"Weird Al" Yankovic
Alpocalypse Now… and Then
1959 to 1973
Alfred Matthew Yankovic is born on October 23, 1959 in Downey, California, the only child of Mary and Nick Yankovic, who raise their son in nearby Lynwood. Of Yugoslavian descent and raised in Kansas City, KS, Nick settled in California after a World War II stint, and works in a steel factory, a pipe factory, a bedspring factory, and as a forklift operator, security guard and gas station attendant. Nick often urges Al to choose a living that, first and foremost, makes him happy. Mary is from Kentucky and of Anglo-Italian descent; she marries Nick in 1949.
Going into show business was something that they wouldn't have actually encouraged," Yankovic says. "In fact, on a few occasions, I remember my mom telling me to stay out of Hollywood because everyone there was evil, which is pretty much correct. But it's nice that, when I finally did wind up with a career in show business, as it were, they were very supportive and proud. They'd come to see me when I performed locally. I had them introduce the show on a couple of occasions; on my last live DVD, they introduced the show. So they were always very supportive and happy for my success."
Al receives his first music lesson on October 22, 1967, the day before his seventh birthday, after a door-to-door salesman offers his parents the choice between accordion and guitar lessons. According to Al, they choose accordion in deference to "America's Polka King," Frankie Yankovic, who's no relation. Al graduates from a beginner's sized accordion to a medium-sized one, which he plays to this day, instead of the adult-sized version. Al learns pop songs, classical pieces, and many polkas. Aside from Frankie Yankovic, his early role model is Myron Floren of the Lawrence Welk Show. He watches an inordinate amount of television, including lots of cartoons, sitcoms, variety shows, The Twilight Zone, and, a personal favourite, Mr. Terrific, with Stephen Strimpell and Dick Gautier. He's an exceptional student at Woodrow Wilson Elementary, starting kindergarten a year early, skipping the second grade entirely, and developing a proficiency for math. He's deemed a nerd by his peers, who refer to him as Alfred, after the butler in Batman and Alfred E. Neuman, the geeky mascot for MAD magazine, which Yankovic reads voraciously. The first funny song he remembers hearing is Johnny Cash's version of Shel Silverstein's "Boa Constrictor," and he's drawn to the Mason Williams hit "Classical Gas" in 1968. He attends Lynwood Senior High, where he's a straight A student. His primary extracurricular activity is the National Forensics League; Yankovic often brings home trophies in speech competitions, where he's very funny, even when the context doesn't call for humour. He also joins two honour societies, a drama club, and the yearbook committee. At 12 years old, inspired by drafting class, he decides he'll become an architect when he grows up; in the interim, he works part-time as an accordion teacher and occasional accordion repo man. In the early 1970s, Yankovic discovers the Los Angeles-based Dr. Demento radio show, which airs Sunday night. He's fascinated by the warped, risqué content and hears Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, Tom Lehrer, and Stan Freberg, whom he counts as early influences. In 1973, Barret Eugene Hansen (a.k.a. Dr. Demento) speaks at Lynwood High; Yankovic gets an autograph and submits a tape for a Dr. Demento contest to pick the show's theme song. He doesn't win, but at 13, impresses Hansen.
1976 to 1979
Yankovic is named Valedictorian of his senior class and graduates high school at 16 years old. He's really into Elton John and learns to play rock'n'roll on accordion by repeatedly listening to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and learning the songs. He writes an original entitled "Belvedere Cruising" about his family's 1964 Plymouth Belvedere. He self-records on a portable cassette deck, and sends a tape of the song to Hansen. More tapes follow; the song "School Cafeteria" makes it on Dr. Demento's Top Ten "Most Requested Songs" countdown (spurred on by a petition signed by hundreds of Lynwood High students).
"He gave me exposure and encouragement when nobody else would," Yankovic says of Hansen. "I can't imagine any other DJ in the known universe that would have given airplay to me back then. They were really horrible songs, horribly recorded, literally on a cassette recorder in my bedroom, and he played them on his national radio show, which kinda blew my mind."
Not taking music too seriously, Yankovic attends California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo (between L.A. and San Francisco), where he pursues a degree in architecture. In his sophomore year, hoping to emulate Dr. Demento, he starts his own campus radio show and, after fellow students begin to refer to him as 'Weird Al," soon adopts it, as an on-air persona for a midnight to 3 a.m. slot on Wednesdays. He is reprimanded by the school four shows in, after he believes a prank phone call and announces that the next day's classes will be cancelled due to rain. The show continues and he plays funny songs, as well as favourites by emerging new wave artists. Yankovic begins to write and perform his own music at a coffeehouse on Thursday nights in the Student Union building. While fellow amateurs mostly play folk music on acoustic guitars, Yankovic goes on-stage with his accordion, his friend Joel on bongos, and they play Tom Lehrer songs and a few originals. He first appears on record in his junior year, writing and singing a song about San Luis Obispo called "Take Me Down," which appears on a small run of LPs by local artists. He also narrates a Flexidisc sent to incoming Cal Poly students during orientation week.
In the summer of '79, before his senior year, Yankovic is taken by "My Sharona," a huge hit for the Knack that inspires him to craft a song parody entitled, "My Bologna." Using the campus radio station's equipment, he records the song in a men's room (sensing its acoustic advantages) and gets a tape to Dr. Demento; the on-air response is overwhelming, the most in-demand song Demento plays all year. When the Knack plays Cal Poly, Yankovic sneaks backstage to meet them. Lead singer Doug Feiger loves "My Bologna," telling Yankovic, "Oh, that's a really great song!" Feiger's boss, then Capitol Records vice-president Rupert Perry is also in attendance; Feiger tells Perry that Capitol should release "My Bologna," as a single and Perry responds, "Ok, let's do it!" A 20 year-old Yankovic is signed to a six-month contract at Capitol and paid $500 for the master of "My Bologna"; the single is released within a month of the Knack encounter, and features "School Cafeteria" as a b-side.
Yankovic begins to see music as a viable career option, particularly since he's only getting average grades towards his architecture degree. "The fact that I grew up in Los Angeles gave me opportunities I wouldn't have had elsewhere," he says. "It allowed me to go to all these record companies when I was 19 or 20 years old, submit material, and get in people's faces. Most of that was ineffectual, but I don't think I'd have those inclinations if I lived in Nebraska. Also, I grew up playing the accordion, which set me apart at an early age. I never fit in and it left me pretty autonomous. I think that's why Dr. Demento played me; he thought it was pretty quirky and unusual for a teenaged kid to play the accordion and think that it was cool." But he gets a wake-up call when Capitol does little to no promotion of his single, and shows no interest in releasing a follow-up, "Baby Loves Burping," a parody of the Knack's "Baby Talks Dirty."
1980 to 1983
In September 1980, Yankovic parodies Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" with the punk-ish, Frank Zappa-inspired "Another One Rides the Bus." Dr. Demento schedules him to appear on his show and also invites Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz to perform. When Yankovic learns that Schwartz plays drums, he enlists him to bang on his accordion case for "Bus." Another guest, Dan "Damaskas" Hollombe, sings the bass part and the trio perform the song on-air after two hallway rehearsals. Yankovic reads his still-fresh lyrics from a loose-leaf notebook he now carries everywhere. Hansen cites it as the most exciting moment to ever take place on his show, and listeners request the performance for weeks after. The tape is dubbed across the world and the song becomes a grassroots hit. For his part, Yankovic continues with his studies, getting home from class to hear that someone in New Zealand called requesting a copy of his Queen parody. A Miami radio station flies him in to perform the song at a concert; it's his first time on an airplane.
Yankovic ends up completing a Bachelor of Science degree. He still feels compelled to pursue music, encouraged by Dr. Demento. "He saw some spark of creativity or originality — I dunno what — but he encouraged me to send in more and I did and, by the time I graduated college, I actually had a couple of nationally released records with 'My Bologna' and 'Another One Rides the Bus.' Without that early encouragement, I doubt I would've had the inclination to go for a career in the music industry."
Though popular on underground radio, he's unable to get a label to back his music. He borrows money and finances the release of a seven-inch featuring "Bus" on Placebo Records. It's the label's sole release but also features original songs, "Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung" and "Happy Birthday," which he records in 1981. That February, he secures a deal with TK Records and a 45 makes Billboard's "Bubbling Under' chart before TK goes broke. Yankovic and Schwartz perform "Bus" on Tom Snyder's nationally broadcast Tomorrow show on NBC in New York. Struggling to make ends meet, a demoralized Yankovic works in the mailroom at Westwood One Radio Networks, then distributing the Dr. Demento show. "Bus" is still popular and Hansen begins spinning an early version of a new song, "Yoda," modelled after the Kinks hit, "Lola." A Los Angeles-based impresario named Jay Levey books Hansen to make a Dr. Demento appearance at a club in Phoenix. Hansen brings Yankovic along to perform, he kills, the crowd goes bonkers, and Levey is impressed. He asks Yankovic if he'd consider putting a band together and making a real go of music. A shy Yankovic responds with "Well, sure." Yankovic recruits Schwartz to play drums and hires Steve Jay to play bass. Jay in turns suggests Jim West as a guitarist and the "Weird Al" band, as it's known today, is complete.
Yankovic doesn't take the stability and loyalty for granted. "It is important to me and it has just worked out that way," he explains. "I'm very thankful that the band I found in the early '80s has chosen to stick with me all these years. It makes it very comfortable and our working relationship is very efficient; we don't need to speak some times because we communicate telepathically now. They're all amazing musicians and I always give them credit for being able to play in every single genre I throw at them. And they're just good guys. We have a great time on the road and, I don't know how much that contributes to actual success, but it does contribute to me enjoying the experience."
They play their first big show together in 1982, opening for Missing Persons at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The crowd is ruthless, pelting the band and yelling "You suck" and "Get off the stage!" Today, Yankovic still sees this as the low point of his career. "I liked [Missing Persons] a lot and we played a 3,000 seat hall and I thought it'd be really cool. The curtain went up and the audience was a little bit more punk than I thought it'd be; the front row was all wearing spiked dog collars. Basically I got pelted for 45 minutes, the entire duration we were on stage. At the time, it was fairly traumatic and I wasn't sure if I should maybe continue as a performing artist but little by little I overcame my fear and decided that, no matter how small the audience was, I wanted to be the headlining act, because I wanted people to be there to see me."
Yankovic parodies Joan Jett's hit "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" for "I Love Rocky Road," and, though he's never been under any legal obligation to seek approval for his song parodies, he decides to actually contact the original songs' publisher for permission. Co-writer Jake Hooker loves the parody and is enthused about the other demos he hears. Hooker manages good-humoured guitarist Rick Derringer (co-writer of "Hang on Sloopy") and suggests he produce Yankovic. Derringer hears the demos and agrees; he convinces Cherokee Studios in Hollywood to house the sessions "on spec," promising payment when a label deal materializes.
In March 1982, Yankovic enters a proper studio for the first time and records nine songs in a few days. Major labels are wary of signing a "novelty" artist who writes funny music, anticipating nothing more than a one-hit wonder. Levey takes "Rocky Road" to influential Los Angeles station KIQQ-FM and the program director loves it, putting it on the air immediately; the song is one of the station's most requested by the next day. Indie label Scotti Bros. launches a subsidiary called Rock 'n' Roll Records, headed up by early "Weird Al" champion, Tad Dowd, with distribution by CBS. Dowd signs Yankovic, agreeing to release a self-titled debut album in April 1983. To fill out the record with two more tracks, Yankovic enters a Santa Monica studio with engineer Tony Papa who will work on every subsequent album. Yankovic parodies Toni Basil's new wave hit, "Mickey," writing "Ricky," based on I Love Lucy, and he makes his first music video for it in a single day, which, even during MTV's infancy, propels the song to #63 and the album to #139 on the Billboard chart. In the summer of 1983, Yankovic and Dr. Demento tour the east coast and Midwestern U.S. for three weeks. Once back home, Yankovic immediately begins work on a new album, writing and recording many originals before pondering new parodies, a pattern he continues to follow. The last track he records is "Eat It," a send up of Michael Jackson's "Beat It," one of the biggest pop singles in history. The Yankovic camp again takes a risk and seeks Jackson's approval, which he provides enthusiastically. The move also instigates a process whereby Yankovic can make royalty arrangements over song publishing and earn credit for both himself and the original composers of his parodies. Derringer replicates the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo from "Beat It," and Levey directs a video for "Eat It."
1984 to 1986
The sophomore album is called "Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D and is received well by fans and critics upon its release in February, 1984. "Polka on 45" is the first of many medleys featuring hit songs given a polka treatment. Songs like "Midnight Star," "Mr. Pompeil," and "I Lost on Jeopardy" further reveal Yankovic's keen sense for the absurdity of pop culture. "Eat It" wins a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording and the video wins the American Video Award for Best Male Performance, injecting Weird Al into mainstream culture. On June 2, 1984, NBC broadcasts Welcome To The Fun Zone, as a summer replacement for Saturday Night Live. Hosted by Dr. Demento, it's listed in TV Guide as "A 'late-night party' blending comedy, music, and videos. It includes: Dr. Demento, Howie Mandel, John Paragon, puppeteer Mark Weiner and the Weinerettes, Bozo the Clown, and John Candy in 'The Golf Course That Dripped Blood.'" Comedic actress Victoria Jackson also appears, and "Weird Al" performs "I Lost On Jeopardy" on the show. MTV airs a four-hour special called Al-TV, where Yankovic plays his favourite videos and does comedy bits, including his ingeniously cut mock interviews with stars like Madonna and Keith Richards. On Canada's MuchMusic, the special is known as Al Music, and both versions recur over the years, usually timed to coincide with the promotion of new Yankovic projects.
"I'd been doing those interviews since the early 80s," he recalls. "I think MTV had all of this stock footage of interviews with Adam Ant and Boy George and I thought I could have some fun with cutting them up and asking silly questions with answers out of context. The first ones I did were somewhat amusing but not that great, but I really like that cut-and-splice interview method and I've still been doing it over the years. That last ones I've done, I'm really happy with; they start to feel like real interviews."
People magazine picks 3-D as one of the best albums of 1984 and Yankovic begins to work on a follow-up. He's commissioned to write the title song for a Michael Keaton comedy/gangster movie called Johnny Dangerously. The song is eventually called "This is the Life." Though written in 1980, "Yoda" isn't released after initial obstacles from Star Wars creator George Lucas and the Kinks' publishers; the latter actually refuse to permit the song. Yankovic runs into Kinks songwriter Ray Davies, who claims he was never even asked about it. Permission is then granted and Yankovic endeavours to speak directly to the original songwriters about his parodies whenever possible. "Every single case is different and it's usually my manager asking theirs," he says now. "If I know how to contact people directly, I will, but that's more the exception than the rule."
Overwhelmed by the instrument, Yankovic curbs his accordion use on newer songs, which fans notice and object to. Speaking to a mutual friend, Madonna wonders when "Weird Al" will write ""Like a Surgeon" in response to her hit, "Like a Virgin"; though he generally doesn't take parody suggestions, Yankovic makes an exception and writes another hit, complete with a memorable video, shot in a recently abandoned hospital. With its Devo-inspired title track, Dare to be Stupid comes out in June, 1985 and the record goes gold, reaching #50; it is the first comedic music album to ever come out on compact disc.
Every "Weird Al" video is gathered together for The Compleat Al, a 90-minute semi-fictional mockumentary about Yankovic, directed by Levey and Blues Brothers/Naked Gun producer Robert K. Weiss. It's one of the first specials made specifically for home video consumption. There's also Tino Insana's now out-of-print book, The Authorized Al, a collector's item among fans. The "Stupid Tour" is Yankovic's biggest of the 1980s; his rider stipulates that promoters provide him with at least one garish Hawaiian shirt and he also strikes an agreement with Vans shoes, which provides him with new pairs whenever he needs them. Yankovic's next batch of songs includes the "Addicted to Love" parody, "Addicted to Spuds," the Talking Heads-influenced original "Dog Eat Dog," and his next single/video, "Living with a Hernia," a parody of James Brown's comeback hit, "Living in America." The Yankovic original "Christmas at Ground Zero" marks his first time directing a video and the song is a cult favourite during the holiday season. Levey and Yankovic begin working together on a film screenplay and spend most of 1986 fleshing it out. When Polka Party arrives in October, 1986, critics slam it and it's a commercial disappointment, climbing no higher than #177 on the chart. Yankovic thinks his career may have peaked.
1987 to 1990
Steven Spielberg creates, produces, and twice directs a new, star-studded NBC TV sci-fi series called Amazing Stories; "Weird Al" plays an alien dubbed 'The Cabbage Man' in the "Miss Stardust" episode, which airs on April 10, 1987. Yankovic spends most of 1987 opening for the reformed Monkees before setting to work on one of his biggest albums, Even Worse. Though wary of parodying Michael Jackson again, Yankovic hears "Bad" and immediately visualizes making a video for "Fat," where he and his crew balloon to 800 pounds. He approaches Jackson again, who provides the clip's subway set, which he'd constructed for his Moonwalker film. With its spot-on impression and elaborate make-up and production, the video for "Fat" is a huge hit; it earns Yankovic his second Grammy for Best Concept Video. Even Worse is the first Weird Al release to actually parody album artwork; he poses exactly like Jackson on the cover of Bad. When it's released in April, 1988, critics and fans swoon and, with its unique snapshot of the emergence of rap and cheesy '80s pop, Even Worse captures the zeitgeist perfectly, eventually going platinum. That fall, CBS releases the children's tale Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Yankovic. He also makes cameos in the Tim Robbins/John Cusack film, Tapeheads and later The Naked Gun, created by Zucker/Abrams/Zucker team, whom he greatly admires (he will subsequently appear in The Naked Gun sequels).
Michael Jackson offers Yankovic an opening slot on his European tour, which must be turned down because the aforementioned film idea is set in motion; Yankovic is due to star in UHF with Levey directing. Yankovic plays George Newman, an odd, endearing manager of a decrepit TV station. Thanks to the bizarre talents and appeal of the station's janitor (played by Michael Richards of Seinfeld), the station becomes an overnight success, much to the chagrin of an evil competitor (Kevin McCarthy) who tries to shut it down. Also starring Fran Drescher and Victoria Jackson, UHF becomes a cult favourite that sells well on home video. (Upon its DVD release in June, 2002, it becomes a top 10 hit.) It scores well with preview audiences but underperforms at the box office upon its release in the summer of 1989. "I'd never made a movie before so the whole thing was a major learning curve," Yankovic says now of UHF. "I felt like we made a lot of mistakes and afterwards was like, 'Okay, now I know what I'm doing!" But we never had a second chance." "Weird Al" fans still clamour for a new film, which Yankovic is keen to make. "I'd love to. I almost did last year. I've always wanted to be more involved in feature films and directing and, I'd like to think that's something I can do in the future. I just signed with a new agency and interest in me doing another movie is something they wanna foster." The highlight of the UHF soundtrack is "Money for Nothing"/Beverly Hillbillies" (so named, much to Yankovic's chagrin, by nervous lawyers worried about properly crediting the source material), in which Yankovic writes a song about the iconic show to the tune of the massive Dire Straits hit. Composer Mark Knopfler only agrees to the parody if he's allowed to play guitar on the Weird Al version.
Yankovic originally plans to parody Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" for UHF's centrepiece, but Prince becomes famous for always refusing to grant permission for any "Weird Al" song parodies, only permitting his likeness to be depicted in videos. "I haven't approached Prince in the last 15 years or so, so his personality might've changed," Yankovic says. "But back when he was turning me down, we'd never get a reason out of him, it was always just 'No." So, I don't know his thought process or what kinda problem he had with it. It was frustrating and, as a result, I've taken a number of cheap shots at him over the years because he's the de facto scapegoat—the one guy who hasn't had enough of a sense of humour to let me take a shot at him. But that's his prerogative."
For the "UHF" music video, Yankovic does a remarkable array of impressions of the Beatles, Billy Idol, George Michael, INXS, Randy Newman, Robert Palmer, David Byrne, Guns N' Roses, Peter Gabriel, ZZ Top, and yes, Prince among others. Scotti Bros. changes their distribution from CBS to BMG and every "Weird Al" album is released on CD. Yankovic begins to work on a new album in June 1990, going without Derringer as producer for the first time and overseeing the sessions himself. Unfortunately, there's nothing on the top 40 that compels him to craft an impactful parody; Yankovic opts to hold off on releasing a new album until a big song inspires him. He does complete a project in the interim that speaks to his sense of TV history: Babalu Music is a collection of Ricky Ricardo's musical numbers for the I Love Lucy show, compiled by Al and released on both audio and video. The title track of both versions is a montage of original Lucy music and dialogue, produced and arranged by Yankovic with a new rhythm track for dance clubs and video channels. He writes his next batch of originals and then records parodies of New Kids on the Block and MC Hammer.
1991 to 1995
In November, 1991 Michael Jackson releases his new album Dangerous, and Yankovic approaches him about releasing "Snack All Night," a parody of Jackson's hit, "Black or White." Though a fan, Jackson worries that a parody would compromise his song's message about racial equality and denies permission, suggesting Yankovic select another song from his album to riff on instead. When Guns N' Roses' version of the Wings song "Live and Let Die" becomes a hit, Yankovic seeks out Paul McCartney, another self-professed "Weird Al fan," for permission to release a parody called "Chicken Pot Pie." A strict vegetarian, McCartney too feels the parody might diminish his personal principles. Though disappointed, Yankovic appreciates the explanations, especially compared to the responses he receives from artists like Prince, which seem more ego-driven.
"There have been a couple of songs that have been too personal or have a special message, and I understand that. But if somebody just blanket turns you down all the time, that's a more deep-seeded reason where, obviously this person just doesn't want to be made fun of. But at the same time, I'm not a mind reader."
Nirvana explodes behind their surprising chart-topping album, Nevermind, which kick starts an alternative music revolution, ripe for Yankovic's picking. Inspired by the general discussion about how unintelligible Kurt Cobain's lyrics and singing are, Yankovic composes a parody of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" called "Smells Like Nirvana." When he hears that Nirvana are appearing on Saturday Night Live, he asks cast member/UHF co-star Victoria Jackson to snag Cobain for a chat on the phone. Cobain knows Yankovic's work and permits the parody. "Is it going to be a song about food?" Cobain asks, to which Yankovic explains that no, he's working on a song about how no one can understand what he's singing about. "Oh, that's a funny idea, go ahead," Cobain says.
Off the Deep End is released in April, 1992 and its cover mimics Nevermind. The "Smells Like Nirvana" video uses the same set as the original, the same janitor, some of the same cheerleaders and many of the same extras. It also features cameos by Dick Van Patten, Michael Richards, and various farm animals. MTV places it in high rotation and Rolling Stone goes on to rank it #68 on their list of the 100 best videos of all time. Spy magazine selects it as "Video of the Year," and at the MTV Video Awards, Al is nominated for Best Male Performance alongside Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen. The video propels Off The Deep End up to #17 on Billboard. Cobain is quoted as saying that he didn't think his band had "made it" until they were parodied by Yankovic. Off the Deep End goes platinum and earns Yankovic another Grammy nomination. The Off the Deep End tour is elaborate with costume changes and Yankovic smashes a cheap guitar (so provided on his rider) at the end of every show.
After a fan gives him a copy of the book, Diet for a New America, Yankovic decides to go vegan. Currently he eats no meat and avoids eggs and dairy products. He appears on an episode of Circus of the Stars, where he slightly injures himself performing a perilous aerial stunt. He also plays "Murray the Mouth" in a Mathnet segment on the kids show, Square One and, along with Kathy Bates, Jeffrey Tambor, and Billy Bob Thornton, appears in the sci-fi mockumentary, Living and Working in Space: The Countdown Has Begun. Between 1995 and 1998, he plays different characters on The Eddie Files, a kids' TV series that demonstrates different ways in which mathematics can be applied in the real world.
Yankovic begins work on his next album, setting his sights on the box office juggernaut Jurassic Park, whose story he re-tells to the tune of "MacArthur Park." Alapalooza (a reference to the then-popular Lollapalooza music festival) is released in October, 1993 and sells well despite a chilly critical reception. The Grammy-nominated animated video for "Jurassic Park" receives heavy rotation, as does "Bedrock Anthem," a tribute to The Flintstones, set to "Under the Bridge" and "Give It Away" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose bassist, Flea, is offended because he doesn't find the treatment particularly funny. Since "Bedrock Anthem," "Weird Al" has directed all of his own music videos, as well as videos by Hanson, the Black Crowes, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Ben Folds. A four-disc compilation called Permanent Record: Al in a Box comes out in September, 1994 with extensive biographical notes by Dr. Demento and a brand new parody of Crash Test Dummies' hit "Mmm Mmm Mmm" called "Headline News."
1996 to 2000
In March, 1996, Yankovic's ninth album, Bad Hair Day is released, featuring a mocked-up "Weird Al," sporting rapper Coolio's idiosyncratic hairstyle. During production, the Offspring deny Yankovic's request to turn "Come Out and Play" into "Laundry Day," and, while Sir Paul McCartney's on board, Yoko Ono refuses to allow the new, re-fabricated Beatles tune, "Free As A Bird" to become "Gee, I'm a Nerd," U2 allow "Numb" to serve as the foundation for "Green Eggs and Ham," but the estate of Dr. Seuss is no pal to Al. Yankovic is also unsuccessful in convincing the producers of Friends that turning the show's theme song, "I'll Be There for You" by the Rembrandts, into "I'll Repair For You (Theme for Home Improvement)" is a great idea. Weezer front-man Rivers Cuomo requests that Yankovic's brief interpolation of "Buddy Holly" be removed from the record's "Alternative Polka" medley. As usual, these non-approved album tracks still make it into "Weird Al" live sets. Bad Hair Day yields two popular singles, "Gump," which parodies the Presidents of the U.S.A. hit "Lump" by celebrating cinematic icon, Forrest Gump, and "Amish Paradise," Yankovic's wholesome turnaround of Coolio's hit, "Gangster's Paradise" (which itself is inspired by Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise"). While the Presidents embrace "Gump" (even adopting the film's tagline, "And that's all I have to say about that" when ending "Lump" in concert), controversy erupts when Coolio proclaims that Yankovic never received permission to mock "Gangster's Paradise"; at the Grammys, he says the parody desecrates the song. Yankovic contends that his label told him he had Coolio's blessing to pursue the idea and sincerely apologizes for the misunderstanding. The two are photographed burying the hatchet together at a consumer electronics conference in 2006.
Bad Hair Day becomes Weird Al's highest selling album, peaking at #14 on Billboard. Yankovic writes and records the title song for the Leslie Neilsen movie, Spy Hard, a parody of James Bond films, which is released in May, 1996. He does some voiceover work for the children's cartoon, Eek! the Cat and appears on an episode of the bizarre MTV variety show, Oddville. CBS recruits Yankovic to produce a half-hour, educational Saturday morning program for kids called The Weird Al Show, which debuts in September, 1997. A mix of live action and animation, the show features recurring characters like the Hooded Avenger (Brian Haley), Madame Judy (Judy Tenuta), J.B. Toppersmith (Stan Freberg) and Harvey the Wonder Hamster. The show is hampered by creative conflicts between CBS, who aren't prepared for the adult-oriented content crafted by Yankovic and his writers. As a variety show, it features some very funny ideas, and different guest stars each week, both musical (Barenaked Ladies, Hanson, All-4-One, Clarence Clemons, Dweezil Zappa) and otherwise (Alex Trebek, John Tesh, Patton Oswalt, Mary Lynn Rajskub, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, Fred Willard). The first season's final new episode airs on December 6, 1997. On January 24, 1998 Yankovic receives LASIK eye surgery to correct his near-sightedness and he no longer wears his trademark glasses. He also decides to shave his moustache and grow his hair long, radically altering his well-established nerd appearance as a performer, much to some (nerdy) fans' consternation. That same month CBS decides to cancel their entire Saturday morning line-up, including The Weird Al Show; Shout! Factory releases the complete series on DVD on August 15, 2006.
The first, fan-organized "Weird Al" convention, AlCon, takes place in Chicago, IL on June 13, 1998, where 250 fans descend upon a Holiday Inn, and are surprised by Yankovic who sends in a video message apologizing for his absence, which segues into him actually strolling out on-stage to make an unscheduled appearance; he misses the 2000 edition, but is present at the 2002 AlCon, the last one thus far. Yankovic joins his friend Judy Tenuta in the cast for a low-budget film called Desperation Boulevard, which is most notable as the final acting gig for troubled child star Dana Plato. Yankovic is frustrated by Scotti Bros. who insist on releasing "Weird Al" greatest hits and theme compilation albums (i.e., "Food" and "TV" song collections). The label is soon bought out by Volcano Records, and Yankovic spends the rest of the year working on his next album, Running With Scissors. To sing about the first Star Wars prequel, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, he gloms on to Don McLean's anthem, "American Pie" and adopts Obi-Wan Kenobi's perspective. McLean and his children love the song so much, he claims he occasionally sings the parody lyrics by accident when performing "American Pie" live. The album's other hit single is "It's All About the Pentiums," his computer geek parody of Puff Daddy's "It's All About the Benjamins (Rock Remix)." Yankovic receives Puff's approval for the song so late in production, he and his band uncharacteristically record all the instrumentation and backing vocals first, to stall for time while he fleshes out the "Pentiums" idea lyrically. He ends up recording the lead vocals two days before the album is due to be mastered and "Pentiums" and its accompanying music video unexpectedly becomes one of his most iconic creations. The first multimedia CD that Yankovic releases (featuring clips and footage from a live concert film that aired on the Disney Channel), Running with Scissors arrives in June, 1999 and peaks at #16 on Billboard. It features one of Yankovic's longest songs, "Albuquerque," which is more than 11 minutes. The cover features Yankovic with his new look, posing as a marathon runner with scissors. His runner's bib reads "27," a number that fans view significantly because it recurs so often in Yankovic's songs, videos, album covers, photos, and liner notes. Even though "Al" is the elemental symbol for aluminium, whose atomic weight is 27, Yankovic initially claims it's a coincidence that the number keeps popping up. However, once its constant presence is widely pointed out, he begins employing 27 whenever possible. VH1 airs a Behind the Music episode about Weird Al in July, 1999, playing up UHF as a failure, the Coolio incident as a major feud, and intimates that the singer has little to no love life. Yankovic contributes an original song called "Polkamon" to the soundtrack for Pokémon: The Movie 2000, which comes out in July, 1999 and he spends the rest of the year on tour. He has a small role in the 2000 comedy, Nothing Sacred.
2001 to 2004
Yankovic marries Suzanne Krajewski in February, 2001 and, in addition to an array of pets, the couple has a daughter, Nina, born in February, 2003 and settle in the Hollywood Hills. "I don't really think it significantly affected me artistically," he says of becoming a husband and a father. "Maybe being married has influenced me when I'm writing something like [R. Kelly parody] 'Trapped in the Drive-Thru' and I'm coming up with dialogue from married life, I'm more familiar with it and can write in that voice. But I don't think being married or having a child has really changed my comedy or humour or the way I go about doing my albums. All it means is, my family is my priority and focus. Music and comedy are still my passions but my family definitely comes first."
He begins work on his eleventh album, Poodle Hat, securing permission from Eminem for a parody of his Oscar-winning song, "Lose Yourself," which he calls "Couch Potato," lampooning the vast number of channels available on television. Yankovic voices the role of "Petroleum Joe" on the Space Ghost Coast to Coast spin-off, The Brak Show; the episode is entitled "Feud" and airs on November 10, 2002. He appears, as himself, on The Simpsons for the first time on April 13, 2003, in an Emmy-winning episode entitled "Three Gays of the Condo," in which he sings "The Ballad of Homer and Marge," a spoof of John Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane."
I think that being on The Simpsons is my career highlight because I think that's my one real stab at immortality. The Simpsons will be around long after people have forgotten who I am, because they'll be in syndication for the next thousand generations probably." He has a small, uncredited role as a waiter in the 4-D short film Haunted Lighthouse, which screens at theme and amusement parks in the U.S. and England and, between 2003 and 2005, he has a recurring role as "Squid"/"The Squid Hat" on the Cartoon Network show, Grim & Evil and plays "The Announcer" in the related video game, The Grim Adventures of Bill & Mandy, which comes out in 2006. Poodle Hat is released in May, 2003 and debuts at #17 on Billboard. Yankovic's grand plans for a "Couch Potato" video are dashed during pre-production, when Eminem denies permission for the clip after hearing a final mix of the song. No reason is ever given so the song still appears on the album, but Poodle Hat is the first "Weird Al" release without a corresponding new video or single as Yankovic can't find time in his schedule to conceive and produce another, at least until "eBay" oddly ends up as a single three years later. Eventually, a short video for the Bob Dylan-aping "Bob" is shot for an Al-TV special, mimicking the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" sequence from D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, with Yankovic adopting a Dylan twang and singing nothing but palindromes.
"Close to ten years ago, it almost made sense for me not to make videos any more," Yankovic admits. "MTV had pretty much stopped playing them and YouTube really didn't exist yet, so there was no outlet and they're really expensive to make. So, when Eminem turned me down for that video, I wasn't that devastated actually. But nowadays, it makes as much sense as it ever did because it's video-on-demand and you can Google it and watch it whenever you want. People are making videos again and it's become a very important way of promoting your work and, for the first time, I'm making a music video for every single song on my new record."
Poodle Hat wins a Grammy for Best Comedy Album and Yankovic tours overseas for the first time ever, playing 11 shows in Australia. Yankovic plays a singing minstrel on an episode of Disney's animated show, Lilo & Stitch: The Series; the episode is entitled "Tank: Experiment 526." Tragedy strikes on April 9, 2004: Yankovic's parents, Nick, 86, and Mary, 81, are found dead in their Fallbrook, California, home, victims of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from their fireplace. Yankovic is notified by his wife while he's on tour and hours away from playing a show in Mankato, Minnesota. Despite the news, he opts to carry on with the shows. "I had to do a concert that night and it was one of those things where, it was mostly just denial. I had to kind of pretend that 'This is not happening, this is not happening.' So, for a couple of hours every night, I was in this ultimate reality where I was on-stage and everything was okay because I'd put it out of my mind. I cancelled all the 'meet and greets' and everything else and, for a couple of hours every night, we kept doing the show, as we'd promised. It was very difficult obviously. but in a way it was great and helpful to have that kind of distraction at that point in my life. Otherwise, I'd have been a mess. I mean, I was a mess anyway, but it would've been worse."
2005 to 2011
Ben Folds recruits Yankovic to contribute back-up vocals on the Songs for Silverman track "Time," which is released in April, 2005. In July 2005, Yankovic begins work on his next album and has six songs complete by October. That same month, on his web site's "Ask Al" section, Yankovic responds to a concerned, purportedly young listener about his more "explicit" material. Over the years, many horrible, often purposefully offensive song parodies are falsely attributed to "Weird Al" online, in file-sharing networks.
"All of my material is really pretty family friendly," Yankovic writes. "Of course, you would know this if you actually bought my CDs instead of trying to illegally download them off the internet like the amoral-yet-self-righteous hooligan you obviously are! You disgust me!! Ah, the delicious irony of it all." The discussion does raise an interesting point in that, as cutting as genuine "Weird Al" parodies can be, they are often relatively family-oriented. "It's not calculated but it's an extension of my personality," Yankovic explains. "I don't use harsh profanity in every day life, so there's no reason I would do it in my song lyrics. I certainly appreciate humour and songs that do, but it's a personal choice for me to do stuff that's considered more family friendly. And a nice by-product of that is I get a lot of family audiences at my shows. It's not squeaky-clean, G-rated Disney stuff, but it's not something that might traumatize your kids for life."
Yankovic's 12th album is scheduled to come out in June, 2006 but problems arise with "You're Pitiful," his parody of James Blunt's "You're Beautiful." Though Blunt gives his blessing, his label Atlantic Records, requests that the already recorded song be removed from commercial release. As is his wont in such circumstances these days, Yankovic releases the song online in June as a free download, and heads back to the studio to record a replacement. While Canadian pop singer Daniel Powter eventually changes his mind and permits a parody of his lite FM hit, "Bad Day," it's too late for Yankovic to entertain recording "You had a Bad Date." Instead, he records the infectious "White & Nerdy," an amusing riff on Chamillionaire's "Ridin.'" Chamillionaire loves the song and is startled by Yankovic's amazing rapping. On the strength of singles "Don't Download this Song" (a hilarious charity-style gospel against music downloading) and "White & Nerdy," Straight Outta Lynwood (a reference to Yankovic's childhood home, near Compton) becomes Yankovic's highest charting album ever, debuting at #10 on Billboard. Reaching number nine, "Nerdy" is his first ever top 10 single ("Eat It" got to #12) and a third single, "Canadian Idiot" (parodying Green Day's smash, "American Idiot") cracks the Top 100 singles chart.
"Whenever I put out a record, it always feels like the best thing I've ever done and some times it goes over well and some times it doesn't," Yankovic says. "When I did 'White & Nerdy,' I thought it'd do okay, but I had no idea it'd be my biggest hit ever. I'd done a song earlier called 'It's All About the Pentiums,' which I thought was also very funny and clever, and it was a good rockin' song. The video was great and had Drew Carey in it and some hot dancers, but it didn't do that much. I thought 'White & Nerdy' was sort of treading in the same territory — a kinda techno-centric, nerdy song. I just thought well, 'Pentiums' didn't do that great, so I'm not sure how this one's gonna go. And then, for whatever reason, I was riding the crest of this nerd wave. In 2006, all of a sudden it was cool to be computer-obsessed and everything that went along with that, so it was just the right thing at the right time. It's hard for me to predict how well something like that's gonna go over; I just do what I think is funny and hope that other people share that opinion."
Lynwood is released as a DualDisc, with the DVD side including the album mixed in 5.1 digital surround sound, instrumental versions of all songs (with optional on-screen lyrics for karaoke), a nine-minute documentary, six animated music videos, and a 24-page full colour booklet. Yankovic's trademark number "27" can be seen on the license plate on the car on the cover, which he reveals is an homage to his late mother, who was born on February 7, 1923 (or 2/7/23). He tours the record extensively, visiting North America, Australia, and New Zealand; on September 8, 2007, he plays his 1,000th live show, in Idaho. Between 2007 and 2010, Yankovic plays a recurring character named "Uncle Muscles" on the underground sketch show, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
In late 2008 Yankovic starts to explore the digital distribution of his songs. He plans to release a parody of "Whatever You Like" by T.I., which Yankovic says he composed just two weeks before. Digital distribution excites Yankovic because he can release new singles immediately, without fear they'll become dated. "Everybody in the music industry has been like a deer in headlights for the last decade or so. We don't know what's happening and we're trying to figure out how to stay afloat and still make money doing music. I think music is alive and well, it's just the music business part that's trying to figure out how to survive. There's no real answer. We're still trying to figure out how technological advances, peer-to-peer sites, bit torrents, and all that is ultimately gonna affect the industry and how it's gonna permutate and survive. We're doing a lot of experimenting, which I guess is healthy. I've been doing more digital distribution and sneak peeks and, y'know, just trying new things."
Whatever You Like" marks the first time a "Weird Al" song has the same name as the original and, though it's meant to be available on October 7, 2008, an iTunes glitch delays its release by a day. The song is the first track on a five-song EP called Internet Leaks, which is digitally released in August, 2009 and nominated for a Best Comedy Album Grammy. Between 2008 and 2009, Yankovic voices the roles of Wreck-Gar and Sundac employee on the series, Transformers: Animated. On October 27, 2008, Sony's Legacy Recordings releases The Essential "Weird Al" Yankovic, a two- (and special edition three-) disc retrospective. Yankovic appears, as himself, in both Rob Zombie's film, Halloween II and in an episode of Nickelodeon's CGI animated kids' show, Back at the Barnyard. He plays "The Ringmaster" in "Circus," an episode of the popular children's show, Yo Gabba Gabba! which airs on March 8, 2009 and also features Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman, and Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh. At a Winston's Village benefit concert in Los Angeles on December 8, 2009, Yankovic performs with the Pixies (except Kim Deal) and does a faithful version of their song "I Bleed." He appears as a guest on the A&E show, Shatner's Raw Nerve on the Biography channel, where he submits to a one-on-one interview with actor William Shatner; the episode airs December 20, 2009.
On January 25, 2010, Yankovic announces that he's signed a production deal with Warner Bros. to write and direct a live-action, feature film for the first time, on the Cartoon Network. Though the Cartoon Network supposedly loves his finished script, they cease producing feature films entirely, and Yankovic begins shopping the idea to other studios. Online comedy hub Funny or Die debuts a mock preview of a non-existent biopic called Weird: The Al Yankovic Story; Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul plays Yankovic, Patton Oswalt plays Dr. Demento, Olvia Wilde is "Weird Al's" love interest, Madonna, and Yankovic plays a record label snake in the cliché-ridden satire of hard luck rock star films like Walk the Line and Ray. Yankovic turns up in Hanson's video for "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'" in which he plays tambourine. In the "Familiar Faces" photograph series, he lends his face and support to the "NOH8" campaign against Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California.
In curating their Nightmare Before Christmas edition of the All Tomorrow's Parties arts festival in England, Canadian art rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor raise some eyebrows by inviting "Weird Al" to perform there. "I was very surprised myself," Yankovic admits. "I was completely honoured and flattered and I'm glad they allowed me to do that because it was singularly because of Godspeed that I did my first European tour. We'd been trying to make that happen since I started and, for whatever reason, we'd never been able to book enough dates to justify a whole European tour. But with that as a confirmed anchor date, we were actually able to put a few around that and play Europe for the first time. And playing ATP itself was a huge honour for me. It's one of the hippest festivals you can play. I don't know if it was meant to be ironic? Even if it was, that's fine; irony is very hip." Though he sees their ATP set, Yankovic never has the chance to interact directly with members of the band, so he's unclear why he was invited. GY!BE co-founder Efrim Menuck responds to an email inquiry, writing, "Nope, it wasn't ironic. Though it sounds strange maybe, the reason we asked him is complicated and personal. It was the request of one person in the band for a really beautiful and private reason." Yankovic writes a children's book called When I Grow Up, which is published by HarperCollins in February, 2011. Inspired by his work life, Yankovic's protagonist is Billy, an 8 year-old making a class presentation about imaginative career options he's contemplating. The book reaches the #4 position on the New York Times bestseller list for Children's Picture Books. "It's something I've wanted to do, almost since I first started out, but I wasn't that proactive about it," Yankovic says of the book. "I was a big fan of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and I felt like I could do something along those lines with my own twisted sensibility. It was a great experience and, during my downtime this summer, I might write another children's book but we'll see how that goes."
An episode of animated series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold features Yankovic voicing a character named Mr. Star for half an episode, and playing himself in the other half, a cartoon crossover that finds him entrapped by the Penguin and the Joker, only to be rescued by Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Inc. gang. On April 14, 2011, Funny or Die Beats Weird Al goes viral; the short film depicts the FoD staff celebrating having more twitter followers than Yankovic, which sets him off in the darkest of ways.
For his new album, Yankovic plots to parody Lady Gaga's single "Born This Way," and his camp contacts hers to clear it with her. Gaga's camp says she'll need to hear the song first before they permit a commercial release. Though he's never bowed to such a request, in good faith, Yankovic bends over backwards to complete lyrics for a song called "Perform This Way," a slight lampooning of Gaga, that he sends to her management. They claim she actually needs to hear the actual finished recording of the song, which Yankovic finds odd, since the lyrics are the only new content; he'll be mimicking the musical arrangement they're already familiar with. Nonetheless, he and his band enter a studio, record "Perform This Way," he sends it to Gaga's camp, and is finally told "No," with no further explanation. Extremely frustrated, Yankovic releases the song on YouTube with a short description outlining the whole silly saga. After an outpouring of online support for Yankovic's cause, Gaga herself claims she was never personally approached about the song and that her management made the decision without consulting her. She goes on to self-identify as a huge "Weird Al" fan, and approves the parody, which means it can, in the end, appear on a grateful Yankovic's 13th studio album, Alpocalypse and he plans an elaborate video.
Released on June 21, 2011, Alpocaypse features previously released Internet Leaks gems like the White Stripes-aping tribute to Charles Nelson Reilly, "CNR," and the out-of-nowhere Doors homage "Craigslist" (featuring the Doors' Ray Manzarek approximating his part on "When the Music's Over"), as well as strong new songs like "TMZ," a parody of Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," a Gaga-inspired polka medley of contemporary songs called "Polka Face," and the deceptively bouncy, post-9/11 mockery, "Party in the CIA," based on "Party in the USA" by Miley Cirus.
I don't know if the actual Alpocalypse is coming but I'm pretty sure we're closer to it now than we've ever been," Yankovic says of the album's doomsday title and artwork. "I figured that I might as well do my apocalypse-themed album before the actual apocalypse because I really don't think people are gonna be buying CDs at the end of the world. Getting in a few sales under the wire, y'know? But I wasn't consciously trying to tap into people's fears. It's actually an idea I had in my notebook for several years and I just thought it was a funny album title and I had that visual of me being one of the four horsemen, and I just thought that'd be funny." It is notable that so many songs from the new album have been released already, in some cases for a couple of years. "Including the Lady Gaga parody, it's literally half the album," Yankovic agrees. "Some people have complained that it's only half-new, but I was always very up-front about that when I put out Internet Leaks. Like, 'This is a preview of my new album. I'm putting this out early so you don't have to wait two or three years for these cuts.' It shouldn't have been a surprise. But that is a problem because I am straddling two worlds. I would love to take more advantage of digital distribution because that allows me to put out things very, very quickly and, especially because I'm doing topical and timely humour, that's of the essence. But at the same time, I do love physical media; I love LPs, I love CDs, I love a product you can hold in your hand and say, 'This is my new album.' There's a charm and romance to that and it's difficult for me. I think we're going more towards straight digital distribution. I think the CD's gonna go away but it's gonna be with us for a while longer, but in the meantime, it's this transitional period where it's in 'the cloud,' like music just kinda exists, y'know?"
Yankovic plans to film his two appearances at Toronto's Massey Hall in July 2011 for a forthcoming TV special. "I played Massey Hall before and it was one of my favourite gigs and I love Toronto — Toronto's one of my favourite cities in the world. My manager gave me a list of three venues in the U.S. and Canada where they were considering shooting the live show and one of them was Massey Hall. It was my first choice and we just made it happen. It's gonna be the Alpocalypse show and we're playing a week's worth of shows ahead of time to warm up and be ready for Massey Hall."
The Essential "Weird Al" Yankovic
Even Worse (1988, Scotti Brothers)
Written off after poorly received albums, Yankovic hit back with a vengeance, crafting funny parodies of songs by friends like Michael Jackson and George Harrison, not to mention crafty originals like "Melanie," "Twister," and "Good Old Days." His gift for perceiving cultural trends, capturing their essence, and mocking the hell out of them shines here and its corresponding videos.
Off the Deep End (1992, Scotti Brothers/Volcano)
A curiously compelling document of the musical sea change that was the early 1990s, where bubblegum pop, cheesy rap, and hair metal gave way to the rise of subversive, challenging punk and a grittier lo-fi aesthetic across all genres. "Weird Al" taps into the teenage girl hysteria for NKOTB and MC Hammer while saluting Generation X's flannel, freak flag and the angst-y sarcasm it represents. If the era's co-existing chart toppers seem absurd in retrospect, it's that much funnier filtered through Off the Deep End.
Straight Outta Lynwood (2006, Volcano)
Whether it's the hot raps or eagle-eye lyrics about nerds and their proclivities, "White & Nerdy" is the undeniable display of Yankovic's ridiculous artistic range. And then, what of the Pet Sounds-styled paean to the "Pancreas?" Lynwood is Yankovic's highest charting album to date and with good reason. The "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" R. Kelly rip is side-splittingly funny, no to mention "Don't Download This Song," a mock "We Are the World" charity song dedicated to the faltering music industry. Just priceless.
Listen to the Exclaim! Weird al playlist at rdio.
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