Weird Al on fans with song ideas, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Comedy Bang! Bang!
It’s especially poignant whenever satire eclipses the thing that it was meant to spoof.
Take, for example, when you hear the nimble strings from the 1876 ballet “Dance of the Hours.” You likely don’t think of Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli, but rather Allan Sherman’s perky lines: “All the counselors / Hate the waiters / And the lake has / Alligators” from “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh.”
In the case of “Weird Al” Yankovic, who’s visiting the Cuthbert Amphitheatre this Friday, his parodies supplant the original all the time. On YouTube, his 1998 song “Amish Paradise” has more than twice the plays of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.”
When Weird Al’s career began, he was disregarded as a one-hit wonder with his early tracks such as “My Bologna” or “Eat It” (parodies of The Knacks’ “My Sharona” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” respectively). And it’s still easy to pigeonhole Weird Al as some kind of bygone act, but that would be just as delusional as his early critics; in fact, his career has never been more pronounced and successful than it is today.
By keeping a finger on the pulse of pop music, Yankovic effectively insulated himself from cultural irrelevance. In 2014, Yankovic released his most recent album Mandatory Fun, on which he puts the likes of Lorde, Pharrell, Robin Thicke, Cat Stevens and Iggy Azalea in the crosshairs.
The album reached no. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts and was the first comedy album to do so since 1963, with Allen Sherman’s My Son, The Nut (which features the enduring classic “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh.”). Mandatory Fun also won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album, which marked Yankovic’s fourth Grammy since 1985.
Al said he’s prone to receiving suggestions from fans who sometimes pitch him song parodies of their own.
“That was the bane of my existence,” he told the Emerald, “walking down the street or in the supermarket and somebody says, ‘Oh, I’ve had this great idea since the third grade and I finally got a chance to share it with you…’ And it’s almost always something horrible.”
He added that since the advent of YouTube, he’s been pitched much less often.
“Now if someone has a great idea,” he said, “they can just go do it themselves.”
In February, Al, his wife and daughter took part in a “Ham4Ham,” in collaboration with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the lyricist and composer of Broadway’s Hamilton, to perform the song “Right Hand Man” from the musical.
Yankovic said he and Miranda have been mutual fans of one another for a number of years. Miranda listened to Yankovic’s albums as a kid, and Al was a fan of Miranda’s 1999 Broadway musical In the Heights.
“We’ve been sort of talking about the possibility of writing something together,” said Yankovic. “I think that’s been put on indefinite hold because he’s got other things on his plate right now, but it’s been a real joy for me to watch all the success that Lin has had in the last year or two. It seriously could not have happened to a nicer guy. He’s the greatest guy in the world.”
Earlier this year, Yankovic took on the role as bandleader on the irreverent comedy talk show Comedy Bang! Bang! on IFC, following the show’s prior bandleaders Reggie Watts and Kid CuDi.
“I did wind up getting the same rig that Reggie had, the same gear, because I wanted to try to emulate him as much as I could while still bringing my own thing to it,” said Yankovic. “And Reggie’s always been great. He’s sort of the gold standard for Comedy Bang! Bang! bandleaders, so I wanted to try to – as much as I could – do justice to the job.”
At the start of his career, Al was a college student studying architecture at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, but soon realized that his major wasn’t his passion.
“I think that what I learned is if you’re not passionate about something, don’t do it, if you can help it,” he said. “You’ve got to eat. You’ve got to pay for the macaroni and cheese. But I figured out about my third year in architecture school that it wasn’t my muse. It wasn’t my passion.”
He went on, “There were people in my architecture labs that cared about it and were excited about it and that wasn’t me. That wasn’t what I was – I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that. It was kind of a confusing point in my life because I certainly didn’t think I’d be able to make a living in show business. That seemed like crazy talk. But I knew that comedy was my passion and music was my passion. And I thought, well, I’m young. I can still give this a shot and see what happens.”
As a student, he’d play local coffee shops during open mic nights; while most amateur musicians went up to the microphone to play earnest acoustic ballads, Al would go up with his accordion and play “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” better known as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
As Al’s career took off, so did the quality of his production. Just listen to “Another One Rides the Bus,” or virtually any track from his 1984 self-titled debut record. Heavy on accordion and reliant on the stomping-clapping rhythm, it sounds like it could have been recorded in a dorm room. In fact, Al recorded early demos in dorm restrooms, where he went for the acoustics.
But very quickly, Al and his backing band began working meticulously to emulate the sounds of the musicians they parodied. Mandatory Fun’s “Word Crimes” is an excellent example of this, as Al and his band expertly replicate the textures in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
Even though he’s not required to by law, since fair-use copyright law covers satire, Al still makes an effort to clear permission from the artists whom he’s copying out of consideration.
With Mandatory Fun, Al had a 100-percent success rate. But in the past, some artists have given him a harder time. When he sought permission from Prince, his requests were always rejected. Prince’s lawyers allegedly sent Al a telegram demanding that he not make eye contact with Prince when the two were assigned to sit in the same row at an award show.
Famously, Paul McCartney turned down Al’s request when he wanted to spin “Live and Let Die” into “Chicken Pot Pie” (the explosive horn melody was swapped for chicken squawks). McCartney, a strict vegetarian, couldn’t let it happen with a clean conscience, on the grounds that it may endorse eating animals.
Puzzlingly, Yankovic, who’s also a vegetarian, probably sings about meat more than anybody else: “Spam,” “I’m Fat,” “Eat It,” “My Bologna,” “Trapped In The Drive Thru” and “Don’t You Forget About Meat” are among his carnivorous tracks. Wouldn’t McCartney’s denial give Al second thoughts about singing about meat? Does he feel like a bad vegetarian?
“No, because I sing about a lot of stuff I don’t do,” Yankovic laughed. “I sing about decapitating people. I sing about a lot of things that don’t reflect my value or my taste because I’m not singing from an autobiographical or personal perspective. Virtually all the songs I do are in character. And some of those characters are not that nice. I have to assume some of those characters eat meat, you know?”
Yankovic has permeated our culture with his storied career, which spans music (both parody and some great original tracks), film, television (you can hear him on the new season of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman as well as the title character in Disney’s Milo Murphy’s Law), and a few children’s books. His impression on our culture is just about everywhere.
In the video for “The Saga Begins,” Al’s revision of Don McLean’s “American Pie” about Star Wars Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, Yankovic sports Anakin Skywalker’s rattail, walks the sandy desert of Tattooine, uses the force to summon an acoustic guitar and plays with the cantina band. Allegedly, McLean’s children have played Yankovic’s version for him at home so often that it’s messed him up while playing it live.
And The Presidents of the United States, whose song “Lump” Yankovic amended to focus on Forrest Gump, have changed the way they play the song live by closing it the same way Yankovic does, with Gump’s saying: “And that is all I have to say about that.”
After Chamillionaire took home the Best Rap Song Grammy for “Ridin’,” he allegedly approached Yankovic on the red carpet to thank him for his parody “White and Nerdy” on 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood.
Maybe in the future, we won’t be able to remember Pharrell’s “Happy” without first thinking of Al’s “Tacky”: “I would live-tweet a funeral, take selfies with the deceased!”
One can hope, at least.
Watch the video for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Tacky” below.
“Weird Al” Yankovic brings his Mandatory Fun tour to the Cuthbert Amphitheater this Friday, July 29. General admission tickets are $33; reserved seats are $45-$55. VIP ticketing options are also available through TicketsWest. The gates open at 5:30 p.m. The show begins at 7 p.m.
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