For over 30 years, “Weird Al” Yankovic has been entertaining fans with his parodies, original songs, polkas, and other forays into pop culture (including his 1989 cult classic movie, UHF and his CBS television show The Weird Al Show). His name has become synonymous with humorous music, so much so that parodies he didn’t write are attributed to him. He’s won five Grammy awards and has been nominated for several others. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His 2014 album, Mandatory Fun, climbed to number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart. He’s been “Simpson-ized,” has lent his voice to numerous cartoon characters, has made numerous appearances and cameos in television shows and movies, has performed live over a thousand times, and has outlasted many of the acts and artists he’s parodied.
Simply put, “Weird Al” Yankovic is both a musical and a pop culture icon that’s still going strong after 30 years. He recently completed his 77-show Ridiculously Self-Indulgent Ill-Advised Vanity Tour and in June he’s going back out on the road with his latest tour, the Strings Attached Tour. While his previous tour was a stripped-down, back-to-basics, MTV Unplugged-esque affair, his upcoming tour will return to the over-the-top format of previous tours…filled with parodies, fat suits, dancing Star Wars stormtroopers, and a new twist… a full orchestra backing up Al and the band!
I recently had a chance to ask Weird Al a few questions about his recently-completed tour, his upcoming tour, his career, and advice he has for other aspiring performers.
Scott (GNN): First, I’d like to congratulate you on some of your achievements over the last five years: Mandatory Fun hitting number one on the charts and winning a Grammy; your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, your Grammy win for your box set Squeeze Box; your Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour coming to an end after 77 shows in North America; and your upcoming Strings Attached Tour.
At this point in your career, do you see these milestones as a natural progression of your career, or do they still hit you as, “Wow, I can’t believe this happened!”?
“Weird Al” Yankovic (Al): Thank you. It’s kind of hard for me to believe that any of this has happened. I’m amazed every day that I still even get to do this crazy stuff for a living, so any awards or recognition beyond that is really just icing on the proverbial cake.
GNN: Speaking of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, was that an idea that had been brewing for a while, or was that just something that sort of hit you one day?
Al: I kind of had an epiphany near the end of the Mandatory World Tour. I was backstage during a show, frantically changing into my “Fat” suit for the thousandth time, when I thought, “Gee, I wonder if I could ever just go out on stage without any of this crazy production and play – y’know – like a normal band?” Also, my favorite part of the set on that tour happened to be the Unplugged Medley, where we would all just sit on stools and do these faux-serious versions of my “greatest hits.” Anyway, I just thought that after doing basically the same kind of high-octane multimedia show for over three decades, I wanted to mix it up and try something really different.
GNN: I attended your Augusta, Georgia show and the place was pretty crowded and the folks around me seemed pleased by the set list. Was the response to the tour about what you expected? Better? Worse? You made it clear, to a pretty ridiculous level, that this wasn’t going to be like your regular tours. Were there still some people who were disappointed that you didn’t don the fat suit?
Al: Well, there were almost always a couple people in the crowd that left disappointed because I wasn’t playing the hits – but as you pointed out, I made it extremely clear in advance exactly what this tour was going to be, so I’m afraid that’s on them! Anyway, yes, overall, I was incredibly pleased by the reaction to the tour. We were playing much smaller venues by design, but honestly, I wasn’t expecting the shows to sell out virtually everywhere. The fan response was amazing. Some fans told me they had been waiting decades for a show like that.
GNN: While your next tour, The Strings Attached Tour, seems to be gravitating back to your “normal” tour, would you consider doing another tour like the “no frills tour” again?
Al: I know that a tour like that appeals to a much smaller subset of the fan base, but the people that did show up were really happy to be there. That tour was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime kinda’ thing, but honestly, that was the most fun I ever had on the road, so…who knows? I can’t absolutely guarantee that it’ll happen, but I would dearly love to bring the Vanity tour back one day.
GNN: Where did the idea for your latest tour, the Strings Attached Tour, come from? What can we expect at one of the shows in this tour?
Al: At their request, I did two nights of the Mandatory World Tour at the Hollywood Bowl, along with their orchestra. It was an unbelievable experience. Playing in front of an 85-piece orchestra – hearing them play songs like “Amish Paradise” and “Dare to Be Stupid” – that just kinda’ blew my mind. So, shortly after I decided that I was going to do the Vanity tour, I thought, “Well, I should follow my most bare-bones tour ever with my most over-the-top extravagant tour ever!” I didn’t know if we were actually going to be able to put together a full-on orchestral tour… but it sure looks like it’s happening now!
GNN: The Strings Attached Tour begins in June in Florida. Folks can get tickets and VIP packages at Weirdal.com and at venue-specific websites. VIP packages and post-show meet and greets have been a new part of the Weird Al concert experience. How have those worked out for you? I’ve attended a few of these and I’ve met some really nice people that are really big fans. Can you recall a fan interaction that stands out?
Al: I love doing the meet-and-greets with fans; it’s exciting for both of us! And I do tend to think I have the smartest, nicest, and coolest fans – but I may be biased. I ran into a lot of super-hardcore fans on this last tour. I think the fan that made the biggest impression was the one who showed me the larger-than-life tattoo of my face which he had on his back. Extremely flattering, and maybe just a tad scary? Anyway, I documented it on my Instagram page.
GNN: At GNN, we like to provide information to people who want to be artists, and authors, and musicians. I’d like to ask a few questions about how your career has developed over the years. I know you frequently mention how your parents enrolled you in accordion lessons as a kid, and the accordion has become your instrument of choice. At that point, were you already writing funny songs and parodies, or was your mom’s original idea to have you be a famous “serious” accordion player?
Al: I think I was writing funny/dumb songs since I was about eight years old – nothing worth remembering, but I knew pretty early on that I had a warped imagination. And I started taking accordion lessons right before my seventh birthday. I don’t really think my folks ever thought I’d play the accordion professionally – they just figured that if I played the accordion, I would be super-popular with my friends in high school!
GNN: You were a great student, weren’t you? You were your high school valedictorian and you got a degree in architecture. Was a career as an architect ever an actual option?
Al: Well, obviously *I* thought it was at one point, but sometime around my junior year in college, I realized that I wasn’t passionate about it, or even terribly interested in it, or really even that good at it. I still hung in there and got the degree, but I knew long before I graduated that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life designing houses. I feel extremely lucky that I was able to sign a record contract within a couple years after graduating – I honestly have no idea what kind of trajectory my life would have taken otherwise.
GNN: Were your parents supportive of your “weird” turn? In their appearances in your mockumentary (The Compleat Al) and some of your other shows, they seemed like great people who were really funny and enjoyed playing along. Was that always the case, or were they hoping you’d be the next mix of Frank Lloyd Wright and Dick Contino?
Al: My mother in particular was very skeptical of “Hollywood people” and I’m sure she had some reservations at first, but both my parents were always very supportive, and so thrilled and proud when I actually became somewhat successful. My dad always used to show my high school senior picture to the checkout person at the grocery store – “That’s my boy, Weird Al! You heard of him?”
GNN: After your initial success on Dr. Demento’s radio show, and your early success with your first album and In 3-D, when did you know you had really, “made it?” Was there a specific moment you remember or was it sort it a gradual realization?
Al: I guess it was a number of things. I remember when I first found out that my bathroom recording of “My Bologna” had been number one on the Dr. Demento top ten for two weeks in a row, I thought, “Well, that’s it – my life has peaked! It’s never going to get any better than this!” And then, thankfully, it proceeded to get better, many, many times over.
GNN: How hard was it to stay relevant and popular in the 80s and 90s? Now, with the various ways to “be seen” people can stay in the public eye almost 24/7. Were your popularity and visibility things you were always aware of or were you just happy writing and playing music?
Al: “Relevant” is a word that bugs me a little. I guess everyone wants to be “relevant,” but it just seems calculated and weird to make that the goal in and of itself. I just do what I enjoy doing, and try to get a little better at it each time, and hope that other people like what I’m doing too. I guess these days, things like social media keep me in the public eye during those long stretches when I’m not touring or releasing new music, but I do it because it’s fun for me, not because I’m feeling pressure to be “relevant.”
GNN: Was there ever a period on the “Weird Al Timeline” that you were kind of down on performing? If so, when? And how did you deal with that feeling? Because whenever that time period was, you’ve come out of it in a big way!
Al: I’ve always enjoyed performing. I can’t say I was ever “down” on performing, but as I mentioned, I was starting to feel like the live shows were in a bit of a rut, which is why I was excited about trying new things like the Ill-Advised Vanity Tour and the Strings Attached Tour. But it’s always fun for me. As long as the audience is having a good time, I am too.
GNN: Was there ever a time where you said to yourself or others, “You know, I just want to be Al Yankovic and play “serious” music!”? Maybe repackage yourself like the album art from Alapalooza…
Al: Ha! Well, not as such. Every now and then I do things which aren’t inherently funny – like all the cover songs we did on the last tour – but I don’t really have any desire to change direction entirely. And I should note that I do generally just go by “Al Yankovic” when I’m not performing (for example, when I’m writing, directing, or producing) – but that doesn’t mean I’m not still weird on the inside!
GNN: You’ve maintained popularity for over 30-plus years. I know there’s no single piece of advice that you could give that will magically lead to success, but can you at least provide some advice…maybe one thing someone should do and one thing they shouldn’t do to help their chances of being seen in a crowded entertainment world? Anything you’ve learned throughout the years?
Al: What you should do: Figure out what you love to do, and then go out there and do it – even if you’re not that good at it – because with enough practice and real-world experience, someday you will be good at it. What you shouldn’t do: Go on a tri-state killing spree. It’s just really frowned upon, and will not help your chances in the slightest.
GNN: One thing I’ve always wanted to know, since a lot of your music is centered on pop culture, how easy or hard is it for you to turn off that part of your brain and just enjoy a song or a movie? Is there always at least one little portion of your brain dedicated to that or is it simple for you to just switch off, sit back, and, “Netflix and chill?”
Al: It’s pretty easy for me to shut that off. I’m a big fan of pop culture, and I never go to movies or listen to albums thinking, “Hmm, how I can I make this funny? How can I screw this up?” I focus on that when I’m in my writing mode, but then it’s a very conscious decision.
GNN: I always like to ask performers this question: if you had a magic lamp that had a “green light genie” in it that would green light any project you could think of, regardless of budget, what would it be? Is there something you haven’t done in your career that you’d like to do? Another movie? A television show? I still think the world needs an “Accordion Hero” video game…but that’s just me.
Al: I would love to be a voice actor in a Pixar movie. I get a huge kick out of voice acting, and I’ve done quite a bit of it on television, but for some reason I haven’t gotten many feature offers. Also at some point in my life, I think perhaps I’d like to write a musical… we’ll see.
GNN: So, other than the tour, is there anywhere else people will be seeing or hearing Weird Al in the near future?
Al: Oh, you’ll see me popping up here and there. And I’m the voice of Milo Murphy, so you can hear me on Milo Murphy’s Law, which airs every Saturday morning on the Disney Channel.
GNN: Just a couple more questions. First, a lot of people “geek out” when they meet you…Lonely Island, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Is there anyone you’ve met recently that you’ve “geeked out” on?
Al: Well, I’m a huge fan of both the Lonely Island and Lin-Manuel, so even though we’re friends, I’m pretty geeked to know them too!
GNN: Speaking of geeking out, last question…what is Weird Al geeking out on right now? Music? Television?
Al: More television than music lately. I’ve got some down time these days, so I’ve been binge-watching a lot of shows on TV with my family.
GNN: That’s about it. Thanks for your time and good luck on your upcoming tour!
Al: Thanks – it was a pleasure!