It’s hard to believe today, but a slightly overweight, 40-something Jewish man in Buddy Holly glasses once dominated the Billboard 200 charts for weeks, selling more than a million copies of an album parodying songs by Sammy Davis Jr. and long-dead classical composers. Of course, this was in late 1963, the feat accomplished by none other than Allan Sherman with his album My Son, The Nut.
It was the third of three straight comedy records by Mr. Sherman to reach number one during a span of 18 months — apparently, audiences couldn’t get enough of songs like “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” — but for the next 50 years, comedy music would not see quite the same momentum.
That is, until “Weird Al” Yankovic released his 14th album, Mandatory Fun. Following an eight-day music video campaign lampooning everything from Pharrell Williams to Robin Thicke to Iggy Azalea, Fun debuted at number one — a first in music history for a comedy album — making Yankovic one of only three artists to have a Top 40 single in every decade since the ’80s. (The others are Madonna and Michael Jackson, whom Yankovic has parodied multiple times.)
Yankovic has become so embedded in the cultural lexicon, his name has become synonymous with the word “parody.” Many in the entertainment industry, including Lady Gaga and Nirvana, have seen Yankovic’s humorous imitations as a rite of passage. Despite all this, one New York Times article described Al as “startled” that he still has an audience, even decades after premiering his eponymous debut in 1983.
“It was kind of drummed into me how ephemeral pop careers are,” Yankovic explains to New Times. “They’re short-lived in general, but when you’re doing what is ostensibly novelty music, it’s exponentially shorter. Which is why it was difficult for me to get a record deal in the first place, because everybody looked at me and went, ‘Oh, he’ll be gone in two weeks.’ So every morning that I wake up and I find that people still care about what I do for a living, is a good day for me.”
Yankovic is surprised that many of his heroes he grew up listening to — including Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and Cheech and Chong — never enjoyed quite the same mainstream success. There was definitely a time when comedy albums were a bit more in vogue, he says, and for whatever reason, they became less so over the years.
“Hopefully now, I’m helping to bring it back,” Yankovic says. “I had the field pretty much to myself in the ’80s and ’90s, but now we have got people like Flight of the Conchords and Tenacious D and the Lonely Island, Bo Burnham and Reggie Watts, Garfunkel and Oates — all these people doing amazing work, and hopefully it’s becoming a bit of a renaissance of comedy music.”
It’s true that Yankovic, now 56, has survived many of the flash-in-the-pan artists he’s caricatured, such as Crash Test Dummies and MC Hammer. With his trademark mane and outrageous T-shirt collection, Yankovic still remains friendly and approachable and absurd, but above all humble. Yankovic makes it a point to always get permission from an artist before releasing a parody, even though copyright law doesn’t demand he do so.
But one artist who always refused to grant Yankovic permission, despite numerous requests, was the late Prince, who died in April. Even so, Yankovic has stated that he will respect the artist’s wishes, even in death.
“Just because you can do something legally doesn’t mean that you should do it,” Yankovic says, laughing. “There’s other factors that enter into it, but sometimes in LA, people overlook that.”
Another recently dead celebrity Weird Al hasn’t touched is David Bowie, which is odd considering the Thin White Duke’s massive influence, but the reason is simply Yankovic never got around to it while Bowie was alive.
“I’ve never met David Bowie, unfortunately, and I have no idea how he’d even feel about a parody, but he seems like a really cool guy and I would assume he has a great sense of humor,” Yankovic says. “It’s not because like I respect David Bowie so much that I would never do a parody, because I don’t think that applies to anybody. I don’t think that anybody is beyond having a little fun poked at them. I don’t think anyone is sacred, and everybody should be able to take a joke.”
While Yankovic is best known for his music, the man also has a sizable presence on television. On Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, he played the sultry Uncle Muscles, and his voiceover work includes Robot Chicken, Batman: The Brave and The Bold, and The Simpsons, which earned him an Emmy for his parody of John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane.” In the fall, he’ll voice the main character on Milo Murphy’s Law, an upcoming cartoon from the creators of Phineas and Ferb.
Most recently, Weird Al took over as bandleader on the fifth season of IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang, a talk-show mockery hosted by comedian Scott Aukerman. The show’s deadpan humor lends well with Yankovic’s absurdist demeanor: Al french-kisses a robot, gets acupuncture from a cactus, and is sent back in time to entertain King Arthur. The show couples well with IFC’s growing roster of alternative comedy shows, including Portlandia, Documentary Now, and The Whitest Kids U’ Know.
Freestyle beatmaster Reggie Watts was Comedy Bang Bang’s original offbeat studio musician, later replaced by Kid Cudi for approximately 20 episodes, but when Cudi extended his tour dates, it conflicted with the show’s production schedule. Aukerman, who invited Yankovic on the show and podcast of the same name multiple times in the past, gave Weird Al a call.
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“It was fun. I got to write about a hundred pieces of music, and this is part of where Reggie is more talented, because I’m told that he would just come up with all his songs off the top of his head,” Yankovic says. “I walked in knowing exactly what I was going to do. But I also wanted it to sound like I hadn’t thought about it … I wanted it to sound improvisational. If it took me more than 10 seconds to write the song, it was too good.”
It’s not the first time Al has inherited a TV show: in the 1989 cult classic UHF, Yankovic stars as George Newman, an unemployed daydreamer given the deed to Channel 62, a TV station teetering toward financial ruin. The alleged backstory for The Weird Al Show, which aired for a single season on CBS in the late ’90s, featured Al rescuing a big-shot TV producer from a bear trap, earning a contract. And the idea behind the long-running Al TV series involves Yankovic hacking into MTV’s satellite feed. It seems the “How did this get on the air?” trope is an effective favorite of Yankovic.
Mandatory Fun is likely to be Weird Al’s last traditional album. Now that his 32-year contract with RCA Records is up, he’s looking to release more well-timed singles or EPs instead to keep ahead of the YouTube curve. Whether it’s parodies or television, Weird Al will just keep getting weirder.
Weird Al is scheduled to play Comerica Theatre on Wednesday, August 3.