This is what a typical brainstorming session is like for “Weird Al” Yankovic:
The undisputed king of song parodies hops online, calls up the Billboard charts, and starts making lists. He uses goofball-genius instincts honed over the course of nearly 35 years to sniff out the tunes on his lists that are ripest for ridicule. Then, he pans for comedy gold.
“I’ll go through each one of those songs, and I’ll try to think of any kind of variation on a theme – any pun, any half-rhyme, any conceptual variation that would be funny,” says Yankovic, 55. “I’ll generate dozens and dozens and dozens of ideas for every song, then I’ll go through those lists of ideas and try to see if there’s anything there that’s funny enough to sustain comedy for three or four minutes. Ninety-nine percent of those ideas are horrible.”
The other 1 percent? There’s always a chance one might become a comedy classic – like “Eat It” (his send-up of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”); “Amish Paradise” (a play on Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”); “White & Nerdy” (Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty”); “Like a Surgeon” (Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”); and “Canadian Idiot” (Green Day’s “American Idiot”), to name just a few.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Yankovic will perform many of his most beloved parodies live when his “Mandatory Fun” tour stops at Ovens Auditorium on Friday night. To get you warmed up for the show, here are five key things we learned from our recent conversation with “Weird Al.”
1. Competition (i.e. YouTube) has made him better. “For the first two-thirds of my career, I basically had the field to myself,” Yankovic says. “Now all of a sudden, anytime there’s a hit song, there’s immediately 10,000 parodies of it on YouTube. So it just means that I have to step up my game a little bit, and perhaps not go for the low-hanging fruit – because you don’t want to be the 20th person to do a parody with the same concept on a hit song.” His outside-the-box thinking has led to gems like 2013’s “Word Crimes,” which is based on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” but deals with the proper usage of grammar. “It’s Monty Python-ish smart-slash-dumb comedy. It’s stupid, but it’s stupid in a very intelligent way.”
2. Many artists think being parodied by Yankovic is as cool as winning a Grammy. Lady Gaga – whose “Born This Way” was transformed into “Perform This Way” – called getting the “Weird Al” treatment a “rite of passage.” Imagine Dragons raved that having him mock “Radioactive” (it became “Inactive”) was a “huge honor.” And former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, now of Foo Fighters, said his old band felt like they had “made it” after the comedian turned “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into “Smells Like Nirvana.” Yankovic’s secret? Playing nice. “You can do comedy and do parody and satire without it being mean-spirited. Not that I don’t think that being mean-spirited in comedy is valid; I appreciate a lot of comedy that is. But it’s not the kind of comedy I choose to put out into the world. And artists react very positively to that. They know that when they get a ‘Weird Al’ parody, it’s not meant to make them look bad.”
3. His primary goal is to be funny and original. His secondary goal is to avoid getting sued. Yankovic doesn’t just write songs he thinks artists will be OK with. He actually calls the artist and asks them: Are you OK with this? “Legally, the whole parody and satire thing is a very gray area. I could certainly get away without asking permission. Most people do.” (Again, see YouTube for roughly 1 million amateur examples.) “But we live in a very litigious world, where anybody can sue anybody for any reason at any time. So (asking permission) is a very safe thing to do, because I like to be able to sleep well at night and not worry that somebody’s gonna get mad and try to take my house away.”
4. So... don’t expect to hear “Raspberry Sorbet” or “Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s 1899” anytime soon. It’s been reported many times over the decades that Prince just doesn’t want his songs to be made fun of. “I haven’t tried to contact him in about 20 years, so he may have developed a sense of humor,” Yankovic says. “But I approached him a number of times in the ’80s and early ’90s, and he just wasn’t into it. I got the message pretty loud and clear.”
5. He’s recorded 14 studio albums, but it’s possible he’ll never make another. The album format just doesn’t make sense for his type of comedy, especially in the rush-to-be-first social-media world. “I can’t always have topical material when I’m releasing 12 tracks all at once, because chances are, most of those tracks will not be as fresh as the morning’s headlines. So going forward, it just seems to me that I should at least make a go of trying to release songs basically as soon as I come up with them.”
‘Weird Al’ Yankovic
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday.
WHERE: Ovens Auditorium, 2700 E. Independence Blvd.
DETAILS: 800-745-3000; www.ovensauditorium.com.