THE NERD ABIDES
After nearly 40 years of poking fun at celebrities, ‘Weird Al’ has become a legend in his own right
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”