When "Weird Al" Yankovic was a teenager submitting primitive pop parodies to Dr. Demento's radio show in the late '70s, few would have guessed that he'd be a venerated star 20+ years, 10 studio albums, a feature film (1989's UHF), and a children's TV show (CBS's The Weird Al Show) later. But here he is, still touring in support of last year's gold-selling Running With Scissors, the publicity blitz for which included an almost comically tame VH1 Behind The Music special. Yankovic recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the length of his career, the success of his side projects, and his clean-living ways.
The Onion: Do you realize that you're four years away from being eligible for induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: No kidding. Wow. It crossed my mind a little while ago, but I think my chances are somewhere between Tiffany's and Milli Vanilli's.
O: They just inducted The Lovin' Spoonful. I wouldn't count you out.
AY: [The Lovin' Spoonful leader] John Sebastian opened for me once when I was first starting out. It was kind of surreal for me, because John Sebastian is a legend, and here he was, coming up to me backstage and saying, "They told me I could only play for 20 minutes. Do you think I could go on for 30?" "Um, yeah! You're John Sebastian. Do whatever you want, man."
O: Well, you could soon join him in the Hall Of Fame.
AY: Well, that would be cool. I just went to the museum for the first time a couple months ago, and I'm in there for, like, one second. They used the "Fat" video in some clip montage, which amounts to some sort of immortality.
O: How long do you see yourself doing this?
AY: Oh, man, that's a tough question, because if you asked me 21 years ago, I certainly wouldn't have guessed that I'd still be cranking out songs today. I still love doing it, and I have to assume that the American buying public will let me know when it's time to retire.
O: At the same time, careers ebb and flow, and you've had low points where you might have thought it was time to leave. Had you done that, the world might never have known Off The Deep End.
AY: [Laughs.] Yeah, I've ebbed and flowed quite a bit, and I'm putting out albums at a much more leisurely pace these days. In the '80s, I was putting out an album virtually every year, I think mostly based on fear—that if I didn't, people would soon forget about me. Now, I've built up enough of a track record where some people will forget about me, but enough people out there are familiar with my body of work that I can wait two or three years and still come back without people going, "Weird Al who?"
O: Well, many generations of 12- and 13-year-olds have been indoctrinated. It happens every couple albums.
AY: That's what's really great for my record label. [Laughs.] My catalog gets rediscovered every time I put out an album. Some 12-year-old will pick up a copy of Running With Scissors and say, "Wow, this is really great!" And they'll go to the record store: "He's got other albums?!" Some of my most hardcore fans weren't even born when my first album came out.
O: You know, you should have some sort of arrangement with They Might Be Giants, where the kids who buy your records can get a coupon…
AY: [Laughs.] That's a good idea.
O: What do you have left to accomplish? You've worked in
a lot of different media, with a TV show, studio albums, a movie…
AY: I don't think there are any new media I'd like to cover. I've done a movie and a TV series, and someday I'd like to do a successful movie and a successful TV series. That would be nice.
O: At the same time, those certainly have a strong following.
AY: That's true. UHF was an unqualified bomb when it came out—critics hated it and it didn't have a very impressive box-office opening—but it has gone on to achieve cult status. It's currently out of print, although I'm told a DVD is going to come out next year. I'm told it's one of the most sought-after titles on eBay. [It usually sells for between $25 and $40. —ed.] Among some fans it's like Rocky Horror Picture Show, where they've seen it an insane amount of times and have memorized the dialogue. I wouldn't be surprised if they throw things at the screen while they're watching it.
O: Are you going to do a commentary track for the DVD?
AY: I'd like to. I'm hoping MGM, which owns the rights right now, sees fit to let me be in the loop creatively. This is just blue-skying, but I would love to do a commentary track with Jay Levey, my manager. I co-wrote it with him and he directed it. It's been released in a few different languages: I happen to have a copy of the French videocassette. It would be fun to have it with the different languages and different aspect ratios and do it like a real quality package.
O: How funny is the French version? Did they get an impersonator to recreate your vocal mannerisms?
AY: It's not uncanny. [Laughs.] I guess he's sort of emulating me a little bit. It's a bit of a stretch to expect him to emulate my vocal mannerisms in French.
O: Has there been any discussion of a modestly budgeted new movie?
AY: Um, well, when I get off the road, I'll apply energy toward trying to be involved more in features and television. There are a few things being bandied about as we speak, but nothing I can really talk about right now. I've done a few cameo appearances in some really nice independent films: Mark Osborne, who's one of the guys who directed my "Jurassic Park" video, put out an extremely funny movie called Dropping Out. I won't give away the plot, but I do a little cameo in that. Judy Tenuta's got a movie called Desperation Boulevard, which is also very funny, and I've got a small part. After the dust settles from this tour, I would like to get more involved in that sort of thing.
O: Is there any dirt on "Weird Al" Yankovic?
AY: I'm sure there is.
O: Behind The Music had nothing.
AY: No, but they tried. They tried to dig up dirt, but there's very little to be had. There are probably a few library fines I haven't paid yet, but I'm a pretty clean-cut guy overall.
O: What sort of stuff did they ask? What was the extent of their reporting?
AY: It was a fairly long interview. They talked to me for about three hours and talked to my friends and people I've worked with. But as far as digging the dirt…
O: I think the extent of what they dug up was that Polka Party didn't do very well.
AY: Yeah, and the whole Coolio thing got blown out of proportion. [A minor controversy erupted in 1996 when Yankovic parodied Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise," incorrectly assuming he'd had the offended rapper's permission. —ed.] So, four years after the fact, every single interview I do, I get, "So, what's this whole Coolio thing?" Ugh. "First of all, it was four years ago, and up until Behind The Music, most people had forgotten about it."
O: Do you still even bother to ask Prince for permission? [Prince has never granted Yankovic permission to parody his material. —ed.]
AY: No, I'm waiting for him to have another hit. It might be a while.
O: What's the dark side of being Al? What's bad about the job?
AY: Um, you don't ever want to listen to a pop star griping about how bad their life is, or about their lack of privacy, or blah blah blah. It's a nice job. It's a good gig. I'm glad I've got it. Sometimes it would be nice to have a switch where I could turn off the recognizability factor when I want to have a quiet dinner somewhere, but there are a lot more perks than downsides. I like what I do.
O: You got rid of the glasses and mustache, which must help.
AY: Yeah, and you'd think people would have caught on by now. I've done a lot of media and publicity in the last couple years, but people are still more familiar with the old Al look, which I guess is evidenced by Celebrity Deathmatch, which still had me wearing glasses and a mustache. [Yankovic was pitted against Al Gore. —ed.] I have to assume they know better, but they probably figured that was the look people were familiar with.
O: Well, they had to make it look like you, which can't be easy when you're working with clay.
AY: Otherwise, it might be Kenny G or Tiny Tim. Or Alanis Morissette. She and I get confused a lot.