In this day and age, "Weird Al" Yankovic just doesn't seem that weird.
Of course, he has a wicked sense of humor, which has served him well during a hugely successful career of creating song parodies, musical humor and accordion torture sessions. This is, after all, the man who gave the world such bent classics as "Another One Rides the Bus," "Eat It," "I Lost on 'Jeopardy!'," "Amish Paradise," "White and Nerdy" and many others.
But in a recent telephone interview, Yankovic was anything but weird—friendly and charming, self-effacing and polite. A little serious, sure, but not weird.
Maybe that explains the quotations in his professional name.
Yankovic will perform with his band on Saturday, June 11, at the Fox Tucson Theatre.
He said he thinks his pals in his college dorm started calling him "Weird Al," so when he became a DJ at the campus radio station at California Polytechnic State University, that became his handle. The name, of course, stuck.
Yankovic is so reserved, in fact, that he never curses. In song or in person.
"It's not so much a conscious decision to keep profanity out of my act," he says. "I don't even use hard profanity in everyday life. There are a lot of comics who have made their careers on being blue, but I think it's more of a challenge to be funny without being dirty."
Born in 1959, in Lynwood, Calif., 'Weird Al" was an only child. He had two early heroes, both of whom helped steer his career. He was inspired to take up the accordion at age 7 by polka king Frankie Yankovic, who is not related. And as a young teenager, he became entranced with radio host Dr. Demento and his mission to seek out the funniest oddities in the musical world.
Although Yankovic comes from a tradition of novelty songs, he's reluctant to use the word "novelty" to describe what he does.
"Here's the thing: Any time you have comedy in music, it's classified as novelty. But that word does kind of carry a derogatory tone. The hairs on the back of my neck sort of stand up. It seems to imply a one-hit wonder, a silly little tune that will maybe sell for a couple of weeks. And I think I have proven that my stuff has endured a lot longer."
Yankovic began recording music at about 19. His first big single was 1979's "My Bologna," a parody of the new-wave hit "My Sharona," by The Knack. His debut album came out in 1983, and Yankovic's parodies became a staple of the still-young MTV.
"That was one of the main things that led me down this path—MTV, Dr. Demento, (parodies of) Michael Jackson. MTV helped me break out and brought me increased attention. Having my videos in heavy rotation certainly changed my life. It literally made me a star overnight."
Although Yankovic records many comedy tunes that aren't intended to be parodies, his spot-on re-creations of familiar radio hits have brought him the most fame. And it takes a cracker-jack band to convincingly replicate Toni Basil's "Mickey" as "Ricky," to transform Madonna's "Like a Virgin" into "Like a Surgeon," or to remake the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" as "eBay."
Among his most brilliant works are spookily faithful versions of Nirvana's totemic "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ("Smells Like Nirvana") and Jimmy Webb's enigmatic "MacArthur Park" ("Jurassic Park"), but those are simply the tip of the iceberg.
"I am fortunate enough to work with very talented people," Yankovic said. "I have had the same band pretty much since the '80s, and they are great musicians, re-creating this material so well. All I have to do is bring them the music, and they immediately nail it. When I do original songs, it's a bit more work for all of us, because I have to make a demo and play it for them, and then we create an arrangement and go from there. Then the process is a little more complicated."
When crafting a successful song parody, Yankovic has few rules or formulas. But two elements are always present: "Make sure that an idea can be sustained for the entire course of a song, and it needs to be funny even if the listener has never heard the source material."
Yankovic always insists on getting approval from the artists whose songs he parodies. Rarely do they refuse. One of the few was Prince, he said. "I had a few ideas for Prince songs back in the '80s, but he just never said yes. I haven't asked him in last decade or two, though."
For many other artists, it has become a rite of passage to hear your hit tune get the "Weird Al" treatment. He said he is often approached at parties by musicians who ask if he will parody their tunes. "But I never know if they are that serious."
On June 21, Yankovic will see the release of Alpocalypse, his 13th full-length album. It will feature parodies of hits by Miley Cyrus, B.o.B. featuring Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift and, perhaps most notably, Lady Gaga. In fact, this spring, a tempest in a teapot arose around whether Yankovic would be able to have his way with Gaga's "Born This Way."
"Ah, the Gaga saga," he chuckled. "The details and the whole chain of events were pretty well-covered in the press, but the short version is that her manager had turned down the idea of a parody without ever contacting Lady Gaga.
"So I posted the song on YouTube, and said, 'It's not going to be on the album; I hope you enjoy it.' Apparently, when she found out, she said she thought it was great and gave her approval. She's got a great sense of humor. She said something to the effect that it was a badge of honor to be parodied by 'Weird Al'."
So "Perform This Way" will be on the new album. In fact, it's the first single.