The first time Al Yankovic hears Dr. Demento, it’s like Bela Lugosi finding Boris Karloff. The doctor has been practicing weirdness for many years as the host of a bizarre 160-station syndicated radio show, and if there’s a ridiculous, an obscene, an off-beat recording somewhere, it’s in the doctor’s files. Demento has the formula for weirdness, but Yankovic, who has already dubbed himself “Weird Al” since his dorm das at Cal. Poly Tech, thinks he has some himself.
So, using third-rate equipment and the cheapest cassettes he can find, Al keeps taping his original material and submitting it to the Doctor. Not one note is played for a couple years. Al calls and requests his own stuff, but it’s no-go. So Al keeps going back to his “studio”—a men’s room at Cal Poly, where he is an architecture student, because the tiled toilet has the echo he needs for his experiments.
Finally, Al receives a note from Demento. “I think you have potential,” it says, “but only 39-cent people use 39-cent cassettes.” Al goes back to the lavatory to mix more metaphors. He cuts down on lunch, buys better cassettes, and juggles his syntax for another year. Then—Eureka!—he finds the missing ingredients. He records a wicked parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” which he calls, “My Bologna.” Not only does Dr. Demento play it and play it, but other disc jockeys around the country tape it and play it and play it. Al records the number for Capitol Records, but by the time it’s released, it’s played out.
But Al’s on a roll. The following year he writes “Another One Bites the Dust” and finally the two weird ones meet professionally. Al performs the song on Demento’s show and it becomes the most requested number on the Doctor’s showcase in its ten-year history. A year later they’re doing one-nighters as a team whenever D can get away from his radio network. So Al’s not a 39-cent comic anymore.
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A few months ago, I spent a quiet afternoon with a couple of Yankovics. If you play straight for “Weird Al” Yankovic, he’ll put you on and can be as weird as you want him to be. If you get serious, you find you’re dealing with Alfred Matthew Yankovic, his alter ego, a rational, lucid young man who though well on his way to his first million, can recall with anguish that only a few years ago he was down to his last five bucks.
Weird Al’s craziness has won him a Grammy for the best comedy album, the Cashbox pop album award over Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, and Rodney Dangerfield, plus a cache of other trophies as he stays high on the charts in the U.S., Canada, England, Japan, and Australia.
Yankovic has quickly planted himself in the American pop consciousness right after his success on the Dr. Demento show. He followed his satire of “My Sharona” with a parody of “Mickey” called “Ricky,” a riff on the I Love Lucy show, and “I Love Rocky Road,” a takeoff on Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll.” Then came “Eat It,” the parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” which took all the marbles.
While I’m sitting in my pad on the edge of Beverly Hills waiting for Al to show up, I run off the video cassette of two songs from In 3-D, the mother load of his goods up until now, a fresh, clever collection of satirical put-ons that has kids all over the world doing parodies on everything from their teacher to their dog. On the tape, Al is hopping around like an agitated flamingo, arms flapping, long legs flying as he converts Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” into hilarious satire. I try to get a bead on what he really looks like, but his rubber-faced grimaces make that impossible.
A few minutes later Yankovic shows up. He’s a smooth-shaven, gangling guy with a friendly face and serenity in his ascetic features. If I don’t know better, I would peg him as a scoutmaster picking up the kids for the Sunday hike, except for one thing—the Hawaiian shirt he is wearing. It would have turned Tom Selleck’s stomach. It’s a vomity yellow-green. These sartorial assaults, I fund out, are part of Al’s wardrobe.
“Al, you keep popping up on every video show on the tube, the money is rolling in, and you’re up to your ass in awards,” I say, and read off a list of his trophies. I see his eyebrows go up. “Did I leave something out?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, “the American Video award. I won for best male performance for ‘Eat It’ and I beat out Springsteen, Don Henley, and George Michael.” He gives a nervous little laugh as though he is overstepping the bounds of modesty. “but it was a surprise to everybody, most of all, me.”
“How does it feel now that you’re a star, with all that dough in the bank? Don’t you have the urge to go out and buy all the things you couldn’t afford before?”
“I don’t want to go real crazy,” he says. “I just want to have enough money in the bank not to worry about anything, and if I don’t have to go back to my first job, working in a mail room, I’ll be happy as long as I live. What I’m doing now has always been a hobby of mine and to make a living out of it is incredible. I’m doing things I never dreamed I’d be doing and it’s nice to know that if I manage my money right, I won’t ever have to get a real job again.”
“Are you worried about having to top yourself? ‘Eat It’ is a big one to follow.”
“It’s a little too early to tell. You know, my new album, Dare to Be Stupid, just came out and we’re doing three cuts for video. The one with the most potential is called ‘Like a Surgeon.'”
“What does Madonna think about it?”
“It was her idea. I didn’t even know Madonna. I was flattered. She suggested it to a friend of mine. The title is hers, too.”
“Have you had a problem getting big stars to let you fiddle with their lyrics?”
“We’ve had some turn-downs, but since Michael gave us permission to do ‘Eat It’ I think it’s made things easier.”
Al’s latent talents surfaced on this one, which turned out to be a double-edged parody. Not only did he satirize “Beat It” but he brilliantly parodied the bible one’s dance moves on the video.
“Where did you learn to dance?” I ask him.
“I can’t dance,” he says. “I never even danced at the school proms. But we thought it would be funnier for a guy who couldn’t dance to imitate a great dancer like Michael.”
“How did you hit on ‘Eat It’?”
“My manager, Jay; my producer, Robert K. Weiss (The Blues Brothers, Kentucky Fried Movie); and I were sitting around Jay’s living room and we just kept saying ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if…’ Before we knew it we had the whole thing written.
“For the video we recreated the sets and choreography in a warehouse, and we were fortunate to have excellent set and costume people. We had a videotape and monitor on stage and we’d freeze a scene from ‘Beat It’ and the set people would duplicate it.”
Not every parody Yankovic has wanted to do has panned out. “What we do is send the star a verse or two of the song to see if they have a sense of humor. If not, we drop the project.” Among the thin-skinned ones who have declined the honor is ex-Beatle George Harrison.
“What did Michael think of your interpretation?”
“He must have liked the idea or he wouldn’t have given us permission. I don’t know Michael. We applied to his organization. He’s got a long chain of command, but Michael has the last word and it finally had to come to him. I was delighted to find that he had a sense of humor.”
“What’s the signal that a song has parody potential?”
Al rubs his ample chin and makes a face. “Every once in a while there’s a song with a monster hook,” he says, “at least for me, and if I feel the beat is right, that’s the signal.”
For instance? I ask. “How did you come up with a Cuban bandleader and his scatter-brained wife out of Tony Basil’s “Mickey?”
Punctuating his answer with a few chuckles, he says, “When I was a kid I always wanted to grow up to be a Cuban bandleader,” and from the look in his eye I know we’re back in Weirdness Valley.
“Want to try for another motive?” I ask.
There’s a long pause. His face is dead-pan and now he’s Alfred Matthew Yankovic. “When I first heard ‘Mickey’ I thought it was a definite contender and as I saw it zooming up the charts, I thought of all the things I could do. Then it clicked. I’ve been an I Love Lucy fan since I was a kid and it seems like I’ve been watching the reruns all of my life. I saw Ricky and Lucy Ricardo doing all their crazy things to the beat of ‘Mickey.'”
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The weird one quit his job in the mail room the week “Ricky” hit the Billboard charts with its throbbing beat.
So now a lot of ears are tuned to see if Al can keep up this mad pace. Satire and parody are tricky literary genres and the form is older than the written word. When it’s not good, it’s awful, but when it’s on the mark, it crackles and not many performers have mastered the art.
Al holds a degree in architecture from California Polytechnic University, where he first hung the “Weird Al” title on himself while doing a campus radio show, but he had been dabbling in satire and parody for five years before he got into high school. His inspirations in the ’50s were genuine parodists such as Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer, and the late Allan Sherman. He was also a big fan of Mad magazine, hit movies and popular TV shows. By the time he was 12 he began to see humor in the foibles of American lifestyles and then Dr. Demento came into his life.
Through Demento Al not only got exposure, but a manager, too—Jay Levey. And through Levey he got the Breaks, the first a contract with Rock and Roll Records. Despite the success of his early singles, record companies weren’t beating a path to sign Al up. The geniuses felt that he was a flash in the pan who couldn’t maintain the pace, a one-joke guy. But Tad Dowd, the president of Rock and Roll Records, saw him differently.
“A fellow named Jake Hooker, who is not only a successful talent manager, but wrote ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ got a call from Jay Levey, asking permission to do a parody of the song which they called ‘I Love Rocky Road.’
“Hooker was so impressed with Yankovic,” said Dowd, “that he brought him to one of his clients, Rick Derringer, a legend in rock ‘n’ roll. Derringer is not only a helluva guitar player, but he’s a great producer. They got together and recorded enough tracks for an album, and Hooker brought the package to me. I was excited about it because it’s not often that you hear something really fresh in rock.”
On a Sunday morning I call Al and tell him I have a reservation at Matteo’s, an L.A. restaurant. Sunday night is the night at Matteo’s for the weekly gathering of Hollywood types—stars, writers, producers. I want to see how Weird Al fares in the big leagues.
“Wear a jacket, Al,” I tell him. “Anything to cover up one of those shirts.”
“I don’t own a jacket,” he says. “I don’t own a suit.”
When he picks me up that evening he is carrying something dark blue under his arm that he unfolds and holds up. “How about this,” he says. “It’s a jacket. I got it at a second-hand store for ten bucks.” He puts it on and it doesn’t look so bad.
Now we go out to the car and I head for the shiny BMW sitting out front, but he steers me down the street to a ’78 Toyota Corolla. We take off in a concert of strange little noises and when we go over 35 miles an hour it sounds like a group of Lilliputian bongo players playing a gig under the hood. Conversation is almost impossible.
Since he’s been putting me on, I figure I ought to return the compliment. When we stop for a red light I say, “How does a big rockstar like you ride around in a junk wagon like this, especially in Hollywood?”
“Because I’m cheap,” he yells. The light changes, we take off, and the bongo players are at it again.
Matteo’s Restaurant, on the edge of Westwood, is jumping. Sinatra is sitting in the back. There’s Milton Berle, Sammy Davis, several movie producers. We first go to the crowded bar and I’m watching for a reaction. There are a few intellectual nods from some of the younger people and that’s it, but this is no barometer. Asking for an autograph at Matteo’s is considered gauche. Al is enjoying the scene. For him it’s the other side of show business and I can see he doesn’t feel like a star in that setting.
“I have to give Tad Dowd the credit for where I am,” Al is saying after we sit down at a choice table. “He took a gamble on me when the other’s wouldn’t.”
Maybe it was the accordion, Al. As a kid, Al studied the accordion and got nowhere.
“I always wanted to be a rock musician,” he says, then I see that weird look in his eye again and he says, “My parents chose the accordion because they were convinced it would revolutionize rock.” It is of no minor coincidence that his parents are of Yugoslavian lineage and it so happens that Frankie Yankovic (no relation), known as the polka king and one of the best accordionists in the country, also happens to be a Yugoslav. A little chauvinism here.
But Al is trying to paint a picture. “I got so bored playing overtures,” he says, “that I started teaching myself rock songs and that’s how it all began.
“When other kids my age were listening to Rod Stewart and the Eagles, I was listening to the Demento show and he’d be playing all these great comedic artists from the past that don’t get played. Every Sunday night I’d tune in and I just thought this was my kind of music, this is what I wanted to do. So I picked up my accordion, which had been mainly used to play polkas, overtures, and ballads, and started noodling around with it and came up with some pretty strange stuff. I started writing love songs about my car, about the food in the school cafeteria, doing some ridiculous tunes to amuse myself, my friends. I wrote one song about leisure suits, I wrote a song about a guy who never took showers.”
“How about your love life?” I ask. “You’re a rich rock star and you’re not a bad-looking guy when you aren’t mugging. Are the girls breaking down the door?”
“One of the songs on the new album is my first attempt at a ‘love song.’ The chorus is: I’d rather spend eternity eating shards of broken glass/Than spend one more minute with you!’
“A lot of my humor is a tribute to the mundane, those things that people don’t pay any honor to. It’s a tribute to Americana. There are four parodies on the new album. ‘Like a Surgeon’:
I finally made it through med school
Somehow I made it through
I’m just an intern, I still make A mistake or two
I was last…in my class barely passed…at the institute
Now I’m tryin’ to avoid Yeah, I’m tryin’ to avoid
A malpractice suit
Hey, like a surgeon
Cuttin’ for the very first time
Like a surgeon
Organ transplants are my line.
Al laughs like a demented kid. “Another pretty silly idea,” he says, “but it was fun. Then there’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Lunch.’
“Then there’s a song I actually wrote in college. It took me five years to get permission. It’s a parody of “Lola” called “Yoda,” the Star Wars character. We approached Ray Davies, we’ve been approaching him every year and a half, two years before each album comes out and he’s always been a little skeptical, a little afraid because “Lola” was a very personal song for him. Just out of the blue he decided this time to let us do it. Then we got George Lucas’s permission. The last song is “I Want a New Duck.'”
“Quack, quack,” he says. “It’s a take on ‘I Want a New Drug.'”
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 suck all night.”
On the drive back we stop off at one of Yankovic’s haunts on La Cienega Boulevard. The clientele is several decades younger than the Serutan set at Matteo’s. All eyes are on Al as he saunters to the table. The adorable little waitress lingers as she takes our order. Two cute girls stop by on their way out. “I just had to shake your hand, Al,” one of them says coyly.
Al’s eyebrows are moving up and down and his eyes are telling me, “See, I really am a star.” He even picks up the check. On the drive home, I give him one more needle. “Al,” I say, “you can’t keep riding around Hollywood in this jalopy. You’re a star, for God’s sake.”
Just before we got to press, I call Al from New York to check out a few things. His answering machine is on but it doesn’t answer with words, just laughs and titters. He calls me back that evening and now I hear the laughs and titters live.
“I thought I ought to tell you,” he says. “I just bought a new Mazda.”