"Weird Al" Yankovic – Satirist
It’s not often that a bona fide music legend can deliberately, and non-insultingly, be considered a joke. Comedians might get little respect in the media, but comedy musicians get even less respect, usually written off as “sell-outs” in the music world and “gimmicky” in the comedy world. So how do you explain...More
It’s not often that a bona fide music legend can deliberately, and non-insultingly, be considered a joke. Comedians might get little respect in the media, but comedy musicians get even less respect, usually written off as “sell-outs” in the music world and “gimmicky” in the comedy world. So how do you explain the enduring success and appeal of “Weird Al” Yankovic? Maybe it’s because, in the quarter-century since his first LP was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, he’s rarely if ever failed to walk the miraculous tightrope between snarky and obnoxious, between strange quirk and disturbing eccentricity, between genuine satire and brazen offensiveness. His early MTV favorites “Eat It” and “Like A Surgeon” would make him an eighties icon forever, but since then he’s refused to rest on his laurels, targeting Seattle grunge and gangsta rap, making more and more videos for his brilliantly funny original compositions, and most recently, riding the “Nerdcore” wave right into the beach with his first-ever top ten single, the perennial YouTube favorite “White & Nerdy.” For a “novelty” act, his demographic is anything but niche – all ages attend his concerts, from toddlers to teenagers to card-carrying AARP members, and in concert he embodies all the rock & roll high energy and unflinching showmanship of KISS or Marilyn Manson, but with a fraction of their pretentiousness. And somehow, he retains not just a completely clean lifestyle (he doesn’t smoke, drink, do drugs or eat meat), but a genuinely nice personality. He never says no to autograph seekers, avoids gratuitous “feuds” with other celebrities like the plague, and frankly looks no older than thirty-five despite being nearly fifty.
Alfred Matthew Yankovic was born on October 23, 1959 in the small southern California town of Lynwood, a multi-cultural suburb adjacent to the more musically-recognized Compton (a disparity Yankovic sought to correct with the title of his 2006 CD Straight Outta Lynwood). His childhood was quite sheltered – his loving parents, Nick and Mary Yankovic, went so far as to spy on him with binoculars during school recess. In 1966 they signed him up for accordion lessons (despite common belief, Alfred is NOT related to “America’s Polka King” Frankie Yankovic) and the boy quickly took to the instrument, ditching the recommended syllabus before long in favor of learning things like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album by ear.
Inspired by the listener submissions that made it to radio on “The Dr. Demento Show,” in 1976 Yankovic immortalized “Belvedere Cruisin,’” an ode to the world’s sexiest vehicle, on a cheesy 40-cent audio cassette. Dr. Demento, intrigued by the sound of an accordion playing a rock & roll chord progression, put it on the air. More songs soon followed, but this was still just a hobby – as a teenager, Yankovic knew his true destiny was architecture. After five years of study at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Yankovic had completely lost interest in buildings, but gained performance experience as a late-night DJ on the campus radio station, where he earned the nickname “Weird Al.” In 1979, in the station men’s room, Yankovic recorded his first released parody, “My Bologna,” a parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona” which, thanks to a chance meeting with The Knack frontman Doug Feiger, became a single on Capitol Records in late 1979. Yankovic’s hopes at instant fame were dashed when the label wasn’t interested in a second single, but undeterred, on September 14, 1980 he recorded the Queen parody “Another One Rides The Bus” live on the Dr. Demento Show. There he met fellow musician Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, a percussionist who kept the beat on the recording by banging on Yankovic’s accordion case. After the show Schwartz said, “If you need a band, I’ll be your drummer” and to this day Schwartz remains Al’s one-and-only beat-keeper.
Convinced that his true destiny was music and comedy, Yankovic moved to Hollywood, recording demos in garages and playing live whenever possible. Dr. Demento’s manager, Jay Levey, was so impressed by Yankovic that he signed on to represent him, insisting that he needed a band. Before long, they found bassist extraordinaire Steve Jay through auditions, Jay brought on his guitarist friend Jim West, and the band was complete. They suffered their first and greatest public humiliation as an opener for Missing Persons on April 9, 1982. The LAST thing the post-punk crowd wanted to hear was The Knack on accordion, and they pelted the stage with everything they could throw. The band risked injuries and continued playing the forty-five minutes they were paid for. Al closed bitterly yelling, “I hope you’re all an opening act someday.”
After a long series of apathy from record labels, Yankovic finally got signed to Scotti Bros. in early 1983. Music videos were huge at the time, but MTV’s playlist was mostly Pat Benatar and Flock Of Seagulls, with little comic relief. The gag-filled video for Al’s Toni Basil/I Love Lucy hybrid “Ricky” helped his first album reach the Billboard charts, but it was the Michael Jackson parody “Eat It,” off his second album “Weird Al” Yankovic In 3-D (1984-Scotti Bros.) that made him a household name. Yankovic, with his trademark black curly hair, glasses, Hawaiian shirt, moustache, and complete willingness to act stupid for the sake of a laugh, made him an instant geek icon. His national tour that year lasted six full months, three singles from In 3-D hit Billboard, and Yankovic won a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording, beating George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
More singles and videos followed, including “I Lost On Jeopardy,” a Greg Kihn parody about game shows; “Like A Surgeon,” a Madonna parody about the medical industry; and “Dare To Be Stupid,” an original, Devo-inspired ditty about the meaning of life itself. Al floundered with the James Brown parody “Living With A Hernia,” but in 1988 he rebounded with another Michael Jackson parody, “Fat,” which won him another Grammy (for “Best Concept Video”) and the crown jewel of Hollywood achievement, a movie deal.
The movie was Orion Pictures’ UHF, a comedy that Yankovic co-wrote and starred in (along with Michael Richards and Kevin McCarthy) about a struggling TV station that produces bizarre shows like “Wheel Of Fish” and “Conan The Librarian.” Test audiences gave the film Orion’s best scores since Robocop, and the studio hyped the film excessively leading up to its July 1989 release, but audiences stayed away and critics panned it for being dumb. In the years since, the movie found its audience on home video and cable, and the success of a 2002 DVD reissue confirmed its cult classic status.
Realizing that he couldn’t coast on mocking Michael Jackson all his life, in the 1990s Yankovic took more control over his career. He produced his own sessions, directed his own videos, and parodied acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Crash Test Dummies and Nirvana. “Smells Like Nirvana,” an ode to Kurt Cobain’s incomprehensible muse, was an instant smash, catapulting Yankovic back to the Billboard Top 40 after eight years, assuring his position as something more than a flash in the pan. In 1996 he released the platinum-selling Bad Hair Day (Scotti Bros.), and the almost sublimely satirical Coolio parody “Amish Paradise.” Then came Running With Scissors (1999 – Volcano), which opened with the Star Wars tribute “The Saga Begins” and closed with the demented eleven-minute magnum opus “Albuquerque.” In 2003 came Poodle Hat (Volcano), which sadly got less recognition than it deserved because Eminem, the subject of the intended lead single “Couch Potato,” disliked it and refused to sign away synch rights. The song never had an accompanying video, but Yankovic took Eminem to task on a VH1 special questioning how Mathers could strongly advocate free speech, but silence those who mock him. The clip remains a crowd favorite in concert to date, and Poodle Hat earned Yankovic his third Grammy.
By the mid-00’s, Yankovic had settled into an enviable position in pop-culture. Even if the rest of the world had written him off as a gimmick, he still had a large, devoted, fiercely loyal audience that bought his albums regardless of MTV exposure. So it was a great surprise when the video for the 2006 single “White & Nerdy” became a monster hit on iTunes and YouTube, propelling the single and album (Straight Outta Lynwood, 2006 – Volcano) to Billboard’s top ten, a first for Yankovic. A series of six animated videos for the album’s original songs (including the raucous “I’ll Sue Ya!” and the tongue-in-cheek “Don’t Download This Song”) made the album even more of an event.
In the eighties, Yankovic released roughly one album every year or year-and-a-half, but nowadays he releases roughly one album every three years, taking the time in between to tour extensively, pursue the occasional side project (like directing videos for Ben Folds or The Black Crowes) and of course, making each album as perfect as humanly possible. By refusing to produce songs he considers disposable, “Weird Al” Yankovic makes every single album worth the wait.