STORY WRITTEN BY GARY GRAFF
firstname.lastname@example.org, @GraffonMusic on Twitter
Terrorist attacks. Civil unrest. Zika virus. The nastiest presidential campaign ever.
Could there be a time when we need Weird Al Yankovic more?
The accordion-playing parodist has been at it for nearly 40 years, since syndicated cult radio host Dr. Demento first aired “My Bologna” — Yankovic’s take-off on the Knack’s “My Sharona” — on his show. Since then, there’s 13 albums — the latest of which, “Mandatory Fun,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 2014 — a feature film (1989’s “UHF”), four Grammy Awards and a slew of ancillary work in the TV and film worlds. Yankovic performs on Aug. 30 at The Playhouse on Rodney Square in Wilmington, Del.
He’s been making us laugh for a long time, and Yankovic is still doing it at a time when we really need a few yucks. But, he contends, “That’s not at the forefront in my mind when I’m out on stage.”
“I have heard a lot of people say my music gets them through some tough times, and we’re all going through some tough times these days,” Yankovic, 56, says by phone from Los Angeles. “There are relatively few points in time when you can’t say things are pretty bad.
“Humor definitely helps alleviate that to some extent. It does serve a valuable service in those time, obviously. Even though what I do is ostensibly silly, it does fulfill a pretty deep need in some people’s lives. I’m not necessarily trying to do that, but I’m happy if it does that.”
Don’t, however, expect any political discourse from Yankovic during this year’s run of his Mandatory World Tour.
“No, absolutely not,” he says. “I’ve always stayed away from politics, these days more than ever. Even if you make an innocuous joke on Twitter that’s the slightest bit political, it’s like kicking a hornet’s nest. People get so upset. ‘I’m never gonna spend another dime on your horrible music!’ So I’ve learned not to do that. I like to keep whatever fan base I’ve got.”
Besides, Yankovic adds, “Political humor doesn’t age very well.”
“If I do any song about Trump or Bernie Sanders, a couple of weeks later it might not be as timely or topical or make as much sense, for any number of reasons.”
And Yankovic is the master of timeless — and, of course, mandatory — fun.
He’s parodied hits by a who’s-who of pop icons, including Michael Jackson, Queen, Madonna, Eminem, Joan Jett, James Brown and many more. The artists love it as much as the audience. Nirvana’s late Kurt Cobain famously commented that he felt his band had “made it” when Yankovic parodied the group’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as “Smells Like Nirvana” in 1992.
And filmmaker George Lucas granted rare permission for Yankovic to use the plot of “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” for 1999’s “The Saga Begins,” which used the melody from Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
There have been occasional turn-downs, of course (Prince, Paul McCartney, James Blunt), and some mishaps — most famously when rapper Coolio maintained that he never gave permission for Yankovic to base 1996’s “Amish Paradise” on his “Gangsta’s Paradise.” And a prolonged and public negotiation to do Lady Gaga’s “Born this Was” (“Perform This Way”) that was only settled when Yankovic was able to take it to Gaga herself.
But rest assured he’s never been wanting for material.
“I always start with the originals, ‘cause those age better,” Yankovic explains. “So I get those in hand and I always do the parodies last so they can be as fresh and timely and topical as possible. It’s kind of difficult to ascertain when something’s gone mainstream or made some kind of mark on the zeitgeist.”
He has help making that determination these days from his 13-year-old daughter, Nina. She assured him of Iggy Azalea’s popularity, which led Yankovic to parody her hit “Fancy” as “Handy” on the “Mandatory Fun” album. And Nina will likely continue her advisory capacity as Yankovic starts working on his next album amidst other projects when the Mandatory Tour wraps this year.
“If I’m considering a new song she’ll let me know if it’s hot in middle school. She’ll let me know if it’s at the tipping point when it’s ripe for me to do something with,” Yankovic says. “We’ve been listening to the ‘Hamilton’ soundtrack in the car for the past year. That’s our go-to jam.
“At some point in my life I would love to take a shot at writing a Broadway play. That’s something on the bucket list. It’s been bandied about, so hopefully that’ll happen at some point — as if I didn’t have enough to do, right?”