By Seth Olenick | May 11, 2015 | People
The supreme prince of song parodies "Weird Al" Yankovic talks about gearing up for his world tour, the furthest he's gone to parody a song in the past, and how he feels about guest editing MAD Magazine.
More than 35 years after he released his first song parody, “Weird Al” Yankovic is still at the top of his game. Rather than going the way of most novelty acts (does anyone remember 2 Live Jews?), he has only become more popular—culminating last year in his first number-one album, Mandatory Fun. It’s even rarer for a comedy performer to be winning Grammy Awards so late in his career (his first came in 1984, his fourth this past February), but Yankovic isn’t letting that temper his celebration.
The comedian is embarking on an ambitious worldwide tour, starting with a five-night run at Vegas’ Planet Hollywood (May 12-16), and continuing across the world through this fall. As if that weren’t enough, he also recently became the first ever guest editor of MAD Magazine in its 63-year history. Issue #533 hit newsstands on April 21, the day we caught up with Yankovic to talk about the magazine, his tour, and whatever else came to mind. Here is that interview….
Your shows are huge productions. Have you ever wanted to do something more stripped down, and do you think the audience will connect as much to the music if you're not in the corresponding costume?
AL YANKOVIC: It would be difficult at this point to scale back down—we kind of pride ourselves on our tours being bigger and better every time we go out, and we’ve built up a certain kind of expectation with the fans. Plus, some songs are inherently so visual; it would be hard to imagine me performing “Fat” without actually being in a fat suit, for instance. But anything’s possible. If I’m still performing decades from now, it might seem pathetic to see me still jumping around on stage in a stupid costume, so at some point maybe I’ll consider doing some kind of “unplugged” set instead. But for the foreseeable future, I think I need to keep up the energy and production values that people are used to getting.
Some artists take themselves too seriously and find their music to be too sacred to be parodied. What songs/artists do you find to be so sacred that you wouldn't even want to ask to parody?
AY: As far as I’m concerned, there are no artists that are beyond the pale. Nobody’s so sacred or revered that they shouldn’t be able to take a little good-natured ribbing. There may be a few songs that I might stay away from for that reason, though. I often use Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” as an example—knowing the story behind the song, any kind of humorous or irreverent take on it would probably seem callous and distasteful. So, as in all things, one just has to use their best judgment.
You cover “Radio Radio” in concert. Is Elvis Costello one of those sacred artists, and if so would you ever just want to do a duet with him or someone else?
AY: The only time we do “Radio Radio” in our live show is when we’re having a major technical problem. So, if you ever hear us playing that, you’ll know that something has gone horribly wrong! It’s a reference to the time that Elvis was on SNL and he abruptly stopped the “approved” song he was supposed to play and launched into “Radio Radio,” which is the song they told him he couldn’t play. No, of course Elvis Costello isn’t sacred, but sure, I’d love to do a duet with him—or pretty much anybody, really. I always enjoy performing with other artists and generally jump at the chance to do so.
You usually parody well-known songs, often top 40 hits, but what songs that are more obscure would you want to parody?
AY: There wouldn’t really be much of a point in doing parodies of songs that people aren’t familiar with. But that’s one of the reasons I do my pastiches [the original songs that make up about half my material]. I pick some of my favorite recording acts—some legendary, some decidedly obscure—and attempt to write a song in their style, only just a bit more demented.
If you had been doing this in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which songs would you have wanted to parody?
AY: Oh, I don’t know—I was pretty obsessed with the Beatles and Elton John at that time, so I’m sure they would have been high on my list. Plus, the mid-‘70s were kind of the golden age of dumb pop songs, so there would have been no shortage of great source material.
What lengths would you go to in order to get an artist to let you use their song? There is the story about you flying to see Iggy Azalea in person, but have you/would you go beyond something like that?
AY: I think flying halfway across the country in an attempt to bump into an artist is about as desperate as I’ve ever gotten, and I hope not to have to do anything like that again in the future! So don’t worry, I don’t plan to be kidnapping anybody or cutting off any fingers.
Your originals are amazing. Do you feel like they haven't been given the recognition they deserve because people just focus on your parodies? I'm thinking about songs like "One More Minute," "Melanie," and a lot of the songs form the UHF soundtrack.
AY: Thanks! I really can’t complain because I’ve had a wonderful career, but yeah, it would have been gratifying if some of my original songs had gotten a better reaction from the general public. I know that a lot of my fans appreciate the originals as much as the parodies [if not more so], but the reality is most people just know me as that guy that does the crazy song parodies. But hey, that’s fine—it’s nice to be appreciated for anything.
Green Day, amongst other bands, has explored other music forms by taking on different personas such as The Network and Foxboro Hot Tubs. Is this something you'd ever consider so that you could have a parallel career?
AY: This is a little-known fact, but since you asked…. For many years I’ve had a second career doing smooth jazz under the name of “Kenny G.” So far it’s actually been working out pretty well!
Now that you are no longer held to a record contract, releasing an album once every couple years, do you look forward to putting out songs at your own pace? What pace would you feel comfortable with?
AY: “Leisurely” seems like a good pace to me right now. I’m not presently beholden to anybody—I don’t owe anybody anything—and I’m not feeling any great outward pressure. So I think I’ll just put out material in my own time, and on my own terms. I seriously doubt I’ll have an opportunity to record anything while I’m on the road this year, but after that I’ll put my antennae back up and see what’s deserving of the Weird Al treatment!
Which best describes your feelings when you were contacted about the opportunity to be the first ever guest editor of MAD Magazine? a) "Are you sure you are reaching out to the right 'Weird Al' Yankovic?" b) "What took you so long? I've been ready to do this for over 30 years." c) "With so many years of rich, humorous history, this is a lot to live up to, but I think I can do it justice." d) All of the above?
AY: Oh, let’s go with D.
What advice would you give to the next guest editor that MAD Magazine may approach?
AY: Just remember this simple rule: It’s always “I before E, except after C, with the obvious exception of beige, codeine, conscience, deify, deity, deign, dreidel, eider, eight, either, feign, feint, feisty, foreign, forfeit, freight, heifer, height, heinous, heir, heist, neigh, neighbor, neither, prescient, rein, science, seismic, seize, sheik, society, sovereign, surfeit, veil, vein, weight, weird… and seven or eight others.
MAD Magazine obviously has had a huge influence on you. What other non-music influences do you have? Do they inform your music or just your comedic sensibility?
AY: Growing up, I loved Monty Python, SCTV, George Carlin, Steve Martin… and there are hundreds of funny people that influence me to this day—I’m following many of them on Twitter. I don’t know if I can say that they’ve overtly influenced my music, but they’ve definitely helped shape my comedic sensibility, so I have to assume some of that seeps into my lyric-writing.
Your first major foray into movies was the cult classic, UHF. Since your fame has grown exponentially since then, have any projects come across your table that you deem a worthy follow up?
AY: Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t exactly been pounding down my door since the less-than-stellar box office take of UHF. And aside from an ill-fated feature project with Cartoon Network, I haven’t been terribly proactive about coming up with a new movie vehicle for myself… but of course I’d love for that to happen. In the meantime, I’ve done occasional cameo appearances here and there, and I’ve also turned down a number of projects that I didn’t think were a good creative fit. But I’ve always remained very open to the prospect of doing another movie!
What do you never go on tour without?
AY: My internal organs. That would make things really difficult.
A five-night residency is a badge of honor in Vegas. Another would be having a Cirque du Soleil show featuring your music. Would you be open to this, and if so, around which song/album would you want it to revolve?
AY: Why would it have to revolve around just one song or album? Why couldn’t it be a celebration of my whole catalogue—like a Weird Al version of the Beatles LOVE show? In fact, that’s not a bad idea... Cirque du Soleil, get on that!
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SETH OLENICK