“Weird Al” Yankovic
The long-time icon on nerd culture, short attention spans, and that whole Gaga kerfuffle
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To a great swath of the population, “Weird Al” Yankovic is a god among men. It’s not really surprising, either. After almost 35 years in the parody business, Yankovic is still right on target with his songs—just ask Lady Gaga. With a new record, Alpocalypse, due out June 21, Yankovic is on the road again and making a stop at Potawatomi Bingo Casino June 2. Before all that, though, he sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about nerd culture, short attention spans, and that whole Gaga kerfuffle.
The A.V. Club: Let’s get this out of the way up front—were you pleased at the way the Lady Gaga situation resolved itself?
“Weird Al” Yankovic: Well, yes, extremely pleased. The day that all the drama went down couldn’t have gone better. I started the day with my album postponed indefinitely and thinking I’d never be able to officially release the song I’d spent the last month or so working on, and at the end of the day, I had a release date and the blessing of Lady Gaga herself, as well as the support of a lot of fans that had my back. That was one of the strangest days in my life, but it turned out very well.
AVC: What’s your writing process like when you’re working on a new record? Does an idea like “Perform This Way” pop into your head randomly, or do you keep regular working hours?
AY: It’s not like I punch a clock when writing songs. I sort of wait to get inspired, and that could happen at any point. It’s hard to force creativity and humor.
My 8-year-old daughter doesn’t understand when I’m sitting alone in a room ostensibly not doing something, and she’ll want to play. I have to be like, “Nope, Daddy’s working.” Even though I’m staring into space like a zombie, I’m hard at work.
When I’m writing parodies, I immerse myself in pop culture. I listen to nothing but the top 40 station in the car and bombard myself with stimuli that may help the process. I have no way of knowing when an idea will come. Well, actually, I have plenty of ideas, just not that many good ones.
AVC: Do you ever get concerned with the increasingly flitting nature of modern society? As in, when you’re writing a parody of a hot song, do you worry that the listeners are going to be on to something else by the time your track gets released?
AY: The comedy that I do is by definition and nature ephemeral. It’s disposable, and people can consume and disregard it very quickly. That whole cycle’s accelerated in the past decade or so, though. Pop culture’s gotten much more disposable. More so now than ever, we’re willing to go on to the next thing very quickly, so that makes my job a little harder. It’s hard to stay timely when people have pop culture A.D.D.
Thankfully, with digital distribution came the possibility of being a little more on top of it instead of waiting several months for a record to come out. If I so choose, I can put out a parody almost immediately, which is what I did with that T.I. song, and kind of what I did with Lady Gaga. Actually, that came out before I wanted it to. iTunes was feeling, well, it’s already out there and on YouTube, so we might as well get it now. So, that came out far in advance of the actual album.
AVC: It seems like you’re more popular than ever lately. How do you think the whole nerd-culture boom has affected your career, or has it?
AY: It’s hard to say. This was not intentional or calculated. I just somehow flew my nerd flag high right when nerds were cresting on the zeitgeist. “White And Nerdy” was the right thing at the right time, but I’ve always been white and nerdy. That’s been my nature and my essence. For some reason, that song really clicked at the time, though.
I think that nerds, if you want to call them that, have only gotten more hip and assimilated into the culture. People used to look at me as some kind of freaky nerd outsider 20 years ago, and now they’re looking at me with nostalgia or this new nerd cred. I definitely notice the way people perceive me.
AVC: You have a bunch of alt-comedian fans, too, like Thomas Lennon and Patton Oswalt. Is that kind of comic embrace something new for you, or has that always happened in your career?
AY: Tom and Patton are good friends of mine, and I’ve been welcomed warmly into the alt-comedy world. I love all those guys. A lot of them sort of grew up on me because of the sheer fact that I’ve been doing what I do for three decades now. I have a bit of history, and people have some fondness for what I do. It’s partly nostalgic, but I’m still out doing stuff, and I’m relevant, and people appreciate that.
AVC: When you’re home, writing or not, what kinds of TV shows and movies are you watching?
AY: I haven’t been out to a movie in a while. I have an 8-year-old daughter, so most of the stuff we see is age-appropriate for her. The wife and I don’t often get a chance to run off and catch something. The last movie we saw was Bridesmaids, though. We went to the première and loved it. I’m a big Paul Feig fan, and I love Kristen Wiig. That’s the kind of humor that we like and try to support.
AVC: You wrote your first children’s book earlier this year. Was that something you did because you have a daughter, or just something you’d always wanted to do?
AY: A lot of people kind of assumed that I wrote it because I have a daughter. In actuality, I always wanted to write one, but I thought it would be inappropriate if I didn’t have a kid first. I had to time it correctly.
Actually, I just wanted to write a children’s book for a long time because I thought I’d be good at it. A big chunk of my fan base is young kids, which is another reason we did a Saturday morning TV show that came out on CBS in the late ’90s. I’ve always deeply admired Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, and I thought that I would be able to do a rhyming picture book that I’d be able to infuse with my sensibility that, at the same time, would appeal to kids. People seem to enjoy it, and I’d love to continue to do more in the future.
AVC: What’s going on with the movie you wrote for Cartoon Network? A while ago, you said you were trying to get it made somewhere else. Is that still happening?
AY: It seems to be out of the picture. That was pretty disappointing. It was going to be the first feature film that I’d directed as well as written, but apparently the network had a regime change or corporate policy change, and all feature films in development went into turnaround, which basically means, “Thank you very much, but try somewhere else.”
I’d still love to do a feature film again. I’ve been saying that since UHF came out 20 years ago, but I’m not sure if I’m going to do anything with the script that I wrote. It’s geared more toward the Cartoon Network audience, but I guess I wouldn’t rule it out.
AVC: You’ve performed well over 1000 shows. How do you keep it fresh for yourself? Are you ever just like, “Ugh, ‘Eat It’ again.”
AY: Every now and then when I’m performing “Eat It” onstage, there’s a thought bubble over my head, and I’m thinking, “Am I really still doing this after 20 years?” Luckily, I’m good with repetition and I don’t get bored that much, particularly if the audience is into it. How can you get bored if the audience is cheering and laughing at something you’re doing? I’ve done it 1000 times—literally, in some cases—but it never really gets old to me.