Arts, Culture & Media

After 30 years, 'Weird Al' Yankovic is finally cool


Weird Al Yankovic


Courtesy of Imaginary Entertainment

After 30 years, three Grammy Awards and a handful of platinum albums, "Weird Al" Yankovic seems only to have gotten more popular. His latest album, Mandatory Fun, is the first comedy album to hit Number 1 on the Billboard chart in more than 50 years.

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Yankovic has been around long enough to parody both Billy Ray Cyrus and his daughter, Miley, not to mention Madonna and her spiritual descendant, Lady Gaga. The artists he pokes fun at have come to see his parodies as a kind of rite of passage.

So how does it feel to be a kind of elder statesmen — a bizarro world version of Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark?

“It's a very odd thing,” Yankovic says, “because it is sort of a signal that an artist has reached a certain plateau in their career: they’ve got the Grammy, they’ve got the platinum album and then they get the Weird Al parody.”

Yankovic grew up in the '60s wanting to play in rock-and-roll cover bands. To his surprise, the other kids just didn’t take the accordion-playing teenager seriously.

“They weren’t ahead of the curve," he jokes. "They didn’t realize the accordion would take over Western civilization the way it obviously has.”

He loved rock and learned to play songs by listening to them on the radio. When he played them on his accordion, his friends “would think there was humor in that.”

Yankovic was the opposite of cool for much of his career. In fact, he says, his manager couldn’t get phone calls returned even after Weird Al's early hits. “I had to have a lot of hits before I stopped being considered a one-hit wonder,” he laughs.

Yankovic got a big boost from the arrival of MTV. His Michael Jackson parody, “Eat It,” won a Grammy for Best Comedy Record in 1984. The music video — a shot-for-shot parody of the original — became extremely popular in part because millions of people were hooked on MTV and had seen the original so many times.

Yankovic doesn't have a team of people rooting through songs or helping him write jokes. “I just personally go through the Billboard charts and go online, and I make a master list of songs I think are good candidates for parody. I try to see if there's anything that has some kind of spark I can develop into a full three-and-a-half-minute pop song.”

Mandatory Fun parodies everybody from Pharrel, Lorde, Robin Thicke — and that Australian white chick who raps like she grew up in an American urban hip-hop family.

It’s in record stores — if any are still around — right now.

This article is based on an interview with Weird Al that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, the weekly show on pop culture and design.