’t like the association with novelty music, but I’ve always admired their quirkiness. I tried to write a song sort of in their style, but perhaps even a little bit more twisted, and for fans of The Giants I put little references in here and there, little allusions to other songs of theirs, and I’m proud of that because it’s one of those songs where I think it definitely sounds like them, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which song it sounds like. A lot of my pastiches are like, “Oh that’s sort of like this song mixed with that song,” and this one is a little bit harder I think to decipher exactly where the inspiration is coming from.
“Smells Like Nirvana” (from 1992’s Off The Deep End)
AY: “Smells Like Nirvana,” resuscitated my career in the early ’90s because I had gotten into an emotional and commercial funk after the release of UHF. [Laughs.] I was feeling like, once again, my career is over. I was playing with the idea of even coming back with a third Michael Jackson parody because I was feeling a little desperate, frankly.
AVC: That would be “Snack All Night,” right?
AY: Right right, which would have been horrible. [Laughs.] Another food song by Michael Jackson. No, it was not what I should have done, and I’m always amazed by how the fates have swooped in and saved me from doing something stupid that I should not have done. [Laughs.] And in this case, Michael Jackson was like, [adopts a shrugging voice] “Ehh, I don’t know. ‘Black Or White’ is more meaningful to me than that. Maybe take a pass this time.” It wound up being a great thing, because shortly after that, Nirvana came down the pike, and I was excited by that. When I first heard them, I thought that, “They’ll never get popular enough to get to the point where I can do a parody of them, but man, wouldn’t it be great if they did?” When their album hit No. 1, I thought, “Okay, I’m doing this, now’s the time.” And there’s the famous story about my getting permission from Kurt on the set of Saturday Night Live, and it was one of the more satirical songs I had done up to that point because—and you may find an exception to this—but prior to that I had never done a song parody which reflected back on the original song or songwriter. It was one of my first songs that could really be counted as satirical I think.
“Buckingham Blues” from 1983’s “Weird Al” Yankovic)
AVC: Have you thought about recording a new version for the Royal Wedding? Pull an Elton John?
AY: That’s been suggested of course. [Laughs.] But I kind of let that one live in its own era. That song didn’t age very well, did it? It’s one of those songs that I wound up not playing very much in concert and ended up as a back-catalog song. What I remember the most about it is it was originally supposed to be a parody. I had written the song as a parody of “Jack And Diane” by John Cougar Mellencamp; the original was supposed to be [Sings] “Little ditty ’bout Chuck and Diane / Couple British kids from the palace of Buckingham,” and it went on from there. Basically the same kind of concepts and gags from “The Blues” that I wound up writing, but it was a parody. John Mellencamp at the time was like, “Yeah, you know what, I’m trying to sell the rights to this song to a movie. They’re supposed to make a ‘Jack And Diane’ movie, and I don’t want to muck up the deal, so I don’t want to be doing the parody.” Of course, we’re all still waiting for that “Jack And Diane” movie to come out, but in the meantime I was thinking, “Oh maybe I can just change the melody a little bit, you know, how people try to get away from royalties, like Vanilla Ice, where I’ll change one note and claim it’s a new composition.” [Laughs.] I tried several iterations of that, and it always felt cheap because it’s like, if you’re going to do a parody, do a parody, and if you’re not, don’t. So I totally changed the musical concept, and made it a blues song, which also worked on a different level.
“Buy Me A Condo” (from 1984’s Weird Al Yankovic In 3-D)
AY: It amused me to think of doing a Bob Marley, kind of Rasta-mon song, again about rampant consumerism, because it seems like such a spiritualistic, non-materialistic culture. So to have lyrics about Jacuzzis and wall-to-wall carpeting and polo shirts seemed to me like a fun juxtaposition.
“Such a Groovy Guy” (from 1983’s “Weird Al” Yankovic)
AVC: Another song in the same vein would be “Such A Groovy Guy.”
AY: That was actually written, boy, again on my first album. That was written for a woman that I was dating at the time, and it was about her old boyfriend, who… [Laughs.] I’m a little leery to give away too many details here, because I’m not sure he knows the song’s about him. But basically he had done all sorts of kind of horrible things to her, and then when she broke up with him, he couldn’t understand it and, this is a quote, “I’m such a groovy guy! Why would you break up with me?” So that song, I wrote it for her basically, just to amuse her. [Laughs.]
“Happy Birthday” (from 1983’s “Weird Al” Yankovic)
AY: “Happy Birthday!” Are you familiar with Tonio K? Tonio K released a few—I don’t know what you’d classify them as, new wave or alt-rock—but he had some really kind of angry, funny, weird, bitter albums in the late ’70s, early ’80s, and he’s gone on to release a few Christian-themed albums. But he did some really brilliant work, and he was one of my favorite artists, and I’ve done not one, but two Tonio K homages. There was “Happy Birthday,” and several years later I did “I Was Only Kidding,” which is another Tonio K knock-off. The other reason I wrote the song was because everyone in the world for birthdays would either go with the—who is it, the Hill Sisters who own the rights to the original song? Everybody has to license that “Happy Birthday” song in the movies, anywhere they sing “Happy Birthday,” and the only other option at the time was The Beatles’ “Birthday,” and I thought there should be more “happy birthday” songs than that, and I decided to write my own severely twisted version of one.
“Young, Dumb And Ugly” (from 1993’s Alapalooza)
AY: Ah, that was supposed to be my big parody of heavy metal in general and AC/DC specifically. I was a bit leery about doing it, because any time you go into that territory, I’m always wondering if I’m going to step on Spinal Tap’s toes. Because that’s their thing, and they did it perfectly, and you don’t want to mess with that. But I thought this was specifically AC/DC enough that it seemed to work for the gag. Listening to it is a little difficult, because I recorded it in a register that was really too high for my singing voice, but my manager thought that it was funny that I was cracking my voice trying to reach the notes—which for some people, I guess it would be, but it doesn’t get a lot of repeat listening.
AVC: It has a little bit of an early Beastie Boys quality to it. The whole nasal, aggressive delivery.
AY: Yeah, and speaking of which, you didn’t ask about it, but for “Twister,” my Beastie Boys thing, we wound up using the very first take of that. Because I’m used to doing 20 takes, and using the best one, I get a bit better each time, but I kept going back to the first take because it was more raw and more off-the-cuff. The better I made it sound, the less it sounded like The Beastie Boys. [Laughs.] That’s not a dis to the Beastie Boys at all, I love those guys; but it was just my original was very spontaneous. The first take sounded a lot more authentic than the later takes where I was trying to get everything in time and in pitch.
“Belvedere Cruisin’” (unreleased, aired on the Dr. Demento Show)
AY: I don’t know if it was the first song I ever wrote, but it was certainly the first thing Dr. Demento ever played. I was 15, maybe 16 at the time, and I recorded it in my bedroom with just me and the accordion, recorded on a compact cassette tape that you would buy at the local drug store, three for a dollar. And that was the first song he ever played on the air; it was basically a love song about the family car, which was a big, black 1964 Plymouth Belvedere with red upholstery and automatic transmission. It wasn’t any more complicated than that. It was basically bragging about this awesome car, and because of that, there are a lot of things you could point to along my career path that you could say, “This changed my life,” but if Dr. Demento hadn’t played that, who knows if I would have sent in more?
AVC: Do you remember where you were when you heard him play that song on the air for the first time?
AY: I was in my bedroom, living at home with my folks, listening to the Dr. Demento Show, as I did every Sunday night, and the song came on. It took me several seconds for my brain to acknowledge it, because I recognized it was my song, but I thought, “How did my tape player get turned on?” and when I put the pieces together and I realized that my song was actually coming out of the speakers and it was on the radio and other people were hearing it too, I think I did some kind of giddy jig around the house, and started screaming my head off. [Laughs.] Like everything you’ve seen in the movies, like in That Thing You Do! where they hear their song on the radio for the first time; pretty much like that. Like running down the street going, “WAHH! I’m on the radio!” [Laughs.]
AVC: At that point, was that your life’s goal, just to get on Dr. Demento? Was there anything beyond that?
AY: I don’t know about a life goal, I just thought it would be really cool. I think I had pipe dreams like any other kid that sings in his hairbrush in the mirror, but I never really, honestly thought I would have a career in the music business or anything like that. It was just something fun, and if I could get a little bit of airplay on the local radio station, that would be cool, you know? But I honestly thought I would grow up some day and be an architect and have a real job and a respectable life, and thankfully that didn’t happen. [Laughs.]
AVC: Who were some of your favorites at Dr. Demento? First when you started recording, and then when you first started hanging out?
AY: The people that Dr. Demento played that inspired me were the iconic artists of the ’50s and ’60s, like Spike Jones and Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman. The people hanging around the Dr. Demento show were kind of a new breed. That’s where I first met Barnes & Barnes, you know, Bill Mumy and Robert Haimer.
AVC: How old were they at the time?
AY: They were contemporaries, so they probably would have been in their early 20s in that time. I don’t remember if I told you this or not, but Bill Mumy, a.k.a. Art Barnes, actually introduced me to my wife, so he was responsible for that.
AVC: And he had that big child stardom on Lost In Space.
AY: Yeah. He was my favorite child star when I was growing up, so it was kind of cool to meet him after all those years. And again, I’m kind of slow at putting the pieces together. I mean, I knew him as Art Barnes. He never introduced himself as Bill Mumy. I had known him for weeks, maybe months, and he invited me over to his house, and I’m seeing all this Lost In Space memorabilia, and I’m thinking, “Wow, this guy’s a big Lost In Space fan,” and then finally it occurred to me, “Oh, this is Bill Mumy.” I’m a little dense sometimes.
“Dare To Be Stupid” (from 1985’s Dare To Be Stupid)
AY: Obviously a Devo homage. Mark Mothersbaugh has had some really flattering comments about the song when he taped his bit for my Behind The Music special. Again, I tried to write a song that didn’t sound specifically like any one Devo tune, but sort of had their vibe. The video in particular I used a lot of visual touchstones that Devo had used. A lot people got exposed, actually, maybe more from the [1980s animated] Transformers movie than the Dare To Be Stupid album. People ask me, “How did you get that song in the movie?” or, “Did you write that song for the movie?” and I tell them the story of how my record label basically said, “We want to use ‘Dare To Be Stupid’ in the Transformers movie,” and I basically said, “Uh. Okay.” [Laughs.] And that was pretty much it. I think Scotti Brothers, my record label at the time, they were producing the soundtrack for that album, so they used me and they used Stan Bush and they used some of the other local talents on their label. It was nice because it exposed a lot of people who may not have heard my music otherwise. And the whole “Dare To Be Stupid” thing goes back to my notebook. I had pages and pages of just random thoughts and phrases and I was going down the list, and one of the phrases was “Dare to be stupid,” and I thought, “Not only is that a great idea for a song, but also that sounds like some sort of Devo motif, so let me work with that.”
“Virus Alert” (from 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood)
AY: That is meant to sound like Sparks, one of my favorite groups, Ron and Russell Mael. I’ve always loved their stuff. That song in particular is supposed to sound like late-’70s-era Sparks. The Kimono My House era. Again, it’s a song about computers, and computer issues, which I think that’s become my new thing. People used to get down on me for writing so many songs about food, and I think computers have become the new food. Like with all the songs I write about websites and computers, because I write what I know, and I spend an unhealthy amount of time on my computer these days. [Laughs.]
AVC: And you stopped eating food at some time as well.
AY: Yes, I don’t need to eat anymore. I’m done with that.
AVC: You did The Food Album, you were done with food.
AY: But I can still write off food on my income tax because it’s still very inspirational to me.
“Like A Surgeon” (from 1985’s Dare to Be Stupid)
AY: Ah yes, well, that was my first big hit after “Eat It.” I think I’ve told you the story, or you’ve heard it 20 other places, but the idea itself originated from Madonna, when she wondered aloud, “When’s Weird Al going to do ‘Like A Surgeon?’” and the person she said it to said it to my manager, and she told me and I thought, “Yeah! Good idea, thank you!” And we filmed the video in an actual hospital, which was being used for film shoots. We lost a lot of extras on that day because we had a lot of lions roaming around the halls. Because Madonna had a lot of lions in her video, so of course, it was appropriate for us to have a lion in the hospital. Many people, at that point, decided it wasn’t worth it for the $50 they were getting for the day. [Laughs.]
“Your Horoscope For Today” (from 1999’s Running With Scissors)
AY: I have to give props to The Onion. I have to say I was inspired by the hilarious horoscopes in The Onion as well as Gary Owens, who did a routine about horoscopes on his album Put Your Head On My Finger from the mid-’70s. You know, making gag horoscopes is certainly nothing new, but I thought it was time for me to take a stab at it, and I have played it in concerts before, but my only reluctance is I wonder if I need to slide in a 13th horoscope sign, now that one’s been discovered. That’s something I’ll have to wrestle with for a while.
“Pretty Fly For A Rabbi” (from 1999’s Running With Scissors)
AY: I’ve heard that a lot of kids use that song during their bar mitzvahs. A lot of people mistakenly assume I’m Jewish. I think it’s primarily because of that song, and because of my incredible Yiddish accent. [Laughs.] That was one of those songs where I was told that the singer in The Offspring sounded a lot like me, and I wanted to use that to my advantage and do an Offspring parody. Actually, with my second Offspring parody. For whatever reason, the first time, maybe I thought it was a one-joke song, maybe we just did it live in concert, but I used to do a song, you remember the song [“Come Out And Play”]? So I did a song called “Laundry Day” where that was the tagline. Doing the whites and the color clothing, you gotta keep them separated.
“Trapped In The Drive-Thru” (from 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood)
AY: “Trapped In The Closet” was kind of a pop-culture lightning rod, something that everyone was drawn to. It was such an important moment in the pop zeitgeist that I felt like I had to do something with it. The problem being, normally I take songs and make them even more bizarre than the already are, but there was no way I could do that with R. Kelly. I mean, you could not make a song or a video more strange or more bizarre than he already did. So I figured I had to go in the opposite direction and make it as banal and mundane as possible. My challenge there was to write a song that lasted 11 minutes where essentially nothing happens, but at the same time, be extremely dramatic about it.
AVC: Did you have to get permission from R. Kelly?
AY: I did, and in fact he was quite nice, in that I found out after the fact, that because the song was so long, ordinarily I would have to pay two or three times the statutory rate, which means I would have had to take a couple songs off the album. So R. Kelly was nice enough to allow us to do a single song rate for “Trapped In The Drive-Thru,” which he didn’t have to do. That was very nice of him.
“Yoda” (from 1985’s Dare To Be Stupid)
AY: That was actually a song I wrote in college. I was a big Star Wars fan. When the Empire Strikes Back came out, the breakout character was of course Yoda, and I was singing my little parody in local coffeehouses. It was one of those songs where two years later, when I was putting together my first album—I’m thinking we may have even laid down the basic tracks for it thinking maybe we’d get permission. We had asked permission from The Kinks and we were turned down and it wasn’t until three years later that I ran into Ray Davies, I believe it was backstage at the Howard Stern radio show, and asked him why he turned me down. It was actually pretty much like the Lady Gaga incident. He said he’d never heard about it. That was one of the first situations where a manager stepped in and of his own volition decided that it was not right for one of his artists to be parodied. But when I finally talked to Ray Davies he was like, “Yeah! Of course! I love it!”
“I Lost On Jeopardy” (from 1984’s“Weird Al” Yankovic In 3-D)
AY: That was actually a nostalgia piece, because Jeopardy wasn’t on the air at the time. I was remembering the Jeopardy game show from when I was a kid in the 1960s. Jeopardy was hosted by Art Fleming. This was in the pre-Alex Trebek days. Merv Griffin had created the Jeopardy game show and wrote the Jeopardy theme and he thanked me for helping bring Jeopardy back on the air because of the song. That marked the first time an artist had done a cameo appearance in one of my videos. Greg Kihn shows up at the very end as it whisks me away. It amused me that a few years after the parody came out, a DJ told me about a contest he did where he played Greg Kihn’s “Jeopardy” and the first person who came up with the artist, they’d win some kind of prize. And the first 10 people who called up said, “Weird Al?”
“Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye Or The Kaiser)” (from “Weird Al” Yankovic In 3-D)
AY: I haven’t seen it yet, but in the last Rocky movie, he apparently did work in a deli. [As the character does in the song does.—ed.] Or something to that effect. So everyone was telling me, “Wow! Your song was strangely prescient.” Scotti Brothers was the home of Survivor, who did “Eye Of The Tiger.” They recorded almost all the Rocky soundtracks in that studio. So I had that cachet going for me as well.
“The Saga Begins” (from 1999’s Running With Scissors)
AY: I famously wrote the song before seeing a frame of the movie, all on Internet rumors, because even though Lucasfilms had always been very supportive, they weren’t amenable to handing me a script or inviting me to an advance screening. So it was all based on Internet rumors that were, thankfully, accurate. I did go to a high-priced charity screening of the movie, which came out just a few days before the general release, to make sure that I wasn’t being fed a bill of goods by the Internet.
“Close But No Cigar” (from 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwod)
AY: That was inspired by a friend of mine who has been single for a very long time because he finds something incredibly picky wrong with everyone that he goes out with. They have a good time, but her butt’s bigger than mine or some shallow little quirk that most people would be willing to overlook, but there’s something always wrong. The song was inspired by that attitude, that nothing could ever be good enough. I’d become friends with John McCrea, the lead singer of Cake. In fact, me and Ben Folds and John McCrea went bowling together, which was a pretty wild night. Cake is one of my favorite groups and they have such a distinct style that I thought would be fun to write something in the key of.
“Midnight Star” (from “Weird Al” Yankovic In 3-D)
AY: That was, at the time, my favorite track on the album. My first album was very quickly recorded and cheaply produced. With the second album I was able to spend a little more time, because I had back-up singers and a professional bass vocalist, and I got kind of excited, and my original thought was for it to be the first single off the album, until cooler heads prevailed and they said, “Why don’t you go with the Michael Jackson parody? That has a little more commercial potential.”
“Melanie” (from 1988’s Even Worse)
AY: I like that song a lot. We do it in concert from time to time. It’s basically just another twisted love song from the perspective of a stalker, which is something I revisited later with my Taylor Hicks parody “Do I Creep You Out?” It sounds like a love song but if you listen to the lyrics it’s about a man who does some very creepy things to get close to a woman.
“Christmas At Ground Zero” (from 1986’s Polka Party!)
AY: That was supposed to feel at home on the Phil Spector Christmas album, that whole big, glossy Wall Of Sound production. It was a about death, destruction, and nuclear annihilation. I tried to get it released as a single. My record label would not pay for it, so I dug deep into my pockets and paid for a low-budget video that was mostly public-domain Cold War-era footage. It didn’t make much of a splash because radio stations didn’t seem to think it was appropriate to release a song about nuclear annihilation during the holidays. It’s still a fan favorite. The sad part is, I can’t really play the song live anymore because too many people misunderstand the connotations of Ground Zero. It’s not a reference to 9/11, obviously. It was written in 1987 when “ground zero” just meant the epicenter of a nuclear attack.