Even Better Than the Real Thing

"Weird Al" Yankovic makes serious business out of parody, and vice versa

My first exposure to "Weird Al" Yankovic came in the summer of 1986, when my brother and I got it into our heads that the only way our father could properly show his love for us was by taking us to see Transformers: The Movie. To my long-suffering dad, throwing $20 at an hour-long commercial was one of the lowest priorities on his list of what to do on a Sunday afternoon. To us, watching giant animated robots fight to the tune of Yankovic's Devo parody "Dare to be Stupid" made perfect sense—even more so if our elders found it indecipherable.

Yankovic's career is littered with the kind of mental hooks that create life-long fans.

His disparate songs are connected by his skill at finding humor in practically anything, drawing inspiration from pop-culture subjects considered out of bounds to so-called serious artists (or those confined to one music genre). His best-known efforts springboard from the works of other performers, but, as his career enters its third decade, it's safe to say that he's become memorable in his own right.

Despite his innocent appearance, "Weird Al" Yankovic is a calculating operator. The fun-loving nature intrinsic to his albums is disarming, but his devil-may-care attitude and cognizant lack of cool belie an artist distinctly tuned into his audience's interests. He catches trends and weaves them together with buzzwords, non-sequiturs, and his own razor wit, then releases the full-grown results into the wild at exactly the right time to capitalize on the ebb and flow of pop culture.

Yankovic got his start well before the Internet made access to widespread distribution cheap and available to anyone with a high-speed connection. Big breaks were harder to come by in those days, and they required a lot of elbow grease from budding artists. Yankovic's break, in between stints as a disc jockey and his studies as an architecture student at California Polytechnic State University, came from a 1979 tape of his parody of The Knack's "My Bologna," which he recorded in a school bathroom and sent to syndicated radio host Dr. Demento.

"I started doing it for grins, just to amuse my friends," he says. "I didn't think about being ‘Weird Al' for a living. I'm sure I had rock-star dreams, but I had no concept of the fact that I'd be doing it a quarter of a century later when I first came up with ‘My Bologna'."

The "My Bologna" tape was a hit with Demento. It led to a live appearance on his show, where Yankovic premiered the Queen parody "Another One Rides the Bus" with Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz, a drummer he met while practicing for his appearance. "Another One Rides the Bus" begat appearances on Tom Snyder's The Tomorrow Show and a berth as one of Dr. Demento's traveling acts, which in turn begat an expanded band line-up and his first top-40 hit, the Joan Jett parody "I Love Rocky Road."

Two decades after the early successes of the Demento era, his fan base covers a much wider swath than anybody could have expected back then. "I don't like being exclusionary," he says. "I like having a wide audience, but I don't subscribe to the lowest-common-denominator school.... I don't dumb down my act at all, and really don't target my act toward any one group of people. I just do what personally tickles me and hope that other people will share my viewpoint."

By and large, they have. His tendency to play to his audience has given Yankovic considerable staying power. He's always been popular—his two Grammy-winning albums came 20 years apart (he could have had more, but a change in the comedy category kept him out of the running for a decade), and his six platinum records span the length of his career. But it's been something of a slow burn. His first Billboard top-10 album didn't come until 2006's Straight Outta Lynwood.

"I'm a little competitive," Yankovic says. "It was really great to have one in the top 10. I guess after that the next high water mark would be a number one, but I do know that there's kind of a glass ceiling for what I do as a parody artist."

Yankovic strives to maintain good professional relationships in the industry, and his parodies are considered a mark of success amongst artists who get it. Kurt Cobain "laughed [his] ass off" at 1992's "Smells Like Nirvana" and praised the eerie similarity of its video to his own "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Chamillionaire, whose "Ridin'" (with the chorus hook "Ridin' dirty") became "White and Nerdy" on Straight Outta Lynwood, has said he considers Yankovic's version a factor behind the single's worldwide success. A misunderstanding with rapper Coolio over the "Amish Paradise" parody of "Gangsta's Paradise"—the rapper maintains that he never granted permission for the satire—was, for 10 years, the only intra-industry blemish on Yankovic's record. That dispute was resolved at an impromptu 2006 meeting. Al's summary of the meeting, posted on his website, ends, "I doubt I'll be invited to Coolio's next birthday party, but at least I can stop wearing that bulletproof vest to the mall."

"I have done some things that are a little mean," Yankovic admits. "Some of the fake interviews I've done on the AL-TV specials, editing myself into real interviews with musicians. Other than that, I try to be professional about what I do, and it's worked out pretty well."

His style pastiches, like Lynwood's Rage Against the Machine send-up "I'll Sue Ya," subtly lurk between his single-song parodies and the more obvious originals on any given album. They're often labors of love for Yankovic. "My style parodies tend to come from styles that I find interesting, or styles that I personally like, so I don't worry as much about timeliness when I'm writing them." Their origins range from the obvious to the obscure—an electro-pop song on a Weird Al album might be a nod to a band you've never heard of, or it might just be Yankovic in an '80s mood.

Though Yankovic and his band are more likely to spend their free time on tour answering fan e-mails and MySpace messages than throwing furniture through hotel windows, the tour lifestyle—especially given Yankovic's predilection toward multiple costume changes and elaborate audiovisual productions—is far from pressure-free. "When we started on the 2008 tour, I was a little nervous because we hadn't performed in about eight months. I wasn't sure if the costumes would still fit, and there were so many things which could possibly go wrong... but we got through all that, and now we're feeling very comfortable and confident again.

"There are certain songs that we can't cut, or else there would probably be rioting in the streets," Yankovic says. "We don't have to play them, but I aim to please. I don't want anyone to walk away from the show disappointed because they didn't hear something."

To sate his fans without having to resort to five-hour shows, he compromises, trimming individual songs while losing as little as possible. "We have a medley in the middle of the set, some songs that we'll play a verse and a chorus of so that people can feel like they've heard them live without stretching it to bladder-bursting limits."

In Yankovic's estimation, it's a good time to be in his line of work. Although the growing amount of file-sharing on the Web has given rise to interlopers trying to pass off sub-par material under his name, his own work has benefited from the Internet, both as a distribution medium and as a target. "I think the Internet has really opened things up for parody," he says.

In typical fashion, his most visible opinion on the situation comes from Lynwood's "Don't Download This Song," which pokes fun at the RIAA's litigation-happy reputation. "I haven't caught any flak from them over it," he says, "but I think I could argue that one's meaning either way if I did."

"You don't have a suit in an office somewhere deciding whether or not people get to hear your stuff," he adds. "It's like when (Atlantic Records, James Blunt's handlers) asked me to remove (Blunt parody) ‘You're Pitiful' from the album. I said, ‘OK, but it's kinda already out there.' Whoops!"

Yankovic has mastered his own personal game on the system, insinuating himself immovably within fan consciousness and garnering considerable industry respect. He's made himself genuinely likeable to all parties involved, and (perhaps most insidiously) he's done so largely without rousing ire or causing ill will.

Yankovic is a standard-bearer for goofy outcasts looking to make good everywhere ("That was my plan all along!" he jokes), and he's mirthfully self-aware of his own good fortune. Anything might set him off—a turn of phrase here, an observation there, perhaps the realization of how far he's gotten in his field, no less amusing for the number of times it must have crossed his mind. Even during what is surely just another brief bit of road-trip press, Weird Al is a guy who likes to laugh. Between comedy and his architecture degree, he made the right career choice.