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An Inteview with Weird Al Yankovic

[Song Parodist, Accordion Player]
“I sort of feel like I’m at work when I’m listening to a Top 40 station.”
Consequences of parodying a song:
Being limited by other people’s perceptions
Possibly-Amish people throwing eggs
Upsetting Billy Joel
by Jonathan Zwickel
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Inteview with Weird Al Yankovic

[Song Parodist, Accordion Player]
“I sort of feel like I’m at work when I’m listening to a Top 40 station.”
Consequences of parodying a song:
Being limited by other people’s perceptions
Possibly-Amish people throwing eggs
Upsetting Billy Joel
by Jonathan Zwickel
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Inteview with Weird Al Yankovic

Jonathan Zwickel
16 Snaps

Other than the Segway in the foyer and the accordion by the fireplace, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s house is not so weird. A modernist, multilevel compound steep in the Hollywood Hills, it blends with its ornately anonymous neighbors.

A kumquat tree by the front gate is studded with small orange fruit. Up a flight of concrete stairs, a swimming pool lies shaded beneath overhanging stories. Another flight up and inside, Yankovic’s living room is bright, white-walled and -tiled, hung with colorful but subdued abstract art, vaulted floor-to-ceiling windows giving a long, smoggy view westward to the Pacific. On his coffee table, surrounded by glass art and stacks of family photos, sits the book Bird by photographer Andrew Zuckerman.

In the ninety minutes I talked with Yankovic on a mild April morning, the accordion went unplayed, but trying the Segway, he declared, came with being invited to his home: “The indoctrination.” I took it for a short, swerving ride across the living room.

In this setting Yankovic himself was rather genteel, articulate, and light. He answered the door barefoot, in Diesel jeans and a floral-print polo, long, angular face maybe a day unshaven, long, kinky hair past his shoulders. His voice revealed little trace of the goony croon of joke-pop classics like “Like a Surgeon” or “Eat It.” Yankovic—who’s earned a degree in architecture from Cal Poly University, a handful of platinum records, and three Grammy Awards—started our conversation with an almost-formal tone but eventually relaxed into a less-restrained tenor.

This is a man who for thirty years has made a living—a good one—by out-farcing the farce that is popular music. Yankovic is so associated with the pop-music parody that a fan-managed website, The Not Al Page, exists to correct falsely attributed songs (125 and counting).

Yankovic’s most recent album was a greatest-hits package released late last year; preceding it was a download-only EP highlighted by the Doors-inspired sendup “Craigslist” (“You got a ’65 / Chevy Malibu / With automatic drive / Custom paint job, too / I’ll trade you for my old wheelbarrow / And a slightly used sombrero / And I’ll even throw in a stapler, if you insist / …Craigslist!”). The album before that, 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood, was Yankovic’s twelfth and his first turn on the Billboard Top 10. Last year he debuted a multimedia, celeb-studded educational film, Al’s Brain in 3-D, at the Orange County Fair and the Puyallup Fair, outside Seattle. It ran again this year and once again attracted record crowds.

Yankovic’s annual summer tour runs through September and in December makes its first-ever stops in the United Kingdom. His first children’s book, When I Grow Up, is set for publication by HarperCollins in March of next year.

—Jonathan Zwickel

I. THE ARCHITECT

THE BELIEVER: This house is beautiful. What’s the story behind it?

WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: When we bought it we thought it might be a Richard Meier, but it turns out it’s not. Have you heard of Richard Meier?

BLVR: No.

WAY: I have a degree in architecture, and I did my senior project on Richard Meier. He designed the Getty Center here and a bunch of stuff like that. My wife and I both really like modern, although it’s really hard to warm up a modern house. [Looking out the window] I wish it were a little bit clearer. You can actually see the ocean on really clear days.

BLVR: We spoke back in 2006 in a phone interview I did for Rhapsody.com. It was an interesting time for you because “White and Nerdy” had just come out, “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” was all over YouTube, and we talked about, and I sorta predicted, and I feel vindicated by, this unironic embrace of Weird Al by the hipster music cognoscenti. We talked about that a bit, but it seems like that’s actually happened.

WAY: In a way, you know? It’s really cool, the stuff that’s been happening just in the last few years. I’ve always been kind of outré, but in the last year I got to perform live with the Pixies. I’ve been hanging out with the Upright Citizens Brigade crowd—a lot of very hip kind of alternative comedy icons.

BLVR: As far as the brightest minds in comedy, I think of Tim and Eric, whom you work with.

WAY: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of comedy that I’m a fan of is not something that I would incorporate into my own comedy. But I think Tim and Eric are brilliant. I love that they’re so polarizing. After I’ve just been on Awesome Show, people will stop me in the street and they’ll either say, “Oh, that’s so great! You’re on the Tim and Eric show! They’re so great and they’re so funny!” Or they’ll say, “Why are you wasting your time on that stupid show?” There’s no middle ground, you either love them or you hate them. And I fall into the former camp.

BLVR: It seems like the Pixies guest appearance was the cred kickoff. Like, that’s it. Out of all the iconic indie rock bands, they’re held in the highest esteem, and to appear onstage with them is a validation of sorts.

WAY: I’ve always had the support of my fans, but I’ve also always had the feeling that I’ve never really been accepted in either the music world or the comedy world. In the last few years it feels like maybe, just as a factor of how long I’ve managed to hang around, or maybe it’s the people that were inspired by me when they were young, growing up, being able to express their affection in a more adult manner. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but it’s nice to get that kind of appreciation at this point.

BLVR: Something else I wonder about being a contributing factor is the ascendance of the nerd.

WAY: There’s been a lot written about that in the last few years. I don’t know if “White and Nerdy” started it or it was just riding the crest of it, but it seemed like there was a period a couple years ago and probably extending to present day where there’s been a lot of focus on the nerd in pop culture. I don’t know if it’s still happening; there was some sort of Broadway musical being done about nerds. At the time I spoke a lot about how nerds now rule the world. They have the money, they have the power, they’re in charge. It’s really Revenge of the Nerds in a major way. I think nerd is no longer such a derogatory term. Some people wear the badge proudly. In fact, one thing I wanted to do with “White and Nerdy” was make it more of an anthem so people could own their nerdiness.

BLVR: Those Al TV episodes you did a while back are perfect for YouTube. I can’t believe you could’ve predicted that back then, but those little vignettes are so well suited to the format that it almost seems like they were created for it.

WAY: Thank you. A gentleman who interviewed me for Wired magazine a year or so ago—that was sort of the thesis of his whole piece: that I was sort of the godfather of YouTube. I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that, but there’s some validity to that. I was doing YouTube-friendly stuff way back before YouTube existed.

BLVR: It seems like you’re more of an early adopter than a godfather.

WAY: I didn’t actually get on YouTube until, probably— well, certainly later than I should have, because other people’s pirated versions of “Amish Paradise” have about a hundred times as many hits as my own. [Laughs]

BLVR: Cover versions?

WAY: No, they would like upload it off my video collection or off TV or something and they would have like 10 million hits and on the Al Yankovic YouTube site it’s got half a million hits. Which is not too shabby either, but still—it’s like some guy who happened to upload a year before I did got all the traffic.

BLVR: It’s in your best interest that you’re online— Twitter, MySpace—as yourself. Just look at the Not Al page—the list of all those parodies that aren’t yours.

WAY: Right. That’s important. It’s really great that my fans have my back that way, because I don’t wanna take credit for other people’s stuff, especially when a lot of the other people’s stuff is pretty bad. It does me no favors to have my name attributed to somebody else’s material. And a lot of the material that has my name attached to it is off-color or not family friendly. I’ve had a lot of upset parents telling me they’re never gonna let their kids listen to me again because of some song that I wrote, which in fact I never did. And some people, I assume, put my name on their songs just as a way to get hits. Because people think, Let’s hear the new Weird Al song, and it’s some guy in his basement in Arkansas, not me.

II. THE AUTEUR

BLVR: I look at Al’s Brain and I think, What a great idea. This is another way as a musician, as an artist, to present your work. It seems like a brand-new venue that’s particularly suited to the type of humor and performance that you do. I hope that musicians are looking at that and seeing that as this whole other realm, this real-world realm, that doesn’t require the typical avenues that you might use to put your music out there.

WAY: It was actually my manager, Jay Levey, who thought, Why don’t we do a 3-D movie about the brain? The 3-D movie might’ve been [Orange County Fair CEO] Steve Beazley’s idea, but Jay was the one who touched on the brain. And they pitched that to me and I thought, That’s really a great idea, because I can come up with some fun stuff for that, and it’ll be educational, and at the same time I can go on a lot of different tangents and have a lot of fun with it. It took a while to actually sell to the fair board, because it was very different for them—they’re used to allocating money for tractor pulls, not 3-D movies. I’ve been playing the Orange County Fair for many, many years, and I always do extremely well there. It’s not really my hometown, but it’s close to my hometown. It seems like every time we play the Orange County Fair we break attendance records, it’s just crazy. People start lining up, like, ten hours early for the show, it’s just sick. And Steve Beazley always wanted to do something more, something to bring it to the next level.

BLVR: What’s it like?

WAY: It’s a ten-minute movie. I wrote the script and directed it. And it basically tells the working of the human brain through man-on-the-street Q&As. I had random friends asking the questions, including Paul McCartney. He’s the last person to ask a question. He asks, “Exactly how does the brain work?” and that leads into a two-minute-long music video which is this pretty cool CGI trip through the human brain. The response from the fair attendees was great. We had focus groups and people filled out cards; they learned a lot and they had a great time.

BLVR: How did you hook in Paul McCartney?

WAY: It’s kind of funny how that all came to be. In the script I always had some huge celebrity ask this last question. We had the whole thing shot except for this one thing. We were like, We gotta find a huge celebrity. Paul McCartney was obviously one of the first people we approached. I thought, If I could get anybody in the world, who would I get? And Paul might’ve even been the first person we approached and kinda put the feeler out. And we just didn’t hear back. We just kind of wrote it off, like, who’s next? Brad Pitt? No, he’s in Germany. All these un-gettable people, you know? And out of the blue one morning, I get a call at eight o’clock in the morning, and I could barely hear on the phone, but it was somebody calling from England. “Yes, this is Paul McCartney’s office. When exactly do you need Paul to do this?” And I was half-asleep, going, “Uh, whenever’s good for Paul, really.” [Laughs] It just kind of blew my mind that he actually wanted to do it. He actually wanted to do it originally at his house in England. I don’t know what happened, he either forgot about it or never got around to it, and now the deadline was approaching. And we kind of gently reminded them: Paul said he was gonna do this. I see he’s playing Coachella on the seventeenth. How about if I just, like, set up a camera in the dressing room and we shoot him then? And finally they said OK.

III. THE PARODIST

BLVR: I read that before every parody, you call the original artist and try to gain approval in order to proceed. Is that true? Was there a phone call between you and, say, T.I.?

WAY: It’s more often the case that my manager will talk to their manager. If I know the artist personally, then I’ll call them personally. But in most cases it’s more like my peeps talking to their peeps and trying to work it out. And if for whatever reason my manager can’t get a response from the artist’s people, then he’ll say, “Al, if you want this, it’s on you. You gotta figure it out.” Sometimes then I’ll have to stalk them. I had to do that not too often but a couple times. And Kurt Cobain was one of those, because the Nirvana camp wasn’t returning phone calls. And it’s sort of a famous story, it’s been on, I think, Behind the Music and a couple other things, that I finally had to call a friend of mine on Saturday Night Live the week that Nirvana was performing for the first time and say, “Nobody’s returning my phone calls. Can you please, like, put Kurt Cobain on the phone?” And she did and I talked to Kurt personally and was like, “Hey, man, I’d love to do a parody and what do you think?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure, that’s great.”

BLVR: Then you have guys like Chamillionaire giving you props for assisting with his record sales and his Grammy win. Is it possible that the parody somehow improves the original?

WAY: I don’t know if I can say that. It would be a nice thing to think, but I think the song is the song. Certainly I think it raises people’s awareness of the original song. There’s a certain part of my fan base that hasn’t heard a lot of the songs that I’m doing parodies of, and it’s only through exposure to my material that they’re even made aware of these artists. Certainly raising awareness is a big positive aspect to what I do. In fact, if you go back to the Nirvana example, I heard from an executive at Nirvana’s label that flat-out told me that Nirvana sold an extra million copies of Nevermind because of my parody.

BLVR: Has anyone ever been offended by a parody? I think of “Amish Paradise.” And I don’t mean Coolio in particular, but the Amish. Or the inner-city people whom Coolio’s song might’ve been speaking to.

WAY: Well, I used to be flip and say the Amish don’t have MTV so they shouldn’t even be hearing the song. I don’t know. I’m not setting out to offend anybody. The humor of that song was the juxtaposition of the Amish culture with the gangsta culture. And I’m really not trying to demean either one, I’m just trying to have a laugh. No offense should be taken. And again, this was sort of an isolated incident, but I was doing an in-store appearance I think in Pennsylvania about the time that “Amish Paradise” had come out, and somebody threw an egg or something in protest. [Laughs] But I’m not sure if that was an angry Amish person.

IV. THE ICONOCLAST

BLVR: Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to produce that didn’t seem like it jived with the Weird Al image? Like, have you ever wanted to make a message song or say something serious or create art that was separate from this identity you’ve cultivated, but felt you couldn’t do that because of fan expectations?

WAY: I never put those limits on myself. There’s nothing that I’ve wanted to do that I felt, Oh no, I couldn’t do that because I have this Weird Al persona. I’ve never had any desire to do any heartfelt, tender love ballad….

BLVR: Never?

WAY: Not really. Maybe when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, I tried to write a straight-ahead rock song with “important” lyrics, and it was just abysmal. That was never really me, that was me trying to fit in, I think. I’ve never been embarrassed by my niche. I enjoy what I do and I’m comfortable doing it. And the things that I’ve wanted to do are basically doing what we talked about, kind of expanding into other areas—directing, and producing, and writing, doing stuff for TV and feature films, stuff like that. I don’t think I’ve ever limited myself because of people’s perception of who I am. I think I have been limited by other people who’ve taken their perception of me and thought, Oh, Weird Al couldn’t possibly do that, he does this. And they put me in a box and they figure that’s all that I do and how dare I think I can do something else. So that’s the only thing—I’m limited somewhat by other people’s perceptions of who I am and who I am not.

BLVR: Did you go ahead do those things anyway?

WAY: Well, I’ve been making efforts to do those things.

BLVR: This is a recent development?

WAY: It’s sort of an ongoing thing. There are some things I can’t talk about which we’re trying to develop. It’s always a fight to do anything other than what I’m famous for. I would certainly do more feature films, but I think—either people want me to be Weird Al, which, in the case of the Naked Gun movies, that’s great because I love those movies and I’m happy to do it—but people just can’t fathom me being a character where I’m not Weird Al. Which is one of the reasons why I love doing Tim and Eric’s show. Because even though I was obviously me—they didn’t even have me made up to look differently—I was playing characters. I was never Weird Al on Tim and Eric, I was Uncle Muscles. Or I was Simon the creepy guy that escorts these weird ladies down the aisle in a church. They allowed me to do something different, and that’s something I really appreciated.

BLVR: What do you listen to for pleasure?

WAY: I listen to Top 40 radio, sort of because that’s my job, to keep my finger on the pulse. But for pleasure… I don’t wanna start giving a laundry list of band names. But I like alternative-rock stuff that I listened to in college, and listened to again in the ’90s. Most of the bands and the artists I like are a little quirky. They’re not necessarily comedy rock, but they definitely have a sense of humor and they’re not afraid to, you know, let their freak flag fly.

BLVR: Is it all research? Are you always listening with an ear for parody?

WAY: I have to admit, if it wasn’t my job to be aware of the state of pop music, I’d probably switch to a more obscure station that was playing more underground stuff, more alternative stuff, because that’s where my personal taste would be. But I don’t dislike popular music, certainly. But I sort of feel like I’m at work when I’m listening to a Top 40 station.

BLVR: You know, I dug up a “Still Billy Joel to Me” video on YouTube.

WAY: Video?

BLVR: It was someone’s own video with your song. They put your song to their random video.

WAY: I was thinking it might’ve been an early, early live performance, but they could’ve done their own lowbudge video.

BLVR: That’s something you refrained from releasing. Why is that? Too mean?

WAY: Well, that’s part of it. I wrote the song back when “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” was out, which was, like, 1979, 1980. It was one of those things I recorded for no money. Where did I do that? I think just at the college radio station that I worked at. I think we recorded it there. But it’s just me and the accordion. They played it on the local radio stations around San Luis Obispo. Somehow Billy Joel heard a copy of it way back then. Some magazine show did a segment on Billy Joel, and they played him a little of the song, and he listened to it and… he had some kind of snide comment about it. I could tell I kinda hurt his feelings a little bit. I thought, Oh, gosh. You know… [Laughs] I didn’t wanna get on Billy Joel’s bad side. That’s maybe where my whole nonbiting thing started. I go through pains not to step on people’s toes or make jokes at their expense. If I can help it. I still do from time to time—I break that rule all the time. But my general policy is if you can get a laugh without stepping on somebody’s toes, that’s a better way to go. So that was part of it. I didn’t wanna hurt Billy Joel’s feelings. Also the references got dated very quickly. He probably wouldn’t understand a lot of things that I refer to in the song. There’s a line in the song, like, “Now everybody thinks the new way is super. Just ask Linda Ronstadt or even Alice Cooper.” I mean, I get that now, but the year that I wrote that song, Alice Cooper had just broken out of the mold and done his new-wave album. And he was getting a lot of flack for it, because he was Alice Cooper and all of a sudden he was new-wave. And Linda Ronstadt wasn’t so much new-wave but her hit was considered kind of a nod to the whole new-wave thing. At the time you would’ve gone, Hah. I get it. And nowadays you’re like, Linda Ronstadt? What? [Laughs] So it’s one of those songs that didn’t age very well, on top of being mean-spirited.

BLVR: Someday before you die, a streak of meanness will emerge. It must be there somewhere.

WAY: [Laughs] If you wanna see me being mean, just go to my YouTube page and see some of my interviews. I did a fake interview with Kevin Federline which is really… harsh. [Laughs] I feel kind of bad about it, but I think a lot of people think it’s funny. Being funny covers a multitude of sins.

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