20 Facts About "Weird Al" Yankovic
Starting with his first professional recordings and appearances on the Dr. Demento radio show decades ago, "Weird Al" Yankovic has managed to stay on the pop culture map and change with the times, even while so many of the bands and artists he has parodied lost the spotlight. Here are some facts about "Weird Al" Yankovic and his songs.
1. WEIRD AL'S PARENTS CHOSE THE ACCORDION FOR HIM
The legend—verified by Al Yankovic in the liner notes of his 1994 box set Permanent Record: Al in the Box—reads that on the day before Al turned 7, a door-to-door salesman came through Lynwood, California, to solicit business for a local music school, which offered its pupils a choice between guitar or accordion lessons. Because Frankie Yankovic shared the family's surname and was known as "America's Polka King," Al's parents chose the squeezebox for their son. Al would gradually learn how to play rock n' roll on the instrument, mostly from Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, playing it "over and over" and trying to play along with it. Frankie and Al weren't actually related, but the two would eventually collaborate, with Al playing on "Who Stole the Kishka?" on Frankie's Songs of the Polka King, Vol. 1, and Frankie's "The Tick Tock Polka" played by Al as a lead-in to Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" on the Alpocalypse track "Polka Face."
2. YANKOVIC SKIPPED THE SECOND GRADE
Al attended kindergarten one year early and skipped the second grade, and his scholastic promotion was not popular with his older classmates. "I got my fair share of verbal abuse, but I learned to run pretty fast so I didn't get beat up a lot," Yankovic once explained. Al claimed that when he wasn't running away, his second grade (actually third grade) recess was spent pretending to be Mr. Terrific, a TV character that took a power pill to make him a superhero. Yankovic would graduate Lynwood High School at the age of 16 as valedictorian.
3. HE GAVE HIMSELF THE NICKNAME "WEIRD" IN COLLEGE
Yankovic was referred to by his full first name "Alfred" throughout childhood. It wasn't until he attended California Polytechnic State University looking for a degree in architecture that "Weird" became attached to Al Yankovic permanently. Al got a gig with the campus radio station playing records on Wednesdays from midnight to 3 a.m. and needed a DJ name, christening himself "Weird Al." It would take Yankovic time to sneak in any "weird" music that was not considered a part of the college station's format (New Wave music), but the moniker was his tribute to the comedy and novelty song playing radio broadcaster Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen), who gave Yankovic's earliest compositions some airplay.
4. "MY BOLOGNA" WAS RECORDED IN A BATHROOM
During his senior year in 1979, Yankovic recorded his parody of The Knack's "My Sharona" in the acoustic-tiled bathroom across the hall from the college radio station, finding a microphone cord long enough to reach back to KCPR-FM's tape deck to make it possible. The song got a huge positive response on Dr. Demento's show, but "My Bologna" was the song that turned Yankovic's hobby into a career thanks to a backstage meeting with The Knack after a campus concert. Fortuitously, Rupert Perry, the VP of Capitol Records, was also present when Knack lead singer Doug Feiger professed to liking Al's parody. Yankovic remembered Feiger turning to Perry and saying, "'You guys oughta put this song out on Capitol Records." Perry agreed, and Al soon signed a six month contract.
5. YANKOVIC DOESN'T LEGALLY HAVE TO SEEK OUT PERMISSION TO PARODY SONGS, BUT ASKS FOR IT ANYWAY
Under the "fair use" provision of U.S. copyright law, Yankovic and others do not need permission from original artists to satirize their work, as long as royalties are paid. But to stay on friendly terms with other artists in the industry, Weird Al asks for permission before recording anyway.
When he was still wet behind the ears, Al also discovered that if you don't seek out original artist approval, you can have a tough time getting a label to release your latest single. In 1981, Weird Al released "Another One Rides The Bus," a parody of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," without asking the band, and before TK Records agreed to a deal. It would turn out to be TK Records' last single release, as the company abruptly closed down citing financial trouble. Yankovic decided to go ahead and make his first national TV appearance on April 21, 1981 on Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, and Queen eventually gave the song their blessing (though guitarist Brian May referred to him as "Mad Al").
6. SOME MUSICIANS AND RECORD LABELS HAVE SAID NO
Yankovic has said that only "about 2 to 3 percent" of the time does he get a "no" from an artist or record label, but there have been notable rejections. Even though Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is a fan, he indicated he would not approve of a polka medley of Zeppelin tunes. Still, a sample of "Black Dog" was allowed in a "Trapped in the Closet" parody. Paul McCartney didn't give permission for Wings' "Live and Let Die" because the altered version would have been "Chicken Pot Pie," which would have gone against McCartney's vegetarianism.
In some cases, the artist agrees but is overruled by the label. James Blunt initially said that it would be a "huge compliment" to have "You're Beautiful" changed to "You're Pitiful," but Atlantic Records rescinded authorization (Yankovic released his version as a free MySpace download to avoid starting trouble with Atlantic).
In an example of a no being turned into a yes, Daniel Powter initially refused to have his "Bad Day" parodied as "You Had a Bad Date," but changed his mind. Powter had the change of heart "literally the day before" Weird Al recorded "White & Nerdy" (the music video of which has Al vandalizing Atlantic Records' Wikipedia entry), and by then "the train had left the station."
7. ONE GROUP'S FANS THREW THINGS AT WEIRD AL AND HIS BAND FOR 45 MINUTES
In 1982, Weird Al and his newly formed band played at their first major gig—and it was a profound disaster. The band opened for the then-popular New Wave band Missing Persons at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, where they were on the receiving end of assorted thrown objects for their entire 45 minute set. Yankovic remembered his band scrambling for the loose change as soon as the curtain went down.
The ignominy didn't end indoors: "I was walking to my car in the parking lot, and this 12 year old boy comes up to me and says 'Are you Weird Al?' I said yes, and he said 'YOU SUCK!' That was the capper of the evening." After that, the band agreed to never play as anyone's opening act and to just be the headliner of smaller shows—a rule they wouldn't break for five years until agreeing to open for The Monkees in 1987. Their fans were far more civil.
8. "I LOST ON JEOPARDY" HELPED PUT JEOPARDY! BACK ON THE AIR (MAYBE)
This is the general timeline of events: Jeopardy! started as a daytime game show on NBC from 1964-1975, hosted by Art Fleming, with Don Pardo (later of SNL fame) as the announcer. On December 12, 1983, Weird Al recorded "I Lost On Jeopardy." The single, which referred to the NBC version of the show, was released on June 4, 1984; the music video, starring Fleming and Pardo, had been filmed two weeks earlier. Sometime in between the recording of the song and the shooting of the video, Griffin was asked to pair his already-popular Wheel of Fortune with another half-hour game show, and at some point he re-discovered Jeopardy!. Griffin invited Yankovic to perform his song on June 29, 1984 and talked with him briefly afterwards, saying that with the great success of the single, Jeopardy! was coming back on the air. Whether Griffin was being tongue-in-cheek, or just exaggerating, or hedging his bets if the revival failed, Jeopardy! returned on September 10, 1984 with new host Alex Trebek. Despite some programmers initially putting the show on during unpopular morning and late night hours, the revival would become an television institution, and generate many losers.
9. "LIKE A SURGEON" WAS MADONNA'S IDEA
Reportedly, Madonna and an unnamed friend made history while talking one day. Madonna wondered aloud when Weird Al would turn "Like a Virgin" into "Like a Surgeon." The friend was a mutual friend of Yankovic's manager Jay Levey. Levey then told Yankovic, and soon it became the first single and video from the Dare To Be Stupid album. It was the first and last time a musician successfully offered a suggestion to Yankovic, who openly discourages people from giving him parody ideas.
10. MICHAEL JACKSON WAS A BIG FAN
Weird Al didn't think that Michael Jackson would agree to a parody of "Beat It," but was pleasantly surprised to hear from his representatives that Michael thought "Eat It" was funny. Years later, when Yankovic came up with the idea for "Fat" for Jackson's "Bad," Jackson not only agreed to the parody, but told him he could use the set from his "Badder" music video for "Fat," which went on to win the 1988 Grammy for Best Concept Music Video.
The two met in person twice: The first time was backstage at one of Michael's shows, where Weird Al presented Jackson with a gold record of the album Even Worse. The second time was after a TV show taping, where Jackson said he would screen UHF to his friends at Neverland Ranch. When the two were studio neighbors working on their respective albums, Al would occasionally receive a little note in the door reading "Hello from next door," signed "Love, MJ."
11. BUT HE WOULDN'T LET AL RECORD A PARODY OF "BLACK OR WHITE"
"Snack All Night" was slated to be Yankovic's interpretation of "Black or White," but Michael "wasn't quite so into it." The fact that Jackson considered "Black or White" a "message" song made him uncomfortable with any comedy undercutting it. Weird Al later admitted that Jackson did him a "huge favor," helping him avoid becoming someone just known as the guy doing Michael Jackson parodies, and steering him towards his commercial success in 1992 lampooning Nirvana instead. While "Snack All Night" has never been recorded in a studio, it has been played a few times at Weird Al shows.
12. WEIRD AL WROTE A SONG IN 1986 CALLED "CHRISTMAS AT GROUND ZERO"
The 1986 single off of Polka Party! was a response by Weird Al to the Scotti Bros. record label, who had been trying to get him to record a Christmas song for two years. There's debate on whether or not radio stations banned the record, but the macabre nature of the song, which is set in a world where a nuclear war is about to break out, limited its commercial airplay anyway. The term "ground zero" changing from a general description of where some sort of detonation took place to a term associated with the events of September 11th made radio airplay even scarcer—although Dr. Demento claims it's still a favorite of his listeners, and was the most requested Christmas song since "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."
13. NIRVANA REVITALIZED WEIRD AL'S CAREER
After the commercial failure of 1989's UHF (despite its Neverland Ranch popularity), Yankovic returned to the recording studio in June 1990 to record original songs for a new album. When it came time to record the parodies, he ran into a problem: There was nothing good to make fun of. After getting turned down by Michael Jackson with "Black and White," Al was open to discover Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which Yankovic changed to "Smells Like Nirvana." The song made fun of the fact that it was nearly impossible to understand Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain's words. The Nirvana album Nevermind and its instantly iconic cover of a baby chasing a dollar bill underwater gave Al the concept for his album, which he titled Off the Deep End, alluding to the cover art of Yankovic swimming after a doughnut on a fishhook. In the "Smells Like Nirvana" music video, Al even used the same janitor in the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, as well as some of the cheerleaders.
14. COOLIO WAS NOT AT ALL COOL ABOUT 'AMISH PARADISE'
After "Amish Paradise," Weird Al always made sure to speak directly with the artists and never to rely on their management. The 1996 song based on "Gangsta's Paradise" annoyed Coolio at the time, saying something that indicated Michael Jackson's influence: "I ain't with that. No. I didn't give it any sanction. I think that my song was too serious. It ain't like it was 'Beat It.' 'Beat It' was a party song. But I think 'Gangsta's Paradise' represented something more than that. And I really, honestly and truly, don't appreciate him desecrating the song like that."
Weird Al apologized, claiming that Coolio's managers and label gave Yankovic the belief that Coolio was OK with the parody. One year later, Coolio rapped the couplet, "Fools be in the bars unadvanced with a switch/Uppercuts and fight kicks with Weird Al Yankovich" on his song "Throwdown 2000." Coolio eventually got over it, and approached Yankovic at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show to make peace.
Asked later about the whole incident, Coolio said he really thought it out. "I was like, 'Wait a minute.' I was like, 'Coolio, who the f—k do you think you are? He did Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson didn't get mad,'" adding that complaining about "Amish Paradise" was "one of the dumbest things I did in my career" and that the parody was "funny as sh--." Coolio claimed that Al invited him to appear in Weird Al's 3-D film Al's Brain, but the money figure wasn't to the rapper's satisfaction.
15. PRINCE HAS REPEATEDLY REFUSED TO BE PARODIED, AND DOESN'T WANT WEIRD AL TO EVEN LOOK AT HIM
Throughout the '80s and early '90s, Yankovic repeatedly asked for permission to satirize Prince's work, but was always denied—to the point where he eventually got the hint. To seemingly indicate that it was personal, Al received a telegram for Prince's lawyers the night before an American Music Awards demanding that he not make eye contact with the Minnesota native. Yankovic would later learn that other musicians that were also seated within Prince's vicinity received the same note, and admitted that he looked at him a few times.
16. EMINEM DENIED PERMISSION TO MAKE A MUSIC VIDEO FOR THE "LOSE YOURSELF" PARODY
Even though Eminem agreed to allow "Lose Yourself" to be parodied in audio form as "Couch Potato," he refused permission to make a music video of the song. Yankovic claimed that Eminem's reasoning was that it would "be harmful to his image or career." The video would have been a pastiche of scenes from other Eminem videos. Because every first single from Yankovic was typically heavily promoted by a music video, this scrapped all plans to make "Couch Potato" the lead single on Weird Al's 2003 album Poodle Hat.
17. "WHITE & NERDY" IS THE HIGHEST CHARTING SONG OF WEIRD AL'S CAREER
Chamillionaire couldn't be happier when Weird Al parodied his "Ridin'," claiming that it gave the song "mega-record" status and credited it for giving him the 2007 Grammy for Best Rap Performance By a Duo or Group. The "White & Nerdy" video has amassed over 86 million views on YouTube as of this writing, and features Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele years before their popular Comedy Central show Key & Peele went on the air. It was and currently is Yankovic's only Billboard Top 100 hit to make the top 10, peaking at #9 on the chart in the United States.
18. WEIRD AL MISTAKENLY THOUGHT LADY GAGA DID NOT APPROVE OF THE "BORN THIS WAY" PARODY
Al was finished with writing and recording his 2011 album Alpocalypse, his follow-up to 2006's Straight Outta Lynwood, but delayed its release for months to wait for one big hit to record a parody version of to release as a first single to start the album's promotion. "Perform This Way" was his take on the suddenly popular Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," but after being told by Gaga's manager that she wanted to read the lyrics and hear a recorded version first, Yankovic was ultimately told he was denied permission in April 2011. Resigned to having to delay the album's release further and record another song, Al posted "Perform This Way" on YouTube so his work wouldn't completely go to waste. Within the day of its posting and its subsequent positive reviews from social media, it came out that Lady Gaga never heard the song in the first place, and she actually loved it. By the end of that day, Alpocalypse's release date was set.
19. DON McLEAN HAS CONFUSED HIS OWN SONG WITH WEIRD AL'S VERSION IN CONCERT
"The Saga Begins" finds Yankovic as Obi-Wan Kenobi recounting the plot of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace to the tune of Don McLean's "American Pie." Yankovic managed to write the lyrics based on spoilers he had read on the internet leading up to the movie's release. He attended a $500-a-ticket pre-screening for charity just to make sure his information was correct, and claimed to only need to make a couple of minor tweaks to the song. George Lucas was a fan, but Don McLean might no longer be so much of one. According to Yankovic, McLean's children started to play "The Saga Begins" so much in his home that when McLean performed "American Pie" in concert, he would lose focus and sing bits of "The Saga Begins" by accident.
20. THE NUMBER 27 COMES UP OFTEN IN YANKOVIC'S WORK
At first, Yankovic used the number 27 just because it fit well as a lyric and because it was a "pretty funny number." When a fan called attention to the references to 27 in the "Like a Surgeon" and "This is the Life" videos, Weird Al started to use the number more often. Some references are straightforward, such as Al claiming to have eaten every Twinkie on 27th Avenue in "Fat," or the seeing a Take 27 on the clapboard during the faked moon landing scene in the "Foil" video. Some connections are tenuous, such as the factoid that Yankovic traveled 28,457 miles in his 2010 tour, 2 and 7 being the first and last digits of that number.