When The Simpsons recognizes your existence, you know you’ve made it to the big time. Homer Simpson once said of “Weird Al” Yankovic: “He who is tired of ‘Weird Al’ is tired of life.”
At sixteen, “Weird Al” featured a song on the Dr. Demento Show. His popularity has only grown since, and despite one or two ups and downs, he has remained a popular favorite for years. His big break came in 1979 when he covered “My Sharona” by The Knack as “My Bologna.” This early attempt is nowhere near as professional as his later work, but The Knack liked it and gave him the contacts that helped Al get started.
Born in 1959, “Weird Al” was a bright, imaginative student who went on to study architecture. His roommates at university called him “weird” because he stood out from the rest.
Al remains as fresh today as ever. He’s always coming up with new material and shows no sign of slowing down. His parodies are always funny but never cruel. If he is “weird,” it’s because he looks at life from a different angle than most of us. He would probably claim that the angle is 27 degrees, but more on that later.
Here are ten weird facts about “Weird Al.”
10 Accordion to Him
A salesman came to the family home the day before Alfred Yankovic turned seven. A local music school was offering guitar or accordion lessons to the people of Lynwood, California. You would imagine that most parents would have opted for the guitar classes as the noise an inexperienced accordionist makes can disrupt the peace and quiet of even the most patient parents.
But no, Alfred’s mom and dad chose the accordion. Apparently, this was because “America’s Polka King, Frankie Yankovic, was at the height of his fame.” There was no connection between the Polka King and Alfred’s family, but the coincidence of names must have seemed a good omen.
Al taught himself to play rock on the accordion. Using Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” as a pattern, he would play the album repeatedly and try to follow along on his accordion.
9 A Mad World
“Weird Al” was a young teenager when MAD peaked in the early 1970s. The magazine sold around two million copies at the time, but its impact stretched even further. It was a comic that people passed around, so a single issue often had more than one reader. In an interview, Al said:
“I was a huge fan of Mad Magazine when I was 11, 12, 13 years old. I’d scour used bookstores trying to find back issues, and I’d wait at the newsstand for a new issue to come out. My life revolved around it.”
When it first appeared in 1952, MAD offered an irreverent take on events that differed from anything else on the market. Its blend of adolescent humor and biting political satire found a ready public. This comic series helped “Weird Al” find his new unique take on life.
8 Madonna Doesn’t Cut It!
Madonna seems to have realized early that her song “Like a Virgin” was an obvious target for a Yankovic parody. The idea that Madonna’s track would be great material for “Weird Al” came from someone that Madonna knew who also knew Al’s manager.
Madonna partially created the new song and came up with the title. Yankovic doesn’t normally respond to suggestions—he prefers to have his own ideas. But he couldn’t resist this one.
Gossips have suggested that Madonna and Al dated for a while, but there seems to be no truth in the rumor. It would hardly be a relationship you could keep secret, so we can suppose that the two never went out. In fact, no evidence shows that they have ever met.
Stop the video at 2:23 and look at the “Your Turn” board in the background. What number do you see?
In 2006, “Weird Al” released the album Straight Outta Lynwood to an eager public. One of the songs was “White & Nerdy,” which pays homage to various symbols of nerd culture, such as action figures, Star Wars, Monty Python, and superhero comics. There is also a reference to the 1970s sitcom Happy Days—the program that originally made the word “nerd” popular.
Al’s song is a parody of “Ridin” by Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone. It’s a celebration of the mirror image of cool black urban culture as the white nerd celebrates his curious lifestyle. And yet the uncool white guy tries to befriend the members of cool culture–with no luck whatsoever. But the two worlds overlap.
At the video’s opening, two guys are cruising the streets of suburbia in a car with a plate that reads “OG 4LIFE.” Al, taking a break from computer games, is mowing the grass.
6 Twenty-Six Plus One
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams assures us that 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. He might be right, but Al has another candidate. Although to be fair, he doesn’t claim that his number answers any questions except one.
For some reason, the number 27 frequently pops up in Al’s videos and lyrics. Part of the fun for fans is trying to spot it when it appears. For example, in his song “Hardware Store,” “Weird Al” sings, “every 27th customer will get a ball-peen hammer free.”
When asked about the importance of 27, Al replied:
“I thought it was fairly obvious, but if you need me to explain it, it’s the cube root of 19,683.”
Indeed, but it’s also three cubed.
5 Teen Spirit
Yankovic always likes to get permission from the original artist before he does a parody. This didn’t prove easy when he wanted to work with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. At the time, Al needed a successful hit because his 1989 movie UHF had not made any money, and Al’s career was at a low point. He was sure a parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would help rescue his career, but he needed to speak to Cobain.
Al’s co-star in UHF was Victoria Jackson, a regular on Saturday Night Live, and Nirvana was going to be on the show. Al rang the studios, and Victoria passed him through to Cobain. Cobain was happy to give his go-ahead but wondered if the parody was going to be about food—a common Yankovic theme. Al told him the parody would play because nobody could understand the original lyrics.
The result is weird, indeed. The video includes many of the extras from Nirvana’s original, uses the same stage, and is an almost exact copy.
4 The Real Story
When casting for the recent biopic Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, it must have been a headache trying to choose the actor who would play Al. Yankovic is 100% American; his humor and attitude are essentially American. It’s impossible to imagine him coming from any other country. He would have developed a completely different style if he had been British. But, when it came to picking the actor who’d play Al, the director chose Daniel Radcliffe.
It’s weird, perhaps, but it’s an inspired choice.
Radcliffe, as British as they come, has refused to be typecast as an eternal Harry Potter and has chosen diverse roles that show what an extraordinary talent he is. Radcliffe looks, sounds, and behaves exactly like Al in the biopic.
3 Food for Thought
The success of “Eat It” probably explains why Kurt Cobain thought “Smells Like Nirvana” would be about food. This take on Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit “Beat It” appeared on Al’s 1984 Grammy award-winning album “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3D.
You can almost see Al’s creative mind at work. He chooses a popular song, plays with the title until he finds a similar word, and then re-imagines the lyrics to fit the new scenario. The parody has to be as close as possible to the original in every way, and the original artist must give the go-ahead. This new version also has to release as soon as possible—while the original version is still on people’s minds.
When Al showed the lyrics of his version to Jackson, Jackson thought they were funny and was happy for Al to cover his song. For most artists, being covered by Yankovic is a compliment. Kurt Cobain said that he knew that Nirvana had made it when Al spoofed their song.
2 Born to Pun
Lady Gaga is so much larger than life that she is almost a parody herself. So “Weird Al” was reluctant to cover one of her songs. She was also such an obvious target that everybody expected Al to have a go at her. Al has always thrived on unpredictability and hesitated to do the expected. There was another reason for pausing before attempting “Perform This Way.” Lady Gaga’s original was about human rights, and this, thought Al, was no laughing matter.
Nevertheless, he pressed ahead. Lady Gaga loved his version, and Al gave all the proceeds to the Human Rights Campaign. A classy move, “Weird Al.”
1 In His Own Words
Just past the 7:30 minute mark, the interviewer points out that some of Al’s parodies have outlived the original songs and wonders why that might be. They conclude that modern existence is so absurd that perhaps people connect more with a comic take on reality.
This would certainly be comforting and help people cope with the confusion and complexity of modern life. It would also suggest that it’s not Al who is weird, but life itself. He rose to fame long before the internet allowed anyone to film themselves doing parody, but despite the competition, he is still at the top of the competition.
In interviews, Al comes across as perfectly normal. He’s funny and quick-witted, of course, but there is a friendly humility about him that makes him instantly likable.
It could be that “Weird” is always in inverted commas because Al knows it’s not him who is weird but life itself. Just a thought.
[Editor’s Note: Obviously, this is my favorite “Weird Al” parody!]