In a world in which the Lonely Island, Jonathan Coulton and Flight of the Conchords roam freely on the pop-music landscape, we can't forget their musical wisecracking owes a serious thank you to an accordion-playing nerd from Lynwood. Three decades into his career, it's becoming natural for fans of comedy-flavored song hooks to view “Weird Al” Yankovic as the father of all things parody—guys such as Coulton, Andy Samberg and Jemaine Clement might as well be his children.
“I claim them all as dependents on my income-tax form,” Yankovic says, laughing. “I guess I was doing it before they were . . . but I don't want to be so presumptuous as to think I've influenced all those people. But if I have, I'd be very flattered.”
Even with this recent surge in tuneful satire, the Grammy-winning songwriter is nostalgic for a “golden age of comedy, when comedy was genuinely accepted as of the pop mainstream,” he says, something he doesn't see happening again in his lifetime. His concern for today's pop landscape, though, is less about the acceptance of comedy and more about the shortcomings of current Top 40 radio compared to several decades ago.
In those days, Yankovic explains, “Top 40 was cool because it was R & B next to country next to a novelty song. It was every genre imaginable next to whatever else was popular. . . . You got to experience the amalgam of what everybody was listening to. That was the kind of culture that led to the mass acceptance of people such as Vaughn Meader or Bob Newhart or the Chipmunks.”
This week, Yankovic steamrolls into Anaheim (his second trip this year) on the strength of his 13th studio album, Alpocalypse. Aside from the fact the 2011 release is his highest charting to date (it debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard 200), it's further proof he's on track to outpace the careers of most of the pop stars he has parodied over the years. That's mostly because, in addition to acting and directing for countless projects, he refuses to stop touring.
Knowing Yankovic's reputation as a vegetarian who rarely drinks, we were curious about the habits of a traveling rock band with a wholesome man at the helm. Certainly the tour bus gets occasionally rowdy, no?
“Mostly, it's just a bunch of guys with their faces in laptops,” Yankovic says. “I don't read as many books as I probably should. I like to keep abreast of what's going on in the culture; I guess that's part of my job description as well.”
When he's not combing the Internet for his next potential parody, Yankovic does manage to pick up a book or two, typically nonfiction, memoirs by such comedians as Tina Fey (Bossypants) and Steve Martin (Born Standing Up), or just about anything on Nikola Tesla.
Still, we're not convinced Yankovic and his band don't occasionally cut loose. There must be something. Punk rock? R-rated movies? Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? When asked if so much as a swear word gets uttered on their tour bus, Yankovic's longtime guitarist Jim “Kimo” West says no. “Not from Al,” he answers.
Then again, the onetime protégé of Dr. Demento has always kept things pretty clean, opting to focus on wordplay that finds its way around four-letter words. A shuffle of his latest album unveils titles such as the glossy disco of the Lady Gaga parody “Perform This Way,” a howling nod to the Doors and Internet bartering on “Craigslist” and “Ringtone,” one of West's new favorites because he gets to play in the style of the great Brian May.
Yankovic and his band keep that spirit of diversity alive, writing and performing in many genres and creating spot-on style re-creations. In fact, they play them all so joyfully and expertly it's hard to tell what Yankovic's true preference is.
“I think everybody loves whatever music they were into in college—that sort of informs your musical taste,” Yankovic says. “At that point, it was the late '70s, and I was very much into new-wave bands such as Devo, the B-52s, Oingo Boingo and Talking Heads, things like that, so that sort of shaped my sensibility.”
This article appeared in print as “Long Live the Jester: With 13 albums and counting, 'Weird Al' Yankovic's career just might outlast every pop star in history.”