Weird Al Yankovic

UHF

Weird Al Yankovic (b.1959) is an American musical comedian whose humorous songs make light of popular culture and often parody specific songs by contemporary musical acts; original songs that are style pastiches of the work of other acts; and polka medleys of several popular songs, featuring his favored instrument, the accordion.

Since his first-aired comedy song in 1976, he has sold more than 12 million albums (as of 2007), recorded more than 150 parody and original songs, and performed more than 1,000 live shows. His works have earned him five Grammy Awards and a further eleven nominations, four gold records, and six platinum records in the United States. Yankovic’s first top ten Billboard album (‘Straight Outta Lynwood’) and single (‘White & Nerdy’) were both released in 2006, nearly three decades into his career.

Yankovic’s success comes in part from his effective use of music video to further parody popular culture, the song’s original artist, and the original music videos themselves, scene-for-scene in some cases. He directed later videos himself and went on to direct for other artists, including Ben Folds, Hanson, The Black Crowes, and The Presidents of the United States of America. With the decline of music television and the onset of social media, Yankovic used YouTube and other video sites to publish his videos; this strategy proved integral, helping to boost sales of his later albums. Yankovic has stated that he may forgo traditional albums in favor of timely releases of singles and EPs following on this success.

In addition to recording his albums, Yankovic wrote and starred in the film ‘UHF’ (1989) and the television series ‘The Weird Al Show’ (1997). He has also made guest appearances and performed voice acting roles on many television shows and video web content, in addition to starring in ‘Al TV’ specials on MTV. He has also written two children’s books, ‘When I Grow Up’ and ‘My New Teacher and Me!’

Yankovic’s first accordion lesson, which sparked his career in music, was on the day before his sixth birthday. A door-to-door salesman traveling through his hometown, Lynwood, California, offered the Yankovic parents a choice of accordion or guitar lessons at a local music school. Yankovic claims the reason his parents chose accordion over guitar was ‘they figured there should be at least one more accordion-playing Yankovic in the world,’ referring to Frankie Yankovic, to whom he is not related. Additionally, Yankovic said that ‘[his] parents chose the accordion because they were convinced it would revolutionize rock.’ He continued lessons at the school for three years before deciding to learn on his own.

In the 1970s, Yankovic was a big fan of Elton John and claims ‘John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ album ‘was partly how I learned to play rock ‘n roll on the accordion.’ As for his influences in comedic and parody music, Yankovic lists artists including Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg, Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, Shel Silverstein, and Frank Zappa ‘and all the other wonderfully sick and twisted artists that he was exposed to through the ‘Dr. Demento Radio Show.” Other sources of inspiration for his comedy come from ‘Mad’ magazine, Monty Python, and the Zucker parody movies.

Yankovic began kindergarten a year earlier than most children, and he skipped second grade. ‘My classmates seemed to think I was some kind of rocket scientist so I was labeled a nerd early on,’ he recalls. Yankovic was not interested in sports or social events at school, but he was active in his school’s extracurricular programs, including the National Forensic League sanctioned speech events, a play based upon ‘Rebel Without a Cause,’ the yearbook (for which he wrote most of the captions), and the Volcano Worshippers club which according to Yankovic did ‘absolutely nothing. We started the club just to get an extra picture of ourselves in the yearbook.’ Yankovic graduated in 1975 and was valedictorian of his senior class. Yankovic attended California Polytechnic State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture.

Yankovic once said ‘If there hadn’t been a Dr. Demento, I’d probably have a real job now.’ In 1976, Dr. Demento spoke at Yankovic’s school where the then-16-year-old Yankovic gave him a homemade tape of original and parody songs performed on the accordion in Yankovic’s bedroom into a ‘cheesy little tape recorder.’ The tape’s first song, ‘Belvedere Cruisin” – about his family’s Plymouth Belvedere – was played on Demento’s comedy radio show, launching Yankovic’s career. Demento said, ”Belvedere Cruising’ might not have been the very best song I ever heard, but it had some clever lines […] I put the tape on the air immediately.’ Yankovic also played at local coffeehouses, accompanied by fellow dorm resident Joel Miller on bongos.

Yankovic said: ‘It was sort of like amateur music night, and a lot of people were like wannabe Dan Fogelbergs. They’d get up on stage with their acoustic guitar and do these lovely ballads. And I would get up with my accordion and play the theme from ‘2001.’ And people were kind of shocked that I would be disrupting their mellow Thursday night folk fest. During Yankovic’s sophomore year as an architecture student at Cal Poly, he became a disc jockey at the university’s radio station. Yankovic said he had originally been nicknamed ‘Weird Al’ by fellow students and ‘took it on professionally’ as his persona for the station. In 1978, he released his first recording (as Alfred Yankovic), ‘Take Me Down,’ on the LP, ‘Slo Grown,’ as a benefit for the Economic Opportunity Commission of San Luis Obispo County. The song mocked famous nearby landmarks such as Bubblegum Alley and the fountain toilets at the Madonna Inn.

In mid-1979, shortly before his senior year, ‘My Sharona’ by The Knack was on the charts and Yankovic took his accordion into the restroom across the hall from the radio station to take advantage of the echo chamber acoustics and recorded a parody titled ‘My Bologna.’ He sent it to Dr. Demento, who played it to good response from listeners. Yankovic met The Knack after a show at his college and introduced himself as the author of ‘My Bologna.’ The Knack’s lead singer, Doug Fieger, said he liked the song and suggested that Capitol Records vice president Rupert Perry release it as a single. ‘My Bologna’ was released as a single with ‘School Cafeteria’ as its B-side, and the label gave Yankovic a six-month recording contract. Yankovic, who was ‘only getting average grades’ in his architecture degree, began to realize that he might make a career of comedic music.

On September 14, 1980, Yankovic was a guest on the ‘Dr. Demento Show,’ where he was to record a new parody live. The song was called ‘Another One Rides the Bus,’ a parody of Queen’s hit, ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’ While practicing the song outside the sound booth, he met Jon ‘Bermuda’ Schwartz, who told him he was a drummer and agreed to bang on Yankovic’s accordion case to help Yankovic keep a steady beat during the song. They rehearsed the song just a few times before the show began. ‘Another One Rides the Bus’ became so popular that Yankovic’s first television appearance was a performance of the song on ‘The Tomorrow Show’ (April 21, 1981) with Tom Snyder. On the show, Yankovic played his accordion, and again, Schwartz banged on the accordion case and provided comical sound effects. Yankovic’s record label, TK Records, went bankrupt about two weeks after the single was released, so Yankovic received no royalties from its initial release.

1981 brought Yankovic on tour for the first time as part of Dr. Demento’s stage show. His stage act in a Phoenix, Arizona, nightclub caught the eye of manager Jay Levey, who convinced Yankovic to create a full band around his act. Levey held auditions. Steve Jay became Yankovic’s bass player, and Jay’s friend Jim West played guitar. Schwartz continued on drums. Yankovic’s first show with his new band was on March 31, 1982.

Yankovic recorded ‘I Love Rocky Road,’ (a parody of ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ originally recorded by The Arrows) which was produced by Rick Derringer, in 1982. The song was a hit on Top 40 radio, leading to Yankovic’s signing with Scotti Brothers Records. In 1983, Yankovic’s first self-titled album was released on Scotti Bros. The song ‘Ricky’ (a song about Ricky Ricardo of the “I Love Lucy Show” based on ‘Mickey’ by Toni Basil) was released as a single and the music video received exposure on the still-young MTV. ‘Ricky’ broke the top 100 videos on MTV at the time, which Yankovic took as a sign that his career was in music, quitting his job as a mailroom clerk at the local offices of Westwood One to pursue the music career.

Yankovic released his second album ”Weird Al’ Yankovic in 3-D’ in 1984. The first single ‘Eat It,’ a parody of the Michael Jackson song ‘Beat It,’ became popular, thanks in part to the music video, a shot-for-shot parody of Jackson’s video, and what Yankovic described as his ‘uncanny resemblance’ to Jackson. Peaking at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1984, ‘Eat It’ remained Yankovic’s highest-charting single until ‘White & Nerdy’ placed at No. 9 in 2006.

In 1985, Yankovic co-wrote and starred in a mockumentary of his own life titled ‘The Compleat Al’ (the title being a parody of the 1982 documentary ‘The Compleat Beatles’), which intertwined the facts of his life up to that point with fiction. The movie also featured some clips from Yankovic’s trip to Japan and some clips from the ‘Al TV’ specials. ‘The Compleat Al’ was co-directed by Jay Levey, who would direct ‘UHF’ four years later. Also released around the same time was ‘The Authorized Al,’ a biographical book based on the film. The book, resembling a scrapbook, included real and fictional humorous photographs and documents.

Yankovic and his band toured as the opening act for ‘The Monkees’ in mid-1987 for their second reunion tour of North America. In 1988 Yankovic was the narrator on the Wendy Carlos recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf.’ The album also included a sequel to Camille Saint-Saëns’s composition ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ titled ‘The Carnival of the Animals Part II,’ with Yankovic providing humorous poems for each of the featured creatures in the style of Ogden Nash, who had written humorous poems for the original.

Rubén Valtierra joined the band on keyboards in 1991, allowing Yankovic to concentrate more on singing and increasing his use of the stage space during concerts. Up to that time, six of Yankovic’s albums were produced by Rick Derringer, for which he won two Grammy Awards. However, due to a combination of Yankovic’s more complex musical scores (involving horns and other instruments), and drug-related issues that Derringer had at that time, Yankovic took over production of his albums in 1992.

In 1998, Yankovic had laser eye surgery to correct his extreme myopia. When ‘Running with Scissors debuted’ in 1999, he unveiled a radically changed look. In addition to shedding his glasses, he had shaved off his mustache and grown out his hair. Yankovic reasoned, ‘If Madonna’s allowed to reinvent herself every 15 minutes, I figure I should be good for a change at least once every 20 years.’

In 2011, Yankovic completed his thirteenth studio album, titled ‘Alpocalypse.’ Yankovic had reported an interest in parodying Lady Gaga’s material, and announced that he had written and recorded a parody of ‘Born This Way’ titled ‘Perform This Way,’ to be the lead single for his new album. However, upon first submitting it to Lady Gaga’s manager for approval (which Yankovic does as a courtesy), he was not given permission to release it commercially. As he had previously done under similar circumstances (with his parody of James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful,’ which was titled ‘You’re Pitiful’), Yankovic then released the song for free on the internet. Soon afterwards, Gaga’s manager admitted that he had denied the parody of his own accord without forwarding the song to his client, and upon seeing it online, Lady Gaga granted permission for the parody. Yankovic has stated that all of his proceeds from the parody and its music video will be donated to the Human Rights Campaign, to support the human rights themes of the original song.

‘Mandatory Fun’ was released in 2013 to strong critical praise and was the No. 1 debut album on the Billboard charts the week of its release, buoyed by Yankovic’s approach for releasing eight music videos over eight continuous days that drew viral attention to the album. It became Yankovic’s first No. 1 album in his career. Additionally, the song ‘Word Crimes’ (a parody of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’) reached No. 39 on the Top 100 singles for the same week; this is Yankovic’s fourth Top 40 single, and made him the third musical artist, after Michael Jackson and Madonna, to have a Top 40 single in each decade since the 1980s.

Yankovic changed his diet to become a vegan in 1992 after a former girlfriend gave him the book ‘Diet for a New America’ and he felt ‘it made … a very compelling argument for a strict vegetarian diet.’ When asked how he can rationalize performing at events such as the Great American Rib Cook-Off when he is a vegan, he replied, ‘The same way I can rationalize playing at a college even though I’m not a student anymore.’

Yankovic married Suzanne Krajewski in 2001 after being introduced by their mutual friend Bill Mumy. Their daughter, Nina, was born in 2003. Yankovic identifies as Christian and his religious background is reflected in his abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and profanity. He and his family currently live in Los Angeles in a house previously owned at separate times by counterculture writer Jack S. Margolis and rapper Heavy D.

Yankovic is well known for creating parodies of contemporary radio hits, typically which make up about half of his studio releases. Unlike other parody artists such as Allan Sherman, Yankovic and his band strive to keep the backing music in his parodies the same as the original, transcribing the original song by ear and re-recording the song for the parody. In some cases, in requesting the original band to allow for his parody, the band will offer to help out with the recreation: Dire Straits members Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher perform on ‘Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies*,’ Yankovic’s parody of Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing,’ while Imagine Dragons provided Yankovic with advice on how to recreate some of the electronic sounds they used for ‘Radioactive’ in Yankovic’s parody ‘Inactive.’

Yankovic’s humor normally lies more in creating unexpected incongruity between an artist’s image and the topic of the song, contrasting the style of the song with its content (such as the songs ‘Amish Paradise,’ ‘White & Nerdy,’ and ‘You’re Pitiful’), or in pointing out trends or works which have become pop culture clichés (such as ‘eBay’ and ‘Don’t Download This Song’). Yankovic’s parodies are often satirical of popular culture, including television (‘The TV Album’), movies (‘The Saga Begins’), and food (‘The Food Album’).

Most of Yankovic’s studio albums include a polka medley of about a dozen contemporary songs at the time of the album, with the choruses or memorable lines of various songs juxtaposed for humorous effect. In Yankovic’s early career, before recording his first album, he had performed such polka medleys in live shows in California, though then using songs from lesser-known bands like Bad Brains and the Plasmatics. He had been inspired to do so from American bandleader Spike Jones, who had transitioned classical music into polka.

Yankovic has recorded numerous original humorous songs, such as ‘You Don’t Love Me Anymore’ and ‘One More Minute.’ Many of these songs are style pastiches of specific bands with allusions to specific songs. For example, ‘First World Problems’ from ‘Mandatory Fun’ is a style take on the Pixies, with the opening stanza reminiscent of the Pixies’ ‘Debaser.’ Other style parodies includes those of Rage Against the Machine with ‘I’ll Sue Ya’ (which features many aspects of the hit song ‘Killing in the Name’), Devo with ‘Dare to Be Stupid,’ Talking Heads with ‘Dog Eat Dog,’ Frank Zappa with ‘Genius in France,’ Nine Inch Nails with ‘Germs,’ and Queen with ‘Ringtone.’ Some songs are pastiches of an overall genre of music, rather than a specific band (for example, country music with ‘Good Enough For Now,’ charity records with ‘Don’t Download This Song’) and college fight songs with ‘Sports Song.’

Yankovic has contributed original songs to several films (‘This Is the Life’ from ‘Johnny Dangerously’; ‘Polkamon’ from the movie ‘Pokémon: The Movie 2000,’ and a parody of the James Bond title sequence in ‘Spy Hard’), in addition to his own film, ‘UHF.’ Other songs of his have appeared in films or television series as well, such as ‘Dare to Be Stupid’ in ‘The Transformers: The Movie’ in 1986.

One of Yankovic’s recurring jokes involves the number 27. It is mentioned in the lyrics of several songs and seen on the covers for several albums. He had originally just pulled the number 27 as a random figure to use in filling out lyrics, but as his fans started to notice the reuse of the number after the first few times, he began to purposely drop references to 27 within his lyrics, videos, and album covers. Other recurring jokes revolve around the names ‘Bob,’ ‘Frank,’ and the surname ‘Finkelstein.’ A number of songs use the phrase ‘internal organs.’ Also, a hamster called ‘Harvey the Wonder Hamster’ is a recurring character in ‘The Weird Al Show’ and the ‘Al TV’ specials, as well as the subject of an original song on ‘Alapalooza.’ Other recurring jokes include Yankovic borrowing, or being owed, $5. In a number of ‘Al TV’ interviews, he often asks if he can borrow $5, being turned down every time. This motif also occurs in ‘Why Does This Always Happen to Me?,’ in which his deceased friend owes him $5. Another recurring joke is his attraction to female nostrils or nostrils in general. This also appears in numerous Al TV interviews as well as in several of his songs. Yankovic also asks his celebrity guests if they could ‘shave his back for a nickel.’

Under the ‘fair use’ provision of U.S. copyright law, affirmed by the United States Supreme Court in the 1994 case ‘Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc.,’ artists such as Yankovic do not need permission to record a parody. However, as a personal rule and as a means of maintaining good relationships, Yankovic has always sought permission from the original artist before commercially releasing a parody. Yankovic stated of these efforts: ‘I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I don’t want to be embroiled in any nastiness. That’s not how I live my life. I like everybody to be in on the joke and be happy for my success. I take pains not to burn bridges.’ He claims that only about two to three percent of the artists he approaches for permission deny his requests.

Separately, Yankovic needs to negotiate for royalties to the original artists for including their songs within a polka medley, which is considered a cover in copyright law. This created difficulties in recording his first medley ‘Polkas on 45’ since it involved thirteen different royalty schemes, but since then he has established a relationship with most large music publishers to easily secure the license to use their songs.

Michael Jackson was a big fan of Yankovic, and twice allowed him to parody his songs. When Jackson granted Yankovic permission to do ‘Fat,’ Jackson allowed him to use the same set built for his own ‘Badder’ video from the ‘Moonwalker’ film. Yankovic said that Jackson’s support helped to gain approval from other artists he wanted to parody. Dave Grohl of Nirvana said that the band felt they had ‘made it’ after Yankovic recorded ‘Smells Like Nirvana,’ a parody of the grunge band’s smash hit, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’

Mark Knopfler approved Yankovic’s parody of the Dire Straits song ‘Money for Nothing’ for use in the film ‘UHF’ on the provision that Knopfler himself be allowed to play lead guitar on the parody which was later titled ‘Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies*.’ Yankovic commented on the legal complications of the parody in the DVD audio commentary for UHF, explaining ‘We had to name that song ‘Money for Nothing ‘slash’ Beverly Hillbillies ‘asterisk” because the lawyers told us that had to be the name. Those wacky lawyers! What ya gonna do?’

On numerous occasions, Prince refused Yankovic permission to record parodies of his songs. Yankovic had stated in interviews prior to Prince’s death in 2016 that he had ‘approached him every few years [to] see if he’s lightened up.’ Yankovic related one story where, before the American Music Awards where he and Prince were assigned to sit in the same row, he got a telegram from Prince’s management company, demanding he not make eye contact with the artist. Among parodies that Yankovic had ideas for included one based on ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ about The Beverly Hillbillies, ‘Yellow Snow’ as a parody of ‘Purple Rain,’ ‘1999’ as an infomercial with a call-in number ending in −1999, and parodies of ‘Kiss’ and ‘When Doves Cry.’ Despite these refusals, Yankovic was able to gain permission to parody the ‘When Doves Cry’ video as part of his music video for the song ‘UHF.’

In 1989, Yankovic starred in a full-length feature film, co-written by himself and manager Jay Levey, and filmed in Tulsa, Oklahoma called ‘UHF.’ A satire of the television and film industries, also starring Michael Richards, Fran Drescher, and Victoria Jackson, it brought floundering studio Orion their highest test scores since the movie ‘RoboCop.’ However, it was unsuccessful in theaters due to both poor critical reception and competition from other summer blockbusters at the time such as ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,’ ‘Lethal Weapon 2,’ ‘Batman,’ and ‘Licence to Kill.’ The failure of the film left Yankovic in a three-year slump, which was later broken by his inspiration to compose ‘Smells Like Nirvana.’ The film has since become a cult classic, with out-of-print copies of the VHS version selling for up to $100 on eBay until the release of the DVD in 2002.

‘UHF’ shows the creation of Yankovic’s signature food—the Twinkie Wiener Sandwich. The snack consists of an overturned Twinkie split open as a makeshift bun, a hot dog, and Easy Cheese put together and dipped in milk before eating. Yankovic has stated that he has switched to using tofu hot dogs since becoming a vegetarian, but still enjoys the occasional Twinkie Wiener Sandwich.

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