Think “musical parody” and the name “Weird Al” Yankovic immediately pops into your head. There’s really no other competition, or even comparison.
In fact, the biggest-selling comedy recording artist of all time is so beloved among the music world that top artists – including Lady Gaga, Madonna and the late Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobain – have long considered it a badge of honor for Yankovic to redo their songs, with the notable exception of Prince, whose sense of humor has never veered toward self-deprecating.
Yankovic brings his Mandatory World Tour to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday night in support of his 14th, and first chart-topping, album, “Mandatory Fun.” Not to disparage previous classic parodies such as “Eat It” (Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”), “Smells Like Nirvana” (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), “Like a Surgeon” (Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”) and “White & Nerdy” (Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’”), but the new album just might be Yankovic’s best yet.
On it, the pop prankster presents hilarious, brand-new spoofs including “Tacky” (Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”), “Foil” (Lorde’s “Royals”), “Handy” (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”) and “Word Crimes” (Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”), all made even funnier by their ingenious videos (check ‘em out on YouTube).
Yankovic will perform all of his masterpieces – plus an accordion-driven polka medley – on Saturday, backed by an outstanding band that skillfully recreates the original artists’ music. He talked to the Miami Herald about the show, how he chooses the songs he parodies, and whether Prince will ever loosen up.
How much of “Mandatory Fun” will we hear?
You’ll hear a pretty good representation of it. We’re definitely featuring a lot of the material from the new album, but I should mention that it’s also a pretty good retrospective of my whole career – we play pretty much all my greatest hits, and even one or two deep ones for our hardcore fans. It’s two hours, and we cram as much as we possibly can into it.
What’s the structure of the show?
We have a large LED video screen onstage, which we use to show video clips while we’re doing costume changes. And there are quite a few during the show – it’s a very theatrical kind of production. I dress up in a fat suit, we dress up in an Amish wardrobe, and I dress up like Kurt Cobain, so there’s a costume change for almost every song.
“Mandatory Fun” is your first No. 1 album. Is that a huge deal for you, and a big surprise?
Yeah, both. I mean, it was a huge surprise because a comedy album had never in history debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, and the last time a comedy album even got to No. 1 was over 50 years ago. So it was one those kinds of things where I never figured it was gonna happen, and it was a huge thrill for me, and I’ll always be very proud of that. I’ve been obsessed with the Billboard charts for many years – I mean, part of my job description is following the Billboard charts and analyzing them, so the charts mean a lot to me, and it’s kind of a surreal experience to have my album there at the top.
And all the new videos had to help as well, especially the one for “Tacky,” with Jack Black and Margaret Cho and all those stars. How did you get them to join in?
Well, I looked in my address book, and I started with Jack Black, because I knew he would knock it out of the park. I called a number of people and a lot of them were not available on that particular day, but a lot of them were – I obviously got Eric Stonestreet, and Margaret Cho you mentioned, Aisha Tyler and Kristen Schaal, and we had a great time. It was a very quick shoot, and probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a video shoot.
I Imagine you let Pharrell Williams know that “Tacky” was not a comment about him personally?
Well, yeah [laughs]. I did tell him it was called “Tacky,” and I’m pretty sure I mentioned that it was in no way a personal reference to him – it was just about people that had tacky behavior and made tacky sartorial choices.
When you choose a song to parody, do you have any criteria that you always follow?
When I come up with an idea, I always ask myself if this idea is enough that it’s gonna be funny three minutes into it. Some are funny as a high concept, but after you reveal the gag in the first chorus, there’s nowhere to go from that – it’s sort of like, “OK, there’s the pun, there’s the joke, and now what do you do?” So a lot of it’s about, is there enough comedic potential here that you can still be telling jokes three-quarters in and it’s still funny.
Do you have to personally like the song?
You don’t have to – that’s not really a requirement, but having said that, I do tend to actually like the songs that I parody. And also, I don’t really hate any kind of music. I don’t think anything really drives me up the wall at this point.
It’s become a badge of honor for artists to get a parody from you. Do they reach out to you often?
I can’t say that they do, although I have been at various industry parties and functions where an artist will come up to me and say, “Hey, when are you going to get around to doing one of my songs?” And I think it’s more just making conversation and being social, you know? I’m not sure if they’re being facetious or earnest about that, but it’s nice that when I do ask for permission, more often than not, they’re quite flattered by it.
Who are some artists who surprised you the most by loving your parody?
Oh gosh. I don’t know how surprised I am, but I’ve heard a lot of great things from artists over the years. I mean, Lady Gaga called my parody a rite of passage, and one of my favorite quotes is from Kurt Cobain – he said that he didn’t realize that [Nirvana] had made it until he heard the Weird Al parody.
You’re actually a very talented singer – do you ever wish you got more credit for that?
I think I get plenty of credit. Sometimes I feel bad for my band because I feel that sometimes people think they’re a joke band, that because we play comedic material that somehow there’s not a lot of craft involved. But actually the opposite is true: I mean, they play everything from polka music to gangsta rap, and they do every genre imaginable. They’re extremely talented guys. Every now and then somebody will dismiss me or dismiss them, but I think they’re just ignorant of what we really do.
When you’re driving around listening to the radio, will a lyric suddenly pop into your head randomly?
Sometimes. Every now and then an idea will just strike me spontaneously while listening to the radio, but more often than not it’s a bit more analytical than that: It’s me defining what songs would be good candidates for parody, and then me sitting down and figuring out every possible variation on a theme. So it’s a lot more calculated than that normally.
Sometimes when I’m in a writing mode, I’ll keep a laptop right by my bed because some of my best ideas strike me in the middle of the night, so I always have it handy just in case, because I can never remember it in the morning, of course.
What are you most proud of?
I always say that my most recent album is my best one, and I sincerely feel that way about “Mandatory Fun” – I like to think that I’ve been getting better over the years as a songwriter and performer, and this is one of the few occasions where people have seemed to agree with me.
Why did you choose to learn the accordion?
I don’t think that I was the on
e who chose the accordion – I think my parents might have chosen that for me. I started taking lessons before I turned 7 years old, and I’m not exactly sure why they picked accordion lessons – I think they just wanted me to be really popular in high school.
How did that work out?
Well, it’s been working out pretty well so far. I think my parents had my whole career in the back of their mind – they knew that at one point I would be at the forefront of America’s accordion-rock movement.
What was your true big break?
It’s hard to say, because I’ve had so many big breaks. Dr. Demento playing my material on the radio for the first time was a huge thing, because prior to that I had no conception of ever having any kind of public forum for my work. I never thought that people would listen to my music outside of my immediate family. And getting the record deal was a huge break, getting airplay on MTV was a huge break, getting permission from Michael Jackson was a huge break. There’s a number of things that happened along the line where I was very fortunate and the planets aligned and all the gears kicked into place.
Speaking of planets aligning, has there been any word from Prince about the ice possibly melting, allowing you to do something with his songs?
[Laughs] Well, honestly, I haven’t approached him in about 20 years, so I don’t know what his temperament is these days toward parodies. I did get the message loud and clear in the ’80s and early ’90s that he wasn’t quite so much into it. And there’s nothing really right now that I’d want to do from Prince – I mean, any idea that I had back then would be pretty dated by now. And even though Prince is a legend, he hasn’t really had a song at the top of the charts, which is what I tend to look for in terms of source material. So I wouldn’t actively go out right now asking for permission, but if he happens to come up with something and I had a good enough idea for it, I wouldn’t hesitate to see what he thinks about it.