His Own Wavelength
August 13, 2014 | by Lary Wallace
Talking to Weird Al about his process.
It’s not that there wasn’t a self-referential pop culture before “Weird Al” Yankovic; it’s just that those of us under forty might have a hard time remembering it. Just as difficult to imagine are those who, even after all these years—after all the albums and songs and verses, after all the puns and parodies and poetry—still think of Weird Al as nobody more than that guy who rhymes about food over popular music. Weird Al engages the entire culture, in all its functions and facets, through his lyrics, his videos, his original musical-style parodies. Just how he does it all remains a mystery no matter how often he explains it.
When he explained it to me recently, by Skype, he said much that I’d never heard before, even though, like most culture vultures my age, I’ve followed his career since the early eighties. And if a lot of those early songs did in fact find their rhymes in the names of food, it’s also true that a lot of them did not. His songs have become more intricate with each new album, even as they’ve become more expansive. And more popular, too. It’s easy to forget that Weird Al’s career, after an early but tough start, nearly failed to make it very far out of the eighties. It wasn’t until his parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (“Smells Like Nirvana”) that he safely established full traction and momentum.
That was 1992. Since then, his career has been an inverted, warped variation on the typical pop-music career, just as his songs have always been inverted, warped variations on typical pop music. In 2006, he released his first album ever to break the top ten (Straight Outta Lynwood, featuring “White & Nerdy”). And now, eight years after that, and thirty-five years after his very first single—“My Bologna,” which, yeah, is about food—his new album, Mandatory Fun, has gone number one. It’s not just the first time Weird Al’s done it; it’s the first time any comedian’s done it since Allan Sherman, with My Son, the Nut in 1963.
Which makes a special kind of sense, because the song parodies of Allan Sherman did a lot to put Al on the road to where he is now. “Allan Sherman is one of my all-time heroes,” he said. “I would say my Mount Rushmore of inspiration would be Allan Sherman, Stan Freberg, Spike Jones, and Tom Lehrer. Those are probably the four main people that influenced me and inspired me, and I was exposed to them through the Dr. Demento Show,” that ageless, perpetually hospitable home to musical satire.
By the time he was out of high school—he graduated at the age of sixteen as class valedictorian—his homemade parodies were being played on Demento’s radio show. While studying architecture at Cal Polytechnic, he worked at the campus radio station and continued contributing to Demento. During his senior year, he took his accordion and some recording equipment into the bathroom across the hall from the radio station—he really liked the acoustics in there—and recorded “My Bologna.” The Knack really dug it, finding it a suitable parody of “My Sharona,” and, more consequently, the song earned Al his first recording contract. After that, he hooked up with his manager, Jay Levey, who’s with him still, and—with the exception of John “Bermuda” Schwartz, whom he’d already been working with—all but one member of the band he’s with today.
The only formal training Al’s had in music—in anything except architecture, really—are three years of accordion lessons his parents encouraged him to undergo as a kid. All of the aptitude he exhibits now—not just for writing, but for vocals, for musical composition, for video direction, even for dancing and physical comedy—has pretty much been acquired on the job. “I do things I’m not qualified to do,” he said, “and I keep doing them until I get good at it.”
He still plays the accordion, of course, in a fresh polka medley of popular songs to appear on each new album. Many consider these polka medleys the black jelly beans in Weird Al’s bag, and even though I agree with them, I’m still happy they’re there. They’re part of what gives him his identity and authenticity—his indefinable integrity. They’re part of what makes him iconic and unique.
Just because he makes it look easy doesn’t mean it is. You listen to a song like his Beach Boys pastiche, “My Pancreas,” and just know Al isn’t bringing all that biological/anatomical expertise straight to the writing desk. “I knew a little bit about how the pancreas worked,” he said, “but not enough that I could write an entire song about it. So I went online and I did a lot of research about the pancreas. Back in the eighties, in pre-Internet days, I would go to the local public library and I’d check out books and I’d look at reference material and I would xerox things off the library photocopier. I would learn as much as I could, like I was doing a senior project on something, before I even started writing the lyrics, because I wanted to present the best possible version of my subject matter.
“All of my songs are carefully written,” he said. “They’re crafted. It’s not like I freestyle with lyrics that I spit off the top off my head. Everything is done with a lot of care and precision. If they need to be outlined, if the lyrics need a lot of research, or analytical observation, I put in the time.” He elaborated further:
Usually when I write a song, and I’ve come up with a concept for it, I’ll generate pages and pages and pages of ideas, jokes, and gags based on the song, just random words and phrases that have anything to do with the concept … as much material as I possibly can. And then later I’ll go through that and I’ll pick out what I think the best ideas are. And if there’s a joke I really want to make, I’ll go, Okay, if I want to use this line, then what can I rhyme that with? … It’s a very long and drawn-out analytical process. But that’s why I’m able to craft something that I think takes advantage of all the options that I have.
A lot of time is freed up in the efficiency of his methodology, no wasted motion in his machinery. Much of his editing happens “in the conceptual stage,” he said. “I generate a million ideas, and then I boil them down to my twelve favorite ideas for songs, and then will pour all my energy into those ideas and write those twelve songs as best as I can. And all twelve make the album. There are no B cuts, there’s nothing in the vault; it’s all exactly what I set out to do.”
One of the more wonderful things about observing Weird Al’s career is that there’s no typical Weird Al song. He seems intent on working in every musical mode and style, indulging every comedic and linguistic impulse. He might do a pastiche of Bob Dylan, comprised entirely of palindromic nonsense, calling it “Bob”—which is, expert linguists will notice, itself a palindrome. Or he might tell hyperbolically grandiose tales about Charles Nelson Reilly in the style of the Truth About Chuck Norris book (although Al made sure to inform me that the Chuck Norris jokes weren’t his only inspiration for “CNR”: “It’s a comic trope that’s been around a long time, and that’s just something I thought would be fun”). Or he might, as he does on Mandatory Fun in what’s become the album’s most popular video, “Word Crimes,” completely repurpose a popular, controversial song (“Blurred Lines”) as a grammar tutorial. (It should be mentioned that, although I don’t have the heart to mention it myself, in every interview Weird Al has given, including this one, he’s consistently committed a rather egregious and aggravating word crime of his own, using the pronoun that instead of who even when the object is another human being—as in, “I enjoy sometimes being around people that are high, because it’s easy to make them laugh.”) Or he might even pop up performing on somebody else’s signature franchise—The Simpsons, say, or, as he did most recently, Epic Rap Battles of History. (When I express genuine surprise that he let the show’s creators write his lyrics for that one—he played Isaac Newton battling Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson—he says, “If it sucked, I would have rewritten it. But it was great.”)
The first time he ever did a cameo was The Naked Gun (1988). Al was single then, and he took a series of first dates to the movie, not telling any of them he was in the film. When he’d show up on screen emerging from that airplane, “they just flipped out,” he told me, especially when they realized he was wearing that exact same Hawaiian shirt, in two totally different realms yet at exactly the same time.
Lary Wallace is an eccentric at large and the features editor of Bangkok Post: The Magazine.