"WEIRD AL" YANKOVIC was as big a part of my childhood as MTV and Cap'n Crunch. (Take away the MTV, and not much has changed.) My fondest Weird Al memory is screaming the words to "Eat It" when my cousin was trying to listen to her Thriller cassette. Three decades later, everyone still knows and loves Al.
MERCURY: Most people who've followed you for years know that you and your band are talented musicians. How important is it to you to be taken seriously as a musician?
"WEIRD AL" YANKOVIC: Well, that's sort of a loaded question because, you know, I want to be taken seriously enough that I'm allowed to continue doing what I do. I want to be taken seriously enough that people will still want to hear my music, and allow me to record my albums and do other projects that maybe aren't musical. But when you do comedy—I mean, I'm not looking to make any kind of serious music, or any kind of serious drama, so in that sense I don't have any real need to be taken seriously.
I know you got your start on Dr. Demento, which is where I first heard you. How did that come about? I'm sure you've told the story a million times, but humor me.
Well, I was a big fan of the Dr. Demento show when I was growing up. A friend of mine, I think probably in junior high, told me that there was a guy on Sunday nights on KMET in Los Angeles that was playing all these weird, crazy songs, and that I should check it out. That's where I was exposed to Spike Jones, Stan Freberg, Tom Lehrer, Frank Zappa, Monty Python—all these amazing things. And it really opened up my mind and inspired me to the point where I thought, "Well, let me try that." And I started sending in tapes to his show—just horribly recorded songs on my accordion in my bedroom on a tiny little cassette tape recorder. And the songs were not particularly clever, but Dr. Demento somehow thought they were good enough to play on his show. And that was the first airplay I ever got, which encouraged me to carry on. So Dr. Demento in a very real sense changed the course of my life.
Were you funny as a kid?
Well, I guess I was always twisted [laughs]. I mean, I don't know if my classmates though I was funny, or just weird. I was definitely a prototypical nerd. I was a straight-A student; I was the kind of kid you'd copy off of in class and then beat up at recess. But I guess I was always a little off-center.
You studied architecture at Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo. Obviously you have sort of a mathematical brain. How did that come about?
Well, I decided when I was 12 years old that I was going to be an architect, because I had a guidance counselor who talked me out of being a writer for Mad magazine [laughs]. They were like, take up something that adults would do. And I figured I love math, and I'm good at drafting, and I like designing stuff so you know, architecture—that sounds fine! And I thought that was going to be it for me. But about my junior year in college I found out that I didn't have a passion for it. Everybody else in my architecture lab was really excited and having a great time designing buildings, and it just wasn't what I loved doing. At that point in my life it got a little scary because I was about to graduate with a degree in something I wasn't ever going to use.
I know your parents were influential as far as doing what you're passionate about...
I don't know if that ultimately would have had a big impact, but it was nice to know that I had my parents' permission and approval and blessing to do what I love doing. The best thing that my dad told me was that the only true sign of success is doing what you love for a living. So it's nice that I always had their support and that I was able to spend a couple years after college trying to figure out my life, and try and figure out if there's any way that I could make a living doing these crazy songs. And I got very lucky, within a couple years I actually got a record deal.
I was going to ask you about that, you got signed to Scotti Brothers...
Uh huh. I found a manager and we knocked on a lot of doors, and we approached basically every single record company in town. And we got turned down by every single record company in town. Everybody said this is funny stuff, this is really brilliant, this is great—we're not interested. Because in their minds what I was doing was novelty music, it was basically in the domain of one-hit wonders. Everyone was saying we're all about releasing albums, not singles; we're all about supporting careers that are going to last for a little while. So that's sort of a big irony of my life is that nobody wanted to sign me because I wasn't going to be around for very long, meanwhile I'm entering the fourth decade of my career.
How do you feel about the term "novelty act?" It's a little dismissive...
Yeah, I mean, the word "novelty" is a little derogatory, but like I said it sort of implies here today, gone tomorrow. But by definition I suppose that's what it is, because any time there's comedy in music it's considered novelty. But I think Frank Zappa once observed that humor does have a place in music, and if in some small way I've made humor assessable and more accepted in pop music then I think I've done a positive thing.
How has your audience changed over the past three-plus decades? Who goes to Weird Al shows in 2013?
I found that my audience over the decades has gotten wider demographically. When I first started out in the early-'80s I was appealing mostly to adolescent boys I think—it was like, you know, the Mad magazine crowd.
Yeah, that was me...
Yep. [Laughs.] And little by little people have caught on. Every album that I put out feels like a new generation has discovered me, to the point where now the people who were originally into me in the '80s are bringing their kids to the show, and in some cases, their grandkids. It's sort of become a family-bonding experience, and if you look out into the audience at any one of my concerts you'll see people of all ages enjoying the show on different levels. Which is really great. I mean, it's nothing I ever calculated or strove to achieve, but it's really nice to think this is a show that everyone can enjoy.
Has your job become harder with the changes in pop music, and people's relationship to pop music?
It's become harder and more of a challenge in a number of ways. One of which is I'm working on my 14th album, and it's hard to not repeat myself and go to the old memes and tropes and standby jokes that I've done in the past, and I'm always looking for ways to be funny in new ways. Another thing is I think pop culture is getting more and more disposable as time goes on. People's attention spans are getting quicker, things are popular for a shorter period of time. And also the internet and YouTube—I think both are wonderful, and I love portals like YouTube, but it also means that there's 10,000 people doing a song parody before I even put my pencil down to the paper. So I'll never again be unique in that way. I'll certainly never be the first or only person to ever make a parody of any given song.
It almost answers my next question: How different would it be if you'd started in 2013?
It would be a lot different. In the '80s I kind of had the show to myself, and I had a distinct advantage over everybody else. And nowadays if you have a song parody, you just upload it, and if it's good people will find out about it and it'll get a lot of attention. So nowadays I just kind of have to put my blinders on and keep doing the same job and hope that my work will stand out on sheer merit alone.
I know Lady Gaga's label initially turned you down for your parody of her song "Born This Way." Are there any other artists of note that have shot you down?
There are very, very few. When I first started out, I got a little bit of pushback because nobody knew who this Weird Al guy was. [Laughs.] It was a little sketchy I'm sure when I first started out. But Michael Jackson gave me his blessing, and over the course of time I drew up a track record. And now, as you pointed out, Lady Gaga—when she found out about it personally—said it was a rite of passage. Most artists these days look at it as a badge of honor, and something to look forward to. Most of the artists themselves have good senses of humor, but sometimes a manager or a record label will stand in the way. But if I deal directly with the artist they're usually pretty cool about it. The only person who has consistently said no over the years has been Prince. And to be fair, I haven't approached him in probably 20 years, but in the '80s there were several songs that I wanted to take a shot at. But at the time he just wasn't into it.
You're obviously known for "Eat It," which was your biggest hit. What are some of the lesser-known parodies you've done that you're proud of?
I should point out that "Eat It" was my biggest hit for a long time, but "White and Nerdy" actually surpassed that in 2006. That was actually a platinum single, which I'd never had before. So I'm no longer the "Eat It" guy, I'm the "White and Nerdy" guy. That's certainly a big favorite. My favorites change from album to album—usually whatever I'm currently working on is my favorite. There's a lot of stuff on the new album that I enjoy. And fan favorites like "Amish Paradise" is one, and that's always a huge favorite, especially live. "Yoda" is one I wrote in college, and that's something I've played onstage at virtually every show I've done since then. It's hard to just pick one, but there are a lot of songs I feel very close to.
You still look great, like you haven't aged. But you've changed your appearance. It was kind of a big deal when you got rid of the glasses and shaved off the mustache. That was kind of your trademark for years.
I dropped the glasses 15 years ago, and a lot of people [laughs] still haven't gotten over that. When people dress up like me for Halloween it's still the classic Al look with the glasses and the mustache. Which is fine. I know it was kind of an iconic look, and my manager was really worried at the time about me messing with it. But you know, I got LASIK surgery back then and I didn't need to wear glasses at that point. And I didn't want to wear my own Weird Al costume for the rest of my life. So I figured if Madonna can change her look every five minutes, I should be able to change my look every 20 years or so.
You do realize with that old look you'd fit right in here in Portland...
Ah, yes I know [laughs].
Then you could do "Hipster's Paradise."
There you go!