Weird Al Yankovic

Weird Al Yankovic

Novelty acts usually fade from the limelight after their fifteen minutes of fame are up (quick – who wrote “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”?), and any kid with a tape recorder and a spare afternoon can record a song parody. So how did a frizzy-haired California kid with an accordion turn novelty music into a platinum-selling, Grammy-winning, celebrity-spoofing career that has so far spanned almost four decades? Sure, Dr. Demento’s radio show helped, but “Weird Al” Yankovic has survived for one simple reason: the guy is just flat-out funny.

Born Alfred Matthew Yankovic, Al picked up the accordion at age 7, but traditional polka was only half of the budding musician’s obsession. Al also tuned in to Dr. Demento’s famed radio show of novelty tunes, falling in love with the satires, parodies and wackiness of artists like Stan Freberg, Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman (“Hello Mudda, Hello Fadduh”). When Demento visited Lynwood High School, the budding songwriter passed his radio idol a demo tape, and by the time Al graduated (as Valedictorian, at age 16), his song “Belvedere Cruising” was a regular on Demento’s show.

As Al moved from high school to college and to a job at a radio syndication company, more of his songs were dominating the request lists on the Dr. Demento show. “Weird Al” (he had already adopted the name that would define his career) had his share of originals, but his greatest successes came from what would become his career trademark: song parodies. His 1979 reworking of the Knack’s “My Sharona” into “My Bologna” was his first widespread single, followed by “Another One Rides the Bus” (to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”) and “I Love Rocky Road” (to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll”). By 1982, Al had signed with the Scotti Bros. record label, releasing Weird Al” Yankovic the following year.

Al’s previously released singles were all on the album, along with a few originals like “Gotta Boogie” (as in, “I gotta boogie on my finger and I can’t shake it off”). Al’s humor was comic gold for the kids, but his rock-star-deflating parodies won over many adult fans as well. Still, it’s unlikely “Weird Al” would have made the big time without the invention of Music Television in the early 80’s.

Early videos for “Ricky” (a send-up of I Love Lucy to the tune of Toni Basil’s “Mickey”) and “I Love Rocky Road” had their share of laughs, but “Eat It” was brilliant. Matching Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” nearly shot for shot and move for move, Al’s version punctuated every moment with a slapstick gag (bringing a chicken leg to a knife fight, having the guitarist explode after a frenetic solo, etc.) Pushed by the video, the song hit the Top-20 and later won a Grammy. “Weird Al” Yankovic had officially arrived as the voice of a generation of class clowns and geeks.

With “Eat It” as its breakthrough single, Al’s second album, 1984’s In 3-D, was a smash. “Brady Bunch” (“Safety Dance”) and “I Lost on Jeopardy” (“Jeopardy”) carried on the proud parody tradition, but the album also contained such junior high singalong originals as “Nature Trail to Hell” and the semi-original “Polkas on 45,” which linked rock hits in a perky polka medley (the start of another “Weird Al” tradition).

1985 brought the release of Dare To Be Stupid, containing “Like a Surgeon” (“Like a Virgin”) and the Star Wars fan classic “Yoda” (“Lola”), along with a hilariously sadistic spoof of 50’s doo-wop, “One More Minute.” 1986’s Polka Party gave the world its first post-apocalyptic Christmas carol, “Christmas at Ground Zero,” but the album itself was a disappointment after the success of In 3-D and Dare To Be Stupid.

While some skeptics claimed that Al’s fifteen minutes of fame were finally up, the accordion-playing hero to a thousand amateur parodists simply regrouped, going back to the Michael Jackson well for 1988’s Even Worse (an answer to Jackson’s Bad). The single “Fat” (also a “Bad” spoof) was a radio hit, and its accompanying video was another MTV sensation. Once more, Al-artificially chubbed up and decked out in XXXL leather-matched Jackson’s video (shooting in the same subway set) and then gave it a comic tweak. Even Worse went platinum, and Al won another Grammy.

In 1989, Al made his starring movie debut in UHF, which he co-wrote. The film offered more spoofs-from used car hucksters to the Rambo movies-and a manic performance from co-star Michael Richards (Seinfeld‘s Kramer). Unfortunately, UHF came out in a summer that included the blockbuster hits Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II and Batman, leaving little room for a small comedy from a frizz-haired, glasses-wearing musician.

Another slow period followed, but the sudden rise of grunge gave Al a good reason (and good material) to stage another comeback. Parodying Nirvana both on the cover of 1992’s Off the Deep End and on the single “Smells Like Nirvana” (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”), Al won back both fans and critics with lines like, “Sing distinctly, we don’t wanna! Buy our album, we’re Nirvana!” The song was another Top-40 hit, and the video was declared one of the all-time greats by no less an authority than Rolling Stone magazine.

Al’s recording career continued through 1993’s Alapalooza, 1996’s Bad Hair Day (containing the hit “Amish Paradise,” a parody of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”) and 1999’s Running With Scissors, which found Al returning to the Star Wars theme on “The Saga Begins.” In the meantime, Al hosted his own Saturday morning show, The Weird Al Show, from 1997-98.

Today, “Weird Al” Yankovic continues to tour and record, with four albums already released in the new millenium. His influence continues to inspire schoolyard Als to write their own song parodies (usually involving teachers and/or bodily functions). And while there have been imitators and pretenders to the throne almost since the beginning, “Weird Al” still reigns as pop music’s prince of parody.

Do you have a favorite parody from Weird Al? Tell us about your own personal favorites and anything else you would like to share in our comments section below.

One Response to “Weird Al Yankovic”

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  1. Gina says:

    I’ve loved Weird Al since near the beginning. I have his early albums on vinyl, and later ones on CD. I’ve seen him in concert a few times. I’m so happy his career is bigger than ever. Listen to Weird Al–it’s Mandatory Fun!

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