Today, “Weird Al” Yankovic celebrates the release of Alpocalypse, his 13th proper album and his best, most consistent release in years. (And thanks to a day-long Internet dust-up with Lady Gaga over his “Born This Way” parody “Perform This Way,” also his best publicized.)
Always the underdog and, by his own admission, a trafficker in extra-disposable culture, Yankovic has made a career of not only making fun of specific songs and artists but also of topical trends and musical styles.
All of that (plus a massive mash-up of polka versions of pop songs) are on Alpocalypse, highlighted by the surprisingly dark “Skipper Dan,” a narrative about an out-of-work actor serving as the host of a jungle cruise ride at an amusement park. Yankovic discussed his new album, his long career and the secrets to a great parody when EW caught up with him recently.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What are the secrets to a great parody?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Timeliness, sustainability and independence. That third one is really important. It needs to be funny even if you’ve never heard the original song that’s being parodied. It needs to work just as a funny song without having any reference to the source material.
And I think the best example of this personally was when I did “American Pie” as “The Saga Begins.” It was about the Star Wars prequels, and it was a huge hit on Radio Disney. And the people that listened to Radio Disney, I would guess, were not intimately familiar with a Don McLean song from 1971. But they enjoyed the song even without really knowing it was a parody.
And what made that even funnier was that the year after I did my parody, Madonna did her techno-pop cover version of “American Pie,” and all these kids were going, “How come Madonna’s doing an unfunny version of a Weird Al song?” So that was odd.
Is music today any more or less goofy than when you started?
Music has always been goofy. It’s always changing, but pop culture’s always been ridiculous, so I’ll never run out of source material to work with. But part of my job description is that I shamelessly follow whatever trend happened in the culture. So I can’t really ever be accused of selling out because that’s my job description.
I can’t say that the songs themselves are necessarily any more ridiculous. We’re going through a phase where people aren’t really using “real instruments” so much anymore. I kind of enjoyed the guitar and indie band explosion of the ’90s because we were back to having actual bands. Now when my band comes into the studio to do the parodies they have all their files on disk.
The parody songs come from a very clear place, but the non-parodies on Alpocalypse are very specific and great. Where does a song like “Skipper Dan” come from?
The inspiration came from an actual trip to Disneyland and a visit to the jungle cruise ride. I was there with my family a couple years ago, and our skipper made some kind of offhand remark about his failed acting career. It wasn’t intended to be particularly funny but a light bulb went off in my head and I thought, “Well, there’s a whole song right there.” So I just came up with his whole back story and came up with that whole bittersweet, poignant tale of some promising young actor that winds up bitterly working on the jungle cruise ride.
I didn’t know how people would react to it. It turns out that pretty much every Disney employee that I’ve talked to loves the song, and a lot of struggling actors just really hate the song.
What about “Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me”? Did that come up after a specific forward or about a particular person you know?
I’ve learned how to use my spam filter pretty effectively. I’m not gonna out any of my friends, but there are a few that just abuse it to the point where it’s like, OK, you’re gonna get a song written about you. I’m hoping that the song and video go viral and that anytime somebody gets a chain letter or some kind of spam in the mail they’ll just forward my song to the offending party.
You try to get clearance from artists before you parody them, which is what started the quickly-resolved Lady Gaga mess, but do you ever hear from artists after something has been recorded?
Not always, but every now and then they’ll come up to me at an awards show or at a party. And it’s always very positive. I mean, they’re often just really impressed by the production, because my band is very skilled at emulating other people’s material.
They’ll say, “Man, I can’t believe we had this subliminal guitar lick in the third verse that only dogs could hear, and you nailed it! It was amazing!” So that’s always great to hear from them. And of course they appreciate the humor because they had approved it in the first place so it wasn’t any kind of surprise when they heard the song.
Did you ever get feedback from R. Kelly about “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” your parody of “Trapped in the Closet”?
I never heard directly about that. But he did do me a big favor because, since “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” was an extremely long song, I would have actually had to pay R. Kelly double or triple the normal publishing rate.
Because I have a royalty ceiling, I would have had to take some songs off of my album to include the R. Kelly parody. But R. Kelly was nice enough to have it count just as a single song instead of two or three songs or whatever it was supposed to count as. So he actually did me a huge favor in allowing me to put that on the album.
What are your fans like? Have any great run-ins?
When I think run-ins with fans, I tend to think about all these Weird Al tattoos I’ve seen over the years. Somebody will come up to me after a show and have me sign their arm, and the next time I see them my autograph has been permanently inscribed on their arm. And some people have album covers on their legs, or every member of my band caricatured on different parts of their body.
There are dozens and dozens of people on this planet that actually have Weird Al tattoos, which kind of blows my mind. And it’s also a bit of pressure because every album that I put out, I think, “Well, I hope this doesn’t suck because then all those people are going to be really hating their lives.”
Is that flattering, or just creepy?
A little of both. I mean, I’m very flattered and honored, of course, but that’s not a life choice I would have made. But it seems to make them happy, so why argue?
Read more from EW.com:
Weird Al’s Lady Gaga parody ‘Perform This Way': Watch the (disturbing) video here
‘Weird Al’ Yankovic: His 12 Best Parodies
Lady Gaga’s manager says Weird Al rejection was his fault