Al Yankovic can be described in a lot of ways besides "Weird." Most people know that he's a chart-topping singer-songwriter, a director-producer, a top-notch parodist, an author and a die-hard polka enthusiast. Even those who have followed his career closely, however, may have forgotten he was, for a brief moment, the host of a short-lived children's television show.
The Weird Al Show debuted on CBS on September 13, 1997 as part of their Saturday morning lineup. Each episode began with the all important "today's lesson" before viewers were invited into Yankovic's underground lair that he shared with Harvey the Wonder Hamster. Special guests like Patton Oswalt and Gilbert Gottfried might stop in; musical guests like Hanson, Barenaked Ladies and All-4-One would occasionally drop by to perform songs; and you'd meet irreverent characters like a "gal spy" who'd change wigs in each episode and a psychic that could only predict the present.
The show also regularly dipped into a "show within a show" format when Al and his friends watch ALTV, a recurring bit that allowed for animated "Fatman" segments, inspired by Yankovic's signature look in his 1988 "Fat" video. There were the occasional songs (a brief parody of Prodigy's "Firestarter") and television shows (The French Prince of Bel-Air, wherein the fish-out-of-water relative staying with the wealthy black family was a Frenchman in a powdered wig). After a mere 13 episodes, the show faded into oblivion until ShoutFactory's 2006 release of the series on DVD – which has since gone out of print and became a sought-after collector's item.
To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of one of the weirdest moments in children's television, Rolling Stone caught up with Al, and many of his collaborators, to take a look back at the unrealized potential of The Weird Al Show.
Now he's got his very own "Weird Al" show …
"Weird Al" Yankovic [Creator/Executive Producer/Writer]: We first started pitching a "Weird Al" children's TV show in 1984, around the time of "Eat It." My manager and I felt my personality and energy would lend itself well to a kids show, but it wasn't until the mid-Nineties where things seemed to click. CBS seemed very interested. We were just about to get the thumbs up in the meeting, and they had the caveat: "Oh, you know what? The FCC has got this thing where we have to have a certain number of educational children's shows. That's really all we're looking for right now." So I said, "We're an educational show!" We weren't ... but that was the deal we made with the devil in order to get it on the air.
Peyton Reed [Director]: At the time, I'd never met "Weird Al." I knew his work. My wife at the time ran a music video company and Al was one of her directors. She just brought it up to me like, "Hey, there's this CBS Saturday morning show that we've just gotten the green light on called The Weird Al Show. It's kind of a Pee-wee's Playhouse type of thing." She said he wanted the tone to be for kids, but subversive and really fun.
Yankovic: The comparison was definitely a two-edged sword because I loved Pee-wee Herman, and I thought Pee-wee's Playhouse was brilliant. It's classic children's television. Certainly, I would have liked to have been as beloved as Pee-wee, and to have had the show be as respected; I didn't want to be some kind of cheap knockoff. But the comparisons were inevitable. They were both Saturday morning live action shows on CBS ostensibly hosted by a man child – and we had the same art director, Wayne White.
Wayne White [Production Designer]: It's tough to follow up a hit like Pee-wee. Prior to The Weird Al Show I did a show called Riders in the Sky for CBS. There was a cowboy group, and it was pretty much a "Pee-wee goes west" kind of thing. A real bomb. Al's show was my second go with CBS with them trying to recapture that "Pee-wee magic." That show cast a huge shadow.
Reed: I'm a big Wayne White fan. He's just got such a specific look that ties in everything from Fifties advertising to way-out space art. It's so great.
White: I definitely put all the pop-cultural references I could think of into the set. I made it like a basement den with cheap green paneling, a crappy couch and some weird bad art. I did a Keene painting of "Weird Al" with big eyes. It was the merging of three major themes for me: the subterranean fantasy world, the James Bond lair and the man-cave kind of thing.
Yankovic: I still have the hamster Habitrail that he designed for the show. I got to walk away with that.
White: They wouldn't let me keep anything. I rarely get to keep props. But I have the original painting I did of the set, which I treasure. I like that a lot.
Reed: We got off to a good start. Just look at that opening – and that was all Al, man. He wanted to do this amazing mixed-media title sequence. You notice something different in it every time you watch it. It's just so jammed full of visual detail.
Yankovic: I've always been a big fan of those corny, high concept 1960s sitcoms, like the Sherwood Schwartz stuff. They always seemed to have a backstory: "If you've never seen the show before, this is what the show about!" The opening sequences were the whole concept of the show wrapped up in a one-minute song. I thought this would be a good throwback to those times, but I wanted to make it even more convoluted and stupid than it ever had to be. We used three different kinds of animation – it starts off in 3D animation, then it goes to traditional, then it winds up in clay animation. I farmed it out to three companies. The clay animator was the same one I used for my "Jurassic Park" video.
Assembling Al's Pals
Yankovic: Most of the cast we went through a whole casting process for, but some of them were old friends of mine. Judy Tenuta was a regular on the show, Madame Judy. She's an old friend.
Judy Tenuta ["Madame Judy"]: I had done a lot of work with Al – I was Lorena Bobbitt in his "Headline News" video. For The Weird Al Show, we talked about a few different characters. I said, "Well, how about I'm your psychic friend, but Madame Judy can only predict the present." Out here in California, everybody believes in psychics. Somebody will get a flat tire and they'll say, "Oh, I really have to go see a psychic and see how the planets are lined up," and it's like, “Well, no, how about going to, hello, a car repair? How about doing that first?”
Paula Jai Parker ["Val Brentwood, Gal Spy"]: Auditioning sucks. There were so many different people in the lobby: "Oh, my gosh. There's a Pakistani lady here, then a white girl over there, and a big mama right there and then me. Wow, they don't know what they want!" So, I had to let them know what they wanted. I had a ball auditioning for Al and Peyton, but I remember feeling like they were fucking with me during it. I walked out like, "Oh, they're never going to call me back." I got the job.
Danielle Weeks ["Cousin Corky"]: The costume design was just so amazing: "Here's this toy box of amazing accessories and clothes. Let's just put them all on her!" Obviously there was more thought put into it than that, but there was this sense of the louder, and the more fun, the better.
Parker: I've always been very body conscious – I'm a girl, we're like that – and they had me in these tight outfits. I was like, "Okay, the white girl on the show's ass is fatter than mine. Why are you putting me in this form-fitting outfit? This is really embarrassing!" But I look back on it now and I had a cute little thing going on.
Weeks: That's a compliment, right? That's very sweet.
Yankovic: My most positive memory about working on this show was that I got to work with Stan Freberg, one of my all time heroes. That was the man who inspired me to be who I am today. He's on my Mount Rushmore of inspiration. The fact that I got him to play the role of network executive J.B. Toppersmith was a real thrill.
Reed: Al could just call these people and suddenly it was like, "Wait? Today we're shooting Dick Van Patten dancing in a tutu?"
Yankovic: The Weird Al Show was an early TV appearance for Patton Oswalt. Drew Carey, who's a friend now – I met him there. We were on CBS, but we shot it at NBC for whatever reason, on the sound stage where Johnny Carson used to do The Tonight Show. We shared a hallway with Jay Leno, and we had the toughest time booking guests, so every now and then I would try to steal Leno's guests. I actually walked into Drew Carey's dressing room and said, "Hey Drew, Al Yankovic. We're doing a kids' show over here. Have 10 minutes? Want to do a cameo?"
Tenuta: I don't remember too many special guests on the episodes I was on. But of course I remember John Tesh!
John Tesh [Himself, Guest Star]: Al was very concerned that I feel comfortable. He didn't want me to think the show was making fun of me. I had been on some other series where the star doesn't even say, "Oh, hey, how's it going." But with Al, it was like I was back at 3 Seabury Road on Long Island, and the shy genius who lived two houses down from me was doing a TV show.
"Downtown" Julie Brown [Herself, Guest Star]: "Weird Al" has just got this knack of keeping a whole bunch of people in his corner. People just love to work with him. I've always said he's one of the nicest guys in the business. It was really sweet of him to ask me to be on his show, so why not? When someone you like is doing something, it's always fun to jump in and support, no matter what it is.
Weeks: Fabio. Fabio. He was exactly what you would imagine. He was that guy – super nice and really present. Too nice, almost. It was really fun to work with him. He did not disappoint.
"We had Radish on the show, Ben Kweller's band. From what I understand, the song they sang on the show, "Little Pink Stars," is supposed to be a vaginal metaphor. That completely slipped through the censors."
–"Weird" Al Yankovic
Parker: I enjoyed kicking it with Al's mom when she was on the show. She was such a cool lady!
Tenuta: Al's Mom? Oh, what a sweetheart! His parents were just the sweetest. They were very proud of him. I wish I heard their initial conversation, because they were private people: "Mom, come do my show, it'll be fun for you."
Yankovic: We just had such an eclectic combination of people working on the show. Seth MacFarlane actually came in for a meeting when we were trying to cast writers. He was very, very low key, unrecognizable from the Seth MacFarlane of today. He had all these wild ideas, and one was basically Family Guy. He laid out all the characters, every single one. I thought, "This is hilarious, but CBS is never going to let us get away with this." It's always bugged me that I could have been The Tracey Ullman Show for Family Guy.
CBS and the "I.B." Syndrome
Reed: There was a man assigned to our show from the network to make sure everything was clean enough for kids. There was a shot where Al was supposed to grab a plate and smash it over his head, a throwaway gag. The guy was like, "No, no, no, you cannot do that! That is I.B.!" We were like, "I.B.? What is that?"
Yankovic: We were not allowed to have any "imitable behavior," because anything that a kid saw on TV, ostensibly he'd try to do at home. But there were a few things we were able to get on the air. It was a huge victory for me to be able to smash the plate on my head, just as an act of goofy anarchy. We fought the network tooth and nail on it. My argument was, "If a kid is so suggestible that he would smash a plate on his head, he should not be allowed near a TV set. He should not be allowed to deal with reality."
Reed: It got very restrictive. Visual gags are what Al does – as much as his lyrics, they're at the core of his comedy. It just seemed like a really big sliding scale of what was acceptable and what was "imitable behavior." For example, we got away with a handful of violent comedy gags with Harvey the Wonder Hamster. It just seemed there were a random set of rules that we had to adhere to, depending on the day.
Yankovic: We had a bit where we wanted someone to wrestle Harvey the Wonder Hamster. The whole fight would happen off camera. We would hear all this crazy noise and sounds of pain, and it would turn out that the hamster wins. We wanted to cast Randy "Macho Man" Savage, so we sent him the script and he goes, "Whoa, yeah, I don't mind wrestling a hamster, but do I have to lose?" "Well, yeah, that's kind of the joke. It's kind of ridiculous that you'd be fighting a hamster in the first place. You would never lose to a hamster in real life. That's what makes it funny.” He thought about it for a long time and the final thing he said was, "Okay, but it's not a girl hamster, is it?" [Laughs]
Weeks: I obviously never dealt with the network. I do remember the scripts were always changing – and not necessarily in the direction that the creatives wanted. The show is not what they originally wanted to put out there.
Yankovic: There's that whole trick about putting something ridiculous in the script, which you know they're going to take out, just so they'll overlook something else that you actually wanted to keep.
I wrote a scene in the middle of the night when I was feeling loopy. We shot and aired a version of it, but the original draft ended with Papa Boolie and Baby Boolie, two puppet characters we had, killing themselves in a ritualistic suicide pact. One puts the noose around his neck and the other drinks from a bottle clearly labeled as poison. I only wrote it as a joke for the producer, so he'd read it and get a laugh. This was never going to make it to air, but it passed the first round of censors – which was hilarious because there were so many other completely innocuous things they would not let us do.
Reed: Every episode had to be very clear about whatever the moral was. We thought the scripts were very clear, but CBS insisted that we literally stated it in the beginning of each episode. My inclination had been to tell them, "Fuck off, we know what we're doing," but that wasn't my call to make. They could easily say, "Okay, great. You have no show anymore. Goodbye." That's when we came up with this idea. They wanted us to do the most blatant, lowest common denominator thing, so we got Billy West from Ren & Stimpy to literally scream the moral of the story as loud as he can at the beginning of every episode. Then once that title card is up, we ripped it in half and got on with the show. That was our form of rebelling against, and yet accommodating, that particular request from CBS.
Parker: It became obvious that people were irritated. Our scripts started to address that they were unhappy with being micromanaged, and that they were being threatened with cancellation if they didn't comply. But their unhappiness wasn't something they openly shared with us; you could just tell that it was going down. I recall Al being frustrated, but he was making the most of it.
White: Al was not enjoying himself. You could tell that he felt that doing the show was a mistake, which was a drag. You could see it in real time, in meetings with him. Nobody was having fun. Meetings with him and [series producer] Dick Clark ... they were tense. Dick Clark was not a happy guy.
Yankovic: I didn't want to have to dumb down the show just because a kid might not understand every reference. I worked under the pretense that kids were smart. One of my favorite lines in the whole series is after the network forced me to have my character explain a joke to Bobby the Inquisitive Boy in a scene, I had the kid respond with, "Duh, I'm not a moron." That was our way of saying, "These kids are not idiots."
Gary LeRoi Gray ["Bobby the Inquisitive Boy"]: I was definitely insulated from any unhappiness. I've been on other sets, even as a child, where it was like, "Hey, this doesn't feel as fun anymore," but I never really got a sense of that on The Weird Al Show. When you start to have the set feel like work, then people don't perform to the best of their ability and the show will be compromised in a completely different way.
Yankovic: The network really was hammering me on doing more song parodies: "Okay, you're 'Weird Al.' Make with the song parodies, Monkey Boy!" The only new parody we did for the show was a "Firestarter" pastiche called "Lousy Haircut." It wasn't an actual parody though. The network didn't want to pay Prodigy royalties.
Reed: Of all the things that we did on that show, the "Firestarter" video was my favorite. Generally, Al directs his actual music videos, so I'm personally very proud to have done a "Weird Al" video. I remember us trying to find this tunnel – that was key to replicating that video. It was in downtown LA. We were in there shooting for days, and we had to wear masks over our face because the smell was just so horrific. I don't know if there were dead bodies deep inside that tunnel or what, but it was just awful. It was like in The Shawshank Redemption, when Tim Robbins had to crawl through the sewer pipe. You can imagine what that must have smelled like.
Yankovic: We did as many song parodies as we could to make the network happy, but it was just not feasible to have one in every show. I had mixed feelings about it. I wasn't against doing them, but I objected to being forced into it. I certainly didn't want to do a bad parody because we were required to have them. We wound up with something that made us both relatively happy.
Al's Saturday Morning Schoolhouse Rocks
Yankovic: The network was very set on having acts that not only appealed to young people, but acts that were very young themselves. Our biggest coup of the whole series was being able to get Hanson, because at that time, they were at the absolute peak of their fame. It was a major, major booking. I thought everyone would be thrilled, but from what I remember, we got zero publicity on that. We had the biggest kid act in the world on our show and no one from the network said a peep.
Reed: Before I first heard "MMMBop," which isn't what they sang on the show, I thought they were a Jackson 5 homage/rip off. That's such a great song. I remember them doing the sound check and sounding really great. I loved those guys.
Taylor Hanson [Lead Singer, Hanson]: All of us were already fans. Growing up in the Eighties and early Nineties, we watched the "Fat" video countless times. We loved doing the show. For three teenage guys, we appreciated his propensity for fart jokes and off-the-cuff humor. We were right at home with him.
Yankovic: When they got the booking, they probably thought they'd signed up for something else – like Al TV, my MTV show. When they got to the set, they were like, "Oh, this isn't what we thought it was going to be." But they were totally professional. We've kept in contact over the years. I directed one of their videos; Taylor's appeared on one of my albums. We've gone on to become very good friends.
Reed: I do recall being stressed during the shoot because Zac, the drummer, kept changing his hair during between takes. Looking back 20 years later, there's a part of me that's like, "I can't believe there was a point in my life where I was sweating the continuity of the Hanson drummer's hair."
Hanson: The song we played on the show is called "Where's the Love." We would joke that Al should do a version called "Where's the Glove," dedicated to O.J. Simpson. It would have been timely! We floated that around just for fun. [Pause] Maybe not everyone would agree with that concept.
Parker: I must have looked good in my costume, because one of the boys from Hanson tried to take me on a date. I was like, "How old are you?" I think he said he was like 16 or 17. I don't know how old the hell he was, but he was serious!
Reed: I remember we had Immature on the show. They were awesome. Wasn't one of them named Batman? Like, was his actual name Batman?
Marques Houston [aka "Batman" – Lead Singer, Immature]: I watched "Weird Al" Yankovic's videos as a kid, so it was really exciting to be able to work with him. He was so cool, but he really lived up to his name. I remember him telling us to just enjoy ourselves and not take anything too seriously.
Jamie Jones [Singer, All-4-One]: When our manager said we were booked for The Weird Al Show, all of us were super excited to do it. I remember walking on to that set and thinking, "Oh my God, they are not kidding around with this thing." It was definitely a lot more than I expected.
Delious Kennedy [Singer, All-4-One]: I've been told by my band mates that whenever I met someone famous I always overreact and sing their songs to them, so when we met Al, on the outside I was calm, but on the inside I was screaming, "Eat it, Eat it, get yourself an egg and beat it!" You know, I'd love for Al to remake "I Swear" and change the lyrics to "My Hair." With his mane, I feel like there's a song in there somewhere.
Yankovic: We got Barenaked Ladies, which was one of my favorite bands. That was a personal coup for me. It was their very first national TV appearance.
Reed: This was another one of those funny CBS things. They were like, "Wait, you can't say the word 'barenaked' on Saturday morning network television!" My first response was, "Well, did they know that? Because I'm sure one of the reasons they're on this show is to help promote their band, and that's hard to do when we can't say their band's name."
Yankovic: We found out right before the band got to the studio that the network thought the name "Barenaked Ladies" sounded really offensive. The guys in the band were kind of crushed. We shot it two ways, with me introducing them as "BNL" and "Barenaked Ladies." Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and we were able to give their actual name. I'm just glad we didn't book the Butthole Surfers. That would have been a real mess.
Gray: They were such cool people to be around on set. During the shoot I asked my mom if I could get their album. I was like, "Mom, why do these guys call themselves Barenaked Ladies?" She was just fumbling for something that she could say that that would make sense to me at that time. [Pause] I was typecast as the inquisitive boy for sure.
Yankovic: We had Radish on the show, Ben Kweller's band. They did great in their skit. We got to kidnap them as part of the episode's storyline. This was another one of those things that this slid by the censors. From what I understand, the song they sang on the show, "Little Pink Stars," is supposed to be a vaginal metaphor. That completely slipped through the censors, while meanwhile, they had a problem with me smashing a plate on your head.
Ben Kweller [Lead Singer, Radish]: There was a really fun, loose vibe on the set. They told us our lines, and it was everything you could want – hanging out with "Weird Al" and making art. That was the shit.
The Fatman Sings
Yankovic: You never work on something thinking it's going to be awful. We were certainly doing our best and hoping that it was going to be popular and that it was going to run for a long time. I got to work with some of my favorite people in the world, but when I look back on it, I really remember it being a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of angst with the network.
Parker: Al might have been a little over the kids' heads, and their parents didn't know to watch. We didn't find our footing, and that's sad because it was a good show. I felt sadder for Al that it wasn't continuing than I did for myself.
Houston: It fit right in with kids' shows that were big at that time, like All That. I didn't know it only went for one season. Sometimes you just have to go for it, and if it works, it works. And some things don't work for whatever reason.
Parker: Al had a wrap party for us, and we knew it was done by then. I remember putting on a brave face because I could tell Al's feelings were hurt. I was trying to play matchmaker too. I think he was single, and I was trying to hook him and Danielle, who played Cousin Corky, up. I've always wanted people to find love, so I felt like, "Come on, Al. If you can't have a show, can I at least try and help you get a consolation prize?"
White: It wasn't a big surprise to me that The Weird Al Show didn't succeed. CBS wanted a formulaic, Pee-wee kind of thing, and that was just an impossible act to follow. I had faith that maybe Al could get around that, but I think maybe he knew that, too. There were some big differences. Pee-wee's Playhouse was like a downtown New York art project that just happened to get on national TV. It was a miracle, and people could feel that it was something new under the sun. Also, we had Judy Price, who was our champion at CBS. She was the rare example of an executive who gives an artist like Paul Reubens complete creative freedom. He got no notes from CBS.
Parker: I'm not sure if The Weird Al Show would have been more successful if it was released today. It seems like the older our country gets, the more prude we become. We're like Puritans now. We had a cartoon segment called "Fatman." There's no way you could do that today. They'd make him call the guy "Totally Obese Man" or "High Cholesterol Man." I always loved that Al was bold enough to just say it.
Yankovic: About 10 years ago we recorded audio commentaries for the DVD release. I dug out boxes and boxes of paperwork from The Weird Al Show. I studied for it like a final exam, and walked into the recording session with just reams and reams of paper. I don't think that Tom Frank, the show's producer, or Peyton realized the direction it was going to take. Right off the bat, the first words out of my mouth were just my bitter diatribe about the network. I could see them going like, "Oh, it's going to be that kind of a commentary." From there, we were just running.
Reed: A handful of people who listened to the commentary have said that watching with the track was as fun as watching without us talking, and maybe even better with the commentary. I don't know if I would like if someone said that about any of my movies; it would probably be insulting to me. But for some reason I loved that for The Weird Al Show. It's a complete package in my mind, because when a show only runs one season, so it's not on television and it's not really rerun anywhere, it really only exists in that DVD package – and the package is, "Here's the show, and by the way, here are the filmmakers talking in depth about the show."
Yankovic: There are parts of The Weird Al Show that definitely make me cringe, especially the overly didactic stuff that the network forced us to include, but there are a lot of great little nuggets of comedy that I'm still very proud of. We did an animated scene from The Flintstones – Hanna-Barbera actually animated it themselves. The idea was that it was footage from the cutting room floor of an old episode, where I had made an appearance on the show as Al Yankstone, but I can't remember my lines. I think that was the most expensive single piece we did on this show. I'm very fond of that and the "Fatman" segments. And most of the channel hopping stuff – the stuff with no learning, just random stupidity. Maybe that's why I'm better suited to the Internet.
Where do I think The Weird Al Show fits in my career? I'd already had a failed movie with UHF. It was nice to have a failed TV show to balance it out.