I get funny looks when I talk about “Weird Al” Yankovic. That’ll happen when you mention that he performed the greatest live concert you’ve ever seen. (About 10 years ago at the State Theater in Portland, Maine.) Uncertain amusement will morph to slack-jawed comprehension. Is he joking? Wow, he’s not joking. That’s usually followed by some variation of this sentence: “You do what for a living again?”
It has never been “cool” to be a fan of Weird Al. His music has long been the province of freaks and geeks, dateless wonders who spend Saturday nights watching “Star Trek” marathons or embroiled in epic games of Dungeons & Dragons. It is decidedly not the type of thing a Serious Music Fan, let alone a professional music journalist, should enjoy or, God forbid, respect.
To which I submit: Screw that.
With a career spanning more than three decades, Yankovic is perhaps the greatest pop-culture satirist of his generation. He has long outlasted most of the artists he’s parodied. In many cases — “Amish Paradise” comes to mind — his parodies are more enduring than the originals — and they’re usually more clever. And then there are the polka medleys. Oh, the polka medleys!
Where were we? Oh right. Weird Al rules.
In advance of his performance at the Flynn MainStage this Saturday, October 20, Seven Days geeked out on, er, spoke with “Weird Al” Yankovic by phone. It was totally awesome.
SEVEN DAYS: This is wildly unprofessional, but before we start I just wanted to say that you were a huge influence on my developing sense of humor as a kid. I’m a big, big fan.
“WEIRD AL” YANKOVIC: Oh, no kidding. That’s very flattering.
SD: I think you were also the reason I didn’t date much in high school.
AY: Yeah … I get that a lot. Sorry.
SD: It’s OK! Anyway, some of my favorite Weird Al songs are your originals, the style parodies like “Melanie” or “Nature Trail to Hell.” How do you decide when to do a style parody versus a parody of a specific song?
AY: Well, the straight parodies have to be topical and timely, as does the subject matter. The style parodies, or pastiches, there’s no rhyme or reason to those. If I’m doing an homage to a band, it’s usually a band that I like or find interesting. So I listen to their body of work and try to figure them out. I figure out some of the idiosyncrasies that make them who they are and then write a song in their style, but just a little more demented and warped.
SD: It’s a legal gray area, but you don’t really need permission from artists to parody their songs. Yet you always ask, and cede to their wishes if they decline. Why is that important to you?
AY: I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to hang around as long as I have. I want to make sure the artists are on board. I don’t want to step on toes. I want satisfied customers, as it were. I really don’t like drama. And I want the artists to be in on the joke and appreciate what I’ve done. So if they just flat-out don’t like parody, or think I’m desecrating their work, I don’t want to do it. Also, it helps with figuring out the credits and royalties and that stuff. But mainly I don’t want to burn any bridges.
SD: Lady Gaga’s management said you couldn’t do “Perform This Way,” but they never actually ran it by her. When she did hear it, she loved it and gave her blessing. That had to be flattering.
AY: Absolutely. I’m thrilled that she liked the song. I read an interview she did in Rolling Stone where she said she thought it was empowering. It was great to hear.
SD: I bet. Has there ever been a pop song more tailor-made for a polka medley than “Poker Face”?
AY: Nope. Probably not. In fact it was so obvious, part of me didn’t want to do it. As soon as that song came out, everybody on social media was saying, “You gotta do ‘Poker Face.’” I was like, “Yeah, I know.” By the time the thousandth person suggested it, I was like, “I’m not doing this.” Then after the millionth person, I figured I should probably just give them what they want.
SD: What’s the most surprising reaction from an artist to a parody?
AY: Well, I’ve heard a couple of times that Nirvana said they didn’t realize they had made it until they heard the Weird Al parody. That was pretty awesome.
SD: You’ve tried to do Prince a number of times and he’s always balked. If you were going to parody one of his songs, which one would you do?
AY: Well, now I don’t know. He’s still active and popular, but he hasn’t had any mainstream hits for a while. The songs I really wanted to do were his hits in the ’80s, and there were a number of them that would have been good fodder for parody. In fact, in (the film) UHF, instead of the Dire Straits parody, the centerpiece was originally going to be a Prince parody. But he said “no” and we haven’t really approached him since. I’d like to think his sense of humor has improved since then, but I couldn’t tell you from experience.
SD: The Michael Jackson parodies were huge for you early in your career, but you’ve only done two. Did there come a point when it just didn’t seem appropriate to parody him?
AY: It had less to do with his personal life and more that I had already done parodies of him. I felt like I needed to spread the love around, I guess.
SD: Are there songs that are off limits, songs you feel are just inappropriate to touch?
AY: As a satirist, the answer to that should be “no.” But in all honesty, there are certain lines I won’t cross. And good taste and common sense enter into that. I mean, I don’t think anyone wants to hear a “Tears in Heaven” parody.
SD: Yeah … probably not. Switching gears, pop culture seems to be increasingly absurd and disposable. Does that make this a golden age for a pop-culture satirist?
AY: Every age of pop culture is a golden age. There is always something ridiculous to make fun of. I don’t think there is any one era of pop music that is any more ridiculous than another. The zeitgeist changes continually, but you never run out of source material, which is a nice thing about my job.
SD: The speed of digital distribution must be a tremendous help to someone like you, who needs to stay current. Has that made your job any easier?
AY: I haven’t taken full advantage of that, but I’ve experimented with it. I did my T.I. parody, “Whatever You Like,” as quickly as I could, just to see how fast I could get it out. Within two weeks, I went from getting the idea for the song to recording it and getting it on iTunes. And it came out while T.I.’s song was still No. 1 on the Billboard charts. In the old model of distribution, that would never have been a possibility. For someone who is trying to be timely, it’s a godsend.
SD: I won’t ask you about a UHF sequel, but I wanted to bring up the Twinkie Wiener Sandwich. Were you upset to learn that Hostess went bankrupt?
AY: I was concerned. I know that there are now people hoarding Twinkies to have a lifetime supply of Twinkie Wiener Sandwiches. And considering the shelf life of a Twinkie is 20 years, I think that’s probably good for your fallout shelter to have a case of Twinkies or two.
”Weird Al” Yankovic performs at the Flynn MainStage in Burlington this Saturday, October 20, 8 p.m. $35/45/55. AA.