"Weird Al" Yankovic: my 10 greatest song parodies of all time
“I’m amazed that I’ve had such success," says Alfred Matthew Yankovic, better known as "Weird Al" Yankovic, who, since 1979, has kept his accordion-playing fingers on the pulse of popular culture via an impressive string of Grammy-winning, multimillion-selling song parodies. "Back when this all started, nobody wanted to hire me. It was like, ‘Oh, he'll be around for six months or so.’”
One of the keys to Yankovic's longevity is the unerring attention to detail he puts into his re-imagining of classic songs. “Beyond the humor of the lyrics, I want the music to be good. My guitar player [Jim Kimo West] will sometimes contact the original producer to find out what kind of pickups or amps were used on a particular song. We really strive for authenticity."
And if that means asking Ray Manzarek to guest on the song Craigslist (from the 2011 album Alpocalypse) to provide just the right Doors sound, as Yankovic sees it, "Hey, who better to go to? You want The Doors? Call up Ray Manzarek."
Since The Knack's Doug Fieger championed Yankovic and his treatment of My Sharona on 1979's My Bologna, Al has won considerable praise within the music community - the late Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobain counted themselves as huge fans. “It’s very gratifying when artists like what I do," says Yankovic. "It’s also a nice reflection on my band. We really work hard at this."
To that end, when producing music videos, Yankovic admits that he sometimes spends more time on his own clips than the original artists. "Doing the video for Smells Like Nirvana, I studied the size of the stripes on Kurt Cobain's shirt to get it just right," he says. "Kurt probably just pulled something out of a drawer and said, 'Oh, I'll wear this.'"
Whether or not Yankovic is required to seek permission from the writers and artists of the songs he parodies is a gray area, but he does so as a courtesy. "It's good to maintain healthy relationships," he says. "And I never want to get into a litigious area." When asked to name a marquee performer who has withheld permission, Yankovic answers without hesitation, "Prince. He's said no consistently. I contacted him several times in the ‘80s when he had a string of hits, and once or twice since then. I’ve kind of given up. It’s pretty obvious he’s not into the parody thing."
Luckily, there's plenty of artists who are in on the joke, and on the following pages, "Weird Al" discusses those song parodies he considers his greatest ever. "They're in no particular order," he stresses. "I tried to pick the fan favorites, those tracks that have gotten the best response."
White & Nerdy (2006)
“I’m fond of saying that it’s my most autobiographical song to date. I didn’t have to do a lot of research - I’ve been white and nerdy my entire life. I was valedictorian of my high school at age 16, the kind of guy people would copy off of in math class and beat up at recess.
“The video was a lot of fun. I got to work with Donny Osmond, Seth Green, Judy Tenuta. Even in an age where most people don’t pay for music, it’s been my highest-selling single – my only platinum single, actually, so that says a lot. In many ways, it’s surpassed Eat It as my most iconic song.”
Amish Paradise (1996)
“The lead track off of Bad Hair Day. When I heard Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio, I thought that a song about the Amish lifestyle would be really funny because it’s diametrically opposed to gangsta life.
“I visualized a video in which I’d be on the mean streets of Lancaster, Pennsylvania doing my gangsta-Amish thing. For a second, we were going to actually shoot it in Lancaster, but it wasn’t in the budget, so we had to recreate an Amish town in California.
“At first, Coolio wasn’t so fond of it. He went on record saying that he had never given permission, but I was told by my record label that he had. That’s all water under the bridge now. Everything’s fine. I ran into him a couple of years ago and we hugged it out.”
Smells Like Nirvana (1992)
“People were talking about how the Nirvana song was a little bit indecipherable, that you couldn’t figure out the lyrics, so I wrote a song about that. I was very happy to do this song because I was a big fan. I didn’t think Nirvana would get big enough for me to do a parody, but when they hit number one, I was thrilled.
“I talked to Kurt Cobain on the phone when he on the set of Saturday Night Live and got his permission. The whole thing was very fun for me to do. We got a lot of the extras who were in the original video, the same cheerleaders, and we even found the janitor – as it turned out, he was the plumber of the director.
“I don’t know if we spoke to Butch Vig or not for production tips. My band is really good, though, so they picked apart the song and gave it their best shot.”
“This was my second Michael Jackson parody. It was me going back to the well in a way. It was a few years since my last big hit, and I thought doing a Michael Jackson food-based song was a can’t-miss scenario. As soon as I saw Michael’s Bad video, I got the idea of me trying to go through subway turnstiles as an 800-pound guy in a buckle suit.
“I wrote a song with as many fat jokes as I could cram into it. The video was shot on Michael Jackson’s subway set in Culver City. It took four hours of prosthetic makeup every morning to transform me into the character. We were able to hire a number of plus-sized dancers to play the other gang members. It was very surreal.
“It was a concern for me that Michael might think we were being offensive, but as it turned out, I didn’t get a lot of grief from it. My song was exaggerated but very positive. It’s an anthem for fat people. It's empowering.”
“I wrote this one before I had a record deal, back when I was in college, in 1980, the year that The Empire Strikes Back came out. But it didn’t come out until my third album, Dare To Be Stupid. It’s a fan favorite. I think I’ve played it at every single concert.
“The reason it didn’t get on an album until 1985 was because it took a while to get all the legal clearances. I was told that The Kinks had turned it down, and it wasn’t until that I had a chance meeting with Ray Davies at a Howard Stern show – and he was unaware that I even wanted to do a parody – that we were able to cut through the red tape and get it done.”
The Saga Begins (1999)
“My second Star Wars parody, from the Running With Scissors album. This was another big hit for me. We’ve been doing it live ever since it came out.
“I wrote the song prior to having seen the movie. I wanted to get it out there as soon as possible and to be timely. I didn’t have access to any script or screenings, so I had to write the song based solely on internet rumors. I went to various fan sites and tried to glean as much information as I could. Thankfully, those rumors proved to be 99 percent accurate.”
Another One Rides The Bus (1983)
“Maybe not one of my best, but I feel as though I need to include it historically because it was the first parody of mine that really took off. I think I wrote it in about 20 minutes.
“I played it live on the Dr. Demento Show one Saturday night, and it got so popular that the air-check of that performance was bootlegged around the world. It went viral in the days before YouTube and things that went viral.
“There’s a very sick joke in the song that a lot of people don’t get. I wrote it in 1980, and that was the year that some people were trampled to death at a Who concert. There’s a line that goes, 'I haven’t been in a crowd like this since I went to see The Who' – an early example of my very poor taste.
“I never spoke to Freddie Mercury personally, but the guys in Queen wound up approving it. This was done before I even had a record deal; I didn’t even think it would be released. Thankfully, when it came time, the band was OK with it. They had a great sense of humor.”
Like A Surgeon (1985)
“I haven’t played this one live in a while, but it’s one of my biggest hits. When we played it in the ‘80s, we’d wheel out a woman on a hospital gurney and I’d cut her in half with a chainsaw – that old magic trick.
“In the ‘90s, when Madonna did her Truth Or Dare movie, we did this whole Egyptian vibe where I’d come out on a big velvet platform, and I’d ride around in my surgeon garb. My keyboard player would wear this ridiculous cone bra, and he’d be doing this stupid dance. We always had a lot of fun with it.
“Madonna didn’t write the song, so I didn’t have to go to her for permission. Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly were the writers. But I did talk to Madonna after the fact, and she was fine about it.”
Perform This Way (2011)
“My most recent video, and it’s certainly my most elaborate in terms of costumes. I counted at some point, and I think I have 27 separate looks in the video. It was really a tour de force for our makeup and wardrobe team.
“I’ve never met Lady Gaga or even spoken with her yet, but I’m hoping that happens soon. I have an enormous amount of respect for her, and I’m very thankful that she allowed me to do the parody.”
“This was a surprise because it was never intended to be a hit single. It’s from the album Poodle Hat, on which I had the song Couch Potato, my Eminem parody – that’s the one I thought would be a hit.
“We didn’t do a video for Couch Potato, on Eminem’s request. Meanwhile, the eBay song really caught on and went viral; it’s been one of my most downloaded songs on iTunes.
“I was going to shoot a video for eBay, but right at the same time, eBay started doing all of these commercials with song parodies. I think they did Frank Sinatra’s My Way as ‘I did it eeee-Bayyyyyy.’ I didn’t want my parody to come off as a commercial for eBay. In retrospect, I probably should have done a video because it would have been one of my biggest hits.”