A Brief History of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Weird, Wonderful Career

Get ready to get weird.
Get ready to get weird. / George Rose/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1982, a young and still mostly unknown “Weird Al” Yankovic got on stage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to belt out some of his song parodies in a 45-minute set. Instead of being welcomed and applauded, the audience—which was there to see the very serious New Wave headlining band Missing Persons—hated Al’s music. Hated his parodies. Hated Al. They pelted him with objects, and when they ran out of those, they threw loose change at him.

Afterward, when a dejected Al was in the parking lot, a 12-year-old came up to him and asked if he was “Weird Al.” When Al said he was, the child screamed “you suck” and walked away.

Of course, we know now that “Weird Al” does not suck and that night’s audience was an outlier. For the next four decades, Yankovic’s bizarre brilliance in reimagining hit songs into parodies would be one of the best parts of pop culture. Here’s how he did it.

The Squeezebox

Alfred Matthew Yankovic was born on October 23, 1959 and raised in Lynwood, a Los Angeles suburb. His parents, Nick and Mary Yankovic, were extremely loving but extremely protective of their only child. Young Alfred was often discouraged from playing with other kids and later warned about fraternizing with girls, with his father telling him they had “diseases and stuff.” And because he started Kindergarten a year early and skipped a grade, he was usually two years younger than his peers.

It was all maximally awkward—and then fate arrived on Al’s doorstep in 1966, when he was just 6 years old. A door-to-door salesman peddling music lessons had two options: guitar and accordion. Mary picked the accordion, partly because she was amused by the fact that a famous polka player, Frankie Yankovic, shared the family’s last name. Later, Al would say, “My parents made the life altering decision. I think they realized that the accordion was the instrument that would take over the rock ‘n roll world in the 1980s.”

Peculiar but not yet Weird, Al practiced the accordion relentlessly. He immersed himself in polka music. As he got older and the normal teenage distractions of dating and socializing eluded him, Al began to make some important musical connections. He memorized Elton John’s album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, playing tracks on his squeezebox, and developed obsessions with comedian George Carlin and Mad magazine. Comedy and music began to blend. He started making original compositions, including “Belvedere Cruising,” about his family’s car.

Fortunately for Al, there was a market for his brand of humor. In the 1970s, a radio personality named Barret Hansen broadcast a radio program under the pseudonym Dr. Demento. Every Sunday night, Dr. Demento would curate a playlist of eccentric sounds like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” It was irreverent programming, and it was perfect for Al. He spent years recording music and trying to get Dr. Demento to play it, even calling in to request his own stuff. While this worked for “Belvedere Cruising,” virtually all of his other submissions were rejected. 

Then, in 1979, when Al was enrolled at California Polytechnic State University to study architecture, he decided to take a big swing, setting his satirical sights on the biggest hit single on the radio—“My Sharona” by The Knack. Al reimagined it as “My Bologna,” recording it in one of the bathrooms at the university because the acoustics were good. The school is also where his dormmates had dubbed him “Weird Al” for being socially awkward. Al used the nickname while he was a campus DJ and obviously, it caught on.

Dr. Demento’s listeners loved “My Bologna,” and it became so popular that an executive at Capitol Records released it as a single at the urging of The Knack’s lead singer, Doug Fieger. That led to Al getting his own recording contract, but there were a few more steps along the way to becoming a weird household name.

Getting Weird

After graduating college, Al continued making parodies, including a riff on Queen’s “Another Bites the Dust” called “Another One Rides the Bus” that was one of Demento’s most requested songs—it actually started becoming a hit on more-mainstream radio. Eventually, Al signed with Scotti Bros. Records and released his first album, “Weird Al” Yankovic, in 1983. Naturally, it included the hit “My Bologna” as well as “Another One Rides the Bus.” And who could forget “I Love Rocky Road,” after the song Joan Jett made famous, “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”?

Well, a lot of people, apparently. Al’s first album really didn’t make much of an impression. For the most part, novelty songs, as Al’s music was considered to be, were usually a one-off. If someone was lucky enough to have a hit, it was typically their only one before they faded into obscurity. There wasn’t much reason to believe someone could make a career out of it. 

But just like Al had the good fortune to have Dr. Demento as an outlet for his music, he also had the benefit of breaking into the industry right around the time it was being transformed by a disruptor—MTV. The music video network launched in 1981 and turned pop music from a radio and cassette industry to a visual medium. Al took advantage of this shift, with well-received videos for “Rocky Road” and another song—“Ricky,” which was about I Love Lucy.

If Al recognized MTV was perfect for his brand of humor, MTV saw that Al was an ideal on-air personality. For one thing, the network was still growing and didn’t have an endless library of videos to play. They needed content. So they turned to Al, giving him four hours of airtime on April Fools’ Day in 1984. It was effectively a four-hour infomercial for Al’s brand of zaniness.

Viewers got a concentrated dose of that with “Eat It”—Al’s parody of Michael Jackson’s smash hit “Beat It”—which was a single from his new album “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D. Both the song and the video were absolutely ridiculous, but they were also compulsively watchable. In riffing on Jackson, at the time perhaps the most famous artist in the world, Al was able to have an immediate shorthand with his audience. Everyone knew “Beat It,” and therefore everyone got the absurdity of turning it into a lyrical joke about indulging in junk food. Al would return to the billboard charts again and again—the only songs he wouldn’t parody were those by a recently-deceased artist or one recorded for charity.

“Eat It” became Al’s first real smash hit, hitting number 12 on the Billboard chart, with the 3-D album eventually going platinum. Al won a Grammy for the song. Thanks to the power of MTV, Al’s talents—which had long been dismissed as quirky or a novelty ac—were being taken seriously. With his Hawaiian shirt, glasses, and frizzy mop of hair, he was also becoming immediately recognizable. But not everyone wanted to be in on the joke.

Permission Slips

While Al is a very talented musician, his song parodies do require one key ingredient—a culturally resonant song to spoof. Most sources discussing Al’s work correctly point out that you can parody copyrighted works in the United States—that’s how Saturday Night Live can lampoon the latest blockbuster, for example. But whether Al’s work definitely qualifies as parody, and not (the legally unprotected) “satirical copying,” is potentially a matter of debate.

Since there’s always the chance of an artist getting legally agitated, and since Al is a polite guy, he’s made it a policy to ask musicians for their permission before recording a song. And for the most part, they’re happy to grant it. Famously, Al credited Madonna with suggesting a spoof of “Like a Virgin,” wondering out loud to a mutual friend of hers and Al’s manager when he would record “Like a Surgeon.” Michael Jackson was also kind to Al, lending him permission for a series of parodies of his music, including “Fat,” which was a spoof of “Bad.” Yankovic later said that the Jackson blessing was huge. If a megastar said yes, then it would be hard for others to say no.

But everyone has limits. Jackson didn’t want Al to spoof “Black or White,” his hit 1991 single, which Al wanted to rework as “Snack All Night.” (And yes, Al’s songs often revolve around food.) Jackson thought “Black or White” had too serious a message to satirize.

Paul McCartney felt that way, too. When Al asked him for permission to parody “Live or Let Die” as “Chicken Pot Pie,” McCartney told him no because he was a vegetarian.

Sometimes, it’s the label and not the artist. James Blunt was fine with Al recording “You’re Pitiful” to the tune of “You’re Beautiful,” but the record company wasn’t. In those MySpace days, with the blessing of the actual artist behind the tune, Al just released it as a free download to avoid any hassles.

Al also had trouble with the late music legend Prince, who repeatedly turned down Al’s requests. At one point, Prince’s management team sent Al—along with other people, apparently—a letter warning him not to look Prince in the eye when both were scheduled to appear at the American Music Awards. In response, Al sent Prince a letter back warning him not to look Al in the eye. In 2016, about a year after the Purple One had passed, Al told People that “I had this fantasy that he’d come out with a new song, I’d have a great idea, he’d finally say yes and it would erase decades of weirdness between us. But that’s obviously not going to be the case.”

Al’s other big rejection came from Coolio, who insisted that Al’s Amish-flavored parody of “Gangsta’s Paradise” in 1996 was done without his permission. Apparently, Al had erroneously thought he had gotten approval before recording his song. Coolio held a grudge about it for a few years before eventually admitting that the parody was “funny as sh*t.”

Al had another misunderstanding with Lady Gaga, whose team turned down Al’s request to record “Perform This Way” as a spoof of “Born This Way.” When Gaga heard the song, she loved it and granted her approval.

Al may also seek permission because he wants to make sure he has a clear claim to partial ownership of the new and copyrighted song for royalty purposes, which are typically shared with the original artist.

Weird Cinema

Al had a pretty solid decade in the 1980s. He released a total of six albums, remained a fixture on the Billboard charts and on MTV, and was the subject of not one but two movies.

The first you may not have heard much about. It’s called The Compleat Al, and it’s a mockumentary released pretty much directly to home video back in 1985 (an hour long version of the flick aired on Showtime, but the 97-minute feature film certainly never made it to theaters). In the movie, Al offers a largely fictional take on his life, from his upbringing to his breakout successes. The narrative is interwoven with eight of his music videos, including “I Lost on Jeopardy” and “Dare to Be Stupid.”

This was really just a warm-up for Al’s real feature breakthrough, 1989’s UHF. Al worked on the project for years with his manager, Jay Levey, who also directed it. If Al the musician was a song satirist, Al the actor was spoofing the movies. He appeared in a very oily muscle suit to lampoon Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and a fedora to riff on Raiders of the Lost Ark. One segment features a trailer for Gandhi II, where Gandhi has traded in pacifism for a machine gun.

Al also saw the movie as a chance to tip his hat to his influences. Dr. Demento makes a cameo as an audience member, and Al’s character name, George Newman, is a nod to Alfred E. Neuman of Mad magazine fame.

In the film, Al’s uncle wins a UHF television station during a poker game and appoints his nephew to run it. Al manages to improve its dismal ratings with his creativity. He tries a variety of alternative programming choices, from sadistic game shows to children’s programs, all of it peppered with parodies that take place in his character’s imagination. Think of it as Walter Mitty meets the Garbage Pail Kids. There were high hopes for the film, which had gotten Orion Pictures’ best audience test scores since Robocop. Satisfied it would be a hit and that Al would be the next comic filmmaking genius, Orion premiered UHF in the summer of 1989.

The problem? The summer of 1989 was also home to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and about two dozen other films that all worked to practically obliterate UHF from the minds of moviegoers. It received a mixed critical reception, with Siskel and Ebert giving it two thumbs down. Al and producers also believed everything from its PG-13 rating to its title could have hurt it at the box office.

While UHF would grow into a cult hit, at the time its failure wasn’t great for Al’s career. But one good thing came out of it, and it would come in handy for the next phase of Al’s story.

All About Al

A career as long as Al’s is overflowing with interesting trivia—so consider these facts the liner notes.

Al used to have his own children’s television show. The Weird Al Show aired on CBS for one season starting in 1997 and featured Al hosting guest stars like Patton Oswalt and Hanson and bantering with Harvey the Wonder Hamster. The show’s production designer was Wayne White—who also worked on a little series called Pee-Wee’s Playhouse—and episodes were directed by Peyton Reed, who went on to the Ant-Man film franchise. But it was too weird for CBS and lasted just 13 episodes.

The Weird Al Show was also among the last appearances of Al’s distinctive look. His glasses disappeared in 1998, when he underwent LASIK surgery to correct his vision. Around the same time, Al also decided to shave his trademark mustache.

In 2011, Al released a children’s book titled When I Grow Up that features a child speculating on what he might want to be as an adult. Firefighter? Movie director? Gorilla massage therapist? It’s a notable Al project because his byline is just Al Yankovic—no weird qualifier.

In 2003, Al wrote and recorded a parody of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” titled “Couch Potato.” The rapper was OK with Al doing the song but didn’t want him filming a music video for it, with Eminem’s management saying their client preferred not to have the visual perception for the song changed. Al, of course, honored Eminem’s wishes.

“Amish Paradise” is one of Al’s biggest hits thanks in part to its music video. Some of the “Amish” who appeared included Al’s parents as well as his uncles and aunts. Al said they were “cheaper than extras.”

You may have noticed Al doesn’t go for anything too risqué in his work. His songs generally don’t contain any profanity. And according to the 2020 New York Times profile we mentioned earlier, he never swears, either. His wife Suzanne has admitted to trying to get him to curse, just in private, but Al refuses.

Finally, Al himself isn’t immune to being parodied. On the HBO series Mr. Show, future Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk portrayed a character named “Daffy Mal” Yinkleyankle. Al called the sketch “very funny,” adding, “He really kind of zeroed in on everything that's irritating about me.”

Never Mind

Following the muted reception to UHF, Al returned to the recording studio, not quite sure what his next move should be. A paradigm shift was taking place on the music scene; Instead of the upbeat pop anthems of the ‘80s, Al was looking at the beginning stages of grunge, or the so-called Seattle sound. And there was no band bigger than Nirvana, who released their album Nevermind to massive success. In fact, Al had heard the album before it blew up, and while he loved it, he didn’t think it would catch on.

When it did, Al wanted to spoof their hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as “Smells Like Nirvana,” with the premise being that lead singer Kurt Cobain wasn’t that easy to understand. Al even recorded one portion of the song with cookies in his mouth for maximum muffling.

But Al’s management team was unable to contact the band, eventually telling Al that if he was going to make the parody happen, he’d have to find them himself. Al was finally able to approach Cobain thanks to Victoria Jackson, who had appeared in UHF and became friendly with Al. Jackson was a cast member on Saturday Night Live. When Nirvana was booked to appear on the show, she was able to get Al and Kurt Cobain on the phone together. Cobain thought Al’s idea of spoofing his semi-intelligible singing was hilarious and granted him permission. Al’s album, Off the Deep End, even spoofed Nirvana’s album cover, with Al naked and chasing a donut on a fishhook while underwater.

Thanks to that, “Amish Paradise,” and a slew of other hits, Al remained very relevant—and very funny—through the 1990s and beyond. In 2006, Al’s “White and Nerdy,” a take on Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty,” became Al’s first top 10 Billboard singles hit. In 2014, Mandatory Fun became his first-ever number one album and the first comedy album to debut in the top spot. And in 2015, Al’s career came full circle when he was invited to be guest editor of his beloved Mad magazine and revealed such secrets as his abandoned idea for a riff on Celine Dion’s theme for Titanic—“My Fart Will Go On.” 

Al is still going strong. In addition to 2022’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story starring Daniel Radcliffe, Al is touring and producing new music he distributes himself. Now in his fifth decade of performing, Al has defied predictions that novelty songs and artists are usually just one-hit wonders.

So what’s the secret? It’s probably that, for all his silliness, Al takes the art of music very seriously, pouring over lyrics and bringing genuine talent to his parodies. If he was a terrible musician, the parody probably wouldn’t land. That he’s deeply committed to all of it makes something like “Amish Paradise”—as silly as it is—a kind of genius. Al probably inspired budding comedians the same way Mad inspired him. And not just comics. Lin-Manuel Miranda told The New York Times in 2020 that Al was an influence on Hamilton and that he often prefers Al’s spoofs to the original songs.

So, sure, an accordion-wielding kid growing up to write songs about food is weird. But for legions of Weird Al fans, weird is wonderful. And while we’ll never know for sure, it seems likely that rude little kid at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium eventually came around. 

This story was adapted from an episode of Throwback on YouTube. Subscribe here.