"Weird Al" Yankovic Interview: When Harry Potter Met Parody
Image attributed to "Weird Al" Yankovic
“Weird Al” Yankovic is a musician, songwriter, actor and author. He is best known for creating comedy songs that parody specific songs by contemporary musicians and performing original songs that are style patches of the work of other acts, as well as polka medleys of popular songs featuring the accordion. His parody songs include “Like a Surgeon, “Amish Paradise,” “Eat It,” “My Bologna,” and “I Love Rocky Road.” His work has earned him five Grammy Awards, four gold records and six platinum records in the US.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, is the unexaggerated true story about the greatest musician of our time. From a conventional upbringing where playing the accordion was a sin, Al rebelled and made his dream of changing the world-renowned songs come true. An instant success and sex symbol, Al lives an excessive lifestyle and pursues an infamous romance that nearly destroys him. The film is currently streaming on the Roku Channel and stars Daniel Radcliffe, Rainn Wilson, Julianne Nicholson, Toby Huss, Evan Rachel Wood and Richard Aaron Anderson.
"I was on the set every single second that the cameras rolled."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Al, I really enjoyed the film.
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Oh, thank you so much!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It parodies your life. Very humorous. But there’s also a few bits of autobiographic truth in the film?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: There are a few nuggets of truth sprinkled throughout.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The viewer realizes early on that something is amiss when dad violently tangles with the accordion salesman (laughs).
"Weird Al" Yankovic: (laughs) There was, in fact, a door-to-door accordion salesmen that came through my neighborhood. So that part is true. But my dad didn’t beat the living snot out of him. (laughs) He actually thought it was a great idea to give me an accordion lesson.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you think your parents would’ve laughed at how you portrayed them?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Yeah, I think so. They would’ve gotten a kick out of it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: As a child, you decided that you wanted to make up words to songs that already had lyrics?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Yeah. I think I wasn’t unique in that way. I think every eight-year-old kid in the universe, at some point, starts changing the words around to songs on the radio. I was one of those kids, and that was just a phase that I apparently never grew out of.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you sing “Amazing Grapes” at the dinner table, as depicted in the movie?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: (laughs) I don’t think I specifically sang that song, but it would’ve been something similarly ridiculous and stupid.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How did you know that Daniel Radcliffe was the right actor to play you?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Eric Appel and I gave it a lot of long hard thought when we were trying to figure out who should play me in the movie. We came up with a list of half a dozen or so actors that we thought would be suitable for the part. But in the end, we kept coming back to Daniel Radcliffe because we just thought he had the right energy for it.
Not to sound all California, but it just felt like he would really get it. We knew he was a big fan of alternative comedy, and he had great comedic chops. But he also had amazing dramatic chops as well, and both were important. It’s a broad comedy, obviously, but at the same time, it’s not played as such. It’s played like the very serious, dramatic, Oscar bait biopic. So we wanted an actor that would really be able to hit those dramatic beats but at the same time know they’re in a comedy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you hands on as a writer-producer on the set?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: I was on the set every single second that the cameras rolled, and I think that was important for me because there were some moments where we needed an on-the-spot rewrite or I needed to be around in case something wasn’t exactly the way it was supposed to be. It’s better to do that on the set as opposed to five months later in the editing room.
So I made sure I was always available, and I tried not to get in the way. Everybody was very busy doing what they were doing, and I didn’t want to be dragging things down or slowing things up because we were on a very tight schedule. But if I had a note, I was on the spot to offer it if there was any kind of problem. I was there on the spot to help fix it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of a tight schedule, Daniel had to learn all the songs in order to lip sync?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Daniel had a lot to do. He certainly can sing. He’s an excellent singer. But we just thought it was funnier for him to lip sync because one of the tropes of these kinds of musician biopics is to have an actor lip syncing. But, yeah, besides that, Daniel had to learn dance choreography and fight choreography, and he learned how to play the accordion (laughs). He actually learned the right buttons to push. He had a huge workload.
It was an 18-day shoot, which was, for all the things we had to get through, an insanely short period of time. But Daniel knocked it out of the park. We had to do everything in one, two, maybe three takes at the most for everything. We were moving very, very quickly. We wouldn’t have been able to pull it off unless we had an amazing crew and an amazing case with people like Daniel, Evan and Rainn.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I understand you made new versions of the songs for the film?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Oh, yeah, because we needed to be able to tweak the stems, like if Daniel’s mouth moves with the microphone, we had to be able to dip that in the mix and make it sound like it was a live performance. I think it wouldn’t have sounded right to use the original master recordings, so I thought it would be best to go in and rerecord all the songs that Daniel was performing in the movie, so that it sounded more realistic.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did Dr. Demento actually give you your first serious break?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: He did. That part is true. Dr. Demento changed my life in a very real way. I mean, obviously everything in the movie is exaggerated or slightly askew. But Dr. Demento’s the person that first gave me airplay when I’m sure nobody else in the universe would’ve done that, and he encouraged me along the way. He didn’t really act as my manager as is implied in this movie, but he very much got me thinking that I might could make a living doing comedy music, which is not what I was trained for.
I got my degree in architecture (laughs). I thought, at some point, I’d be an adult and have a real job. But because of my exposure, and because I was encouraged through Dr. Demento, that got me thinking, “Maybe I should go in this other direction and do something that I’m actually more passionate about.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Good choice.
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Thank you.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But Dr. Demento didn’t name you “Weird Al”?
"Weird Al"Yankovic: No. That came about in college actually. I think somebody in the dorms in my freshman year started calling me “Weird Al” because I was sort of this weird kid that used to roam around the hallways. It wasn’t a fond term, I don’t think (laughs). But I took it on when I started doing college radio. I did The Weird Al Show every Saturday night on the local campus radio station. That was my first time using it, and it just stuck.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How did it come about that Florence Henderson played the Amish woman in the “Amish Paradise” video?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: (laughs) Gosh, I don’t know. I was just thinking, “Who would be the best person to be Michelle Pfeiffer’s doppelganger in my video?” For some reason, I thought that Florence Henderson would be the perfect one. I didn’t really know her at the time, but I just thought, “Oh, how amazing it would be to have Mrs. Brady be this Amish woman.” Florence came to the set, and she had such a great attitude about it. She absolutely nailed it, and we became good friends after that video soot. But, yeah, I just thought it would be very funny and very cool to have Florence in that part.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is parody generally covered under copyright laws?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: I’ll say it’s a gray area. You know, I always go above and beyond what’s legal because I try to honor the wishes of the original songwriter. So even if I don’t need to from a legal standpoint, I always get permission from the original songwriters and get their blessings just to make sure they’re okay with it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Some songwriters have refused?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Yeah. Prince was never open to the idea of parody songs, and I had several ideas for him. But he never was really into that. He’s the one that got away because it would’ve been really fun to do a Prince parody. He just never was open to that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you have any problems with Queen not wanting you to parody “Another One Bites the Dust” with “Another One Rides the Bus”?
"Weird Al" Yakovic: No. When I first did that song, it was on The Dr. Demento Show in 1980, and I didn’t bother getting Queen’s permission because I was a 20-year-old college kid just doing this as a goof. I just did it for The Dr. Demento Show. I didn’t think, “Oh, here’s my new hit single. I’m going to have a 40 year-long record career.” It was just me having fun on the radio, and Dr. Demento started playing it. I think Queen found out about it, and to their credit, they didn’t give Dr. Demento a cease and desist letter or wasn't angry about it. They just said, “Hey, you should’ve asked our permission for this, but it’s okay.” (laughs) That’s when I went, “Oh, you’re supposed to ask permission. Alright. I got it.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I imagine many musicians find parodies as a compliment to their work.
"Weird Al" Yankovic: These days they do. When I first started out, maybe more people were not quite sure about it. But now that I’ve got a bit of a track record, yeah, a lot of artists look at it as a badge of honor or a rite of passage. It’s like you’ve achieved a certain plateau in your career where you’re now popular and famous enough to get a "Weird Al" parody.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I can imagine that Dave Grohl loved the "Weird Al" treatment on a Foo Fighters’ song and a Nirvana song.
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Nirvana, yeah. I did “Smells Like Nirvana.” They were extremely cool about it. I called up Kurt Cobain on the set of Saturday Night Live when they were performing there and asked if it was okay. He thought it was a great idea. I know Dave. He’s super cool and so is Krist. So, yeah, they all got a big kick out of it, and that was a real thrill for me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Who were your mentors along the way as your music career progressed?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: In the movie, Dr. Demento says he is my Dementor. So he’d be one of them. I’ve had the same manager since they early 80s, so he’s somebody that’s guided my career throughout the decades. I have a support group of a lot of people that have been with me. I’ve had my band since the early 80s as well. I tend to surround myself with supportive people that know what they’re doing, and it has served me well.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the film, there was a pool party scene filled with celebrities. The actor, Jorma Taccone, who played Pee-Wee Herman, was really great.
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Oh, Jorma Taccone from the comedy trio, The Lonely Island. Akiva from The Lonely Island plays Alice Cooper. I originally wanted to get all three Lonely Island guys, but Andy Samberg had some family issue, so he wasn’t able to make it even though he really wanted to.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There were some big names at the party. Over your career, had you worked with all of them?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: I guess I pretty much knew everybody that we caricatured at the party. I never met Salvador Dali. I can tell you that for sure, and I don’t think I ever officially met Andy Warhol, but we were at some of the same functions together. Pretty much everyone else, I think, is somebody I’ve had at least a few interactions with over the years.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you have an extremely close relationship with Madonna as shown in the film?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: No (laughs). I only actually met her in person once for about a minute. But she was, in some way, indirectly responsible for me doing “Like a Surgeon.” She wondered aloud to a friend of hers in New York one day back in 1985, “Hey, I wonder when 'Weird Al' is going to do 'Like a Surgeon'"? Her friend that she was talking to knew my manager, so the word got back to me, and I thought, “It’s not a bad idea. Maybe I will.” So we took that one little nugget of truth and extrapolated it into this whole crazy arc in the movie.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It was hysterical! You know, some people may forget that you also write original songs because the parodies get so much attention.
"Weird Al"Yankovic: That is true. I put out 14 studio albums, and half of the material on those albums is original, hopefully still funny but not based specifically on another song. To this day, I still get people say, “Hey, do you ever write your own songs”? I just explain, “Yes. I’ve been doing that for 40 years as well. But it’s just that the parodies get most of the attention.” It’s been something I’ve always done as well, which maybe if you’re not a hardcore fan, you may not even realize that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is your daughter, Nina, interested in the entertainment industry?
"Weird Al" Yankovich: She’s taking harp lessons. She’s a sophomore in college right now. I don’t think she’s really thinking about any kind of career in show business. She’s majoring in Art and Environmental Design. I don’t know exactly what she’s going to wind up doing, but I’m sure in some way, she’s going to save the world for us.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, thank her for me.
"Weird Al" Yankovic: (laughs) Okay.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Al, you are one of only five music acts to have a Top 40 hit in each of the last four decades. How do you explain your continued popularity?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: I don’t know. My career never should have happened. Nobody thought that I would have a 40 year-long recording career, and I certainly didn’t think so either. I was just doing it for fun. But I don’t know. Lucky factors into it in a great way. I guess there’s a modicum of talent there, and also, as I said before, I surround myself with very talented and supportive people. I’m on stage with the same band I’ve had since the early 80s, and that’s really helpful just to have that support group, that community and that family with you.
So it’s all of the above. I’ve got very supportive fans as well. The people that got into me in the 80s, many of them now are still coming to the shows. They’re bringing their kids, or in some cases, their grandkids, which is a little scary to think about. But it’s great to have people that care about what you do and will support you.
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