August 12, 1999

"Weird Al" Yankovic:

Yank-ing Our Chains

By Lyndsey Parker
Weird Al Yankovic
Not so strange: Weird Al

Weird Al Yankovic may best be known for his zany, zingy parodiesof other, more "legitimate" artists' music -- Queen's "Another OneBites The Dust" remade as "Another One Rides The Bus," R.E.M.'s"Stand" as "Spam," James Brown's "Living In America" as "LivingWith A Hernia," and the Kinks' "Lola" as "Yoda," for examples --but make no mistake, he's no celebrity-impersonator hack. Not onlyhas his nearly two-decade career far outlasted those of many ofthe musicians he's spoofed (such as Gerardo, the Presidents Of TheUSA, the Knack, and Survivor), it's included countless instancesof highly original humor that could only be described as uniquely,utterly Yankovician. Who can forget the gut-bustingly funny "SpatulaCity" and "Conan The Librarian" scenes from his underrated featurefilm, UHF, or the many moments of unhinged hilarity he'sbrought to the small screen as well, with his "AL TV" guest spotson MTV, his whacked-out Saturday morning kiddie show, or even theeye-popping music videos he's directed for the likes of theJon Spencer Blues Explosion, Hanson, and the Black Crowes?

And then there's his music; while such lampoons as "LikeA Surgeon," I Love Rocky Road," and "Eat It" are certainly good fora few belly laughs, some of Al's funniest tunes have been hisoriginals, like the Devo-inspired "Dare To Be Stupid" and the trulysick 'n' twisted love-gone-wrong ballads "One More Minute" and "YouDon't Love Me Anymore." And Al's latest album, Running WithScissors -- his ninth overall, not counting several greatest-hitscompilations and a four-CD boxed set -- has plenty more wherethat came from.

The album contains some quite amusing parody tunes (theStar Wars: Episode 1 spoof "The Saga Begins," set tothe melody of Don McLean's "American Pie"; the Cherry Poppin'Daddies' "Zoot Suit Riot" reinterpreted as "Grapefruit Diet";Puff Daddy's "It's All About The Benjamins" transformed intothe computer-geek anthem "It's All About The Pentiums"; theOffspring's "Pretty Fly For A White Guy" remade as thepro-Semitic "Pretty Fly For A Rabbi"; an ode to talk show sleazeJerry Springer set to the tune of the Barenaked Ladies' "One Week"),but its most side-splitting moments are once again theYankovic-penned tracks. "Your Horoscope For Today" offers suchdroll prophecies as "The stars predict tomorrow you'll wake up, doa bunch of stuff and then go back to sleep," "All Virgos are extremelyfriendly and intelligent -- except for you," and "Laughter is thevery best medicine, remember that when your appendix bursts nextweek." The country ditty "Truck Drivin' Song" tells the tale of amacho trucker with a secret fondness for high heels, pink angora,and crotchless panties. And the granddaddy of 'em all, thealbum-closing opus "Albuquerque," is an 11-plus-minute spoken-wordrant reminiscent of the Dead Milkmen, Mojo Nixon, and theRugburns...only much, much funnier. The entire album is anextremely guilty pleasure -- you may feel slightly embarrassedto be listening to it, even more so when you find yourselfcracking up uncontrollably -- but go ahead and laugh. Dare to bestupid.

In this exclusive interview, Al -- who along with a new albumis sporting a suave new look these days -- discusses everythingfrom Running With Scissors to his run-ins with Coolio,Jerry Springer, and Prince. Read on and you'll find that the manwho dares to be stupid is not just a smart-ass, but one reallysmart guy.


LAUNCH: Al, I'm going to be frank with you -- Ithink your funniest songs are your original songs, not yourparodies.

WEIRD AL: Thank you! That's very nice to hear! I like youalready!

LAUNCH: Now, you're best known for your parody songs, andsome people might not even be aware that you write and recordoriginal songs. Does that bother you at all?

WEIRD AL: It's always been a pet peeve of mine. I stillget interviewers, who you'd think would do a little bit ofresearch, saying, "These parody songs are funny, but do you everthink about writing your own music?" And I'm like, "Wow,what a great idea! Why didn't I think of that?"

LAUNCH: Do you think you don't get the critical respectyou deserve?

WEIRD AL: The "props"? Well yeah, I think the fact thatI do parody music lowers me several notches in people's minds,because they're like, "I did funny songs when I waseight years old!" Everybody does that at some point in their life.It's not hard to do, every kid does it -- I was one of thosekids! But it's hard to do well, and consistently. I've been doingthis for a long time, and I'd like to think that I've gottengood at it over the years. The stuff I did when I was eight yearsold, that was horrible too! But like anything, you get better atit as you keep doing it.

LAUNCH: Did you ever think you'd be doing it for thislong?

WEIRD AL: I had no idea! When I was a kid, I thought Iwas going to be an architect, because when I was 12 years old Ihad a guidance counselor that convinced me that that was the bestcareer choice for me. So I went to college and actually got adegree, and by the time I graduated I really had no idea what Iwas going to do, because I was really burned-out onarchitecture! I didn't love it like everybody else in my class;they were so excited about it, like, "Ooh, look at that building,how the form is following the function and the positive andnegative space and the flow." Meanwhile, I was like, "Yeah, bigdeal, it's a building -- it keeps the rain off your head,what else do you need?" So I didn't have the right attitude, Ithink, to be an architect! [laughs] But I had a passion formusic and comedy, and luckily a few years later I was able to landa record deal and be "Weird Al" full-time!

LAUNCH: Aside from your music, what about doing any moremovies? Or did the UHF experience sour you?>

WEIRD AL: I'd like to, but it's hard for me to put muchenergy in thatrection right now because frankly, the moviestudios aren't pounding down myor trying to get me to doanother feature. If I could find the right kind ofoperty, gettied in with the right movie, I'd love to be involved, but I justfind it hard to be motivated to do another screenplay right now. Ithink if Ire really, really serious about doing another movie,I would have to do what Id with UHF, meaning take anotherhalf-year out of my life and write itd try to sell it. But it'sto the point now where I don't like wasting energy,d if I take ahalf-year out of my life, that's a half-year that I'm notrkingon the next album or doing something else that I know pretty muchforre is going to happen. I might end up wasting half a yearand wind up with areenplay that stays in a drawer -- like everyother person in Los Angeles! Ian, my mailman writesscreenplays!

>LAUNCH: When UHFflopped at the box office, was that hard to take?

WEIRD AL: It was, primarily because my expectations wereso built-up.ion Pictures, God love 'em, were thinking I was thenext Woody Allen! Theysted the movie, and it got the highestnumbers since the original Robocop, which they'd done. Sothey were all excited, like,his is going to be our big summermovie!" It was made for $5 million, realw-budget, but ittested so well that they really got the big promotionalchineworking for it, and they put it out in the middle of perhaps thebiggestockbuster summer in movie history. It was 1989, and itwas up against Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, Honey, IShrunk The Kids, Do The Right Thing, Indiana JonesAnd The Temple Of Doom...all these hugevies! And it justgot swallowed up. That, and the fact that critics prettychuniversally hated it. In retrospect, you see critics talkingabout now with a fond memory, but at the time, Siskel & Ebertjust thought Is Satan. There were personal attacks, notjust on the movie, but evenlking about the way I looked!Newsweek said something like my faceoked like a "baby'sbuttocks to which wire-rimmed glasses and caterpillar hadenattached." [laughs] Really uncalled-for!

LAUNCH: I'm so surprised it got that reaction.

WEIRD AL: Well thankfully, it's become, I guess, a cultfavorite. Tois day it's extremely popular with the hardcorefans, and I think the video'st of print, so it's become ahighly sought-after item on eBay. And during ourve shows,we show scenes from the movie in between songs, to facilitate thecostume changes we have to make. We'll play a clip from UHFon thereen, and it's like Rocky Horror time! Everyoneknows every single line ofalog from the movie and they chantalong. It's just amazing.

LAUNCH: Which brings me to this 1999 tour -- will it beanother bigfair with tons of costume changes?

WEIRD AL: Same kind of thing. We try to make it biggerand betterery year that we go out. It's full show with a lotof production value. It's aock & Comedy MultimediaExtravaganza"! We try to keep it as fresh asssible. You can'tchange a lot, because at this point I've got so many fanvoritesthat I think people would be disappointed if we changed the showtooch. You gotta do "Amish Paradise," gotta do "Fat," gotta doall those songs. I'd probably say about 50% of the set is thesame as the Bad Hair Day tour, and the rest of it we tryto throw in newuff from Running With Scissors and a fewolder favorites, a few obscureings, and a few unreleased songs,too. Just trying to keep the hardcore fans their toes.

LAUNCH: One thing that's surprising about your shows ishow many veryung children are in your audiences. We're talkingkids waaaay too young remember the original songs onwhich many of your parodies are based. Do theyen know that"Smells Like Nirvana" used to be "Smells Like Teen Spirit," or"Yoda" used to "Lola"?

WEIRD AL: Maybe not all of them. It still blows my mind.I feel reallyd, because a comment I got from a lot of peopleupon hearing the [Runningth Scissors song] "My Baby'sIn Love With Eddie Vedder" was, "Who's Eddie Vedder?" It was like,c'mon,u're kidding me! I'm an old guy, I guess. Andforget about "Americane"! Argh, these kidstoday...

LAUNCH: So does it surprise you that you continue toattract new,ung fans year after year?

WEIRD AL: Well, it's kind of like Mad magazine. Iwas a hugen of Mad magazine when I was 11, 12, 13 yearsold. I'd scour usedokstores trying to find back issues, andI'd wait at the newsstand for a newsue to come out. My liferevolved around it. I still like Mad, I stillt a kickout of it and all that, but I think at that age -- thepre-adolescente -- there's something that happens in yourbrain, it starts secreting somend of fluid into your bloodstreamthat makes you appreciate that kind ofreverent comedy. So I'dsay probably my hardest-core fans are the youngenagers. Thoughwhen you go to one of my live shows, you'll see really everydemographic out in the audience.

LAUNCH: By the way, is your TV show still on the air?

WEIRD AL: No, it lasted for a year -- 13 episodes that ranover ander and over.

LAUNCH: The reason I ask is since The Weird Al Showwas aturday morning kids' program, I figured it might have wonyou many youngerns.

WEIRD AL: I suppose so. That show skewed a lot youngerthan I wouldve liked. I mean, I don't write for kids. Ifanybody thinks that I dohildren's records," that's not thecase; I write what I think is funny, and itst happens to appealto a younger audience. Well, The Weird Al Show wasaredtoward a really young audience. I wanted it to be a lothipper andve more irreverent comedy and more pop cultureferences, but the network stressing, "This is a show forght-year-olds! And eight-year-olds don't who Yoko Ono is,ay?"

P>LAUNCH: That must've been frustrating.

P>WEIRD AL: It was, it was very frustrating. I waslf-relieved when Id out that we weren't being picked upr a second season. It was like,at, I don't have to dealth this anymore!"

P>LAUNCH: Speaking of TV, I thought it was amusing that1 did aehind The Music special on you, since -- despiteur name beingeird Al -- you've lived a much saner,abler life than most BehindMusic subjects.

P>WEIRD AL: Yeah, I'm probably the most "normal" personey everrviewed on Behind The Music, ironically!

P>LAUNCH: Did you ever consider having your Behind Thesicode be a parody?

P>WEIRD AL: We briefly considered doing a takeoff of>Behind Thec, but I'd never had a real seriouscumentary done on me before. I'dne The Complete Aland things like that, but I'd never had a realrious look atmy career. It felt like now was the right time for it. And itwas really mind-blowing to watch this show all put together --they did abulous job -- hearing old friends from collegetalking about me, and currentiends, and people I did parodiesof...it was like my life flashed before myes. Amazing.

LAUNCH: It seemed because you haven't had the giantlows in your lifeat some other Behind The Music guestshave had, the show was trying toeate drama and tragedy wherethere was none.

WEIRD AL: Yeah, it was bizarre! The show's about drama,like, "Whatnd of dirt can we find?" And there's very littlein my life. So you'd hear theppy string music starting andhear, "And then his fourth album didn't sell>quite as wellas his third album…" Oh no!! How horrible!! Then at thed,because I'm still single, they said, "Sadly, to this day,Al...is...alone." Oh, poor Al! It's soooo sad!

LAUNCH: Moving on to other TV shows, has Jerry Springerheard yourerry Springer" song?

WEIRD AL: Yes he has. In fact, he was the first personoutside of thend to hear the song, because we at one pointwere considering doing a "Jerryringer" video. And we thought,"If we do a 'Jerry Springer' video, we should get Jerry Springer,don't ya think?" We sent him a copy of the song, and prior tohim actually reading the lyrics, he was all for it; he was like,"Yeah, I'dve to be in a Weird Al video, that sounds great!"Then, when he finally hearde song, he was like, "Um, the guy'ssaying he doesn't want to waste his timetching JerrySpringer? That sounds kinda negative! I don't think I wantto be involved with this!"

LAUNCH: Really? You'd think he'd be used to getting lotsof negativetention.

WEIRD AL: Yeah, he's so self-deprecating, you'd think thatwouldn'tther him that much. And actually the song is nota Jerry Springert-down song, it's a song from thestandpoint of a person that basically has ave/hate relationshipwith the show; he realizes that it's complete trash, andthe's addicted to it and watches it constantly. I felt there wasenoughsitive to outweigh the negative, but Jerry didn'tthink so.

LAUNCH: Regarding other negative reactions you'vereceived, are therey artists whose songs you've wanted toparody, but you were turned down?

WEIRD AL: Yeah, over the years the only person who'sconsistently turned me down is -- oh, what do I call him thisweek? -- "Symbol Guy," I guess.

LAUNCH: Oh, Prince won't let you do his songs?

WEIRD AL: No, he's never had too much of a sense ofhumor about that kind of stuff. I check every now and then to seeif he's managed to evolve his sense of humor, and so far, noluck.

LAUNCH: You'd think he'd welcome the publicity thesedays. Have any of the parody songs you've done been by artistswho approached you, instead of you approaching them?

WEIRD AL: Not particularly. I've done parodies of songswhere I knew that the artists were friends and that they wouldprobably not object too strongly to it. Like the Barenaked Ladies,I've known them for a long time and I think they're great -- andthey're Canadian, so they've got a great sense of humor, de facto-- and I knew they wouldn't have a problem with it. But I can'tthink of any time when I've gotten a phone call like, "Hi Al, it'sBruce Springsteen. When are you going to do one of my songs?"

LAUNCH: I know Coolio wasn't too thrilled with [the"Gangsta's Paradise" spoof] "Amish Paradise," but on the flipside,what's the most flattering reaction you've gotten from an artistwhose song you parodied?

WEIRD AL: Oh man, it's hard to single out a particularmoment. I've gotten artists that were so happy that I was doinga parody that they actually agreed to be on the recording -- likeMark Knopfler from Dire Straits insisted on playing guitar on myDire Straits parody, which kind of blew my mind! Greg Kihn appearedin the video for "I Lost On Jeopardy." And this was a bigmoment for me: In 1984, I went to the premiere of Give MyRegards To Broad Street, Paul McCartney's movie. I met PaulMcCartney, and I'm such a huge Beatles fan, it blew my mind --it blew my mind that he knew who I was! He was pointingme out to Linda: "Look honey, it's Weird Al!" And he didsay, "When are you going to do one of my songs?"

LAUNCH: But you never did?

WEIRD AL: Well, I did a parody of "Live And Let Die,"back when Guns N' Roses had a hit with it, called "Chicken PotPie." We used to do it in concert, but we never put it on arecord because Paul felt badly about it because, you know, heand Linda were strict vegetarians. I am too, actually, but...it'sa joke! But Paul didn't want to approve anything thatcondoned a non-vegetarian lifestyle.

LAUNCH: You couldn't change it to "Tofu Pot Pie" orsomething?

WEIRD AL: It wouldn't have been the same thing, becausethe whole chorus is chickens clucking!

LAUNCH: I think it's ironic that you're a vegetarianwith a healthy lifestyle, since so many of your songs in thepast have been about junk food.

WEIRD AL: Well you know, I sing "My Bologna," but I justdon't mean it anymore! [laughs]

LAUNCH: Is there a reason you do fewer food-oriented songsnow? Is it because of your healthy diet, or because you're tired ofdoing food songs, period?

WEIRD AL: It's more that I feel I've kinda been therealready. A lot of my songs in the '80s were about food, and there'snothing wrong about that -- I think food is funny, I think it'sgood subject matter for what I do. But it's a little played-out.My record label -- against my wishes, actually -- put out TheFood Album, which is a collection of all my food songs, whichreally underlined the point that I need to start branching outand come up with some different topics! Which isn't to say thatI'll never do another food song -- in fact, "Grapefruit Diet" ison the new album -- I just wanted to take a break from it and notfocus on it quite so much.

LAUNCH: Would ever consider letting an artist do a parodyof one of your original songs?

WEIRD AL: Yeah, I'd be flattered! How big of a jerk wouldI be if I told someone, "No, you can't parody one of my songs"?

LAUNCH: Speaking of which -- has Coolio calmed down atall about the whole "Amish Paradise" scandal? Have you heard fromanyone in his camp?

WEIRD AL: Nope. I sent him a very sincere letter ofapology when I first learned that there was this hugemisunderstanding, and never heard back from him. I've seenvarious interviews with him over the last couple years where hedoesn't seem to have mellowed out too much; he still kind of holdsa grudge and doesn't like me very much, unfortunately. I feelreally horrible about that, because literally everybody else hasnot only approved but been flattered that I was doing a parody. AndI really had no intention of, quote-unquote, "desecrating his work,"and seriously, if I had known that he felt that way, I wouldn'thave done the parody. We've been to some of the same functionsover the years, and I've managed to keep my distance. Don't want tobe in an awkward situation. He did say in a quote to the press thatI should stay away from him, so I have!

LAUNCH: Well, he probably wouldn't recognize you anyway,since you look so different now! Now, you got that laser eyesurgery so you don't have to wear glasses anymore, right? Was thatthe impetus for your recent "makeover"?

WEIRD AL: My glasses didn't really bug me that much. Itwas part of "the look" -- I'd become sort of this walking cartooncharacter/icon kind of guy -- so at first I said, "Well, I'll havethe eye surgery and then I'll wear glasses for the videos andwhatever, and I'll still have the look." I had the surgery and itwas great, painless, simple, like Star Trek: "Zap -- youcan see now!" It got to the point that I felt so comfortable withoutthe glasses that it just felt wrong to wear glasses! It felt fake.And I'm all about keeping it real, you know that! My epiphany, ifyou want to call it that, was during a taping of The Drew CareyShow. The producer of the show insisted that I wear fakeglasses, and a fake mustache, because I was clean-shaven at thetime. You see, I was doing a cameo as "Weird Al Yankovic," andthey wanted to see Weird Al Yankovic! So I was taping the showwearing a fake mustache, wearing fake glasses, and I just thought,"I'm wearing a Weird Al Halloween costume! This is so wrong!"[laughs] That's when I realized, if Madonna can changeher look every 15 minutes, I think I'm allowed to do it once every20 years or so.

LAUNCH: Are you somewhat bewildered by what a big dealsome people made about your new look?

WEIRD AL: I knew they'd be surprised, but some of themjust freaked out, like [fake sobbing voice], "You cut offyour mustache!" Well, I'm sorry that your universe revolves aroundmy facial hair! [laughs]

LAUNCH: Do you still get recognized in public? I mean, youlook drastically different now.

WEIRD AL: Now that I'm doing this "media blitz," it'sstarting to pick back up again. But I had a nice year-and-a-halfwhere I was basically anonymous. It was a nice change of pace. Upuntil the point where I got the eye surgery, I was highlyrecognizable. I'd hear my name whispered behind my back in publiceverywhere I went. It was a little unnerving, but I got used to itafter a while -- which is unnerving in itself. After the surgery,it was an immediate change, like Clark Kent; the glasses came offand all of a sudden, I blended in with the crowd! I was just someguy on the street, which was pretty cool, I really liked it.


Launch.com had this interview with "Weird Al"on their website on August 12, 1999.


The Unofficial Weird Al Show Home Page Mail me your thoughts!