Raleigh, N.C. — To look back at “Weird Al” Yankovic’s career four decades after it began, it becomes a ridiculous notion to attempt to pigeonhole him into the musical ghetto that is the parody genre. That categorization downplays the significance that his art has had on the musical landscape as a whole over the years and on people’s lives during that time.
We’re not talking about some struggling comedian looking for a few cheap chuckles by adding dirty lyrics to the Oscar Meyer jingle here. Yankovic took a few songs he created in his bedroom at 16 years old being played on the Dr. Demento Show and built an empire out of that moment. Always a comedy star throughout his career, he is now considered an icon.
For an example of how beloved Yankovic is as a performer, look no further than his current tour, the Mandatory World Tour. This marks the second year of the tour, built around the promotion of last year’s Mandatory album, with the 2015 dates being met with such fan fervor that another summer tour became a no-brainer for everyone involved. The singer will actually be making three stops in North Carolina: the Humanities Fine Arts Center at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington Thursday, the Durham Performing Arts Center in Durham on Friday and Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville on Saturday. It takes a special kind of musician to realize that he will sell out venues throughout all points of North Carolina, and “Weird Al” is that kind of musician.
I had a chance to speak to Al before his performances in the state this week. With so many highlights to touch on, there just wasn’t enough time to touch on everything, but among the topics discussed were his recent work with the new generation of comedians; odds on a UHF 2; being so damn nice; and longevity in a fickle career climate.
Isaac Weeks: With your current acting roles on such programs as IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang and Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, what are your feelings on a new generation of comedy stars seemingly using their current creative positions to honor you in a way? It’s clear that this generation of comedian considers you an icon at this point.
“Weird Al” Yankovic: Well that’s very sweet of you to say. I do feel the love. It’s nice these days to walk into a meeting or an audition and the director is someone that has been listening to me since they were a kid. It’s nice when my original fan base grows up and is now ruling the world. I really appreciate the fact that I am being embraced by the current comedy Illuminati, and I’m very happy to be able to work with people who grew up listening to my work.
IW: When telling some friends that I would be interviewing you for this piece, a few of them had actually met you in the past, and they all made a point of saying how nice your were. This is something that I found time and again when researching your career online, as well. Is friendliness something that you have actually concentrated on during your career?
Weird Al: It always sorts of surprises me when people go on and on about how nice I am. I do feel that I am a nice person, but I don’t feel that I really go out of my way so much to be nice. I feel that if you are a celebrity and you’re not a complete jerk, people tend to immediately say, “Oh, he’s the nicest guy in the world!” The caveat is that, if I am meeting some fans and not feeling great, I will make an effort to be more present and cheerful. I had an experience as a kid where I met a celebrity where, while they weren’t horrible, they just weren’t that friendly to me. I only met them for eight seconds, but that has been my opinion of them for the rest of my life. That made me think, “These people are only meeting me for a short amount of time, and I should make an effort to at least be a pleasant person,” because you are always making an impression when you meet someone.
IW: Something that still kind of blows me away is the fact that you became so popular in the 1980s that you were given a shot at becoming a movie star with the release of UHF in 1989. While the movie failed to connect with audiences at the box office upon initial release, it clearly has become a cult hit over the years. Looking back, do you wish you had gotten a second chance at film stardom?
Weird Al: Of course. When I made UHF I was hoping that it was the beginning of a long movie career. That was certainly the intentions of Orion Pictures at the time as well, as they had tested the picture with audiences before the release and it tested very well. They would tell me that I was going to be their Woody Allen and that we were going to be doing all of these movies together, and then after the opening weekend of UHF I was just a ghost walking around the studio. Of course I would have appreciated and enjoyed doing more movies, and I’m still open to doing more feature film work. I’ve done a number of cameo appearances in movies over the years – in fact, I just flew out to Los Angeles last week for one day to do another cameo in a film – because it’s something that I’ve always wanted to be open toward. It would have been nice if UHF had done much better financially initially, because that would have given me that opportunity to help create even more.
IW: In the musical parody genre, the vast majority of artists are lucky to ever gain a foothold on listeners with a minor pop hit, and even then most of them immediately fade into the ether of pop culture. What has kept you at the forefront of being every generation’s favorite musical comedian for the past forty years?
Weird Al: It’s really nice that I’ve had the longevity that I have had. It was very difficult for me to find a record deal in the early 80s, because people were aware of the history of artists who do this type of material. It’s often called “novelty music,” which isn’t a term that I love, but anytime someone does comedy in pop music it’s kind of a novelty. The people who work in that genre historically don’t have long careers; as you said, they’ll be lucky to have one hit, and then a few months later they are a footnote. That fear is what drove me, at least initially. That’s why I put out so many albums in the 80s, because I figured I’d better grab that brass ring while it was still there. I was always terrified that everything that I did might be the last thing I’d be allowed to do. It took me a decade or two before I was able to calm down and tell myself, “Okay, people aren’t going to forget about me next month, maybe I can take my time on the next album and do it right.”
IW: Videos were extremely important when it came time for you to connect with the MTV generation, but now it feels like your last few album releases have been built around them. How tiring is it, as a performer, to do that much promotional work for each record?
Weird Al: It’s a lot of work. The eight videos in eight days promotion that we did leading up to the release of Mandatory Fun, where we had world premiere videos every day for eight days, worked extremely well. It gave me the chance to basically dominate the internet for eight days, which I believe is a big reason why the album was propelled to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Album charts the week it came out. Prior to that the Alpocalypse album had a video for every single song on the album.
Nowadays the internet is the new MTV, and people don’t have to wait around all day for a video to come back around on the rotation, they can just search for it and watch it immediately. Doing so many videos for an album is a lot of work and a lot of effort, and I get a lot of help with them, but I am as creatively involved as I can be.
Isaac Weeks may live in Nashville, TN, but he remains an Executive Committee member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association, as well as a regular contributor to the News & Observer. His work regularly appears in the Charleston City Paper and Nashville Scene. He is also writes for Raleigh and Co.