It all began with an accordion.
There aren’t many tales of the rich and famous that begin that way. But in the case of Alfred Matthew “Weird Al” Yankovic, it’s a fact.
Native Californian Yankovic took accordion lessons as a kid and then stunned audiences at open mike nights with his renditions of such hits as “Theme from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’”
A big break in the career he didn’t know he was pursuing happened when radio host Dr. Demento visited his high school.
Yankovic slipped him a cassette tape of his parody songs and Demento featured one of them on his popular show immediately.
Reached by email, the 75-year-old Demento wrote that he “had no idea in 1976 that (Yankovic) would go on to achieve as much as he has.”
“His career developed in a series of gradual stages,” Demento wrote. “When ‘Eat It’ hit in 1984, people thought he was an overnight success. But he’d been quietly building a career for eight years by that point – step by step, getting a little better and more popular each year. He has always been in it for the long haul, working very hard at his craft all along…and every year it seems he discovers something else that he can do, and does it brilliantly.”
These days, Yankovic qualifies as a “superstar musical parodist.” There may be more improbable things for a person to be in 2016, but it’s hard to think of what they are.
Yankovic performs on Sunday, June 26, at the Foellinger Theatre.
In a phone interview, Yankovic admitted that his current success was not something he envisioned or even strove for in the late ‘70s.
“Certainly nobody, including myself, thought that I would have a 30-year career doing this,” he said. “I had more faith in myself than the record labels did. Early on, they all said, ‘Oh, you’re really clever. This is brilliant stuff. But, you know, this is novelty music. You’ll be lucky to have one hit and then we’ll never hear from you again.’
“As a result, nobody wanted to sign me,” Yankovic said. “They said, ‘We want to sign artists that are going to have long careers.’ So my career is sort of the ultimate irony. I’ve lasted a lot longer than most of the people they were signing back in the eighties.”
Writing song parodies the way Yankovic has done it for three decades is no walk in the park or piece of cake or walk in the park while eating a piece of cake.
Yankovic doesn’t just write great parodies, according to Texas A&M professor Salvatore Attardo, who is editor-in-chief of Humor, the journal for the International Society of Humor Research. Yankovic is also an astute reader of the cultural zeitgeist.
“He’s also very good at spotting the trend,” Attardo said. “You can literally do a history of contemporary pop music by looking at what Weird Al parodies.”
For example, Attardo said, Yankovic’s parody of Nirvana became a hit just as grunge was being defined and embraced nationally as a new musical genre.
“That’s why I think his success has been prolonged,” he said. “He keeps being ahead of the curve.”
Yankovic confirmed that writing parodies has never been as easy as just riffing off whatever songs he fancies. He has always had to try to choose songs that people won’t be thoroughly sick of in any form by the time his albums come out.
“That was always a tough trick to pull off,” Yankovic said. “I would have to think, ‘Well, will people be OK hearing the parody of this 6 months from now?’”
In a sense, the parody has to sound almost as fresh to listeners’ ears as the original song once did.
Further complicating matters has been Yankovic’s insistence that every parody he creates is approved beforehand by the original songwriter.
Yankovic said there are both personal and professional reasons for this.
“Ethically, I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I like to respect the wishes of the original songwriters and I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to hang around the business as long as I have. I don’t burn bridges. I don’t step on toes. I want to make sure that these people – these creative people; my peers – are treated with as much respect as possible.
“The more practical side of it is the fact that we live in a very litigious society,” Yankovic said. “Even though, by all rights, I should be able to do whatever I like parody-wise, anybody can sue anybody for any reason at any time in this country. I just don’t want to be the object of somebody’s rage in court.”
Yankovic has a reputation as a nice guy, but he also has a reputation as a savvy businessman. The goofiness of his songs belies his drive and determination.
He made a decision several decades ago that some might have considered counterintuitive: He put together the best touring band he could find.
Most musical parodists tour in troubadour fashion, and no one would have batted an eye if Yankovic had decided to keep things in concert as simple as an accordion and backing tracks.
But Yankovic never wanted to go that route.
“Having a live, high-energy show has always been part of what I’ve done,” he said. “I don’t know how important it is to other people. It’s always been important to me.”
Yankovic said his band has “amazing chops,” which isn’t surprising when one considers how many genres it has to cover.
“It makes me sad sometimes when people say things like, ‘Oh, they’re a comedy band’ like they’re denigrating them,” he said. “As if that means they don’t have killer talent when, in fact, the opposite is true.”
Yankovic recently left Sony Music Entertainment and its many labels for the great, self-directed unknown and he said he is still exploring all the resultant possibilities.
“What I’m excited about is the fact that I’m not beholden to anybody,” he said. “I don’t owe anybody anything. My record label has always been very nice to me over the years and, with only a few exceptions, they never forced me to do anything. But I always kind of felt like I had like a 30-year mortgage.”
Yankovic appreciates the fact that he no longer has to ask for permission when we wants to collaborate with somebody and those collaboration offers have been numerous in recent years.
Yankovic tends to pop up in all the hippest places: “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” “The Brak Show,” “Yo Gabba Gabba!” “The Aquabats! Super Show!” and “Comedy Bang! Bang!” among them.
He has become something of a comedic elder statesmen and that fact tickles him immensely.
“It’s really wonderful for me, because for the first decade or two of my career, I kind of felt like I wasn’t getting a lot of respect from my peers and my community,” Yankovic said. “But now, I’ve become sort of this person that a lot of people have grown up with including a lot of comedians and a lot of executives and a lot of people running studios. All of a sudden, they’re giving me the opportunity to do things that I wasn’t given the opportunity to do when I started out, so it’s really nice. A whole generation has grown up, they rule the world and they’re bringing me along for the ride.”
Not all artists who had corporate help achieving their fame thrive after they decide to go it alone, but it’s hard not to feel confident about Yankovic’s chances.
Yankovic may be a “mere” writer and performer of novelty songs, but the way he has gone about things has been nothing less than visionary. Arrardo describes Yankovic as the first Internet comedian, even though his first big successes predated the Internet by more than a decade.
“He’s really sort of the ancestor of now,” he said. “You have these little videos, most of them with elements of parody, that are done with very cheap production. You can say that he invented the genre.”
Yankovic said he’s not really sure what he’ll be doing after the current tour wraps up and he doesn’t seemed at all worried about it.
“I’d like to continue doing everything I’ve done in the past and do it better,” he said. “I’d like to keep doing more music and more videos. I’d like to do more TV and more movies, if possible. I’ve been toying with the idea of possibly writing or collaborating on a Broadway musical. That’s on my list of things I’d love to do.
“It’s sort of the big question mark,” he said. “After this tour, there’s a big open spot on my calendar. It might mean me being busy with some other project or it might be me just enjoying quality time with my family. We’ll see what happens.”