“Weird Al” Yankovic
Bad Hair Day (Volcano)
An interview with “Weird Al”
by Scott Hefflon
Before I ask you anything obtusely significant and, like, profound and stuff… Why do you put quotation marks around “Weird Al”?
I often get asked why not just put them around the “Weird,” because you usually do put quotation marks around a nickname, but I don’t like when people just call me “Weird.” I’m not on a first adjective basis with anybody.
By now, is “Weird Al” your legal name?
Not the “Weird” part, no. That’s something I added when I started doing college radio. Everyone had their own goofy air-name, and since I played all kinds of weird music, it became the “Weird Al” show every Saturday night. The name just kind of stuck.
Do you have trouble cashing checks made out to “Weird Al?”
No trouble at all, thank you. But sometimes I have to sign legal documents as “Weird Al” Yankovic, which always makes me feel kind of, well, weird.
OK, I think I’ve pretty much exhausted question #1… Moving right along to: Say! You’ve got a new album, Bad Hair Day, out now, as well as videos for “Amish Paradise,” “Gump,” and “The Theme From Spy Hard.” And you produced them all!
Yeah, I’ve been doing that for the last several years. I’ve always written and had creative control over the videos, but since the ’80s, I’ve wanted to direct them as well. I was more than happy to let my manager or whoever else direct. It’s difficult to be in front of the camera, and, in a sense, be behind the camera at the same time. But I’ve gotten to be more of a control freak over the years, and directing is a logical extension of what I do. I want to make sure that every gag comes off just the way I’d envisioned it.
Your parodies are not only of the music or lyrics, but often encompass an entire genre, media event, or cultural phenomenon, and really pull the details forward through production, visuals, and overall feel of the song. … You watch a lot of TV, don’t you?
I try to. Well, I always have. It’s not as if I changed my TV-watching habits because now it’s my job. But now I can write it off.
Yeah. I sit around in my underwear with the remote in my hand saying, “Yeah, I’m working.”
Once, you could do a Madonna song or a Michael Jackson song and, like it or not, practically everyone on the planet knew the original. Do you find it harder in this Alterna-Age to find mass-appeal songs to parody?
A bit, yes. I think MTV unified people more in the ’80s. Now MTV, as well as many other parts of our culture, has fragmented. It seems there aren’t as many big crossover hits, or even big crossover artists anymore. Pearl Jam may sell millions of albums, but they don’t make any inroads with the hip-hop community. And conversely, certain urban artists will be very well known, but the alternative scene will have nothing to do with them. I can’t think of any artist off-hand that crosses all the lines that Michael Jackson, or even Madonna, did in the ’80s. It used to be very easy to determine what the big hits were; you looked at the Billboard charts, and if it was a #1 hit, that was a good one to go for. But now there are many different factors to look at. The theme from Friends was one of the biggest songs of last year, but it wasn’t on the charts because they never released it as a single. MC Hammer was a huge hit, but I almost didn’t do his song because it only made it to #9, even though that song was everywhere. It’s a lot more difficult these days to determine what in fact is a popular song.
I had no idea it was so complex!
The funniest ideas are usually the ones that are spontaneous. I’ll be listening to a song, and the idea will just pop into my head. It’s only when I go through a dry spell that I pull out the charts and get analytical about it. Obviously, I can think of a bad parody for just about anything. Believe me, I’ve had enough people suggest bad parodies to me in the supermarket.
Has there ever been public outcry over poor taste, or have you ever regretted any of your songs?
Even with subject matter that I thought was on the borderline of poor taste, there’s been surprisingly little public resentment. When I did “Fat,” I was really concerned some people might take offense. I worded the lyrics in such a way that it became an anthem for, you know, large people. They weren’t offended by it; it became a kind of macho thing. The same with the Amish. I would hope that the Amish, if they ever happen to see or hear it, wouldn’t be too put out by the song. It’s very affectionate. Obviously, it’s portraying them in a light that’s not accurate, but that’s the joke. Humor is all about twisting reality; I’m certainly not putting down them or their lifestyle in any way. I think people realize that when I do my parodies, it’s all in good fun.
Have you ever done any side projects with some of the harder, more questionable material?
Not really, no. I had some other lyrics, originally, for the third verse in “The Night Santa Went Crazy” that my friends told me were too, shall we say, severe. They turned up on a bonus track for the CD single of “Amish Paradise.” In the original, the verse goes, “Yes, Virginia, now Santa Claus is dead/Some guy from the SWAT Team blew a hole through his head/Yes, little friend, that’s his brains there on the floor/I guess they won’t have the fat guy to kick around anymore.” My friends said, “You can’t kill Santa Claus!” But, but, he’s a homicidal maniac! But they persisted that he had to be taken alive.
You also have a theme of parodying the style of a band without doing a specific song by them.
That’s something I like to do a few times each album; I’ll take a favorite group, and write a song in their style. I like to exaggerate and twist out of proportion the nuances of their writing and sound. It’s become kind of a guessing game. Sometimes the homage is blatant, as in the case of “Everything You Know Is Wrong” which is obviously in a They Might Be Giants style, but in other cases it’s more subtle.
What about “Young, Dumb, and Ugly” from Alapolooza? Was that a parody of any specific song, or was that a broad swipe at heavy metal? I heard some “Rainbow in the Dark” in there, a bit of “Mother,” practically every riff Mötley Crüe ever learned…
Actually, I wrote that song after listening to AC/DC’s “Back in Black” a few too many times. But it’s pretty much every heavy metal song that’s ever existed all rolled into one.
Have there been any songs you’ve tried that you just couldn’t get to sound like the band you’re parodying?
From about the third album on, the production was really clicking. Luckily, I work with an extremely good band and a very talented recording engineer. They do their homework. It’s gotten to the point where I can hand them CDs and say, “Here. Learn these.”
Do you ever bring guest players into the studio?
Not too often. When we did a parody of “Money For Nothing” by Dire Straits, it’s not that we even asked him, but Mark Knopfler said he really wanted to play guitar on it. We said yeah, sure. I feel funny saying this; but Jim West, my guitarist, had already laid down the track, and when Mark did his own track, my guitar player sounded more like the record than Mark Knopfler did. The reason for that being that my guy’s specialty is duplicating sound exactly, and Mark had been playing the song on the road for a few years, and had developed a looser, more live sound. Of course, we used Mark’s track.
You usually do full-length parodies. Was Alapalooza‘s “Harvey the Wonder Hamster” an exception?
I like to sprinkle those in every now and again. “Since You’ve Been Gone” is a minute and a half, but no real short cuts this time. On Off The Deep End there’s a song that’s not listed on the album that’s exactly six seconds long. At the end of Nirvana’s Nevermind there’s, like, ten minutes before the unlisted song starts, so after the last song on Off The Deep End there’s ten minutes of silence, and then six seconds of the most incredibly horrendous noise you can imagine. We spent almost a week just making this six second track – fingernails across chalkboard, screaming, blood-curdling sounds, feedback – it’s the most anxiety-provoking six seconds we could come up with. I’ve gotten so many great letters from people who practically drove off the highway when they heard the song.
What about bands’ responses to your parodying their songs?
Artists these days are flattered. It’s a sign that they’ve achieved a certain status. There’s an amazing quote from Kurt Cobain saying he knew his band had really made it when “Weird Al” decided to do a parody. That was pretty amazing.
I just realized something: Neither on the records nor in this interview have I ever heard you swear.
I really just don’t swear. I don’t in my personal life, and I don’t on the records. A lot of parents say, “Oh, it’s so nice that you don’t use foul language. I buy your records for my kids because of that.” It’s not something I planned on – it’s not that I’m going for that squeaky-clean family market, it’s just an extension of who I am.
That could be a leftover from your radio days when you couldn’t swear.
Oh, darn it! Aw, shoot! What the heck did I do that for?
Before you got into the “Weird Al” show, what music did you listen to?
I listened to a lot of Top 40 radio, and basically all music that was popular at the time. The Dr. Demento show was obviously very influential. People like Spike Jones, Stan Friberg, Tom Leigher, Alan Sherman; they really opened my eyes and got me started on the kind of stuff I do now. I’ve always had an affinity for music that was kind of quirky, or left of center. It’s really the same principle, they just keep changing the name; in my college days it was New Wave, then, I don’t know, post-modern, and, this week at least, it’s called alternative.
Are there genres you won’t try – either because there’s no way to make them funny, or because the style isn’t popular enough to transcend cultural lines?
Whaling Hymns and Gregorian Chants.
No other genres you haven’t tried?
What’d you have in mind? I don’t think any music is too sacred or untouchable for the “Weird Al” treatment.
What about gospel, or metal?
Gospel, no, not yet. And metal? Besides “Young, Dumb, and Ugly” there was “Stuck in a Closet with Vanna White” on Even Worse.
What song was that based on?
Nothing really. It was just a generic thing.
So you stereotype all metal into a couple of songs? Then again, I guess it’s kind of hard to parody a genre that is pretty much a parody of itself in the first place.
Actually, there’s one song I wrote, “When I was Your Age,” that was supposed to be a Don Henley sound-a-like, but everyone said, “Hey, cool! A metal song!” So I guess I screwed up on that one.
What about the punk resurgence? The beats, tempo, and overall energy of punk and polka are so similar it makes me feel, ya know, funny.
There was a great quote in Billboard saying that if “alternative” bands like Pearl jam sell ten million records, it’s no longer alternative music; it’s mainstream. So if you really want to be alternative, you have to play polka music. I took that to heart.
I saw a great punk/polka band a few years ago called Polkacide. They wore leather jockstraps with metal studs while playing the accordion and the tuba. They were totally punked out. It was hilarious.
It’s always been a deep-rooted goal of mine, ever since Mucky Pup/Bloom County‘s “You Really Stink (But I Love You),” to bring the tuba back to punk rock where it belongs.
(Hysterical laughter with mutterings of something like “Good luck, weenie-boy!” or something to that effect.)
Ahem, you’ve never done a ska song, have you?
Ska? No, that’d be a good one. About 12 years ago, I did do a reggae original. It’s close, but not quite the same thing. “Buy Me A Condo,” the story of a yuppie rastafarian.
How long have you been doing this?
This interview? About 20 minutes, I guess. Oh, ho, Ho! It really depends on what you want to consider my “start.” I’ve been doing parodies since I was a small child. I used to torture my friends with them. The first stuff Dr. Demento ever played was literally just me playing my accordion and singing into a little cassette recorder in my bedroom. That was it. Really horrible stuff, but he played them on the radio. It really blew my mind. I kind of became a local celebrity in my high school after that. The first record, My Bologna, I put out when I was 19 years old. That was still before I had ever been in a real recording studio. That was, in fact, recorded in a bathroom. Because of the acoustically-perfect tiled walls, that was the master recording 17 years ago.
You’ve been doing this for 17 years?
17 years since the bathroom days.
Have you ever thought of doing a retrospective called The Bathroom Years Revisited?
It was only a day, really. My day in the bathroom. I think they have a plaque there now, a little shrine, in the bathroom of the graphic arts building on the Cal/Poly campus.
Did you only record one song during that session?
I think I went back and did something else, but it wasn’t the big follow-up hit I was hoping for.
So no nostalgic trips back to the bathroom to remember your roots?
“Back to the Bathroom with ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic”: A weekly series on National Public Radio.
Any guided tours, on any videos or anything, to show where your humble, All-American beginnings were?
I think in The Complete Al home video there was a bogus segment that was a tour of the bathroom. But it wasn’t the real bathroom. It wasn’t authentic, so I don’t recommend you use that for historical research.
I’ve been meaning to ask you: Why Florence Henderson in your “Amish Paradise” video?
In all honesty, we did approach Michelle Pfeiffer first, because she was in the original Coolio video. But she had a movie to do, or some lame excuse like that. And obviously, Florence Henderson gets most of the work Michelle turns down, so she was the next call.
How was working with her?
She’s a really beautiful woman, very sweet, very talented, and not to sound too corny, but she was a real joy to work with. She practiced that Michelle Pfeiffer-look by sucking in her cheeks, she wanted to get that down perfect.
You’ve done a few Brady Bunch spoofs in your time, haven’t you?
I think it was just one: “The Brady Song” parody of “The Safety Dance” on “Weird Al” in 3-D.
It must be that I have that song on a bunch of different CDs…
That might be it. I mean, my record company re-releases so much it’s like, “Let’s put out an album of all of Al’s songs that have drums on them!” It’s a little pet peeve of mine: My record company is a little re-release happy. But, oh well.
How many songs do you write that never make it to an album?
I’d like to say none, but I do write a few things that I do for concert-only. I think it’s kind of fun for even the hardcore fans that think they’ve heard it all to come to a show and hear a few new things.
If I told you, you’d print it. I want it to be a surprise.
Why did you not release anything between ’93 and ’96?
In ’94 there was the box set, Al-In-The-Box, with the Crash Test Dummies song on it. But yeah, there was a big break between actual albums. I’ve had a couple big gaps like that. Basically, whenever I put out an album, I wait for the next big phenomenon, or at least a single that I think is strong enough to drive the album. It wasn’t until “Gangsta’s Paradise” that I really felt I had something. I had a similar pause before Off The Deep End. I was waiting and waiting, and the longer I waited, the more pressure I felt to come back with something really strong. It wasn’t until Nirvana that I thought, well, here we are. Here’s the next big thing. I’m kind of at the mercy of pop culture. I’d love to release albums more frequently, but I don’t want to release something lame, or not up to my previous standards, so I wait until I have something I’m very happy with.
That’s probably the reason for your record company grasping at straws to come up with tide-me-over theme albums. Do you ever have a particular theme running through your albums?
Well, there is the double-LP Jamie Farr tribute album I’ve been working on, but that’s been shelved a few times.
So you release a bunch of singles compiled on an album?
Right. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of my albums. They’re basically a collection of songs that work, hopefully, in and of themselves that I just slap together on an album. There are really no leftovers. I know a lot of songwriters will write 100 songs, record 40 of them, then choose the best 12 to put on the album. I write 12, record 12, then put out 12 on an album.
What if you miss something? I mean, you couldn’t put out a song now that sounded like Prince circa 1985. You’ve got to…
I could, if I felt like it! I can do what I want!
Reminds me of the end of “Waffle King” when you go off…
Don’t you know who I am?!? I’m the Waffle King!
That and “The Night Santa Went Crazy.” It’s always right at the end that you get a little loopy.
Yeah, I tend to put the songs that may not bear repeated listening near the end of the album.
Except for “Bohemian Polka,” of course. Was that one of the harder songs to arrange?
All the polkas are hard to produce. Thank goodness for automated boards; during the ’80s, we’d literally have five people at the mixing board moving faders up and down. When you’re mixing a medley, it’s kind of like mixing 12 different songs.
And if you choose your songs carefully, you can play the same polka beat in every song. Kind of like Hooked on Classics.
I actually bought a CD specifically for polka research, by Frankie Yankovic. Something like A Zillion Polka Greats. It’s exactly that; the whole side is a medley of polka songs with this really bad, disco drumbeat going through the whole thing. It’s like, Oh Frankie!
Why is it that everyone with the last name Yankovic plays accordion?
It’s in the blood, I guess.
What nationality is Yankovic?
I thought so! The photo manipulations have been good and the plastic surgery seems to have paid off, but I always had the inkling…
It’s Yugoslavian. But since that country doesn’t exist anymore, I guess I’m supposed to say Serbo-Croatian now.
Great. I won’t be able to spell either of them. What about “The Theme From Spy Hard;” have you done songs for movies before?
I did “This Is The Life,” the theme from Michael Keaten’s Johnny Dangerously in 1984; “UHF,” the theme from my own movie in 1989; and now “Spy Hard” in 1996. Every five to eight years I like to throw out one of these movie themes. Just like clockwork.
How did UHF do at the box office? Was it a smash hit?
I don’t think you could say that with a straight face. Orion Pictures had really high hopes for it. It tested higher in test screening scores than anything since the original Robocop. They thought it was going to be the big summer picture that was going to save the studio. Unfortunately, it came out at the same time as Batman, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Lethal Weapon 2, and a few other small pictures. It got buried. Also, the critics hated it. It’s not a critics movie by any stretch of the imagination. Siskel and Ebert thought I was the anti-Christ. But, I must say, it’s done very well on home video and cable. It’s kind of become a cult movie. Whenever we play clips from it on the big screen at our concerts, people chant along with the dialog.
But movies like the Airplane series, the Naked Gun series, Top Secret, Hot Shots!, Spaceballs, Loaded Weapon, and tons more – I don’t see them getting critical acclaim.
Those are my favorite movies of all time, but you never see them getting nominated for Oscars, or getting any kind of acclamation like that. It’s a problem in comedy, be it in movie or musical format. People don’t seem to give it the same respect they’d give a dramatic work. People just don’t place as much value on something that makes them laugh as they really should. Even as critics said that UHF was a horrible movie, audiences were howling. That’s not an easy feat. I’ve been to so many high-visibility, big budget comedies that barely made me smile, let along laugh. In my mind, there’s no such thing as a cheap laugh. If something really makes you laugh, what’s cheap about that?
Aside from your short-lived career in film, I wanted to ask about song writing and music writing. Describing Santa-gone-psycho as “a big fat drunk disgruntled Yuletide Rambo” not only fits neatly into the patter of the vocals, but who else would’ve said it? And saying “I’m stranded all alone in the gas station of love/ And I have to use the self-service pumps” is a far cry from heh-heh, heh-heh, fart jokes.
I’ve always been pretty good, I think, at putting thoughts together that way. I’m kind of a pop culture cuisinart. It works well when I’m doing sound-alike songs. I can listen to 14 James Bond songs, and then come up with one that’s similar in style to all of them, but not identical to any one in particular.
How do you actually go about writing the songs?
I like parameters, I like specific guidelines. It’s kind of a puzzle to me. The song is this long, it has this many lines, there are supposed to be this many syllables in each line, this line is supposed to rhyme with this one, and that one is supposed to rhyme with that one. Then, after I’ve developed a couple dozen pages of key words, phrases, and gags, I try to wedge them into this pop song format and make it all make sense.