A cappella breakdown has become live staple of pop parodist's 'Star Wars' homage
A musical parodist in the broad, juvenile yet clever tradition of Mad magazine, "Weird Al" Yankovic is known for adding his own gently satirical lyrics to current hit songs. His shaggy, hangdog appearance, affection for slapstick, and amiable willingness to do seemingly anything for a laugh made him a natural for videos. His burlesques of the form and its artistes — especially of Michael Jackson in "Eat It" (from "Beat It") (#12, 1983) and "Fat" (from "Bad") (#99, 1988) — became MTV staples. His medleys of rock tunes given the polka treatment inspired rumors —untrue — that Yankovic was a member of the singing Yankovic family, who made polka and Western swing records in the 1940s. Regardless of his heritage, Yankovic is undoubtedly the most successful comedy recording artist, with more than 11 million albums sold.
Yankovic, a high school valedictorian and architecture student, got his start I 1979, when he sent his "My Bologna" — a parody of the Knack's "My Sharona" — to Dr. Demento, a syndicated radio host specializing in novelty songs and curiosities. Recorded in a bathroom across the hall from his college radio station with only his accordion and vocal, the song was popular enough with Demento's audience for Capitol (the Knack's label) to release it as a single. His next parody, "Another One Rides the Bus" (based on Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust"), became the most requested song in the first decade of the Dr. Demento show.
Yankovic signed with Rock 'n' Roll Records (a CBS subsidiary), which not only gave him access to better recording facilities and the production expertise of Rick Derringer but the financial backing for the video of "Ricky" (#63, 1983). A combination parody of Toni Basil's hit single and video "Mickey" and homage to TV's I Love Lucy, "Ricky" was the first of a string of videos that skewered the music, its creators, and its audience, not to mention pop culture in general. While often hilariously hamfisted, Yankovic's takeoffs — such as "I Lost on Jeopardy" (#81, 1984) from "Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D (#81, 1984), which rewrote Greg Kihn's "Jeopardy"; "Like a Surgeon" (#47, 1985), which tackled Madonna's "Like a Virgin," from Dare to Be Stupid (#50, 1985) — made their creator and star as much a rock celebrity as his targets. In fact, the longevity of Yankovic's career has surpassed several of the artists' whose songs he has parodied. Nearly half the songs on any of his albums were comedic originals, although only his biggest fans seemed to be aware of "Weird Al" the songwriter. But his lyric rewriting earned him eight Grammy nominations, including two wins.
In 1985 Yankovic released a video collection of his parodies, The Compleat Al. That same year MTV produced an occasional series starring Yankovic as the host of Al TV, wherein he spoofed current videos. In 1989 he wrote and starred in the movie UHF; costarring a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards, UHF did poorly in the theater but later found new life as a cultish video hit.
Polka Party! (#177, 1986), which relied more on music than on videos, stiffed. Even Worse (#27, 1988) marked Al's return to rock video, and Michael Jackson. For "Fat," a grossly, literally overinflated Yankovic donned a leather outfit that copied Jackson's on the cover and video of Bad down to the last buckle. Jackson not only gave his approval for Yankovic's versions, he lent the subway set used in "Bad" for the "Fat" video.
In 1988 Yankovic collaborated with avant-garde synthesizer artist Wendy Carlos on recorded versions of the classical pieces Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals Part II. In 1992 Yankovic turned his eye to another musical trend, grunge, specifically Nirvana. "Smells Like Nirvana" (#35, 1992) took on the Seattle band's image and garbled lyrics, with the accompanying video again using the original set, this time adding cows and Dick Van Patten, wile the cover of Off the Deep End (#17, 1992) had Yankovic replacing the swimming baby picture on Nevermind, his gaze focused not on a dollar bill but a donut. He also mocked the traveling summer tour Lollapalooza with his 1993 album, Alapalooza (#46), which featured "Bedrock Anthem," a combination takeoff of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" and "Give it Away" as well as the classical cartoon series The Flintstones. In 1996 he wrote the theme song for the movie satire Spy Hard, as well as designed the opening credits and appeared as himself in the film.
The same year, Yankovic released Bad Hair Day, which rose to #14 thanks to the success of its first single and video, "Amish Paradise," a takeoff on rapper Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise" (itself a rewrite of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise"). The album cover even mimicked the rapper's hairstyle. While Yankovic always prided himself on getting permission to parody, this time there was a miscommunication between the artists' record companies' Yankovic was told Coolio was fine with the idea, but when the album was released, Coolio claimed he never consented. Yankovic sent a letter of apology and vowed not to accept agreement from anyone but the artists themselves.
After being the subject of the Disney Channel mockumentary special "Weird Al" Yankovic: There's No Going Home in 1996, the entertainer hosted the Pee-wee's Playhouse-esque Weird Al Show on CBS' Saturday-morning lineup in 1997 and 1998. He was frustrated by the network's lack of support for his tongue-in-cheek humor, and the show was canceled after one season. Yankovic seemingly disappeared for a time in 1998; when he re-emerged without his trademark mustache and glasses — besides shaving, he'd gotten laser eye surgery — he was unrecognizable. His 1999 release, Running with Scissors, peaked at #16, due to the well-timed single "The Saga Begins," a rundown of the current Star Wars movie The Phantom Menace sung to the tune of Don McLean's "American Pie." Even the official Star Wars Web site plugged Yankovic's album, whose release was also timed to the premiere of his Behind the Music episode on VH1. In 2000 Yankovic contributed the original "Polkamon" to the soundtrack of the kids' flick Pokémon 2000: The Movie.
While Yankovic and his band (bassist Steve Jay, drummer Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz, guitarist Jim West, and keyboardist Ruben Valtierra) are often not taken seriously, they are able to play the original songs they parody note-for-note, both in the studio and on tour, making them a great cover band, Yankovic has also tried his hand at directing music videos, both his own and for other artists, including country comedian Jeff Foxworthy, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Hanson, and the Black Crowes.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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