How Weird Al Spoofed Himself

The new bio-pic “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” written by Yankovic and Eric Appel, begins with an epigram: “Life is like a parody of your favorite song.” Yankovic’s actual life story has plenty of appeal—accordion-playing child of working-class parents grows up to be the definitive parodist of his time—but, like a Weird Al tune, the movie combines the charm of the real thing with the charm of a wild riff departing from it. It stars Daniel Radcliffe, who knows something about playing a boy with a special gift; here, our young hero navigates a lightly fantastical world of polka parties and pop-star excess. The top-hatted d.j. and novelty-hit king Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson), Yankovic’s real-life idol, reigns over a kind of glamorous comedy-dweeb Shangri-La; Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), who inspired the Weird Al hit “Like a Surgeon,” functions as an Al-obsessed mischief-maker.

Yankovic was born in 1959, and grew up in Lynwood, California. As a bright, precocious kid, he devoured Mad magazine and spent Sunday nights listening to “The Dr. Demento Show,” the invaluable source of songs such as Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” of Camp Granada fame, and Tom Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag” (“2-4-6-8 / Time to transubstantiate!”). At sixteen, Yankovic recorded a novelty song of his own, about the Belvedere, the family car, and sent the cassette to Dr. Demento, who played it on the air. That same year, Yankovic graduated from high school, as valedictorian, and started college at California Polytechnic State University, where he wrote a sandwich-focussed “My Sharona” parody, “My Bologna.” Dr. Demento played that, too—and it became a hit.

To be a music- and comedy-loving kid in the early eighties was to be continually startled and delighted by Yankovic’s creations. The songs seemed to burst from nowhere, creating a kind of comedic urgency—you had to marvel about them with friends. Their catchiness was matched by their defiantly uncool silliness. Songs fuelled by lust and electric guitar became songs about, say, “I Love Lucy” or ice cream, but you could still dance to them, despite the farty-hand-squeeze percussion. Yankovic’s breakthrough came in 1984, when the video for “Eat It,” a shot-by-shot parody of “Beat It,” gave him a kind of shadow version of Michael Jackson’s success. “Weird,” which is streaming on Roku, builds its narrative around these core beats; in the mid-eighties, its story spins off into comedic delirium, and ends with a bang.

In real life, Yankovic’s career continued—he won Grammys, sold more than twelve million albums, co-wrote and starred in a movie (“UHF”), had a kids’ TV show, directed videos, and kept making new records, riffing on everyone from Nirvana and Miley Cyrus to Pharrell, Lorde, and Chamillionaire. There’s still a timeless pleasure in hearing his transformations, as when the groovy but odious “Blurred Lines” becomes “Word Crimes,” a feisty song about grammar (“You would not use ‘it’s’ in this case!”), or when, as in “Canadian Idiot,” he pairs sly political satire (“And they leave the house without packin’ heat / Never even bring their guns to the mall”) with genial teasing (hoseheads, moose meat). His widely shared videos maintain a golden-era-of-MTV vibe, in which he transforms to fit the joke: Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Tatooine desert, Lady Gaga covered in bees. Most of his live shows have been similarly theatrical, but recently he’s been performing a stripped-down tour, for the true heads. I caught up with him over Zoom, while he was on a tour bus, “somewhere in Florida.” Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

How’s the tour going?

It’s going great. We’re on the home stretch. It wraps up at the end of this month, and it’s a six-month tour. We’re loving being out on the road, but it’s also going to be nice to unplug for a little bit at the end.

And then to welcome the movie into the world—which, I have to tell you, I loved. It was so funny, so smart. I’ve been immersed in your whole catalogue again, and it’s been so much fun.

That’s so sweet, thank you!

I love the story, in the film, of your listening to Dr. Demento as a kid. Tell me about your childhood, and your relationship to music and parody growing up.

There’s certainly nuggets of truth in the movie, because I grew up in a lower-middle-class household. My parents, Nick and Mary Yankovic, were both very supportive, though—much unlike the movie. And they decided when I was, I think, six years old that I should take accordion lessons, because a door-to-door accordion salesman came around, offering music lessons. He said, “Your child can learn guitar or accordion.” And my parents, being visionaries, thought, Oh, young Alfred would love to play the accordion! Imagine that, he’d be the life of any party.

Did they like accordion music themselves? I was intrigued to learn about Frankie Yankovic—this famous accordion-playing Yankovic who’s not you.

I mean, I can’t say that they played polka around the house constantly, but they appreciated it. And they were well aware of Frank Yankovic, but as far as we could tell there’s no relation. I got to meet Frankie in the mid-eighties, and we were friends until his passing. But, yeah, I think the fact that my parents were aware of him and possibly even had some of his records may have played into their decision to give me accordion lessons.

And, when you started playing the accordion, did you enjoy it? Was it really hard?

I suppose I liked it. I was very young, obviously. I can’t imagine I was begging my parents for accordion lessons. I guess it’s kind of a hard instrument to learn.

It seems like it.

That became apparent when I tried to teach Daniel Radcliffe how to play the accordion. It’s one of those things—it’s helpful if you learn it early, when your synapses are firing very quickly. It’s sort of like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time to be able to play, like, piano keyboards, and then buttons with the other hand, and then at the same time moving bellows in and out. There’s a lot to think about.

Kind of like the bagpipes, where you’re piping and also generating the wind from the bag.

Right, bagpipes—that means the accordion is only the second most obnoxious instrument.

People have passionate feelings about both. So you also read Mad magazine and liked comedy when you were little, right?

I saw my first Mad magazine when I was maybe eleven or twelve years old, and it was an epiphany for me. I thought, This is my kind of humor. This was something that I hadn’t been exposed to. I immediately subscribed, and I begged my mother to take me around town to all the used-book-and-magazine stores to buy back issues. There was no Internet back then, so we scoured Los Angeles County, finding these old issues of Mad. And that’s where I learned a lot about pop culture. I couldn’t see a lot of the movies that Mad parodied, but I got to experience them through the warped perspective of the Mad magazine writers. So it was my education in that kind of comedy.

I was thinking about Mad and your work—the magazine did such close, detail-by-detail movie parodies, like you did later with videos. I’ve still never seen “Ordinary People,” but I read the Mad parody as a kid, and I felt like I learned exactly what the movie was doing seriously and well, scene by scene, and, simultaneously, the ways in which it was too serious, and the ways in which it could and should be mocked. So that’s a good education for a parodist.

To this day, there are a number of movies that I don’t think I’ve actually seen, but I feel like I’ve seen them, because I read the Mad magazine piece. So that was a window to a world that I wasn’t able to experience when I was a very young child.

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