‘Weird Al’ Yankovic: The Great American Novelty

Requested when being full-time Weird Al began to really feel like a viable profession, Yankovic, who simply turned 63, says, “I think about three months ago.”

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Occasions)

“Weird Al” Yankovic give up his most up-to-date day job in 1983.

By then he was just a few years out of faculty and his self-titled debut album was already in shops. However he was nonetheless working a minimum-wage gig on the radio community Westwood One, the place his duties included every day post-office runs. At some point he pulled a Billboard journal from the mailbag.

“I opened it up,” he says, “and there’s my song” — it was “Ricky,” his “I Love Lucy”-themed parody of Toni Basil’s 1982 hit “Mickey” — “on the chart.”

“Ricky” would rocket all the best way to No. 63 on Billboard’s Scorching 100 and no additional — however the truth that it had charted in any respect nonetheless felt like an indication.

“I think that very day I gave my notice,” Yankovic says. “I said, ‘Well, maybe I should be full-time Weird Al, see how this thing pans out.’”

When requested when being full-time Weird Al began to really feel like a viable profession, Yankovic, who simply turned 63, says, “I think about three months ago.”

Which is, y’know, a joke. Yankovic is way and away essentially the most profitable comedy recording artist of all time. He’s bought greater than 12 million albums. His final album, “Mandatory Fun,” was the primary comedy album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since Allan Sherman dropped “My Son, the Nut” in 1963. It went on to win Yankovic his fourth Grammy Award — of what are actually 5 — in 2015.

He hasn’t launched one other full-length album since that occurred. He is aware of how that appears.

“It is kind of ironic that I had my first No. 1 album and then decided, OK, I’m done,” he says, laughing. “It’s kind of a nice mic drop.”

It wasn’t an intentional one. He’s stepped again to give attention to different endeavors, like “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” a hilariously counterfactual sendup of the prestige-biopic style, which premieres on the Roku Channel on Nov. 4.

However he’s additionally recording much less and fewer lately as a result of writing hit-song parodies has turn out to be a more durable racket. His first EP got here out in 1981, the identical 12 months MTV debuted; for years, the video channel outlined who was well-known and what was successful tune, and Yankovic wrote parodies accordingly, sending up no matter got here down the monocultural pike — synth-pop, heavy steel, hip-hop, grunge and two successive generations of Cyruses.

Within the age of the micro-niche, it’s tougher to know what songs to make enjoyable of.

“There’s still major superstars and big hits,” Yankovic says, “but it’s not as easy to discern as it was a couple years ago.”

Within the ’80s, strain made him prolific.

“I felt like I had to keep grabbing that brass ring,” Yankovic says, “because I was scared to death. It was drilled into my head that because I do comedy music, I’m a quote-unquote novelty artist, and historically novelty artists have been one-hit wonders.”

As a substitute Yankovic has defied that standard knowledge by recording dozens of hits — to not point out outlasting the cultural relevance of lots of the artists he’s parodied, from Greg Kihn to El DeBarge to Crash Take a look at Dummies to Taylor Hicks to Iggy Azalea.

This can be the weirdest factor about Weird Al in 2022, almost 40 years after “Ricky”: He’s turn out to be a legacy artist.

Deliver his identify up in the correct room, and comedy elites of a sure age turn out to be younger boys once more, bowing all the way down to the reminiscence of a mustachioed man who confirmed them what was doable simply by strapping on an accordion and taking part in songs about bologna.

“There are people — I also think about Robin Williams in this way — that were really key to my development when I was younger,” says Tim Heidecker, a preteen Weird Al fanatic who grew as much as co-create exhibits like “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!,” on which Yankovic recurred as Uncle Muscle tissues, a creepy variety-show host. “And then you get a little older, and a little more cynical, and a little more too-cool-for-school, and you kind of dismiss them. And then later you realize how important they were and how much you still value what they did for your understanding of music and comedy and everything.”

Will Menaker, co-host of the leftist comedy/politics podcast “Chapo Trap House,” says, “The seed of what would become ‘Chapo’” was planted when he first noticed “UHF,” Yankovic’s 1989 film a few man of doubtful prospects who’s given management of a marginal TV station. “I rented it on VHS and watched it like 10 times over a weekend — like, wore out the heads on the VCR rewinding it over and over again,” Menaker says. “If Weird Al hasn’t already gotten the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, he deserves it. He’s a national treasure.”

His attraction now transcends generations. Evan Rachel Wooden, who performs a extremely fictionalized model of Madonna in “Weird,” says she realized about Yankovic from her mom. Not way back, Wooden took her 9-year-old to one in all Yankovic’s exhibits for the primary time.

“He’s not somebody who uses swear words or does things that aren’t family-friendly,” Wooden says, “yet it somehow always feels like he’s pushing the envelope and being weird and grotesque. I think that’s one reason he’s been able to stay in it so long.”

Barry Hansen, the DJ much better referred to as Dr. Demento, was the primary individual to play Yankovic’s music on the radio. The tune was “Belvedere Cruising,” an ode to Yankovic’s ’64 Plymouth. It was March 1976, and Yankovic was nonetheless a pupil at L.A.’s Lynwood Excessive College. He went on to be the most-played artist within the historical past of Hansen’s present, which began out in syndication on radio and continues on-line. For many novelty songwriters, making it into Demento’s rotation is the head; for Yankovic, it was solely the start.

“It’s inspiration and perspiration,” Hansen says when requested why Yankovic beat the percentages. “His inspiration didn’t run out after one big hit, and he works very, very hard at it. He and Frank Zappa are the two people who worked hardest at making funny music that have ever lived — Spike Jones worked hard at it, but not as hard as Weird Al.”

A TRADITIONAL WEIRD AL present is a multimedia occasion — props, costumes, video, Yankovic driving round on a Segway. However on his present tour, Yankovic and his band are taking part in sit-down exhibits, and the set listing is made up nearly fully of his originals, not his hit parodies.

Yankovic’s originals skew towards observational comedy and the vividly grotesque; a few of his sad-sack protagonists — like “Skipper Dan,” a depressed thespian who’s “read my Uta Hagen and studied the Bard” however has to drive a Jungle Cruise boat at Disneyland to make hire — may nearly be Randy Newman characters, though Newman’s by no means sung about stapling bagels to his face. Hardcore Weird Al devotees have been ready a long time to see these songs carried out reside, however within the curiosity of calibrating the expectations of extra informal followers, Yankovic is looking this one the Unlucky Return of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Unwell-Suggested Vainness Tour. It was supposed to begin final 12 months, earlier than COVID-related delays intervened.

“My original plan was not to tour in 2020,” Yankovic says, “and that worked out great. But I was planning to hit the ground running in 2021, and that didn’t work out so well.”

A man with long curly hair stares into the camera.

“Weird Al and Frank Zappa are the two people who worked hardest at making funny music that have ever lived,” says Dr. Demento. “Spike Jones worked hard at it, but not as hard as Weird Al.”

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Occasions)

The tour started in April and finishes Saturday at Carnegie Corridor in New York Metropolis. On this mid-September night time, the venue is the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Heart at Faculty of the Canyons, the place the principle room seats 886 and upcoming headliners embrace Richard Marx and one thing referred to as the Perondi’s Stunt Canine Expertise.

In just a few hours, each seat on this theater will likely be stuffed. The viewers will embrace just a few younger youngsters, as a result of the golden age of Weird Al is 12, however it is going to be principally made up of males who haven’t been 12 for fairly some time, besides perhaps on some inner, religious stage. They will likely be sporting Hawaiian shirts or novelty T-shirts broadcasting their pop cultural affinities (Lando Calrissian, Primus, the fictional “Breaking Bad” hen chain Los Pollos Hermanos). At the very least one in all them will likely be sporting a type of kilts that’s designed to double as a device belt, referred to as a utilikilt.

Whether or not they all would self-identify as nerds is difficult to say, however when Yankovic’s opener, veteran comic Emo Philips, begins a joke by saying, “There’s probably no one here who was not bullied,” he should wait out an extended and seemingly cathartic snicker earlier than including, “… today.” (Later, throughout his personal set, Yankovic will say that if somebody had advised him he’d find yourself, in his 60s, driving round on a bus with Philips, he would have mentioned, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”)

On the appointed time, Yankovic will lope onstage and inform the group that it’s nice to be right here in Santa Clarita, “the very place where they shot the last season of ‘Reno 911,’” and clarify that tonight, “We’re gonna play a bunch of extremely unpopular songs.”

He and the band is not going to play “Ricky” or “Like a Surgeon” or “Eat It,” however they are going to play originals written within the model of everybody from the White Stripes (“CNR,” a mythic blues about “Match Game” goofball Charles Nelson Reilly) to AC/DC (“Young, Dumb and Ugly”). Yankovic will play cowbell and vibraslap and tambourine and a high-tech Roland FR-4x accordion, which he principally makes use of to digitally reproduce the sound of devices different than the accordion, besides on the zydeco tune about his girlfriend falling in love with Eddie Vedder.

In Santa Clarita, Miles Jay will play bass, sitting in for his father, Steve Jay, who’s sick. Steve Jay has been taking part in with Yankovic for 40 years, as has drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz. As a result of he didn’t be a part of till the early ‘90s, keyboardist Rubén Valtierra is still considered the “new guy” in the band and gets hazed accordingly. When Yankovic introduces Schwartz in Santa Clarita, he talks about the day they met — Sept. 14, 1980, which was also the day Schwartz backed up Yankovic for the first time, playing drums on Al’s accordion case throughout a reside radio efficiency — whereas when Yankovic introduces Valtierra, he merely says, “We met on Grindr.”

On the finish of the two-hour set, after the standard set-closing cowl — in Santa Clarita it’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” — they’ll play just a few parodies, together with “Amish Paradise” and a singalong “Yoda,” after which it’ll be over till the next night time, after they’ll do all of it once more in Thousand Oaks.

Proper now, although, it’s an hour or so earlier than showtime, and Yankovic is sitting in a folding chair backstage, speaking about his final foray into cinema.

“UHF” is now the type of cult traditional individuals write oral histories about; in 1989, it was not fairly as appreciated. After I inform Yankovic I noticed the movie the day it opened, he replies, “You’re the one!”

“Orion Pictures had built me up,” Yankovic says. “They said, ‘This is getting incredible test scores. We’re gonna be doing movies every year with you’ — and I thought, ‘I guess I’ll only be releasing movie soundtracks from now on, because I’m gonna be a movie star.’”

He laughs at his personal hubris. After the film bombed, he says, “I won’t say that I fell into a spiral of depression, but I was pretty bummed out.”

Years later, in 2010, Yankovic and writer-director Eric Appel made a pretend trailer for an overwrought and self-serious Weird Al biopic with “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul taking part in Al and comic Patton Oswalt as Dr. Demento. It was an prompt viral hit on Humorous or Die; Yankovic would play it between songs at his exhibits whereas he went backstage to vary costumes, and followers would ask, in earnest, when the film was popping out.

Yankovic had no plans to broaden on the trailer, partly as a result of he figured it might be a tricky promote. “Historically,” he factors out, “movies like this do not do well at the box office. I mean, ‘This Is Spinal Tap,’ one of the greatest movies of all time. ‘Walk Hard.’ ‘Popstar.’ All these faux movie biopics — and I love them all, they’re brilliant — did not do well.” The “UHF” expertise had made him cautious, he says, laughing: “I didn’t want to come back after 33 years with another bomb.”

However then got here a brand new wave of actual rock biopics, together with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which performed like a parody with none jokes and one way or the other gained just a few Oscars. The extra Yankovic thought in regards to the biopic style, the riper it appeared for parody, and one morning about 2 ½ years in the past, Yankovic awakened and despatched an e mail to Appel, suggesting that perhaps they need to broaden that pretend trailer right into a full-fledged pretend film.

Appel is 42 — a second-generation Al fan whose mother confirmed him “Eat It” on MTV when he was 4 years previous, which led to him seeing “UHF” within the theater (“I made my grandpa take me to it, and I think he fell asleep. He was like, ‘I fought in a war— what are you making me sit through?’”) and finally to a profession in comedy, in addition to directing jobs on “New Girl,” “Silicon Valley” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” When he and Yankovic began writing collectively, Appel was impressed by his associate’s seriousness.

“I come from an improv background,” Appel says. “It’s very loosey-goosey. Al has a mathematical brain. Our writing sessions together weren’t just a big, goofy pitch-fest where you’re bouncing around the room. There was quite a bit of quiet contemplation.”

A part of the explanation Yankovic’s tune parodies work so effectively, Appel factors out, is that they’re normally note-perfect re-creations of the supply materials, proper up till Al begins singing about meals or geese or surgical procedure. “That’s the approach we took to the movie,” Appel says. “The only way to do a Weird Al biopic is to make it feel like a really dramatic biopic but the words are different.”

The result’s a exact satire of rock biopics as a style and the absurd liberties these movies take with fact and time, notably with regards to the artistic course of. Each Appel and Yankovic point out the scene in “Ray” the place Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles, arguing along with his pregnant mistress, comes up with the hook to “Hit the Road Jack” in a matter of seconds; in “Weird,” younger Al hears his roommate say one thing about lunchmeat, and inside the hour, Al’s new tune “My Bologna” is on the radio and climbing the charts.

Daniel Radcliffe says it was this absurdly over-the-top method that made him need to do the movie. When the script got here to him, he says, “I was confused. I was a Weird Al fan, and I was like, ‘That’s cool and very flattering that he would think of me. But surely there are people that are closer to him physically,’ and all those things. And then I read the script and I was like, ‘Oh, right — it doesn’t matter.’ I was thinking, ‘I’m probably going to say yes to this’ from around Page 4.”

An actor and a musician pretend to slow-dance together.

Daniel Radcliffe, left, and “Weird Al” Yankovic on the Toronto Worldwide Movie Pageant.

(Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP)

IN REAL LIFE, YANKOVIC upends each cliché about broken, offended, approval-hungry comedians. On Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, historically a discussion board for the airing of humorous individuals’s psychic wounds, Yankovic was the uncommon visitor with nearly nothing to declare — however the lack of his dad and mom, who died of unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning of their dwelling in 2004, when Yankovic was 44.

The film invents a extra pathos-rich dramatic arc. Film Al survives an abusive, accordion-smashing father, dates Madonna and finally squares off with Pablo Escobar.

Nevertheless it’s not all lies. Yankovic actually did develop up sheltered, raised by conservative dad and mom who didn’t approve of Dr. Demento. In faculty, he actually did keep dwelling writing parody songs as an alternative of partying. He actually did go on to turn out to be wildly, expectation-defyingly profitable. And it actually did all begin with an accordion salesman knocking on the Yankovics’ door.

In actual life, Yankovic notes, the salesperson really provided him a alternative between accordion or guitar. If he’d chosen the latter, Yankovic says, “I doubt I would’ve had a career at all. The reason Dr. Demento played my stuff back when I was just sending him tapes that I recorded in my bedroom was because he thought it was a novel thing for a teenage kid to be playing the accordion and thinking he was cool.”

A man squatting on a stage and staring into the camera

“Some people who do song parodies, their whole thesis in the song is, ‘This band sucks. This artist sucks. This song sucks,’” Yankovic says. “That gets old after a while.”

(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Occasions)

After faculty, Yankovic labored for Dr. Demento for a short time, and Hansen bought a glimpse of Yankovic’s artistic course of.

“He would research his songs,” Hansen says. “He carried around a big, blue loose-leaf notebook everywhere he went for a while, until laptops were a thing. He would write down ideas for songs. Fragments. And he’d go to the library. Like when he wrote the song ‘I Want a New Duck,’ he told me he spent an afternoon in the library just researching ducks.”

Yankovic’s early work additionally had a deranged vitality to it. The authentic 1979 model of “My Bologna,” reduce in a males’s lavatory at Cal Poly, feels spiritually linked to L.A. punk from across the identical time. Yankovic says he “definitely felt a kinship” with punk and new wave. In their very own approach, each he and the punks had been puncturing the self-seriousness that crept into rock ‘n’ roll as the shape grew extra gentrified.

However after I point out to Yankovic that rock critic Chuck Eddy as soon as referred to Al’s parody “Smells Like Nirvana” as “the only honest rock criticism that Nirvana ever received,” he winces a bit of. He factors out that “Smells Like Nirvana” — which Kurt Cobain is on document as having liked, despite the fact that it portrays him as an inarticulate marble mouth — was a uncommon instance of a Yankovic parody that instantly mocks the unique artist. Yankovic would somewhat depart criticism to critics and mockery to “morning zoo” hosts.

“Some people who do song parodies, their whole thesis in the song is, ‘This band sucks. This artist sucks. This song sucks,’” Yankovic says. “That gets old after a while.”

Yankovic isn’t legally obligated to acquire the permission of the unique artist earlier than releasing a parody, however he asks for it anyway; the truth that he nearly by no means targets performers’ foibles needs to be a part of why they are saying sure. His method is mild and foolish and in addition self-deprecating; a part of what we’re presupposed to snicker at is the ridiculousness of Yankovic, white and nerdy, harnessing the ability and pathos of a pop tune to discover his personal white-and-nerdy considerations.

However the world has modified considerably within the 4 a long time since Yankovic began releasing music. The borders separating the inoffensive from the actionable have been repeatedly redrawn. I ask Yankovic if he’d really feel bizarre about impersonating Black artists on document if he had been beginning out as we speak. He covers most of his face along with his hand whereas this query is being requested, as if to maintain his instant response personal, and when he strikes his hand away, his smile is again in place.

“That’s a really tough question, and you can add that to the list of reasons why I’ve been a little reluctant to do [more] parody songs,” he says.

“I don’t rail against PC culture and all that because I think when somebody is accused of being politically correct, that usually just means they’re being sensitive to other people’s feelings.”

Yankovic stopped taking part in his Michael Jackson parodies, “Eat It” and “Fat,” after the documentary “Leaving Neverland” got here out in 2019 as a result of he didn’t need individuals to have to consider baby abuse and Jesus juice whereas watching a comedy present. He isn’t certain he’ll ever play these songs once more. (It’s additionally been years because the R. Kelly parody “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” appeared in his set listing.)

He nonetheless performs “Albuquerque,” an 11-minute-plus shaggy-dog story-song within the George Thorogood custom, however he pauses halfway by means of to contextualize his use of the phrase “hermaphrodite,” affirming that language is meant to evolve, that sure phrases that appeared humorous in 1999 aren’t humorous anymore — not like the phrase “Albuquerque,” which can all the time be humorous.

A movie still from "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story"

Daniel Radcliffe, middle, and Rainn Wilson, proper, in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.”

(Toronto Worldwide Movie Pageant)

ALSO, AT THE SANTA Clarita present, after taking part in “Buy Me a Condo,” a 1984 reggae tune a few Rasta who cuts his dreads and turns yuppie, Yankovic dryly remarks, “That concludes the cultural-appropriation portion of the show,” and I’ll marvel if my line of questioning has made Yankovic really feel unhealthy, and can really feel unhealthy about it.

Like Heidecker, I liked Yankovic after which bought too previous or too cool for his parodies. However his physique of labor made me interested in pop music and the way it labored, how phrases labored; I won’t have been a author with out it in any other case. Yankovic might not have written many songs that qualify as “personal,” however my relationship along with his physique of labor is private nonetheless.

I’m not alone in that. The followers who line up for the after-show meet-and-greet in Santa Clarita clearly really feel the identical approach. In a post-COVID world, “meet-and-greet” means the followers collect backstage and a man from Yankovic’s street crew herds them into an orderly line: “It’s like taking Communion — Catholics, help the non-Catholics.” Every individual will get an opportunity to face on one facet of a plastic barrier whereas Yankovic stands on the opposite and tour photographer Kamal Asar takes an image of them pretending to organically yuk it up collectively. Later Asar will go in and Photoshop out the barrier in every photograph so it appears to be like like Yankovic and the followers have really met and greeted one another with out a sneeze guard between them. (When requested if this takes all day, Asar — who says Yankovic is the nicest musician he’s ever traveled with apart from perhaps Brad Delp from Boston — replies, “Only the first eight hours.”)

Pre-pandemic, lots of people, particularly ladies, would need hugs; this could make issues take eternally. And typically, on nights like this one, the third date of a four-night run, Yankovic will hold his interactions temporary to save lots of his voice. However typically he’ll speak to followers so long as they need to grasp round. And over time, they’ve advised him every kind of emotional issues.

“Some people have told me that I’ve prevented them from committing suicide because they were in a really bad, dark place, and they listened to my music and it snapped them out of it,” Yankovic says. “Or it helped them deal with a toxic relationship or any horrible situation you can imagine. My music, for them, was a light in their world, even though I ostensibly am doing silly, goofy music.”

He says this prefer it’s info he doesn’t fairly know what to do with. Nobody confesses something painful on the Santa Clarita present. However a pregnant lady in a “Welcome Baby Thomas” T-shirt traces up along with her husband to take a photograph they plan to make use of as a birth-announcement image — Yankovic factors at her abdomen throughout the barrier, comically agog on the miracle of life. A man with curly hair and a mustache who appears to be like remarkably like a younger Weird Al walks up and says, “Hey, Dad,” and Yankovic calmly replies, “Hey, Mr. Yankovic.”

Males inform him they’ve seen him reside many, many occasions, and he’ll inform them they give the impression of being acquainted. They say that they’ve been listening to him since ’92 or ’79 or since they may barely stroll, and Yankovic will act like he’s by no means heard this earlier than. They present him their custom-painted Weird Al Vans, they usually beg him to not retire. They inform him they’ve been dreaming of this second since they had been 8 years previous, and Weird Al smiles at them and says, “Me too.”