NYT Magazine: The Weirdly Enduring Appeal of Weird Al Yankovic

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I have spent much of my life chortling, alone in tiny rooms, to Weird Al’s music. (“I churned butter once or twice living in an Amish paradise” — LOL.) And yet somehow it had never occurred to me to go out and see him live. I think this is for roughly the same reason that it has never occurred to me to make my morning commute in a hot-air balloon or to brush my teeth in Niagara Falls. Parody is not the kind of music you go out to see in person — it’s the joke version of that music. A parody concert felt like a category error, like confusing a mirror for a window. To me, Weird Al had always been a fundamentally private pleasure; I was perfectly content to have him living in my headphones and on YouTube and — very occasionally, when I wanted to aggravate my family — out loud on my home speakers.
The show went on for two hot hours. The concrete theater was a convection oven powered by body heat, and Weird Al stomped and strutted and danced through the crowd, occasionally kicking his leg straight up, like actually vertical, 180 degrees. Sometimes he disappeared for 30 seconds and then came bursting back onstage in a costume: Kurt Cobain, Amish rapper, Devo. During “White & Nerdy,” he did doughnuts all over the stage on a Segway. Before long, the masses of Weird Al’s famous curls were stuck to his face, and if you looked closely you could see sweat pouring off his elbows. The parody songs, live, were tight and hard and urgent, supplemented occasionally by video clips, projected onto a giant screen, of Weird Al cameos on “30 Rock” and “The Simpsons” and the old “Naked Gun” movies. It felt less like a traditional concert than a Broadway musical crossed with a comedy film festival crossed with a tent revival.

The crowd was rolling through tantric nerdgasms, sustained explosions of belonging and joy. It felt religious. Near the end of the show, during the chorus of “Amish Paradise,” as the entire stadium started swinging its arms in rhythm, I unexpectedly found myself near tears. Weird Al was dressed in a ridiculous black suit, with a top hat and a long fake beard, and he was rapping about churning butter and raising barns, and everyone was singing along. I could feel deep pools of solitary childhood emotion — loneliness, affection, vulnerability, joy — beginning to stir inside me, beginning to trickle out and flow into this huge common reservoir. All the private love I had ever had for this music, for not only Weird Al’s parodies but for the originals — now it was here, outside, vibrating through the whole crowd. Weird Al had pulled off a strange emotional trick: He had brought the isolated energy of all our tiny rooms into this one big public space. When he left the stage, we stomped for more, and he came back out and played “Yoda,” his classic revision of the Kinks’ “Lola,” and then he left again, and I decided that this was the single best performance of any kind that I had ever seen in my life. Weird Al Yankovic was a full-on rock star, a legitimate performance monster. He was not just a parasite of cultural power but — somehow, improbably — a source of it himself.
Weird Al has now been releasing song parodies for seven presidential administrations. He has outlasted two popes and five Supreme Court justices. He is one of only five artists (along with his early muses, Michael Jackson and Madonna) to have had a Top 40 single in each of the last four decades.
His work has inspired waves of creative nerds. Andy Samberg, the actor and a member of the comedy group the Lonely Island, told me that he grew up having Weird Al dance parties with his family. “Each new generation of younger kids is like, ‘Wait, this can exist?.” Samberg said.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Weird Al obsessive, credits Yankovic as an influence on “Hamilton.” Miranda once lip-synced “Taco Grande” (a Mexican-food-themed parody of the 1990 hit “Rico Suave”) in front of his sixth-grade class, He told me that he prefers many Weird Al songs to the originals. “Weird Al is a perfectionist,” Miranda said. “Every bit as much as Michael Jackson or Kurt Cobain or Madonna or any artist he has ever spoofed. So you get the musical power of the original along with this incredible twist of Weird Al’s voice and Weird Al’s brain. The original songs lose none of their power, even when they’re on a polka with burping sound effects in the background. In fact, it accelerates their power. It’s both earnest and a parody.”
The Yankovic family is wonderfully wholesome. Al and Suzanne met fairly late in life, when both were established in their careers. Suzanne was a high-powered marketing executive at 20th Century Fox, and she was skeptical, at first, when a friend tried to set them up. She worried that Weird Al would be wacky, loud, shrill, insufferable, exhausting, always “on.”

He turned out to be the opposite. Offstage, in his civilian life, Yankovic is shy, introverted, extremely private and unfailingly polite. Among the big personalities of the Los Angeles comedy world, his quiet decency is legendary. “He is so, so incredibly nice,” Samberg (among many others) told me. “He is the nicest person you will ever meet, exactly what you’re dreaming he’ll be like.” No one has ever heard Weird Al raise his voice in anger. He doesn’t swear. When a script comes to him with a bad word in it, he politely asks for revisions. Sometimes, experimentally, Suzanne will try to get him to say a curse word at home. “C’mon, honey, it’s just us!” she’ll say. But he refuses.
Perhaps you have always imagined that Weird Al tosses off his lyrics while juggling rubber chickens on a unicycle. I mean, this is a man who once recorded a parody of Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Want a New Drug” called “I Want a New Duck,” the first verse of which goes: “I want a new duck/One that won’t try to bite/One that won’t chew a hole in my socks/One that won’t quack all night.” He also converted “She Drives Me Crazy” into “She Drives Like Crazy” and “Addicted to Love” into “Addicted to Spuds” and “I Think We’re Alone Now” into “I Think I’m a Clone Now” and “Zoot Suit Riot” into “Grapefruit Diet” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” into “Girls Just Want to Have Lunch” and — honestly, the list could go on forever.

But it turns out that Weird Al approaches the composition of his music with something like the holy passion of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Looking through the “White & Nerdy” file felt like watching a supercomputer crunch through possible chess moves. Every single variable had to be considered, in every single line. The song begins with a simple sentence — “They see me mowing my front lawn” — and even here Yankovic agonized over “lawn” versus “yard” and “my” versus “the.” He sifted through phrases in gradations so small, they were almost invisible.
He took his first accordion lesson the day before his 7th birthday and progressed quickly. He had plenty of time to practice. Mary Yankovic was so overprotective that her son spent much of his life alone in his room. He never played at friends’ houses, never had sleepovers, never explored his neighborhood on his bike. The farthest he was allowed to ride was half a block, to his Aunt Dot’s house, and his mother would stand on the lawn and watch. For Alfred’s protection, she would censor the mail, sifting through catalogs page by page with a black marker in hand, scribbling out anything inappropriate: bra ads, pictures of women in bikinis.

Alfred’s bedroom was his own little kingdom, devoted entirely to his enthusiasms. If he wanted to collect and organize dozens of license plates from all over the country — which he absolutely did — there was nothing stopping him. If he wanted to rig a contraption involving pulleys and string so he could flip on the light switch without leaving his bed, he could do that too.

The years passed. Alfred sat in his room, wheezing away on his accordion, diddling its buttons, dutifully memorizing polkas and waltzes and marches and the “Mexican Hat Dance.” All of his classmates hit puberty before he did. He never had a girlfriend, never went to a party or a dance. His parents never taught him about sex. “Stay away from women,” his father once told him. “They have diseases and stuff.” Lynwood High School was directly across the street from the Yankovic home, and when Alfred went there his mom would sometimes watch him during gym class, through binoculars, just to make sure he wasn’t being bullied.
At 16, Alfred Yankovic graduated high school. He was valedictorian, and his speech at the ceremony was dutiful, serious and formal — except for one passage in which he described the future destruction of the world, how the polar ice caps would melt and civilization would be drowned. As he described this hypothetical apocalypse, his voice rose to a grating shriek, until he was suddenly screaming about humanity’s imminent doom. The crowd roared with laughter, interrupting his speech with a round of applause.
The nickname “Weird Al” started as an insult. It happened during his first year of college. This was a fresh start for Alfred — a chance to reinvent himself for a whole new set of people. He had no reputation to live down, no epic humiliations. And so he decided to implement a rebrand: He introduced himself to everyone not as Alfred but as “Al.” Alfred sounded like the kind of kid who might invent his own math problems for fun. Al sounded like the opposite of that: a guy who would hang out with the dudes, eating pizza, casually noodling on an electric guitar, tossing off jokes so unexpectedly hilarious they would send streams of light beer rocketing out of everyone’s noses.

The problem was that, even at college, even under the alias of Al, Yankovic was still himself. He was still, fundamentally, an Alfred. He was, in all kinds of excruciating ways, not your average freshman. He was 16. He wore thick glasses and had a regrettable mustache. He was skinny and pathologically shy. He had the social skills of a ceramic frog. He didn’t drink, smoke, party, date or swear. He still felt most comfortable alone in his tiny room.
If, in the superhero narrative of Weird Al Yankovic, there is a radioactive spider-bite moment, it has to be open-mic night at Cal Poly in 1977. Imagine the scene: a bunch of longhaired idealists with banjos and acoustic guitars, ready to shock the world with the beauty of their fingerpicking. And then Weird Al steps onstage. He brought with him not only his accordion and his large glasses and his little mustache but his whole awkward chaotic energy. Miller set up his bongos, and together the pair launched into the exact opposite of earnest folk music. Yankovic played “Wipeout” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and a 10-minute medley that he claimed covered every song ever written in the history of the world.

Before that night, Yankovic’s public performances included childhood accordion competitions and a cousin’s wedding. Now he was sharing his own music, the essence of himself, with a roomful of strangers. The odds were high that he would bomb, then disappear back into his tiny room forever.

Instead, the opposite happened: The crowd went crazy. Weird Al’s ridiculous music got a standing ovation. The applause would not stop. People hollered for more.
In underground comedy circles, the legend of Weird Al began to grow. He became a staple on Dr. Demento’s show, answering phone lines and playing his accordion in studio and generally hamming it up. He turned Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” into “Another One Rides the Bus.” By the time Yankovic graduated from college, joke music was all he cared about. He hardly had time for anything else. He moved to Los Angeles, slept on a couch, briefly lived in his car. He got a minimum-wage job in a mailroom. He moved into a tiny apartment with a Murphy bed and a view of the Hollywood sign. He sat there by himself, recording music, building his oeuvre joke by joke. Sometimes he taped silverware all over the walls, just to be weird.

On April Fools’ Day, 1984, MTV did something preposterous. The network, back then, was influential but also desperate for content, and Yankovic’s outsider weirdo shtick killed with its audience, so the network gave Yankovic four hours to fill with whatever he wanted. He created “Al TV,” a parody of MTV. The conceit was that Weird Al had taken over the station with a pirate transmitter. Hour after hour, he made fun of music videos, read fake fan letters, announced fake contests and spliced together footage of celebrities into preposterous fake interviews. (Weird Al: “Mr. George, if you were on an Arctic expedition and you got stranded, who would be the first people you’d eat?” Boy George: “Housewives, young kids.”) This made Weird Al a brand name on the network — a sort of stand-in for the audience itself.
 
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