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Interview: Comedian Weird Al Yankovic talks resetting pop culture’s funnybone

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Weird Al Yankovic’s Mandatory World Tour

McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids — Tuesday, August 9 at 7 p.m. $35-85

Artwork by  Benjamin Mackey
Artwork by Benjamin Mackey

For 40 years, Weird Al Yankovic has been steadily building a career that has landed him at the top of a nexus of different fields. He weaves together skills in music, comedy, acting, directing and production to provide his fans with some of the deftest parody in the business. Since he first hit the airwaves with a cassette tape handed to radio legend Dr. Demento at the age of 16, Yankovic has stayed at the forefront of the possible, always learning and growing, always both deepening and broadening his understanding of his field. He is professionally curious.

In 2014, Yankovic released Mandatory Fun, his 14th studio album and his last under a lengthy contract with RCA Records. It was an immediate success, earning him his first number one record and making history as the first comedy album to debut at number one. In between acting gigs and his new role as bandleader/co-host on the IFC series Comedy Bang! Bang!, he continues to tour in support of the album. Yankovic brings his Mandatory World Tour to the McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids on August 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35–85.

You started learning accordion at age six, and I imagine with an instrument like that, there was an awful lot of music theory to be exposed to at that young age. Did that affect your critical approach to music later in life?

I guess so, I mean … it was pretty rudimentary musical theory, but I learned enough, between six and ten … I basically played by ear during my teenage years, and that’s when I first started playing rock and roll on the accordion. So it was nice to have just a real fundamental knowledge of music and, I think, basically how to write music, at that point.

I’m someone who has in many, many cases heard your parodies before the original songs (I think fondly of my teen years as, “Those years when I actually knew the originals before Weird Al’s parodies”). Do you think much about your role as a curator when you choose songs, and the fact that you are sort of choosing which pop songs a lot of people will hear, at all?

I don’t think about that too much when I’m doing it … but a lot of people say that I have sort of been their conduit to pop music … every album that I put out was like a little time capsule for whatever era that was. I guess it wound up being more important than I intended … People who weren’t following pop music sort of learned the hits by listening to the parodies.

Artwork by Benjamin Mackey
Artwork by Benjamin Mackey

Absolutely! Yeah, that was me as a child, and probably me now; I hear some songs from my kids before you get to them. It’s always interesting looking at the way, generationally, the way your songs hit — because, in my family at least, everyone loves all of the songs on the albums, but my kids will love them as a version of a song they already know, as opposed to something new. It’s an interesting look at that cross-generational appeal.

You know, a story that always amused me was that when I did my parody of “American Pie,” about Star Wars, a lot of kids at the time weren’t familiar with the original 1970 Don McLean song, they just thought, “Oh, Weird Al’s got this fun little song about Star Wars!” And then the year after my parody came out, Madonna, for whatever reason, decided to do a cover of the Don McLean song, and kids are going, “Why is Madonna doing an unfunny version of a Weird Al song?”

[Laughter] That’s wonderful! So, in terms of the content of your parodies, I’d love to talk a little about that. Songs like “Skipper Dan,” for example — that song blew me away, because it reveals such a deep understanding of the subject matter, and you have so many other songs that are incredibly well-cultivated personas that you’re singing from, and I’m curious if you do any research for your writing at all?

I do. I mean, some requires more than others — I mean, writing something like “White and Nerdy” required very little research on my part, because I’ve been basically researching that my whole life. When I do something like “Living With a Hernia,” that was in the ‘80s, we didn’t have the internet — I had to hit the local public library and do research on hernias. So yeah, any song that I did, or wanted to link to a concept: I will research it … I like to make lists, so I’ll make lists of anything having to do with that topic … I make lists of jokes, make lists of words, phrases — anything that has to do with that topic. And then I try to arrange it into some kind of funny, three and a half minute … cohesive thing.

It’s been two years now since you finished out your RCA contract, and it feels like things have been exploding for you in terms of acting and other television gigs for you since then. Is that something you hope to expand even further?

I sure would like to — I never shied away from movies and TV, and if the right opportunity did come up, I’d like to take advantage of it. I’ve been getting more opportunities in the last couple of years than I have prior to that, so I try to take advantage of that. I’m also obviously going to be getting back into recording my music and making videos and things like that as well, but immediately, I’d like to continue doing everything I’ve done in the past, and hopefully get better at it.

Mandatory Fun, your last album under that contract, is also your first number one album, and I’m wondering what you attribute that to — if it’s a shift in the way that music is understood now, or if it’s a critical mass of your fans, those intergenerational fans we were talking about …

It’s hard to attribute it to just one thing. I think it’s sort of a perfect storm … My fan base has been growing over the years; a lot of the people who were into me in the ‘80s have stayed with me and are bringing their kids into the fold. Other things, like, you know, every album that I put out was more and more popular. I found that the album was marketed very well. I did have the whole eight videos in eight days, which had the desired effect, it was pretty inescapable for that week online. And also I think it’s my best work. So, I mean, people really got exposed to me a lot that week, and the material I guess was pretty good, and the fan base came out in droves, and they pushed it to number one, which blew my mind, because that had never happened before for a comedy album.

Artwork by Benjamin Mackey
Artwork by Benjamin Mackey

Yeah, it was absolutely amazing — and congratulations!

Thank you.

I notice, especially in my own family, with my own kids, that creating parody seems to be something that comes very naturally to children, but as adults, we often seem to hold back, possibly equating shows of irreverence with disrespect. I’m wondering how you continue to cultivate that healthy irreverence that allows you to tease in this way?

I was certainly the eight year old who would make fun of songs on the radio, and it’s just one of those phases I never grew out of. I became obsessed with MAD Magazine when I was around 12 years old, and that sensibility really informs a lot of my sense of humor, I think, and that’s something that just stayed with me. I always remember that joy I experienced at finding out that people can be irreverent about pop culture.

It’s beautiful to see the irreverence that still honors the pop culture. You’re able to be irreverent, but at the same time, musicians acknowledge that having your attention is the highest compliment.

Yeah, a lot of people doing parodies are … sort of mean-spirited; they go for the jugular. I mean, that’s valid as well; I’m not going to say they’re not funny — but that’s not the particular kind of humor that I personally like to put out into the world. I don’t like to have fun at people’s expense if I can help it. I like to be funny without stepping on people’s toes.

Genevieve Trainor is mixed and nerdy, which is close enough. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 203.


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