STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
A phone chat with the all-time king of musical comedy “Weird Al” Yankovic is more normal than weird.
“I’m pretty chameleon-like,” said Yankovic, who lives in California with his wife and daughter. “I’m not going to be all wacky unless I’m going on a morning radio show (goes into a mock, over-the-top radio DJ voice): ‘Hey, it’s Goober and the Pea’! …”
You’ll get to see exactly how chameleon-like he can be when the “Mandatory World Tour” comes to the Mann Center in Philadelphia July 31. Yankovic promised a two-hour stage show with “a ton of costumes.” He’ll even don a costume during whatever polka medleys of comically out-of-context songs he and his band serve up. “Without giving anything away, this is one of the more costume-heavy shows you will see. A third of the show is video because of the costume changes,” he said, describing the video as fun and entertaining.
There’s even going to be “one or two things in the show not on any album,” he said. One possibility could be a parody song that’s never seen official release, usually because of a firm veto by the authors of the original song (Among these fan favorites are witty deconstructions of “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt, “Taxman” by The Beatles and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” by Billy Joel).
Those exceptions aside, it’s kind of a badge of honor in the music industry to get a song parodied by Yankovic, whose career has outlasted several of the singers he’s lampooned. Lady Gaga overrode her manager’s decision to refuse a Weird Al parody of “Born This Way” (“Perform This Way”).
Most understand that the humor is good-natured, and that the band will meticulously recreate the feel of the original song. In one case, the rock band Imagine Dragons were called upon, not only for permission, but for some technical support so that Yankovic could poke fun of their song “Radioactive,” with new lyrics about sedentary lifestyles.
“My band was having a tough time recreating the sounds. My drummer is friends with their drummer,” he said of recording “Inactive” for his latest album, “Mandatory Fun.”
Yankovic credits Michael Jackson — a singer he famously parodied twice in the ‘80s — for giving him a … well, weird … type of show business clout. Prior to the success of “Eat It,” Yankovic said, the vibe he’d get after requesting permission-to-parody was: “This Weird Al guy, I dunno …” After “Eat It,” however, the all-purpose trump card for an artist manager being difficult was: “Well, Michael Jackson was OK with it.” Yankovic joked that he’s not afraid to stalk an artist if his long-time manager, Jay Levey, isn’t getting return calls or emails from someone. Although meeting an artist face-to-face to ask permission is rare, Yankovic’s track record does include in-person approval from Iggy Azalea (“Handy”/“Fancy”), Kurt Cobain (“Smells Like Nirvana”/“Smells Like Teen Spirit”) and M.C. Hammer (“I Can’t Watch This”/“U Can’t Touch This”).
To say that Yankovic was caught off guard by his 14th album debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and winning a Grammy, is putting it mildly. “It was an intense reaction. I never felt so under the spotlight,” said the veteran entertainer, who first got radio airplay on the “Dr. Demento Show” in the ‘70s, when Yankovic was still in his teens. He still laughs about a proclamation made by a TV commentator on Fox Business that Yankovic “reinvented the Internet” by releasing eight “Mandatory Fun” music videos in eight days, each on a different website.
With the continual devolution of English grammar and punctuation thanks to texting, Twitter, etc., it was also a shocker that the song “Word Crimes” became a viral sensation. “‘Blurred Lines’ was already a year old,” Yankovic noted, mentioning the Robin Thicke/Pharrell hit that he took in a completely different direction.
“I know my fan base, and they’re grammar nerds,” he said. In fact, pockets of particularly rabid fans have been working on campaigns to get a Weird Al star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which Yankovic said he finds very flattering, but a probably futile effort.
When asked about the “Blurred Lines” plagiarism ruling, he replied: “I really think that Robin Thicke and Pharrell got a raw deal. ‘Blurred Lines’ was inspired by Marvin Gaye. I’d go as far to say a Marvin Gaye pastiche.”
Pastiche is another Weird Al calling card — an original song performed in the style of a certain artist. For example, “CNR” off 2011’s “Alpocalypse” is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the raw rock sound and creepy, cryptic lyrics of Jack White.
“Jack’s got a great sense of humor — great guy and super cool,” Yankovic said, when reminded that he performed part of a White Stripes song in 2003’s “Angry White Boy Polka” spoof of Eminem, metal, alternative and rap rock. There’s even a video on YouTube of Yankovic and his bandmates goofing around in a 1940s Voice-O-Graph recording booth at White’s Third Man Records in Nashville.
Believe it or not, the perpetually “White and Nerdy” Yankovic was resistent to creating Facebook, Twitter and YouTube profiles because he already had www.weirdal.com and a MySpace page. However, online Weird Al imposters (there really is such a thing) that were posting R-rated content forced the issue. “It was plain identity theft. The only way you can even battle it is an official presence,” he said of www.facebook.com/weirdal, @alyankovic and www.youtube.com/user/alyankovic. “I found I really loved it. I can think of something stupid and share it with 3.5 million people.”
Yankovic said that instant viral trends that are a byproduct of today’s technology means he’s becoming a singles artist, so that a song can be immediately released while the joke is still topical and at its freshest. “Me waiting till I have 12 songs at once isn’t the best way to release my stuff,” he stated.
Also, don’t hold your breath for another “Al TV” special on VH-1 or MTV. The Weird Al mock celebrity interviews have migrated online to the Nerdist Channel feature “Face 2 Face.”
One old favorite is back, though. Yankovic’s cult classic 1989 movie “UHF” — which for 25 years was only available on VHS, and starred a pre-“Seinfeld” Michael Richards and a pre-“The Nanny” Fran Drescher — got the DVD and Blu-ray treatment last year. The soundtrack featured Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler playing a signature guitar part on Yankovic’s “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies” mashup, as well as a polka medley of Rolling Stones songs, “Hot Rocks Polka.”
When asked if there’d ever be a Led Zeppelin polka medley, Yankovic said that Jimmy Page, despite being a Weird Al fan, had shot that down. But the guitarist did give his blessings to Yankovic’s band recording their own spot-on snippet of Led Zep’s “Black Dog,” which drops in out of nowhere in the R. Kelly parody “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” (“Trapped in the Closet”). “Apparently that was unprecedented,” Yankovic said of the infamous selectivity of how Zeppelin songs are revisited in pop culture.
Talented in more than just music, Yankovic has fallen in love with animation voiceover work — “may be my favorite thing ever,” he said. When pressed for his favorite roles, he named Cheese Sandwich on “My Little Pony,” Bananaman on “Adventure Time,” and an against-type baddie as The Dollmaker on “Batman vs. Robin.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Weird Al” Yankovic in concert.
When: 7:30 p.m. July 31.
Where: Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 5201 Parkside Ave., Philadelphia.
Info.: Call (800) 745-3000 or go to www.manncenter.org.