A Quarter Century of Weirdness

So how weird is "Weird Al" Yankovic these days? Real weird, kinda weird, or not all that weird at all? It's a question worth asking, considering all the competition he's been accumulating in recent years. When he started doing his song-parody shtick more than 30 years ago (!) on the weird and wacky Dr. Demento radio show in L.A., he was something of a novelty who had the rock realm all to himself. Inspired by astute satirists of an earlier era — Stan Freberg, Tom Lehrer, Spike Jones, and Allan Sherman in particular — the former Alfred Matthew Yankovic etched his niche in the emerging world of MTV not only by parodying the hits of the day — the Knack's "My Sharona" ("My Bologna"), Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" ("Another One Rides the Bus"), Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" ("I Love Rocky Road"), and, most notably, Michael Jackson's "Beat It" ("Eat It") — but by turning them into lavishly produced videos. His spins on Jackson in particular generated huge requests, as Yankovic eerily morphed into a grotesquely overweight gloved one, gouging himself on massive quantities of foodstuffs while replicating The Glove's dance routines.

Nowadays, though, song parodies have become a staple of morning radio and YouTube. Likewise, any kid with a creative imagination, a little bit of insight, and a video camera can attain stardom in cyberspace, a fact Weird Al himself concedes.

"I'm certainly not the only person singing funny music or singing parody music," he acknowledged at a news conference prior to his current tour. "I mean, every other morning team in the world has got their parody writer, or they subscribe to a parody service... I'm fortunate that I've been able to sustain a career in doing music videos and albums at this level to the point where I'm perceived as the parody guy, which, you know, cuts both ways, but... I'm glad that people know me for something."

Indeed, they do, albeit as a kind of rock nerd whose tool of the trade is an accordion and genre of choice is principally a polka. He even parodied himself with his single "White and Nerdy," a takeoff on Chamillionaire's hit "Ridin'." The song struck a chord with geeks of all description, garnering more than 6 million hits on YouTube in just three weeks and propelling the album from which it sprang, Straight Outta Lynwood, to gold status and Billboard's Top Ten.

"I think people of that subculture, of which I'm proud to say that I am one, look at that song as a little bit of an anthem... a badge of honor," he says proudly. "It's having people take pride in their whiteness and nerdiness."

You also have to give the guy credit for keeping up with the times. "That's part of my job description," Al insists. "I get to shamelessly follow whatever's popular in culture." And even if he's not the only entertainer working at weirdness these days, he may be the only one with a Grammy to show for his efforts. Besides, Weird Al's multimedia stage show still ponies up the punch lines with plenty of theatrics and a surprisingly ample injection of high-octane rock 'n' roll.

It's only right, then, that Weird Al has the final word on his weirdness. "I guess it's all ironic," he concedes. "I don't really consider myself weird, you know, when I'm offstage. I kind of save it all up for when I'm performing, so I would say my weirdness, you know, refers to my material and to the fact that I'm kind of a madman on stage. But generally, you know, when I'm watering the plants in the backyard, I'm not that weird."

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Lee Zimmerman