THE big surprise isn’t really that Weird Al Yankovic received Lady Gaga’s blessing when he parodied one of her hits with his composition Perform This Way.
It’s that Weird Al has been performing that way, and gaining the approval of the chart-topping stars whose songs he spoofs, for more than three decades, and shows no signs of losing the musical-mischief momentum that has generated a dozen gold records, a trio of Grammy Awards and some of the most memorable music videos since the dawn of the MTV age.
"It all seems like a pretty unlikely series of events," says Yankovic, 52, whose The Alpocalypse Tour makes a stop at the RBC Theatre at the MTS Centre tonight (7:30 p.m., tickets $33.75 and $55.25 at Ticketmaster). "I can’t believe that after all this time, I still get to be Weird Al for a living. I’m extremely grateful and thankful; I can’t imagine anything else I would rather be doing. Things have worked out pretty well for me."
That Yankovic would become the biggestselling comedy recording artist of all time probably seemed a bit beyond impossible when he was growing up in the South Central Los Angeles community of Lynwood, learning to play the accordion (his parents thought it was a better instrument choice than a guitar) and listening to rock ’n’ roll radio stations.
But along the way, Yankovic encountered the Dr. Demento Radio Show, and was fascinated by the musical-parody comedy created by the likes of Stan Freberg, Allan Sherman and Spike Jones. When Yankovic was a teenager, Dr. Demento made a live appearance at his high school, and not-yet-Weird Al handed him a homemade tape of comedy songs he’d recorded at home in his bedroom.
The rest, as they say… is pretty weird, Al.
With his early compositions getting airplay on Dr. Demento’s show, Yankovic began playing local coffeehouses, interrupting the sombre-folk flow with his wacky accordion riffs, and continued to rehash the lyrics of popular songs. In 1979, he turned The Knack’s My Sharona into My Bologna, landed a recording contract, and the musical-comedy career of "Weird Al" Yankovic was officially under way.
In 1984, he released his second album, which included Eat It, a parody of Michael Jackson’s Beat It. In addition to the attention it received for poking fun at the biggest music act on the planet, it also spawned a hugely popular video that was a perfect fit for the fledgling music station MTV.
"I think I’m an outlier, in the Malcolm Gladwell sense, because my career started the same time MTV did, and we kind of grew up together," he explains. "My original videos for MTV were really low budget and, frankly, not that good, but MTV was in desperate need of material to feed its 24-hour video pipeline, so I went into heavy rotation immediately. I got early exposure and early attention, and things just kind of snowballed from there."
Since then, Yankovic has become a prolific parody producer who’s unafraid to venture into any genre, or repurpose any artist’s work for comedic purposes. And in almost every case, the artists he has targeted consider parody to be a rather high form of flattery.
"I’m always gratified when someone reacts positively," he says. "Obviously, Michael Jackson was huge for me — it was early in my career, and to get that kind of thumbs-up from the most famous and popular person in the universe was no small deal.
"Lady Gaga recently called my parody a rite of passage and empowering; the guys from Nirvana told me that they didn’t realize they’d made it until they saw the Weird Al parody (of Smells Like Teen Spirit). I’ve heard a lot of great things from people I’ve parodied over the years."
A full 30 years into his career, Yankovic insists that as a musician, he has never felt limited by the comedy/parody persona that was created when he slapped the descriptive "Weird" in front of his first name.
"I’ve never felt trapped; there isn’t some deep, dark songwriter in me who’s yearning to get out," he says. "I enjoy my niche; I love doing comedy, and I feel blessed that I get to do for a living the thing that I feel passionate about.
"I never feel constrained, because I love doing it. And what’s cool about what I do is that I get to explore every genre imaginable. I never feel locked into a particular sound or vibe or musical style, because I get to do everything as part of my job. I get to shamelessly follow whatever trends are happening in pop culture. I can do literally anything I can think of, and it’s all fair game."
One of the bigger challenges Yankovic has faced, as a creature of the music-video age, is transforming his recordings and videos into a live concert show. He confesses that the inspiration for his live performances comes from a somewhat unlikely source.
"When I was growing up, I was a fan of Alice Cooper, and of the big stage productions he put on," he explains. "I live to think that I’m part of that lineage in that I’m trying to keep the theatrical aspects of rock alive.
"It’s impossible to re-create an entire music video live onstage, but we give it our best shot. We add a lot of production elements — film clips on a giant LED screen, costume changes, and of course, there’s me onstage with a live band. That’s something that has evolved over the course of my career — when I first started playing, it was just me with my accordion and my drummer banging on the accordion case for percussion.
"Over the years, it has just sort of snowballed, to the point that now it’s this travelling circus — there’s costumes and videos and computer servers ... we try to make sure the audience is always involved and there’s never a dull moment. We put on a show. The music is the heart of it, but we want to give people a spectacle."