Lin-Manuel Miranda, 'Weird Al' Yankovic Talk New 'Hamilton Polka'

The duo discuss Yankovic's wild new medley, how they became close friends and hanging with Larry David on the set of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'

Lin-Manuel Miranda and "Weird Al" Yankovic explain the backstory of "The Hamilton Polka" and how they became close friends. Credit: Todd Williamson/Getty Images, Isabel Infantes/Getty Images

Earlier today, Lin-Manuel Miranda fulfilled his ultimate childhood fantasy by releasing "Weird Al" Yankovic's "The Hamilton Polka." The hysterical tune, which manages to cram all of Hamilton into a frenetic five-minute polka, is the latest installment in Miranda's ongoing Hamildrop series, where artists like the Decemberists, Nas, Dave East and Aloe Blacc put their own spin on songs from his Broadway musical. He hoped to have "The Hamilton Polka" ready for February, but "Weird Al" was so busy prepping his Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour that they couldn't get it out until March 2nd. But in a brilliant move by "Weird Al," they simply decided to declare the date February 30th.

Not long after taping an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Yankovic and Miranda sat down with us to talk about "The Hamilton Polka," their close friendship, the possibility of future collaborations and hanging out with Larry David on the set of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Let's go through the history here. Lin, tell me your first memory of hearing "Weird Al" music when you were younger.
Oh, God. My first memory was hearing "Fat," which is a spoof of "Bad," and like most "Weird Al" fans you discover that there is a catalog and this isn't a one-off. "Oh, my God. There's tons of these." I remember asking my parents for "Weird Al" albums for Christmas and I remember the Christmas morning. There were all these cassettes,  Dare to Be Stupid, Polka Party, In 3-D. I kinda got the mother lode all at once. And that's the rest of my childhood right here.

At that point, did you know the songs he was spoofing?
To this day, I've never heard "Lola" by the Kinks. To this day I've never heard it!

Yankovic: Wow!

Miranda: To me, that's "Yoda." But some of them I have and with some of them it was years until I realized. I didn't know "I Lost on Jeopardy" was a spoof until like a decade later. I always knew they were half parodies and half genre parodies or original songs, but sometimes it took me a really long time to catch on to the fact that he was really spoofing something.

Al, tell me your first memory of being aware of Lin.
I think it was when Lin actually contacted me. He wanted me to see In the Heights, but for whatever reason I wasn't able to do it at the time. But I wasn't really keyed into Broadway at the time. It was a big deal, but it wasn't part of my world. After that, I started looking into Lin's stuff and it wasn't too long after that. Help me out with the history here. Had you done the White House performance?

Miranda: That was 2009. We didn't meet until 2010 or '11 or so.

Yankovic: Then help me out. How did we meet?

Miranda: I think you were interested in maybe doing a musical-theater project. I waved my hand up immediately. I think we took a general meeting on that and just sort of kept talking.

Yankovic: We hit it off and became friends and were always thinking about what we could do together. That hasn't really clicked yet. But in the meantime, Lin got busy with this Hamilton thing. [Laughter] That took a little bit of his time.

I'm sure you saw that pretty early in the run.
This is the hipster thing to say, but I saw it when it was in previews at the Public Theater. I saw it on Broadway and I saw the preview in L.A.

Miranda: What's crazy is that thanks to Facebook's On This Day feature, I actually know you saw it March 1st, 2015. You saw it three years ago today.

Yankovic: No kidding!

Miranda: I always look at the "What Happened On This Day" thing every morning.

Do you recall seeing him in the audience?
No. I remember seeing him after. He came backstage at the Public. I have a picture of the two of us.

Yankovic: I was sitting next to [Broadway legend] Joel Grey, which was pretty cool.

Miranda: That's an amazing story. Have you head that story? Joel Grey showed up. I only know this because a friends of ours was behind him in line at the box office. They heard him go, "I'm Joel Grey. I'm here to see Hamilton." They scrambled around and got him a ticket. He turns around and says to my friend, "I don't have a ticket." He just showed up and said "I'm Joel Grey" and they found him a ticket, which is the kind of thing only Joel Grey can do. That's one of my favorite stories.

What was your first impression of Hamilton?
I thought it was maybe the greatest piece of art I'd ever seen. I went backstage and I gushed a lot. I might not have predicted it would become quite as big as it became, just because a lot of times the things that I love don't translate into mainstream because I'm kind of a freak and I like things that are different. I loved it more than I can even articulate, but I'm so happy that the rest of the world shared my opinion.

So how did you guys become actual friends?
I would just get in touch with him anytime I was in L.A. after that first initial contact. We would hang out. Going to Amoeba Records with Al is a very surreal experience. They just start playing his stuff because he's there. Al TV just started playing on the monitors. I'll never forget, I don't know if you remember this, but we were in the car and you were at a red light. You picked up your phone and went, "Oh, cool. Tony Hawk just named a move after me." That's the kind of thing that happens to Al and doesn't happen to other people, that's kind of amazing and blessed.

When I decided to do a year of singles, I reached out to him. The nature of this collaboration is, "Here's everything in the show. Go do what you want." That's what happened. He did a polka and I heard it the first time last Thursday.

Yankovic: It was hard for me because everything I did in production I was like, "Oh, Lin would love to hear that. I should send it to him." And then I was like, "No, no." I told him, "You can only hear it for the first time once." I didn't want to send him the demo. I wanted his first experience to be the real thing so he'd have that one-time experience. I'll send you the demo now though.

Walk me through the process. Did you always know it would be a polka medley?
Lin pitched it to me as a polka medley way more hesitantly than you should have. He was like, "Would you want to do a polka medley?" I was like, "Of course I do!" It was the kind of thing I'd be pitching him if I didn't know him already.

Miranda: Listen, as a longtime "Weird Al" fan, that's a scary ask to make. I also know there's only been two other cases where he's devoted an entire polka medley to a particular artist. There's "Hot Rocks Polka" on the UHF soundtrack and the Queen polka ["Bohemian Polka"]. I cannot presume to be in that rarified air as the Rolling fuckin' Stones! But I asked.

Yankovic: But you are and here you are.

Miranda: I was thrilled when I heard it.

"I thought Hamilton was maybe the greatest piece of art I'd ever seen." –"Weird Al"

How do you take an entire Broadway production and condense it to five minutes?
I didn't know it was going to be five minutes when I began putting it together. The score for it was like 80 pages long. I was getting scared and was thinking, "This is going to be like a 10-minute polka medley. That's pretty unwieldy." But it would be almost exactly five minutes. The first step was just figuring out what was going to be in the medley. I was intimately familiar with the soundtrack since I've heard it a gazillion times. Going through it I realized that everything in the first act is great and in the second act it gets really sad and dark. There's not a lot from the second act. I wanted to keep it very upbeat and not talk about people dying in orphanages.

My initial thought was, "This is going to be Hamilton in five minutes. It'll be a chronological, but scaled-down version of the show." But then I kinda gave up on that idea and realized it'll be a greatest-hits Hamilton, so I was picking a lot of the fan-favorite moments from the show and arranging them in interesting ways so they flow into each other to make it interesting either creatively or lyrically.

When did you do that and how long did it all take you?
He called the first week in January. The whole process was about four to six weeks.

That must have been a busy time for you since you were also prepping your tour.
Yeah. We were in the middle of rehearsals and there was another project we were working on at the same time. Lin was asking me to get it done a little earlier. That's the reason it wound up being February 30th because ...

Miranda: I wanted it to be the February Hamildrop.

Yankovic: He was like, "Can we please have it a little earlier." We crunched the numbers. We looked at the schedule and were like, "No." We delivered it the night of February 22nd. We mastered on the 23rd.

Miranda: His idea was like, "Why don't we just say it's February 30th?" I was like, "That's the most perfect 'Weird Al' creative problem solving possible. We're doing that."

What's it like to hear your childhood hero cover something you wrote?
It's very surreal. I'm also a fan of the polkas in general and the transitions. To hear that applied to your own work, like, "I'm willing to work, work ..." – those transitions are the things I love about the polkas. In "Alternative Polka," suddenly you're at the bridge and it's "despite all my rage I'm still just a rat in a cage." The way he flows from song to song is so much fun. It's very This Is Your Life and trippy to hear it with songs I'd written.

Did you find it more challenging than your other polkas?
It was only challenging from the standpoint that Lin is my friend and I love Hamilton and I didn't want to screw it up. I wanted to put everything I had into it. I was like, "Here's when I'm going to deliver it. I'm going to spend every waking moment that I can working on this thing." Jimmy Fallon was talking about how every single bell and whistle that I've used in polka medleys, I put into this. I wanted to make it the best polka medley.

Is your band on it?
They are. My drummer, my guitar player plays banjo on it. My bass player plays bass, though the bass is overwhelmed by the tuba, which is playing the same part.

Miranda: [Hysterical laughter]

Yankovic: Then we have Wayne Bergeron on trumpet, Jim Self on tuba and Joel Peskin on clarinet. I play the accordion and there's just a million vocals of me.

Are you going to play it live on the tour?
Nooooo. When I was arranging I was like, "I'm not going to play this live. I'm not going to be on Broadway doing eight shows a week, so I'm just going to make this impossibly complex and it'll just be a great recording and I'm never going to play it live."

Miranda: It's the Radiohead album of polka medleys. It's designed to be unplayable!

Have you seen his tour yet?
No. I'm trying to figure out when I can go. But I did see the last tour and I got to see his stop at Radio City and he did like a 20-minute unplugged set in the middle of that last tour. It was my favorite part. When he announced that's going to be the next tour, I was very excited. I'm going to see it either in L.A. or New York.

Yankovic: It was amazing. Lin came out and sang "Yoda" with me, which was amazing.

That must have been the dream of a lifetime.
It was the dream of a lifetime. You see me literally fly offstage. I don't think I touched the ground on the way off.

What are your favorite songs of his?
Oh. In keeping with the theme of his tour, "Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota" is a huge one for me. It's genuinely emotional and very moving and very funny. On the parody front, I think "White and Nerdy" is pretty perfect. I lip-synced "Taco Grande" at my sixth-grade talent show. But the stuff on the new album, "With My Own Eyes" is one of my favorite from the last album [Mandatory Fun] just because the lyrics are so ... That's the thing with Al originals, the lyrics are so unexpected. We say that about a lot of lyricists, but "I saw an old man's final breath/I saw him die of Bieber Fever." No one else is going to write that but Al. I'm a big fan of that song.

As a fan, you must be psyched that his new tour is just the obscurities.
Yeah! Absolutely! For those of us that wore out UHF. For those of us that were like, "I know you only know the parodies, but you have to listen to 'Jackson Park Express.'" That's where Al's brilliant is given full flower. He's amazing at parodying other artists, but it's fun to see him peek through with the original songs.

How was opening night? Did it feel good to not do "Fat" for once at a show?
It did. It was a whole different kind of energy because usually I put on the big rock show and this is me trying to be laid back and conversational. The whole vibe is like, "Hey, everyone is here in my living room and we're all just sitting around and jamming. What do you want to hear?" It's taken some getting used to. I gave myself permission to not be perfect. All the advertising is very self-deprecating and talking about how it's going to be kind of a sloppy show, which it is. We learned over four hours of material. A lot of the songs we've never played live before. It sounds good. It's not a sloppy show, but you can definitely see the edges frayed a little bit. It's not going to be perfect every night.

Do you feel better after getting through opening night and it went well?
Always. Even though I wasn't terribly nervous about the tour, but the first night – especially since we're doing something so different – you always get a little bit nervous. Having one under the belt is a big deal.

How do you top this Hamildrop? There's still a lot of year left.
I have no idea, dude. We may have peaked in March or February 30th, as it were. Obviously this is a dream come true and fans of mine know, of course, how much I revere Al and his work. I don't know.

I'm sure one of the best parts of success is that you get to meet your heroes and work with them.
Absolutely. That was one of the surreal things about Hamilton. On any given night, two or three of your heroes or people you admire are going to be in the audience. Al and I sort of go back before that, but to actually get to work with him on this has really, really been a joy.

Are you hoping it will lead to more collaborations in the future?
Yeah, absolutely. We met under the auspices of trying to do a musical. With some projects the rights didn't work out and with some other projects, we didn't quite see the same thing on. When it's right, it's right. I like that we're both picky, honestly. It means that when we do make something together, we're both in, both feet.

Yankovic: My feelings are exactly the same. I always tell myself, "Somewhere down the line, it'll happen." I think it's bound to happen at some point, but hopefully we'll live for another five or six more years and we'll work it in there somewhere.

By the way, I really enjoyed your stint on Curb Your Enthusiasm. What was it like playing a bizarre version of yourself?
The fun is seeing where you fit in. I'm a big fan of that show. I realized the only way to really flummox Larry David is through relentless positivity even as you're saying "no" to his face. That was my angle going on. They break all the story arcs and it's really interesting. Al actually came to visit me on set. Whenever I'm in L.A. I call him and I'm like, "Hey, come hang out." He was actually on set with me the day we shot the duel and all that stuff.

Yankovic: I got to see the slap!

Is that when you guys found out you were both getting stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?
We were at lunch during Curb.

Yankovic: A PA or somebody came out and was like, "Larry David wants to tell you something." We go over and he gives us the iPhone and he plays the announcement of both of us getting the star. I don't think Larry David has one, does he? The whole thing could have been like a whole Curb episode where the camera slowly zooms into Larry.

Miranda: [Hums the Curb theme song]

To wrap up here, are there any more childhood heroes of yours you want to meet and work with or is Al really the top?
Al is pretty much it. I'm good. It's funny. I posted teasers on Twitter today of what we were dropping tonight at midnight. On my private Facebook I posted, "Ten-year-old Lin has ascended. He is out of dreams. They've all been accomplished. We're good."