Weird Al Yankovic Breaks Down the Formula for a Good Parody Song
Still weird. Still awesome.
Photo by Robert Trachtenberg
Of all the guys who've been singing songs since the '80s, Weird Al Yankovic is one of the most adaptable and resilient. This makes him remarkably still relevant. The tales surrounding his album Mandatory Fun are the stuff of modern-day myths. After his label told him it couldn't afford to shoot any videos, he found websites just burning to dish out cash in exchange for exclusive releases. He then bitch-slapped the web in 2014 with an eight-day barrage of hilarity, unrolling videos online daily. Each was as funny as the one before. In the midnight hour, he even approached Iggy Azalea backstage at her show to ask her personally if he could parody "Fancy" (it morphed into "Handy"). All this buzz, and the pure brilliance of his craft, provided him with his first number-one album and his fourth Grammy. His first was in 1985.
When this comedic genius named his Mandatory World Tour, he says he was being kind of facetious about the "world" part, but lo and behold, the king of pop parody is heading through the States and then on through Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Catching him live is most definitely mandatory. We spoke with him about the highlights of making "Tacky," the winning formula for creating a quality parody song, and the reason he first got on social media.
New Times: Where do you keep all your Grammys?
Yankovic: Normally, I have them affixed to my forehead with wood screws. But when they're not there, they're in my house, in the den.
Do you think the kids at your shows know your old gems or just the new stuff?
Well, the kids get on YouTube, and they do their research and they learn about some of my old material. A lot of kids might be more familiar with the parodies than they are with the original songs. I know for a fact that was the case when in 1999 I did a song called "The Saga Begins," which was a song about Star Wars. And that was to the tune of Don McLean's "American Pie." It was a big hit on Radio Disney, so the preteen crowd was really into it. I can pretty much guarantee that most of those kids weren't that familiar with the 1970s Don McLean hit, but they knew my song. Which made it doubly funny, because after my parody came out, Madonna did a dance version, like a disco version of "American Pie," and all these kids were saying, "How come Madonna's doing an unfunny version of a Weird Al song?"
Would you ever do more politically based satire?
I don't think I do it in my songs because I think that would date them. And political humor is very ephemeral. Parody music and novelty music is ephemeral by nature, but you get political and then it becomes very disposable. And political climates change very quickly, and I'd rather not have songs in my catalog that feel that dated. I tend to stay away from political humor also because that tends to polarize my fan base. If you take any kind of position on anything, even if it's in jest, people get very emotional about it, and I don't want to be divisive.
What makes a good parody song? Is there a formula?
There are several guidelines I like to use. One is: The parody should be funny even if you don't know the original source material — even if you don't know what it's making fun of, you should still be able to enjoy the song. Also, a parody song should be as funny, if not funnier, at the third verse than the first verse. A lot of amateur parody writers come up with a funny idea, or the hook or the chorus, and once they get to that, they have nowhere to go. You have to be able to make it funny for the entire length of the song.
You've done an amazing job adjusting to social media, and I don't think a lot of artists who started in the '80s have been able to do that. Is there any secret to your success in that arena?
That makes it sound like it's a calculated thing. I got into social media because I honestly enjoy it. Also frankly, initially I got into it because there were some Weird Al impersonators online. That was back in the days of MySpace. There were people pretending to be me. It was flat-out identity theft. And that disturbed me, because nobody wants somebody pretending to be you. You can't really police the internet, per se. The way you can combat that is to establish an official presence. Which I did. But then I found out that I really love social media. I love Twitter. I'm on Facebook, YouTube, and more recently Instagram. And I really enjoy it. It allows me to interact more easily with my peers in the comedy community and keep tabs on what my fans like and what they think about my work and kind of eavesdrop on the conversation.
When you made Mandatory Fun videos, any key moments? In "Tacky," you're working with these amazing comedians: Aisha Tyler, Margaret Cho, Eric Stonestreet, Kristen Schaal, and Jack Black.
Well, they're all fun. I had a blast with all of them, and I got to work with amazing people and work with College Humor, Funny or Die, Nerdist, and Yahoo and wonderful places like that. But if I had to choose, the "Tacky" video was the most fun and the most painless because we shot that in less than a day. I got to go through my address book and handpick the celebrities I wanted to be involved, and I was able to get them together all on the same day, and we ran through it half a dozen times. It's a one-take video, and I start off the video in one outfit and I wind up five floors below on street level in a completely different outfit. As soon as the camera was off me, I would have to run to the staircase and change my clothes while I was running down the stairs to get there in the end. Everyone says, "I see where they made the edit!" I'm like, "No, there's no edit."
"Weird Al" Yankovic. 8 p.m. Saturday, August 15, at the Au-Rene Theater at the Broward Center, 201 SW 5th Ave, Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222; browardcenter.org. Tickets cost $30 to $60 plus fees via ticketmaster.com.
Follow Liz Tracy on Twitter.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.