THE NERD ABIDES

Af­ter nearly 40 years of pok­ing fun at celebri­ties, ‘Weird Al’ has be­come a le­gend in his own right

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - GE­OFF EDGERS BY IN LOS AN­GE­LES TOP: “Weird Al” Yankovic at his Hol­ly­wood home in Jan­uary. “I am, at heart, sort of a shy per­son,” he says.

One day last sum­mer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, on break from “Hamil­ton,” stopped by neigh­bor Jimmy Fallon’s house in the Hamp­tons. They both love mu­sic and Fallon has a lis­ten­ing room in the base­ment, so it wasn’t long be­fore they were down­stairs shar­ing an­other pas­sion: “Weird Al” Yankovic. ¶ “I said, ‘Do you know “Polka Party!”?’ ” Fallon says. “He’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I know it word for word.’ ” ¶ Fallon threw Yankovic’s 1986 record on the turntable, and the Broad­way phe­nom­e­non and the late-night TV star sang along to an ac­cor­dion-driven med­ley that cov­ers 12 songs in three min­utes, from Peter Gabriel’s “Sledge­ham­mer” to Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach.” ¶ “Pic­ture Jimmy Fallon and I sit­ting in a base­ment laugh­ing our asses off singing, ‘I’m gonna keep my baby, keep my baby, keep my baby,’ ” Miranda says. ¶ “We were cry­ing, laugh­ing and singing,” Fallon says. ¶ They’re not alone. ¶ Yankovic has sold mil­lions of al­bums, played 1,616 shows and out­lasted so many of the stars he once spoofed. His most re­cent al­bum, 2014’s “Manda­tory Fun,” fea­tured par­o­dies of Iggy Aza­lea, Lorde and Phar­rell Wil­liams, a polka med­ley and his usual smat­ter­ing of orig­i­nal songs. The al­bum hit No. 1. At 57, he’s now ready­ing a com­plete set of his 14 stu­dio record­ings, plus an al­bum of bonus tracks. “Squeeze Box,” on sale through a PledgeMu­sic drive un­til the end of Fe­bru­ary, will nat­u­rally come in an ac­cor­dion-shaped box.

“Com­edy record­ing and funny songs go back to the ear­li­est days of the record in­dus­try,” says Barry Hansen, bet­ter known as Dr. De­mento, the ra­dio host who in­tro­duced Yankovic to the pub­lic 40 years ago. “But Al is unique. There’s noth­ing like him in the his­tory of funny mu­sic.”

For Chris Hard­wick — the co­me­dian who cre­ated the Nerdist em­pire and hosts two game shows, “@mid­night” and “The Wall” — Yankovic is more than a mu­si­cal suc­cess story. He’s a tri­umph for all the odd­balls and out­siders.

He re­mem­bers be­ing a kid in Mem­phis the first time he heard Yankovic on Dr. De­mento. And then the rush of spot­ting his nerd hero on MTV.

“When you’re young,” he says, “you kind of won­der: ‘What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I like the same things other kids like? I must be bro­ken or flawed.’ And then you see this guy who is like, ‘Yeah, me nei­ther, and it’s okay but we can f--- with these peo­ple, but in a friendly way, not in a toxic way.’ ” An ac­cor­dion­ist is born

Al­fred Matthew Yankovic is un­flinch­ingly po­lite, doesn’t curse and pays off his monthly credit-card bill on time. He lives in a beau­ti­ful but not os­ten­ta­tious house in the Hol­ly­wood hills. Some­times, on a beau­ti­ful night, he and his wife, Suzanne, and daugh­ter, Nina, 14, will bring their sleep­ing bags out on the deck and camp un­der the stars. And he is, at heart, still a nerd. Dur­ing an in­ter­view in his liv­ing room, Yankovic has a con­fes­sion. He’s in the process of re-rip­ping his en­tire CD col­lec­tion be­cause he’s read that FLAC files sound bet­ter than MP3s.

“My wife some­times will ques­tion the san­ity of it,” he says, laugh­ing. “Like, ‘Are you sure this is worth your time?’ Hmm. Maybe.”

On a video set or in the stu­dio, he’s just as de­lib­er­ate.

He plots each shot, stud­ies the charts, thinks through each step. When Huey Lewis filmed a Funny or Die riff off of “Amer­i­can Psy­cho” with Yankovic in 2013, they barely spoke. “It was se­ri­ous busi­ness, and Al was on his game,” says Lewis, whose “I Want a New Drug” had been spoofed by Yankovic in the ’80s. “The best co­me­di­ans al­ways are.”

He can be so quiet, you won­der whether he’s hid­ing some­thing. How could a guy who throws on a fat suit to per­form funny songs in front of thou­sands of fans be shy? Easy.

“He’s an in­tro­vert,” says Scott Auk­er­man, the co­me­dian and “Com­edy Bang! Bang!” host. “It’s tough to kind of break through that in in­ter­views with him.”

Suzanne Yankovic ac­knowl­edges that even she was caught by sur­prise. When a mu­tual friend sug­gested in 1999 that they go on a date, she de­clined at first.

“My im­me­di­ate thought was that maybe he was go­ing to be a lit­tle bit on and a lit­tle bit wacky, and I wasn’t sure if that would be a good fit,” she says now. “Then I thought about it and said, ‘How shal­low of me.’ ”

Yankovic, for his part, doesn’t feel walled off in any way.

“But I am, at heart, sort of a shy per­son,” he says.

He traces his per­son­al­ity to his late par­ents, Nick and Mary Yankovic. Nei­ther went to col­lege, with Nick work­ing at a steel-man­u­fac­tur­ing plant and as a se­cu­rity guard at dif­fer­ent times. Mary took care of their small house in Lyn­wood, just south of Los An­ge­les.

“My fa­ther was very out­go­ing and gre­gar­i­ous, and my mother was kind of with­drawn and soft-spo­ken,” he says. “Both sides of my per­son­al­ity are there.”

His par­ents got him started in mu­sic, buy­ing him an ac­cor­dion just be­fore his seventh birth­day. While other Wood­stock-era kids were strum­ming their Fen­ders to em­u­late Jimi Hen­drix or Jimmy Page, Yankovic was learn­ing “Dipsy Doo­dle” with Mrs. Fe­sen­meyer.

That’s not to say he didn’t love the Bri­tish In­va­sion. He did. But in­stead of re­belling, he adapted.

In lessons, he learned clas­si­cal and polka, and to read mu­sic. In his free time, Yankovic fig­ured out how to play the songs he loved by ear, whether it was Ma­son Wil­liams’s “Clas­si­cal Gas” or El­ton John’s en­tire “Good­bye Yel­low Brick Road” al­bum.

Yankovic was more than a good boy. He skipped sec­ond grade, got straight A’s and was Lyn­wood High’s vale­dic­to­rian. As an only child, he was loved and shel­tered. Church was ev­ery Sun­day and sleep­overs were for­bid­den, as was any­thing even re­motely risque. Yankovic re­mem­bers an is­sue of TV Guide ar­riv­ing at the house that con­tained a pho­to­graph of an ac­tress in a bikini. Mary took out a felt pen to fill out the suit.

Did he ever do drugs? No. Be­cause his par­ents told him not to. Did he ever con­sider ditch­ing an in­stru­ment that only Lawrence Welk’s mother could love? Never.

“It’s not like, ‘If I only got rid of the ac­cor­dion, things would be per­fect,’ ” Yankovic says. “I was two years younger than every­body in my school. I didn’t go through pu­berty at the same time. I didn’t learn to drive at the same time. I was a straight-A stu­dent, a high school vale­dic­to­rian. I was al­ways the nerdy kid.”

If he found an es­cape, it was through the satirical hu­mor of Mad Magazine and novelty songs on the Dr. De­mento ra­dio show. Hansen, with a mas­ter’s in mu­si­col­ogy from UCLA and an ex­pan­sive record col­lec­tion, ex­posed lis­ten­ers not just to Spike Jones and Al­lan “Hello Mud­dah, Hello Fad­duh” Sherman but to more-ob­scure one-goof won­ders such as Ner­vous Norvus. Hansen also gave Yankovic his first break. On March 14, 1976, he in­tro­duced “Al­fred Yankovic” to his au­di­ence by play­ing a tape made by the 16-year-old high school se­nior. “Belvedere Cruis­ing” cen­tered on the fam­ily’s Ply­mouth. Yankovic ac­com­pa­nied him­self on ac­cor­dion.

“When he sang the line, ‘There’s some­thing about a Comet that makes me want to vomit,’ that kind of perked up my ears,” Hansen re­mem­bers. “He would do far bet­ter songs af­ter that and he’s a lit­tle em­bar­rassed about ‘Belvedere Cruis­ing’ to­day, but I thought, as soon as I heard it, ‘That guy has some tal­ent.’ ” Be­com­ing ‘Weird Al’

He ar­rived at Cal­i­for­nia Polytech­nic State Univer­sity in the fall of 1976 and im­me­di­ately made an im­pres­sion. The mis­matched clothes. The flip-flops. The ac­cor­dion. One kid in the dorm de­ri­sively named him “Weird Al.” An­other stum­bled into his room.

“It looked like a home­less en­camp­ment,” his friend Joel Miller re­mem­bers. “There were just lit­tle paths. One was to his desk, one was to his bed, and one was to this ac­cor­dion in the corner of the room. And I had never seen an ac­cor­dion be­fore, I mean in real life. So I asked him, ‘Can you play that thing?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah. What do you want to hear?’ ”

El­ton John. Which song? And within min­utes, Yankovic launched into “Fu­neral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleed­ing.”

“We were just blown away,” Miller says. “Peo­ple started com­ing out of their dorm rooms to see what was go­ing on. My friends knew I played per­cus­sion. So I ran and got my bon­gos and we started play­ing, and we had so much fun.”

They be­gan ap­pear­ing on Thurs­days, ama­teur night, at the stu­dent union. Oth­ers would bring their acous­tic gui­tars and do Dan Fo­gel­berg songs.

“And we’d be play­ing, like, Tom Lehrer cov­ers, and we’d do a med­ley of ev­ery song writ­ten in the world, or we’d segue from ‘Also

Sprach Zarathus­tra’ into the theme from ‘The Odd Cou­ple,’” Yankovic says. “Just ran­dom and stupid, and peo­ple were look­ing at us like we were from outer space. And that was the first time I felt that kind of wave of ac­cep­tance and ap­pre­ci­a­tion from an au­di­ence. And it was kind of ad­dict­ing, I have to say.”

He kept scor­ing with Dr. De­mento. “My Bologna” was in­spired by the Knack’s “My Sharona.” The Queen par­ody “An­other One Rides the Bus” was recorded live in the stu­dio. Both songs ended up on Yankovic’s self-ti­tled 1983 de­but. By then, Yankovic had also re­cruited the band that re­mains in­tact to­day — bassist Steve Jay, gui­tarist Jim “Kimo” West and drum­mer Jon “Ber­muda” Schwartz.

He also made an im­por­tant dis­cov­ery. Funny songs could get you on Dr. De­mento. Funny videos could make you a star. In “Ricky,” Yankovic ditched his glasses and mus­tache to por­tray Desi Ar­naz from “I Love Lucy.” The song cracked the top 100, and Yankovic felt con­fi­dent enough to quit his day job work­ing in the mail­room at West­wood One.

“He made peo­ple stop and look at the TV and say, ‘What the hell was that?’ ” re­mem­bers Les Gar­land, MTV’s head of pro­gram­ming dur­ing the 1980s. “Ev­ery type of re­search that we did — fa­mil­iar­ity. Do you like it? Are you get­ting enough of it? Do you want more? — the num­bers were huge. And from that, he ab­so­lutely was an MTV star.”

He was so po­lite and re­spect­ful it al­most hid his sub­ver­sive ge­nius. Yankovic’s par­o­dies poked holes in the bub­ble of pop pre­ten­sion. Take his treat­ment of the Michael Jack­son hit “Beat It.”

Jack­son’s orig­i­nal, re­leased as a sin­gle in 1983, rev­o­lu­tion­ized mu­sic by ush­er­ing in MTV’s golden age, an era when a video could as­pire to be­come art and take on some­thing as se­ri­ous as gang vi­o­lence.

Yankovic’s “Eat It” video opened with the flat­u­lent beat of “Mu­si­cal Mike” Ki­ef­fer’s hand per­cus­sion be­fore giv­ing way to a son­i­cally authen­tic back­ing track. “Weird Al,” slap-stick­ing through some of Jack­son’s iconic dance steps, sang corny lines about food: “Have some more yo­gurt. Have some more Spam. It doesn’t mat­ter if it’s fresh or canned.” As he pranced, view­ers were treated to a steady stream of “Air­plane!”-wor­thy sight gags.

Yankovic’s 1992 spoof of Nir­vana would be an­other cre­ative tri­umph.

To get per­mis­sion, Yankovic called Kurt Cobain on the set of “Satur­day Night Live,” where Nir­vana was set to per­form.

“One of the first things he said is, ‘Oh, is it go­ing to be a song about food?’ Be­cause at that point, I was sort of known as the guy that did food par­o­dies,” Yankovic re­mem­bers. “I said, ‘Ac­tu­ally, it’s go­ing to be a song about no­body can un­der­stand your lyrics.’ There was a brief pause on the line. Then he said, ‘Oh, that’s funny.’ ”

In his video for “Smells Like Nir­vana,” Yankovic donned a stringy wig and sang un­in­tel­li­gi­ble lyrics as mar­bles spilled out of his mouth.

“‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was a pow­er­ful jam that changed the face of mu­sic,” says ac­tor Jack Black, who con­sid­ers Yankovic an in­spi­ra­tion for his work in his com­edy rock duo Tena­cious D. “It cre­ated this new genre and sort of de­stroyed hair metal. It was a big cul­tural mo­ment, and he comes in and mar­ble-mouths it. There’s some­thing re­ally im­por­tant about laugh­ing at things that take them­selves too se­ri­ously.”

Des­per­ate for ap­proval

“That makes me sad,” Yankovic says. He’s in a car be­ing driven to an event at San Fran­cisco’s Sketch­fest, a com­edy fes­ti­val he’s speak­ing at, when he’s told that Coo­lio is still an­noyed. The is­sue dates to 1996, when Yankovic donned a gi­ant hat and fake beard and re­leased “Amish Par­adise,” his par­ody of “Gangsta’s Par­adise.” Years ago, the rap­per com­plained that the song was recorded with­out his ap­proval. (Yankovic has al­ways main­tained that it was a mis­un­der­stand­ing.) These days, Coo­lio says he’s more up­set with the qual­ity of the sendup.

“Okay, damn, if you’re go­ing to make a par­ody of my song, can’t you do a bet­ter job?” he says. “He killed ‘Beat It’ when he did ‘Eat It.’ ”

Some­times, Coo­lio will go to a bar and they’ll have Yankovic’s par­ody on the juke­box.

“And what do they do? They play ‘Amish Par­adise,’ ” he says. “And every­body’s look­ing at me with this big, stupid-ass smile on their face.”

As the car ram­bles through the city, Yankovic says, “I wish that every­body that I parodied en­joyed what I did.” The re­al­ity is, al­most every­one has. “It was a vote of con­fi­dence,” says Greg Kihn, whose top-10 1983 hit, “Jeop­ardy,” was turned into “I Lost on Jeop­ardy” by Yankovic. “If you’re not well-enough known to be parodied, well, you’re just not well-enough known.”

Yankovic re­ally does care. As his friend Miranda has re­minded him, he doesn’t have to get per­mis­sion from artists. Par­ody is pro­tected by the First Amend­ment. But Yankovic has built his rep­u­ta­tion on re­spect­ing artists’ wishes.

“I don’t want to hurt any­body’s feel­ings,” Yankovic says. “I don’t want to be em­broiled in any nasti­ness. That’s not how I live my life. I like every­body to be in on the joke and be happy for my suc­cess. I take pains not to burn bridges.”

Prince never agreed to let him par­ody one of his songs, so he didn’t. Paul McCart­ney dis­suaded Yankovic from turn­ing “Live and Let Die” into “Chicken Pot Pie.” The for­mer Bea­tle, a vege­tar­ian and an­i­mal rights ac­tivist, sug­gested “Tofu Pot Pie.” Some­how, that didn’t have the same ring to it. Then there’s Iggy Aza­lea. In 2014, Yankovic de­cided that “Manda­tory Fun” needed one more killer par­ody, and he fo­cused on the Aus­tralian rap­per’s hit “Fancy.” But he couldn’t get a re­sponse from Aza­lea’s man­ager.

So Yankovic flew from Los An­ge­les to Colorado and worked his way back­stage for an Aza­lea con­cert. The singer’s road man­ager

told him it wasn’t go­ing to work. Aza­lea was too busy to chat. Per­haps he could try to see her in Lon­don when she played there in a few months. A few months? Yankovic could see his re­lease dead­line drift­ing away.

“Then I thought: ‘I’ve got to be proac­tive about this. Do some­thing,’ ” he says. “This is my one chance. And this is not like me, but ba­si­cally as she was walk­ing off­stage I kind of jumped in front of her and said: ‘Iggy, hi. I’m “Weird Al” Yankovic and I’d love to do a par­ody of your song.’ She looked at me like a deer in head­lights, as was be­fit­ting the oc­ca­sion, and she said, ‘Oh, well, I would need to see the lyrics.’ And I said, ‘I hap­pen to have them right here.’ I pulled them out of my pocket. She glanced at them for sev­eral sec­onds and then said, ‘Looks fine with me.’ ”

The ‘Weird Al’ re­boot

At Sketch­fest, Yankovic sits on a panel about the late, great IFC show “Com­edy Bang! Bang!” He served one sea­son as Auk­er­man’s mu­si­cal side­kick, against his man­age­ment’s ad­vice. They thought he was too big for a low-rated ca­ble show. Yankovic loved ev­ery minute.

Next, Yankovic heads to a pod­cast hosted by co­me­dian Pat Fran­cis.

There is a lively crowd and cheers through­out the in­ter­view when Fran­cis plays many of Yankovic’s ’80s clas­sics. After­ward, Yankovic is asked whether it both­ers him that his orig­i­nal songs and more-dar­ing ex­per­i­ments are over­shad­owed by “Eat It” and other hits.

“That’s fine,” he says. “I have to be self­aware enough to know that those are the songs that most peo­ple care about.”

Mu­si­cally, he has come a long way. Yankovic was green when he recorded his de­but in 1982. Back then, he re­lied heav­ily on pro­ducer Rick Der­ringer, known for his hit “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.” But by the fol­low­ing year, Yankovic was bring­ing horn charts and vo­cal ar­range­ments to the ses­sions. Tony Papa, his long­time en­gi­neer, says Yankovic be­gan to pro­duce out of ne­ces­sity. Der­ringer, in those days, wasn’t al­ways at his best.

“He would do a line of coke, then mellow it out with a joint and then drink,” Papa says. “A lot of times Rick would fall asleep. I think that’s when Al re­al­ized he didn’t re­ally need Rick.”

(Der­ringer, re­spond­ing via email, said that he re­grets us­ing drugs — he’s clean now — but that “we made great records TO­GETHER.”)

By 1992, Yankovic got sole pro­duc­tion credit on his al­bums. His songs also be­came more var­ied and complex, whether he was do­ing hip-hop, grunge, candy pop or, on 2003’s “Ge­nius in France,” a nearly nine-minute trib­ute to Frank Zappa.

“Peo­ple ask me, ‘Hamil­ton’ has a fairly di­verse base in terms of the kind of mu­sic I’m writ­ing for it,” Miranda says. “And I say, when you grow up with ‘Weird Al,’ you learn that genre is fluid.” And so is a busi­ness plan. Yankovic de­cided even be­fore fin­ish­ing “Manda­tory Fun” that he was done with tra­di­tional al­bums. In a vi­ral so­ci­ety, it takes too long to go from idea to ap­proval to cre­ation for a 12-song re­lease. He also doesn’t need a la­bel. Con­sider how he pro­moted “Manda­tory Fun.” Record com­pa­nies no longer pro­vide video bud­gets. So Yankovic part­nered with other out­lets, in­clud­ing Funny or Die, Col­lege Hu­mor and Nerdist. He launched his al­bum by re­leas­ing eight videos in eight days.

He plans to re­turn to the road next year. But it will be a dif­fer­ent show, with the “Fat” suit and pin­point pro­duc­tion plans left be­hind. Yankovic and his band will play smaller venues, do a dif­fer­ent set ev­ery night, and fo­cus on deep al­bum cuts and orig­i­nals. The idea is to con­nect more with his fans.

That is some­thing that comes nat­u­ral to him.

Back­stage in San Fran­cisco at Sketch­fest, a fam­ily has been ush­ered in to say hello and pose for pic­tures. Jill Gould, a long­time fan, makes her re­quest. “Can I touch your hair?” she asks. Yankovic doesn’t groan or pause, even if he is asked this all the time. In­stead, his eyes widen and he tilts his head to­ward Gould and re­turns the ques­tion with a mis­chievous, car­toon smile. “Can I touch your hair?” And like that, they stand there smil­ing, fin­gers run­ning through locks. The most suc­cess­ful song parodist ever and a die-hard who heard him first 30 years ago on Dr. De­mento. The mo­ment is meant to be shared.

BRINSON BANKS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

FAM­ILY PHO­TOS

TOP LEFT: Al­fred Matthew Yankovic as a tod­dler. TOP RIGHT: Young Al with his par­ents, Mary and Nick Yankovic, at age 3 or 4. “My fa­ther was very out­go­ing and gre­gar­i­ous, and my mother was kind of with­drawn and soft-spo­ken,” the son says. “Both sides of my per­son­al­ity are there.” BOT­TOM RIGHT: Al with his ac­cor­dion at age 10. In lessons, he learned clas­si­cal and polka, and to read mu­sic. BOT­TOM LEFT: Yankovic in 1976 at his grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony at Lyn­wood High School in Cal­i­for­nia. He was vale­dic­to­rian.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY BRINSON+BANKS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

COUR­TESY OF JON SCHWARTZ

“Weird Al” Yankovic be­came a 1980s MTV star with his videos for songs such as “Fat,” at top, his 1986 par­ody of Michael Jack­son’s “Bad.” While par­ody is pro­tected by the First Amend­ment, Yankovic still seeks out per­mis­sion from the artists whose songs he plans to spoof. Most are happy to be in on the joke. But not al­ways. Coo­lio is still not a fan of “Amish Par­adise,” above, Yankovic’s 1996 take on the rap­pers’s hit “Gangsta’s Par­adise.”

RON EISENBERG

TONY HERTZ/SAN LUIS OBISPO TELE­GRAM-TRI­BUNE

CHRIS PIZZELLO/INVISION/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TOP: Al Yankovic in 1980 dur­ing his time as a stu­dent DJ for his col­lege ra­dio sta­tion, KCPR at Cal­i­for­nia Polytech­nic State Univer­sity. It was also at Cal Poly where he first started per­form­ing reg­u­larly with a band, play­ing his ac­cor­dion and do­ing ob­scure cover songs. “That was the first time I felt that kind of wave of ac­cep­tance and ap­pre­ci­a­tion from an au­di­ence,” he says. “And it was kind of ad­dict­ing.” ABOVE: “Weird Al” in 2015 with his Grammy for best com­edy al­bum for “Manda­tory Fun.”

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