Parody Song Master Weird Al Yankovic: True Story Of A Comedy Genius
Music/Video Parodist Al Yankovic holding food with chop-sticks at Bao Wow' Chinese restaurant in1986. (Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images)
For "Weird Al" Yankovic, parody songs aren't just novelties -- they've been a successful career. "My Sharona," "Another One Bites the Dust," "I Love Rock 'n Roll," "Beat It," "Like a Virgin" -- these were some of the biggest hits of the late '70s and early '80s, but when Yankovic got ahold of them they became "My Bologna," "Another One Rides the Bus," "I Love Rocky Road," "Eat It," and "Like a Surgeon."
How did an accordion-playing nerd from Lynwood, California, become the biggest comedy act of the MTV generation, adored by fans and honored with numerous Grammy Awards? For all who've enjoyed "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody songs over the years, here's a look back at his rise from goofy obscurity to (surprising) massive fame.
Did The World Need Another Accordion-Playing Yankovic?
"Weird Al" Yankovic began taking accordion lessons on the day before his seventh birthday. He could have studied the guitar -- but his name got in the way. Yankovic explained the decision in the liner notes of his 1994 box set Permanent Record: "A door-to-door salesman came through our neighborhood, trying to solicit business for a local music school. Kids were offered a choice between guitar lessons and accordion lessons. Since Frankie Yankovic (no relation) was America's Polka King, my parents opted for accordion lessons, perhaps because they figured there should be at least one more accordion-playing Yankovic in the world."
Yankovic Got His Big Break On Dr. Demento's Comedy Radio Program
Dr. Demento (real name Barry Hansen) is a California radio personality who rose to prominence in 1970 for a "demented" willingness to play novelty records. Alfred Yankovic was a 13-year-old high school student and Demento fan when Hansen came to speak at an assembly at Lynwood High. At that time, Demento was putting on a novelty-song contest, so Yankovic handed the DJ a cassette tape of some of his songs -- accordion-based goofs he'd recorded in his bedroom. Yankovic didn't win the contest, but he didn't give up on his dream of making it onto the Dr. Demento radio show either. On March 14, 1976, Demento played Yankovic's "Belvedere Cruising" (a song about the family Plymouth Belvedere) on the air. "He would do far better songs after that and he's a little embarrassed about 'Belvedere Cruising' today," Demento later told the Washington Post, "but I thought, as soon as I heard it, 'That guy has some talent.'"
How Alfred Yankovic Became 'Weird Al'
Yankovic was the valedictorian of his high school class, and after graduating he attended California Polytechnic State University. Though his childhood instruction had been limited to polka, '40s pop and classical music, Yankovic had taught himself to play rock music in high school and by college he could play just about anything on the accordion. Now performing in public, Yankovic and a bongo-thumping accomplice would play bizarre sets of novelty music that included contemporary TV-show themes and "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (better known as the theme from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). Yankovic's performances didn't mesh with the aspiring singer-songwriters with whom he often shared the stage -- it was just, you know, weird. A college classmate took to calling Yankovic "Weird Al" -- though intended as a put-down, the name seemed just about right, and Yankovic used it as his on-air moniker at the campus radio station.
How 'Weird Al' Yankovic's Silly Song Parodies Became Serious Business
"Weird Al" Yankovic began to gain wider notice when he started parodying popular songs of the day. The first, from 1979, was "My Bologna," based on the chart-topping single "My Sharona," released earlier that year by The Knack. The song topped Dr. Demento's "Funny Five" chart, and after meeting with approval from The Knack, was released as a real single on Capitol Records. Two years later, Yankovic's "Another One Rides The Bus," a sendup of Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust," nearly cracked the Top 100. "Weird Al," who was making a bunch of silly music poking fun at the pop charts -- was knocking on the door of the pop charts.
He Was The Man Who Dared To Be Stupid
Let's not forget that "Weird Al" Yankovic was valedictorian of his high school class -- and graduated at the age of 16. He also edited his high school yearbook and went on to study architecture in college. He's always been a super-intelligent, super-competent Renaissance man. He dared to do his own thing, on his own terms, even if he was an acquired taste. He dared to be stupid, and it paid off. The first single off his second album ("Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D, 1984), the Michael Jackson parody "Eat It," went to #12. His next three major singles, "King of Suede," "I Lost on Jeopardy," and "Like a Surgeon," (based on music of The Police, Greg Kihn, and Madonna), all made the Top 100. The last one came from his third album, which was called, of course, Dare To Be Stupid.
Wait, Why Was 'Weird Al' Yankovic So Successful?
It's important to note that "Weird Al" Yankovic's song parodies were more than music. He parodied the original artists' videos, aping the dance moves and pushing the already-questionable '80s fashion over the top. MTV was good to him, as were the artists he spoofed -- many, including Michael Jackson and Madonna, were fans of his work and considered the parodies an honor. And "Weird Al" paid it forward -- eventually becoming a music-video director, starting with his own clips and then working behind the camera for artists such as Hanson, Ben Folds, the Black Crowes, and the Presidents of the United States of America.
'Weird Al' Yankovic, Then And Now
Although he's associated with the '80s and early MTV, "Weird Al" hasn't disappeared. In fact, he's continued to evolve and achieve greater success. He had his biggest hit in 2006 with "White & Nerdy," a parody of the rap tune "Ridin'" that went to #9. Thanks to celebrity fans like Jimmy Fallon, Chris Hardwick and Lin-Manuel Miranda, "Weird Al" is an in-demand comedy presence on late-night TV. In 2015, Yankovic won the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording for his album Mandatory Fun -- it was his fourth Grammy win out of 15 nominations. Mandatory Fun also topped the Billboard album chart. The merry prankster of pop music is now an institution. Who knows -- maybe someone, someday, will parody the work of "Weird Al" Yankovic. Wait, is that even possible?
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