5 Questions with Weird Al
Yankovic bringing big show, schtick — and symphony — to Interlochen
By Ross Boissoneau | July 20, 2019
When Alfred Yankovic was six years old, he began taking accordion lessons. No one knew then that only one decade later he’d unleash his talents on an unsuspecting world, playing his accordion to parodies of popular music of the day.
Today, Weird Al is an institution. Whether it’s Joan Jett or Lady Gaga, Nirvana or Michael Jackson, his remakes of pop hits have made just about everyone laugh at some point in their life. Never one to rest on his musical laurels, many of them are accompanied by clever videos, some bearing a resemblance to the song videos they satirize, while others are completely original.
Although he’s one of a kind, Yankovic says many musical comics (and just plain comics) inspired him — Allan Sherman, Spike Jones, Monty Python, Mad Magazine — but No. 1 on his list is Dr. Demento. The good doctor, a.k.a. Barry Hansen, had a syndicated radio show from 1974 to 1992 on which he’d play novelty songs, comedy bits, and other musical performances outside the mainstream.
After Hansen spoke at Yankovic’s Southern California high school, young Al Yankovic (not yet Weird) gave Hansen a tape of his own efforts. Hansen played Yankovic’s “Belvedere Cruisin,’” an ode to the Yankovic family station wagon, on his show, and Yankovic was off and running.
Soon Yankovic created an EP, with Hansen’s backing, and later returned the favor by featuring Hansen in several of his videos, as well as his 1989 feature film, UHF, which also featured Michael Richards and Fran Dresher.
He took on the sobriquet Weird Al during his sophomore year as an architecture student at California Polytechnic State University where he became a DJ at the school’s radio station. That’s when he recorded “My Bologna,” which Knack leader Doug Fieger (writer and singer of “My Sharona” and brother of famed attorney Geoffrey Feiger) liked so much, he recommended his label release it as a single.
Since then, Weird Al has produced 13 albums, written books, directed many of his own videos, and appeared on Wheel of Fortuneand Celebrity Name Game. Those of a certain age may remember his turn on Al TV, where he took over MTV (back when it actually broadcast music videos).
Though not available for a phone conversation, Yankovic was happy to do a brief email interview — as long as it was five questions only, warned his manager. (Don’t tell anyone, but we snuck in one extra.)
Northern Express: What makes “My Sharona” into “My Bologna,” or “Addicted to Love” into “Addicted to Spuds,” or any of the other 2,046 parodies (we counted) you’ve done, including the polka medleys? In other words, how do you find your inspiration?
Weird Al Yankovic: That’s a question that I’ve been asked thousands of times, and unfortunately there really is no good answer. Where do ideas come from? Who knows? Basically, I just listen to the voices in my head (and try to ignore the ones telling me to shave my head and run naked through the park).
Express: You’ve completely outlasted the artists you initially parodied (Greg Kihn, The Knack) and others along the way (Nirvana, the Backstreet Boys, etc.) How do you keep up with musical trends and artists?
Yankovic: I’m certainly not obsessive about it, but I’ve always been a fan of pop culture. I spend an unhealthy amount of time on the Internet, and I just try to stay aware of trends and keep my finger on the pulse of whatever the zeitgeist happens to be.
Express: Besides Prince, what artists have refused to let you rework their music?
Yankovic: People are always so focused on who DIDN’T let me do a parody. In a four-decade-long career, I’m happy to say that it’s happened very rarely — I’ve found that most artists get the joke and have a pretty good sense of humor about it. In fact, Lady Gaga called it a “rite of passage.” It’s become something of a badge of honor to get a Weird Al parody, I’m told.
Express: Do you have a favorite parody of your own?
Yankovic: Honestly, no, but when pressed to answer that question, I usually say “White & Nerdy” just because it was both my biggest hit and my most autobiographical.
Express: Why should someone who is unfamiliar with the latest hits you’re parodying see one of your shows?
Yankovic: The show features hits from throughout my career, so don’t worry for a second if you’re not up to date on the latest popular music. Plus, the parodies are still funny even if you don’t know the original source material — so you don’t have any excuses not to come!
Express: Bonus question: You’ve sold millions of albums and won multiple Grammys. Does this mean we will forever be denied the efforts of a mediocre architect?
Yankovic: Oh, don’t worry, there are PLENTY of mediocre architects in the world!
Weird Al brings his show — and rest assured, it is a show — to Interlochen July 25. For this tour, he’s enlisted not only his trusted band and a full complement of backing singers but also a symphony orchestra. www.tickets.interlochen.com.