For “Weird Al” Yankovic, life is certainly good. After 13 albums and 30 years in the business of musical satire, he’s just released the bestselling record of his career.
It’s not exactly what the 14-year-old Alfred Matthew, writing goofy ditties on the accordion in his Lynwood bedroom back in the mid-1970s, might have imagined.
“As a kid, I certainly never thought I would get to spend my life doing something fun,” reflects Yankovic, 52, sitting in the splendor of his Hollywood Hills home, where he lives with his wife and daughter. “I was very serious and adult-minded. I was a straight-A student and really into doing the ‘right thing.’ I just assumed that I would grow up and have a real job and do something … I don’t know … useful.”
Since his first hit in 1979, an exploration of luncheon meat titled “My Bologna” (to the tune of the Knack’s, “My Sharona”), Yankovic has been taking popular culture and turning it inside out, regurgitating the Billboard charts and spewing out hilarious takes on Top 40 hits that are simultaneously sly, silly and smart.
His career highlights include “Another One Rides the Bus,” (based on Queen’s hit “Another One Bites the Dust”), the infamous “Eat It” (based on “Beat It”), “Like a Surgeon,” (“Like a Virgin”), and the beloved, “White and Nerdy” (a brilliant parody of the hip-hop track “Ridin’” by Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone), which became a hit on his acclaimed 1996 album, “Straight Outta Lynwood.”
Over the last three decades, he’s won three Grammys, created 31 gold and platinum singles and written a bestselling children’s book (“When I Grow Up,” published by HarperCollins and available as an iPhone app). He’s also starred in a Comedy Central special documenting his current live tour and plays the Pantages Theater on Saturday night.
While most parody acts end up becoming, well, a joke, Yankovic has not only hung on — he’s thrived. The comedian now has 2 million Twitter followers, and his recent album, “Alpocalypse,” is the highest charting of his career (it debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard album charts when it was released in June).
Yankovic’s current success is in large part due to his Lady Gaga parody, “Perform This Way.” Although the pop star’s management initially refused Yankovic permission to cover the song, Gaga later claimed she was never asked.
When she got wind of the mix-up, Gaga immediately gave her blessing — telling Rolling Stone: “I love Weird Al. It’s sort of a rite of passage to the next level of your career when Weird Al performs one of your songs..”
The method behind Yankovic’s madness has remained more or less the same over the years. “I’m very analytical, I’m very precise,” said Yankovic, who’s traded his thick glasses for contact lenses yet still wears his hair long and curly, à la vintage Kenny G. “I make charts of songs that are good candidates, good targets, so to speak. Then I try to come up with ideas for parodies. And 99% of those ideas are horrible. But every once in awhile I come up with an idea and I think, ‘Mmmm. That just might work.’ And if the next morning it still seems like a good idea, then I try to flesh [it] out.”
“He brings us songs that are totally evolved,” said Yankovic’s drummer and archivist Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, who has been playing with him since the two met on the “Dr. Demento” radio show in 1980. “He does all the conceptualizing, all the writing. He knows what he wants, and he’s very, very specific.”
Yankovic’s career started in 1976 when the high schooler submitted a tape to the popular “Dr. Demento.” Hosted by musicologist Barret Hansen (a.k.a. Dr. Demento), the eclectic program featured fringe and comic classics, as well as the occasional home recording.
“I had made these joke songs on a bunch of crappy tapes I’d get for three for a dollar at Thrifty’s,” recalled Yankovic. “And they were horrible songs, poorly recorded, primitive in every definition of the word. But for some reason, Dr. Demento decided to play them on the radio.”
“What I noticed first was the accordion,” said Hansen, who still hosts his radio show on http://www.drdemento.com. “Accordions were as un-hip as you could get in 1976. But with Al, it didn’t seem to matter.
“The lyrics were funny, and they fit the music perfectly,” he said. “And the song got funnier as it went along, another thing most beginners can’t manage. The recording was crude but plenty good enough.”
With the mentorship of the good doctor and enthusiastic feedback from “Demento” show fans, Yankovic eventually transformed himself into “Weird Al.” Clad in an array of gaudy Hawaiian shirts, he set about skewing pop hits.
Writing the songs wasn’t half as difficult as getting the rights to perform warped versions of them. “It was a rough time with the first album, difficult to get phone calls returned,” said Yankovic. “But Michael Jackson really turned the key for me. When we did the video for ‘Eat It,’ which went into heavy rotation on MTV … I mean, people talk about overnight fame, but it was pretty literal for me. That video played on MTV, and the next day people were pointing at me on the streets and saying, ‘Look! It’s that, “Eat It” guy!’ “
Despite the sharpness of his satire, Yankovic never quite comes off as cruel. That’s what makes him unique in a genre that’s become increasingly brutal with the advent of YouTube and the countless living room comedians who use the platform to skewer artists.
“I think artists realize that what I’m doing is never meant to be mean-spirited,” said Yankovic, gazing out over his home’s stunning view of the Los Angeles basin. “Even when I’m poking fun at an artist like Nirvana or Lady Gaga, they realize it’s done with respect and I’m not trying to step on their toes. I won’t say I’ve never made jokes at someone else’s expense, but I do try to make jokes without throwing people under the bus.”
Yankovic smiles. “I like to say what I do is more like a poke in the ribs than a kick in the face.”