Paid to be Weird
Cal Poly alum Weird Al Yankovic goes back to school
BY GLEN STARKEY
This year marks the 24th anniversary of "Weird Al" Yankovics reign as the undisputed king of music parodies. Thats nearly a quarter of a century of poking fun at acts such as Michael Jackson, Nirvana, and Eminem and getting away with it. Even Yankovic himself couldnt have predicted his success. In fact, he predicted the opposite, telling a Mustang Daily reporter in the Dec. 4, 1979 issue that after making it big with "My Bologna," his parody of The Knacks "My Sharona," hed "probably drop into oblivion."
Clearly, that hasnt been the case. Yankovic is still at it, releasing his first new album in four yearsPoodle Hatand backing it up with a tour that will return him to his old Cal Poly stomping grounds, where in 1979 he recorded "My Bologna" in the mens restroom of the graphic communications building.
Poodle Hat, Yankovics 11th album, features parodies of hits by Eminem, Nelly, Avril Lavigne, The Backstreet Boys, and Billy Joel, and includes a polka medley of songs by Papa Roach, System Of A Down, The Vines, The Hives, The White Stripes, The Strokes, Disturbed, Rage Against The Machine, Limp Bizkit, Staind, Kid Rock, P.O.D., and Eminem. Theres also six new Yankovic-penned tunes, including tributes to Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa. The best part of the stick-it-in-your-computer enhanced CD, however, is "Als Home Movies," a collection of 8 mm film clips culled form the Yankovic family archivescute stuff of little Alfred Yankovic made all the more funny by the voice-over commentary by big Weird Al Yankovic.
Over the years hes been an insightful and merciless lampooner of pop culture, hitting the charts with send-ups such as "Eat It," "Like A Surgeon," "Fat," "Smells Like Nirvana," "Bedrock Anthem," "Amish Paradise," and "The Saga Begins." On "Couch Potato," Yankovics parody of Eminem, hes just as sharp as he was 24 years ago: Look, if you had one shot to sit on your lazy butt and watch all the TV you ever wanted until your brain turned to mush, would you go for it or just let it slip? Yo, remote is ready, eyes wide, palms are sweaty. Theres "Flintstones" on the TV already. Wilma n Betty. No virgin to channel surfin, and Im HD-ready, so I flipgarbage is all Im getting. Theres Simon Cowell, who folks want to disembowel. He opens his mouth, always says something foul. They dyin. Wow. Wannabes are crying now. He votes em out. Time to throw in the towel. Shows based on reality. Oh! The humanity. Oh! Ozzys family sho loves profanity. Whoa the insanity. Oh, dogs that crap and pee. Home of depravity? No, they live happily. Yo, plus, "Da Ali G Show" and "Celebrity Mole." Oh, theres Anna Nicole. Shes scarin me. "Look ma, no cavities!" Oh, its a station break. Better go out to the kitchen and microwave something.
Hey, how about some fun Yankovic trivia? Yankovic used to wear glasses but got LASIK (Laser Assisted In-Situ Keratomileusis) surgery to correct his nearsightedness. He now has better than 20/20 vision. His head is larger than human and few hats will fit him. He was born Alfred Matthew Yankovic. He has no brothers or sisters but notes that his parents (Nick and Mary) "are still alive and well, so you never know." In 1992, after a fan gave him a book called "Diet For A New America," Yankovic became a vegetarian. However, during the shooting of "UHF," which was shot during his carnivorous years, he did eat real Twinkie-wiener sandwiches. Yankovic got his "Weird" moniker as a DJ at Cal Poly radio station KCPR 91.3-FM. Most artists are happy to have Yankovic parody their songs, except for the Artist Formerly Known as Prince who now goes by that little symbol thingy, who has consistently said no to Yankovics repeated requests to make fun of him.
Yankovic gave New Times exactly 15 minutes of phone time.
New Times You know, youre quite a talented musician (keys, accordion) and singer. Are you secretly recording serious music or writing more serious songs?
Weird Al Yankovic No. I enjoy my little niche. Ive always enjoyed comedy music, and I like to think thats what I do best. Ill leave the serious music for guys like Phil Collins.
New Times Is there anything thats not a suitable target, anything in which you dont find humor? Like if you got a tumor or something, would you write a funny song about it?
Weird Al Yankovic You know, a true satirist might say nothing is beyond parody or satirizing, but I tend to have at least a fuzzy definition of good taste. I sort of draw the line at making fun of someone with a personal tragedy in their life. My motto is use your head.
New Times And youve got a big one, huh? So, who was your favorite teacher at Cal Poly?
Weird Al Yankovic Jim Conway was one of my favorites, but I dont think I ever had a class with him. He was the speech coach.
We called Jim Conway, whos still teaching at Cal Poly and chairs the speech communication department, to ask him what he remembered of Yankovic.
Jim Conway I was director of forensics at the time, and I do remember one year when he was here. He participated in public speaking events at Cal Poly and we traveled to speech tournaments around the state together. I knew him in an extracurricular capacityI never had him in a class. I remember him in a couple of ways. First, we never could find a speaking event that really fit him or his style. If I remember right, he did one speech on hot dogs, which was too funny for an informative speech. He was very talented, very unique. He joined in a readers theater troupe doing the Watergate Follies and he played Gerald Ford, wore a suit and tie, and did a lot of falling down. He was a great physical comic. I also rememberaside from being a very creative and original individualhe was a little strange. One day I was walking in El Corral Bookstore, looking at a rack of cards or magazines, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Al looking up at me from the floor. He had slithered like a snake around the rack.
Now back to our regularly scheduled interview with Mr. Kooky, er, I mean Yankovic.
New Times You got kicked off KCPR for what, not following the format?
Weird Al Yankovic Basically. I wasnt fired per se, but I was forced to quit. "The Weird Al Show" was basically a specialty show on KCPR of comedy music and some new wave. It had its own audience and, again, its own niche, and the program director at that time [Christy Kuehler] decided she was going to transform the station into a tightly run Top 40 station. You know, play a cut from a yellow dot album every hour and two tracks from red dot albums every hour. It took all the fun out of it for me.
New Times Boy, I bet Christys a load of laughs at parties. Did I tell you how I fired Weird Al? So, did you go out to bars in town, like the Darkroom, for instance?
Weird Al Yankovic I graduated when I was 20, so I dont think I ever sampled the SLO scene.
New Times Graduated at 20! Howd you manage that?
Weird Al Yankovic I started Cal Poly when I was 16.
New Times Started at 16! Howd you do that?
Weird Al Yankovic I started high school when I was 12.
New Times Jeez! Overachiever, eh? Your degrees in architecture. Did you ever do any architecting?
Weird Al Yankovic Ive been able to design my own bathroom remodel.
New Times Would you design your own dream home?
Weird Al Yankovic No, I wouldnt design it myself. The reason Im not an architect now is because the passion wasnt there, and frankly I wasnt that good at it.
New Times Underachiever, eh? Yo, whats up with Eminem? He lets you spoof his song but wont sign off on a video? Whats up with that?
Weird Al Yankovic Im not sure what his logic is there. Im very grateful to Marshall to let me do an audio parody, but video is a big part of what I do, and without a video its going to make promoting the record a lot harder and it will probably hurt sales, but I was very happy that the album charted at number 17.
New Times Marshall, huh? First-name basis. Thats cool. But he makes fun of everyone, so youd think hed let you make fun of him.
Weird Al Yankovic Its kind of ironic because he does make fun of everybody.
New Times Do you need permission anyway?
Weird Al Yankovic Its a gray area legally. The Supreme Court generally rules in favor of parody artists because parodies are protected through fair use by the First Amendment, but if an artist doesnt want me to, I back off. Ive been in the business for a long time and I want to make sure [the target of my parody is] going to appreciate my homage.
New Times Wasnt it Kurt Cobain who said something to the effect that he knew Nirvana had made it when you parodied Smells Like Teen Spirit?
Weird Al Yankovic Yep.
New Times When you go out in public, do people, like, recognize you and stuff?
Weird Al Yankovic They do, but I live in L.A. and dont get bugged that much. I think the level of recognition went down after I shaved my mustache.
New Times You called that a mustache? Just kidding. Are you ever going to cut off all that hair?
Weird Al Yankovic Someday it might fall out all by itself.
New Times So, do you ever come back to San Luis or Cal Poly, take a walk down memory lane?
Weird Al Yankovic Yeah, sometimes. I recently took a drive up the coast, which Id never done beforeall the way through Big Sur. Its changed quite a bit, but its still nostalgic. I like to take a stroll through Bubble Gum Alley. [Yankovics got a song that mentions Bubble Gum Alley, and theres a photo of it on his web site.]
New Times Is there a Mrs. Weird Al?
Weird Al Yankovic Yes there is, and a 4-month-old daughter. Ive been married for two years.
New Times Wow, sneaky! I didnt hear anything about that. Youre pretty private, huh? I mean, most entertainers would have sold their wedding pictures to the tabloids.
Weird Al Yankovic See, that really sickens me. I understand that fans are curious, and thats why I put up a couple pictures of my wife on my web site (www.weirdal.com), but I wouldnt put up pictures of my daughter.
New Times So, when you appear in concert, do you play material from older albums, too?
Weird Al Yankovic Oh yeah, at least half of its from old tours. I have to play Fat. I have to play Yoda. But at the same time Im always adding new stuff.
New Times Your shows entail a lot of production, huh?
Weird Al Yankovic Yeah, Ive gone without sleep for couple of weeks now. The show is very theatrical, lots of costume changes, film clips. Im also getting ready to do another round of Al TV for VH1. This will be the eighth Al TV specialoddly enough, they happen to coincide with the release of my albums
New Times Hmm. Go figure.
Weird Al Yankovic Yes. I was doing them on MTV, but VH1 has been very good to me. This special will air June 17, and it will feature quote-unquote celebrity interviews, like with Harvey the Wonder Hamster, whos turning 25.
New Times Come on, tell the truth. Harvey dies and you just get a new one and call him Harvey, huh?
Weird Al Yankovic No! Hes ageless and Im not at liberty to say.
New Times So, do you actually have to practice the accordion and all that?
Weird Al Yankovic I do have to practice, but I dont practice every day, just when Im getting ready to play on an album or on tour. I cant sight-read music. Im not a studio cat.
New Times Say something funny.
Weird Al Yankovic Ive got another journalist on the line. Your 15 minutes is up.
New Times Thats not funny. Æ
Glen Starkey has used the mens restroom in the graphic communications building on the Cal Poly campus, and the acoustics are very nice indeed.