A Conversation with “Weird Al” Yankovic – HuffPost 11.10.14
Mike Ragogna: Hey Al, you have two releases coming up–a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of UHF and also The Compleat Al. Why the sudden Al-Fest?
“Weird Al” Yankovic: [laughs] I don’t know, but Shout! Factory has always been supportive and they put out really cool products. I’m pretty sure that they agreed to put out the Blu-ray of UHF and the The Compleat Al before my album came out, so they didn’t know it was going to be a big summer for me. They just thought that people had been waiting for a long time for this and the twenty fifth anniversary ofUHF seemed like a good occasion to put out this product. I commend the Shout! Factory people for having such cool and eclectic tastes. They put out a bunch of great products and I’m glad to be a part of that group.
MR: They also released your pal Pee-Wee Herman’s complete television series.
AY: Yeah, I just got my copy of that last night, I’m very excited about that!
MR: Al, you must be all giggly from hitting #1 with your Mandatory Fun album.
AY: You’re totally right, it all still seems like some bizarre dream that I had. I was always outside of the realm of possibility. I didn’t even dare to dream of having a #1 album because I always figured there was a glass ceiling for comedy albums. The last time an album had even gotten to #1 was in 1963. I just figured we don’t live in that era anymore, comedy albums will never be that big again. I still kind of can’t believe it. It was a very emotional month for me because everything I’d never even dreamed to hope for came true.
MR: And congratulations on forty years of Weird Al fun! How did that happen?
AY: [laughs] It only seems like thirty eight to me! I’m just thankful that I can still make a living doing what I do. I love the comedy and the music. It’s a nice little life that I’ve carved out for myself and the fact that people still care about what I do for a living after all this time is extremely gratifying. I was just talking to my wife about this the other day. I figured, “I don’t really have a single on this new album, but I’ll do this eight videos in eight days thing and I’ll just quietly finish up my record contract.” [laughs] Then the whole thing blew up beyond anybody’s expectations.
MR: Eight videos in eight days is pretty audacious. Did someone dare you to do that?
WA: No, I was waiting for some big topical single that I thought would drive the album commercially, which was kind of the business model in the past because you always need the hit video for MTV and the hit single for radio, but MTV isn’t really a factor anymore and radio isn’t really a factor for me anymore. I knew that the internet was where my bread was buttered, so I figured if I can get people talking about this album for a full week, that’s what would make it work. Knowing the fickle nature of the internet I figured viral videos grab people’s attention for about a twenty four hour period. But if I can give them something to be excited about eight days in a row, that might do the trick. It seems to have worked.
MR: Not only that, but you parodies this time out are especially hysterical. It’s come back around to what you do best. Kids want to laugh and you took on their hits. It’s perfect.
AY: Thank you!
MR: The Compleat Al–love the spelling–is not so complete and not so Al. I won’t reveal anymore, take it away, Al…
AY: In a real broad sense, I guess it’s a parody of The Complete Beatles, which is why complete is spelled as it is, and there are a few other references to The Complete Beatles in it. But it’s basically a mockumentary of my life story. Looking back at it, it’s sort of like looking back at baby pictures. “Yeah, okay, that’s what I was like back then.” I don’t think it was probably the best idea to do a half true life story because to this day people get a little confused about that. There’s a little bit of truth mixed in with the fiction. The guy that plays my manager in the movie is an actor, my manager’s not really Barry Cohen, but he looks like the Barry Cohen! It was sort of an odd choice. When I did my first actual Behind The Music, even back then, there was the sense of, “Should we make it like a bogus Behind The Music?” Well, no, because some people want to know my actual life story. But in the beginning there was this overriding sense of, “Nobody really cares about your life story! Let’s just make it up!”
MR: [laughs] Al, you’ve recorded a ton of videos, that Behind The Music, you were the star of MTV’s “Al-TV,” The Weird Al Show series, and lots more. Sir, where does your comedic genius come from? How does this Weird Al thing really work?
AY: [laughs] That’s kind of hard to articulate. A lot of people have asked over th eyears, “Where do your ideas come from?” I don’t really think that any creative person can actually tell you. I just listen to the voices in my head and do their bidding. I just try to put myself in environments where I feel creative and let the synapses do their work.
MR: One of the things on Compleat Al was the alleged “story” behind “Eat It.” So what is the real story of your parodying Michael Jackson’s “Eat It?”
AY: Well, it’s not as interesting as the story from Compleat Al. There were no live tigers fed at Michael Jackson’s house while I asked permission. It was all done over the phone back then. The internet wasn’t really a thing so it was mostly my manager talking to Michael Jackson’s people and eventually we wound up with an actual legal document, a contract that had Michael Jackson’s signature right next to my signature declaring that we were the co-writers of “Eat It.” I did meet Michael Jackson on a couple of occasions and he couldn’t have been sweeter. He enjoyed parodies and enjoyed UHF actually, he said that was a big hit on the Neverland ranch. Obviously, that whole scenario of me approaching Michael Jackson for his thumbs up or thumbs down was a bit of a dramatic recreation with artistic license of an event that never happened.
MR: Other parody artists such as Cledus “T” Judd have various approaches when it comes to licensing. But years ago, when you decided on which parodies to do, did you have to contact artist reps or did you just proceed under existing parody laws?
AY: Even back then, I was always clearing the parodies. Legally, as I always say to anyone who asks, it’s a gray area. In general, the courts support parody artists and they support free speech and fair usage and things like that, but also we live in a very litigious world. Basically I don’t like drama, I don’t want anybody to be upset with me, I wouldn’t want an artist to be offended. I’ve always made it a point to get the permission of the original songwriter to make sure that they’re okay with what I’m doing.
MR: Were there any moments when it got a little dicey with the original artist and your end results?
AY: Not after they gave their permission. Nobody’s ever allowed me to do a parody and then heard the song on the radio and said, “Wait a minute!” My stuff is no offensive and it’s not mean-spirited. Most artists actually look at it as a badge of honor or a sign that they’ve achieved a certain level of success in their career when they get the Weird Al parody.
MR: What was the story behind UHF‘s conception?
AY: My manager and I co-wrote the movie and our basic thought was I’m famous for doing parodies, if a movie had a lot of commercial and movie and TV parodies in it it would be playing to my strengths and giving people what they want. So, basically, we were trying to come up with a somewhat generic storyline where we’d be able to hang all these parodies on it. The thought of me operating a small UHF-TV station seemed like a good hook because back then, “UHF” was almost synonymous with weird programming. It was like PBS stations, Spanish-speaking stations, and odd public access. In the pre-internet, days if you wanted to see something weird, you went down the UHF dial and you were bound to see something kind of strange. That was like a good jumping off point for the movie. This guy runs a UHF-TV station and he was kind of whacked to begin with, so this is all the odd programming he puts on the air.
MR: And then, there were VHF-TV shows that came pretty close to looking like those broadcast on UHF.
WA: It’s true! Obviously, it was inspired by actual UHF stations, and some people have gone as far as to say it’s a little prescient about YouTube, meaning it’s not dissimilar to a lot of things that are happening online right now.
MR: And with some of the shows that were parodied in UHF, it was almost like a little foreshadowing of the goofiness to come.
WA: I’ve always been a fan of visual humor and visual gags. The Zucker Brothers comedies are my favorite movies in the world. I was definitely inspired by that kind of comedy.
MR: Do you still get the acting bug?
WA: I would love to be involved in more films. I haven’t really been given a lot of opportunities. I’ve done cameos in all three Naked Gun movies, a couple years ago Rob Zombie gave me a cameo in his Halloween 2 movie. I’m certainly open to it if I think it’s something that would be appropriate to me. In terms of writing a whole new movie I actually did that for Cartoon Network several years ago. They had paid me to write a script on spec and then they decided that they didn’t want to have a feature film department anymore so that kind of went away. The movie was pretty much tailored for Cartoon Network so I doubt that it woudl see life anywhere else. Like I said, it’s something that I’ve certainly always been interested in and i would like to see it happen sometime in the future.
MR: It seems like a no-brainer for Weird Al animations, right?
WA: Well, okay, let’s do it!
MR: [laughs] Al, what advice do you have for new artists?
WA: These days, YouTube I think. I got started through The Dr. Demento Showwhich was in the seventies, way before people were online and that was really the only outlet for that kind of music. Nowadays if you do anything, whether it’s comedy music or any kind of talent the internet is the best way, to get discovered because you don’t have to be beholden to some executive in a glass tower somewhere to decide whether you’re good enough. You don’t have to wait online for some kind of reality TV show. If you’re truly good and you put yourself out there, you have pretty good odds of being noticed. That’s how it works these days.
MR: Is there one work that you’re most proud of?
WA: It’s hard to point to one particular thing. I always say, and I’m always completely earnest when I say this, that every album that I put out is the best thing that I’ve ever done. I like to think that I’ve been improving over the years. Certainly, I love all of my old albums but I do think that Mandatory Fun is my best work and I’m very proud of that and I’m very proud of all the videos that came off of that. I’m glad that it’s enjoyed the amazing success that it has.
MR: Nice. You’ve been doing this for forty years now, what would you have told Al back then?
WA: There are so many things this year alone that the teenage Al would just not have been able to believe. I often think about that. I’ve had a number of moments just in the last couple of months where I just fantasize about what the fourteen year-old Al would’ve thought about what I’m doing now. Even the fifty-four-year-old Al has a hard time believing it.
MR: Would you do it all again, or would you become a surgeon?
WA: Oh yeah I’d do it again! There’s not a lot I’d do differently; things have worked out so well in my life that I would even be scared about correcting any mistakes because I’m scared about changing the space-time continuum that much and maybe things wouldn’t work out as well as they have.
MR: Of course, if we were to do a parody of Weird Al it could be Mandatory Fun 2.
WA: [laughs] Do you really want to do a parody of Weird Al? That’s sort of like looking into a mirror with mirrored sunglasses and seeing infinity. A Weird Al Inception.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne