After more than 30 years in the industry, "Weird Al" Yankovic is still hitting new heights. The squeezebox-wielding comic musician's output long ago thrust him toward mass appeal, and Yankovic's ability to capture the essence of the songs he parodies has earned him the respect of his peers and a spot as one of the greatest musical satirists in history.
Yankovic first made a splash on Dr. Demento's radio show in 1979 with the tune "My Bologna," a parody of The Knack's "My Sharona." And in the 37 years since, it's been followed by acclaimed songs and hilarious videos that parodied tunes by artists from Michael Jackson ("Eat It") and Nirvana ("Smells Like Nirvana") to Chamillionaire ("White & Nerdy"). Yankovic's releases also include pastiches, completely original songs that mimic an artist's particular musical style and medleys of recognizable lyrics set to polkas.
Yankovic's latest album, "Mandatory Fun," hit number one on the Billboard charts in 2014, and earned the California-born entertainer his fourth Grammy Award. "Mandatory Fun" was announced as Yankovic's final studio album under his recording contract, and the musician said that subsequent music will be self-released and digitally distributed as soon as it is produced. For Yankovic, adapting to new situations and giving it his best shot is part of his job description.
"Weird Al" is performing at CMAC on Saturday, September 3, so City Newspaper got a few minutes with him by phone just before his recent show in Phoenix. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
City: Do you enjoy touring?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: I do, but I don't like being away from my family for extended periods of time. The actual touring part is fun; I get to hang out in a bus with my friends in the band, and we get to do our show every night and meet the fans. I get a thrill out of it, sure.
Many performers feel like they've made it once you parodied their songs. Have you ever thought of yourself as a pop culture benchmark?
Having heard that from a lot of people, I guess, I've come to accept it. I've heard from some people, "Forget how many Grammys you've got or how many platinum albums you've got, you haven't really made it until you have the "Weird Al" parody" [laughs] which is funny.
"Mandatory Fun" hit number one on the Billboard charts. What does that number one album mean to you?
I'll never stop smiling about the fact that I've had a number one album. This was something I never dared to hope for because I just thought it was beyond the realm of possibility. I always thought there was a glass ceiling for comedy albums.
Is it easier or harder for you to parody the work of a friend or colleague versus a song by an artist you've never met?
The process is certainly the same, and I don't think I would treat a friend with kid gloves more than somebody I didn't know because it all depends on what's funny. When I do my parodies, it's never mean-spirited anyway; I don't go for the jugular. I'm not trying to make anybody look bad. It all depends on what is creatively the best idea. And if they are my friends, I think they would understand the joke.
Do you ever audition your lyrics in front of other people to get their opinions?
Not often, but if somebody else is in the room, like if I've just finished writing a verse and my wife is 10 feet away, I'll say, "Hey honey, what do think about this?" If she has any creative criticism, then I'll take that into account. It's hard to write comedy in a vacuum because I know what I think is funny but I'm pretty warped. I can't always guarantee what I consider amusing will appeal to other people.
I want to ask you about "Craigslist," which is a style-parody of The Doors. Ray Manzarek even played on that song. What was the reaction like from the rest of the band when they heard it?
The rest of The Doors? Jim Morrison didn't say anything at all. I don't think I actually heard back from the other guys; I hope they liked it. I don't believe I ever got any kind of official response from them.
Is there such thing as a "Weird Al" proof song? Have you ever had writer's block?
Many times. There are a lot of songs that will be on my list as great candidates for parody and I just can't think of a good enough idea. I can always think of ideas, but thinking of a good, funny, clever idea is not always within my ability. A lot of those songs end up in a polka medley because I just figured that most rock songs sound better as polkas anyway.
What is your all-time favorite song that you've done?
That's hard to say. My stock answer is "White & Nerdy" because that's my only platinum single to date. It's probably my most autobiographical; I didn't have to do a lot of extra research for that one.
What song has been the most challenging?
The original songs are generally more challenging than the parodies because I obviously have to write the music parts as well. When I'm doing a pastiche of somebody like Frank Zappa or Brian Wilson, [composers] that have intricate arrangements, it involves a lot of effort and research because I don't want to mess it up; I respect those guys so much, I don't want to do something half-hearted. Some of those songs, I'll spend months working on.
Where has been the most interesting place that a "Weird Al" song has been played?
I remember the first time I was in Japan in 1984, and I was about as far away from home as you could possibly imagine. I went to some nightclub in Tokyo and on the 24th floor of a skyscraper there was a jukebox and "Eat It" was on there. Seeing a jukebox on the other side of the world with my song on it was a big deal for me.
Have you ever had an opportunity to mentor other artists?
Not in the sense of a reality show kind of thing. I'd like to think that because I've been around for a long time, I've had some kind of influence or provided some kind of inspiration for some of the people that are now making a living doing comedy music and certainly for a lot of people on YouTube. I hope that I've inspired others in the way that people like Spike Jones, Allen Sherman, Stan Freberg, and Tom Lehrer inspired me when I was growing up.
What has been the most rewarding thing about being "Weird Al"?
This interview, I think; it's all been building up to this and after you hang up it's going to be a long slow decline [laughs] for the rest of my life.
Punk-metal icon Wendy O. Williams will be inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame on Sunday. Plasmatics guitarist Wes Beech and Rod Swenson, the band's creator and Williams' life partner, talk about the legacy of the singer.