BWW Interview: 'Weird Al' Yankovic Talks About Broadway, Nerd Life, Jelly Donuts, and Touring with a Symphony

BWW Interview: 'Weird Al' Yankovic Talks About Broadway, Nerd Life, Jelly Donuts, and Touring with a Symphony

I get a little nervous right before calling "Weird Al."

It wasn't so long ago - well, 22 years ago - that I picked up the phone at age 11 and called Scotti Bros. Records (his label at the time) and asked if I could work for Mr. Yankovic. I don't remember what they said, except that it was nice and a no.

"Little boy Aaron would be freaking out right now," my sister texted me last week when she learned I'd be interviewing one of my major-league childhood idols. Grown-up Aaron was just trying to keep his cool.

Nerd culture has gradually gone mainstream, and now to some extent it's cool to be one, but that wasn't always the case, and it's probably fair on some level to credit "Weird Al" with the revolution.

To me - and to millions of '90s kids like me - "Weird Al" was the nerdyfunnysmart to TLC's crazysexycool.

"Al's work was silly but also intellectual," I wrote in my review of his new STRINGS ATTACHED concert tour last month, "and he was the rare recording artist who got rich and famous principally because of his brains. To boot, his persona seemed genuinely good-spirited and unaffected. And his pervasive presence in pop culture meant he was accepted, and by extension, so were you."

As it happens, the opportunity to chat with Al today grew out of that concert review.

Imagine my surprise when I call and he answers with an earnest, "Hi, it's Al!"

No agents fielding the call, no pushy handlers interrupting every five minutes, no impatient sighs from an artist eager to get off the phone. I'd talked to his manager a few times leading up to the interview (itself pretty awesome, because his manager is none other than Jay Levey, director of Al's big-screen cult classic, UHF). But now it's just me and Al - the one I'd come to "know" through years of watching other peoples' interviews with him and endless cycles of The Compleat Al on VHS: friendly, funny, humble, down-to-earth, and genuinely a nice guy.

We talk about his new STRINGS ATTACHED tour - which happens to be his biggest and most extravagant ever (and for "Weird Al," that's saying a lot) - his Broadway bucket list, whether he's changed his mind on doing a new Star Wars song, what it was like to grow up as an uncool genius, why no one needs to look forward to his death, and his affection for a certain stuffed pastry, among other things....


AW: You rocked the world of Broadway nerdom with "The Hamilton Polka"...

AY: (Laughs) Why thank you...

Have you ever considered a parody of a show tune?

Not as such. There are people that do that quite well already. Forbidden Broadway's done that for many years. There's been a number of shows that have had wonderful Broadway takeoffs and pastiches. So it wasn't something that was on the forefront of my mind. I'd like to try my hand at a Broadway musical one of these days, but I don't think it would be, like, any kind of direct parodies.

Yeah, we recently saw you take on Willy Wonka at The Hollywood Bowl and you've been in some musical comedy series like "Galavant," "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"... so I think the world is wondering, might we see you in a Broadway show at some point?

I wouldn't rule it out! There's nothing on the table right now. Obviously, I'm on the tour and that would preclude me doing anything else. But it's certainly something that I'm open to. It's definitely on the bucket list.

Taking Hamilton off the table, do you have an all-time favorite musical?

Ooh! Well, Hamilton WOULD be the #1... Hmmm...

...Okay, would you say you gravitate more to shows like Something Rotten that are more in the vein of musical comedy...

Yeah, I will say I gravitate more to the comedies. I'm more of a Book of Mormon guy than a Les Miserables guy. (Laughs.)

Your previous tour was focused on original songs and deep cuts, without the parodies so much. This time, with the STRINGS ATTACHED tour, you've gone in the extreme opposite direction: the parodies are back and you've got a full symphony. Is it fair to call this, I don't know, an "experimental phase" of touring for you?

My whole life has been an experiment. (Laughs.) I'm just trying to see what's going to work.

But yeah, I'm trying a lot of different things because, you know, I've been doing the same kind of tour for a couple of decades. And it was very successful, and the fans were enjoying it. But I kind of felt like I needed to break out of my routine, and instead of just playing the hits with the costumes, and the props, and the big-screen video, and all that, I thought, "Well, what can I do that would be different to mix it up?"

And so last year we did the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, which was as stripped down as we could possibly make it. And this year, we're going - like you said - the whole other direction [with STRINGS ATTACHED]: bringing back the hits, bringing back the costumes, the props, and the videos, and adding background singers and a full symphony-orchestra. So I can't imagine us ever doing a bigger, more elaborate show than the one we're doing right now. It's something that I'm doing for me, and for the band, and for the fans. We're just trying to mix it up and make it exciting for everybody.

The fans seem to really feed off the energy of you having a good time on stage... I thought the whole energy of the show was, "We're all in this together, letting our weird flags fly."

Yeah! (Laughs.) That's the whole vibe. I think everybody has a good time. You saw one of the early shows [STRINGS ATTACHED in Melbourne, FL], so you saw one of the flop-sweat shows. We've been practicing, so we're a little better now. (Laughs.)

How does an accordion mesh with a 41-piece orchestra?

Well, to be honest, I save the according for the end of the show, because when you've got four dozen people on stage, the accordion doesn't tend to be the featured instrument anymore. So we're trying to feature the orchestra as much as possible within the context of a rock show. So it's not an accordion-driven tour (laughs), but the accordion does make an appearance.

BWW Interview: 'Weird Al' Yankovic Talks About Broadway, Nerd Life, Jelly Donuts, and Touring with a Symphony
Photo Credit: TRACY MAY

I've heard you tell the story over the years of how Prince, famously, passed on your proposals for various parodies, and you've respectfully abided by those wishes even if you didn't necessarily have an obligation to do so. I'm curious if that policy also extends to your "style parodies," where you're not tackling a specific song but rather an artist's general sound.

Yeah, I suppose so. I generally don't ask permission to do the pastiches, but if I knew in advance that they weren't into it... I pride myself on not offending people, and particularly artists, so... I would back away.

How would you say pop music has changed since you started parodying it, maybe not even necessarily the industry but the music itself?

You could write books about that. You know, pop music always changes. It's ephemeral. It's always evolving into something else. Certainly, pop music sounds different today than it did in the '80s. But I think the biggest change, and I know it wasn't part of the question, but I really do think the biggest change is just the way that music is distributed and the way that people consume it - and our perception of it because we don't live in a mono culture anymore where, you know, in the '80s, you watched MTV and they had a playlist, and those were the songs you knew. Nowadays, it's fragmented, it's splintered, everybody's into their own particular subgenre. And it's a little bit harder these days even to identify what the big hits are.

And you've said that change, in part, has informed your decision to walk away from the album as a format and to look at other types of releases, so do you have your eye on any new music for fans, and how might that make its way into the world?

AY: I know it's a disappointing answer, but I'm not really focused on that right now. I don't have my antenna out, so to speak. (Laughs.) I definitely do plan to be releasing more music and doing more parodies and all that, but I've got other things that I've been trying to develop... stuff I can't talk about presently - sorry! - various feature film and TV projects, and music projects as well. They're all in various stages of, uh, "predevelopment," I guess let's say.

So I haven't been focusing a whole lot on [releasing new songs]. But I certainly intend at some point in my life to get back to doing that.

I know I made a big deal about, "I'm not doing anymore albums so I can release songs whenever I feel like it!" And apparently I haven't felt like it too much in the last few years. (Laughs.) But that's not permanent! I'm sure I'll come back to it at some point.

I know you didn't start using the name "Weird Al," at least professionally, until you were a little older... but did you feel "weird" as a kid?

AY: I suppose yeah, I mean... I was never the cool kid. I was always the prototypical nerd. One reason is I was younger than my classmates. I started high school when I was 12, which already puts you at a disadvantage. Beyond that, I was one of these studious straight-A students. You know, I was valedictorian of my high school - I was a true nerd. So I was not a social butterfly. I was not ever one of these kids that was popular in school. So... I forgot what the question was! (Laughs.)

(Laughs) You answered it!

Okay!

Speaking of kids, I've heard you say, "Ask anyone what their favorite 'Weird Al' album is, and it's the one that came out when they were 12."

Right! (Laughs.)

...Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe your daughter would have been around that age when Mandatory Fun came out. So is that her favorite?

Oh! That's about right! Yeah! Well, you know, I've never asked her! That's a good census question for me to ask her at some point. She's always enjoyed my music, but I'm not sure... yeah, I don't even know what her favorite songs would be! I'll have to ask her. That's a good question!

On the subject of things that I guess are kind of weird - in a wonderful way - it occurred to me that you might be the only artist in history to mention jelly donuts in more than one song. What is it about jelly donuts?

[Editor's note: Al gets a big kick out of this.]

(Laughs). I don't know! There are some random things like that that just strike me as funny. Frank Zappa would call it "conceptual continuity." But it's just like, every now and then, there's some object or thing that I find - "Oh, I've mentioned staplers in four songs! I've mentioned tater tots in three songs!" You know? (Laughs.) It's like, I don't know why, but these things just keep randomly occurring in my lyrics.

BWW Interview: 'Weird Al' Yankovic Talks About Broadway, Nerd Life, Jelly Donuts, and Touring with a Symphony
Photo Credit: TRACY MAY

I've heard you say that you don't write a lot of music outside of comedy. But if you were ever to do an album of "serious music" - even hypothetically - do any of your existing original songs sound like the type of music you would make?

Not every song that I've released is a pastiche, but even my original songs do tend to owe a lot musically to other acts. And then there are some songs where you kind of go, "Eh, that doesn't really sound like anybody..." and I don't know if you'd say that's my particular sound or not.

Even in that context, I think that I don't have a particular personal style or genre that you could consider my genre. I tend to enjoy music that's classified as "alternative." I like stuff that's a little quirky and left of center that's not necessarily comedic. So if I had a genre, it'd probably be something like that. But yeah, it's a tough thing to answer.

How do you go about creating a setlist that balances parodies vs. originals, big hits vs. fan favorites and deep cuts, etc.?

It's always a challenge, and particularly for this tour, for a number of reasons. We normally do at least a two-hour-long show. But for this particular tour, I was told up front that we could only have it 90 minutes because that is the absolute limit, union-wise, that we could have the orchestra playing.

So in those 90 minutes, we had to put in as many fan favorites and hits as possible, but also I wanted to throw in a deep cut or two. And primarily, I wanted to feature songs that sound great with an orchestra... There are a couple songs we've never played ever on stage before. But I wanted to make sure that, since this may be the only time we ever tour with an orchestra, to play the songs where the orchestra is featured.

In terms of crafting a parody, how much leeway is there to make changes, either to the original rhythm or melody, or maybe even to the original artist's vocal inflections?

Well, you know, I give myself as much freedom as I want, but part of the fun of my parodies - maybe not so much in my early years, but later on - is that I try to match it as closely as possible. Because humor is all about leading somebody down a path and then taking a sharp left turn. So my favorite thing is when people listen to one of my parodies on the radio and then all of a sudden the lyrics start, and they go, "Wait a minute! Those aren't the words!" (Laughs.) So to lead them down the path, you have to make it as close to the original as possible.

When The Force Awakens came out, everybody said, "When's the next Star Wars song coming!?" And at the time, you said you were disinclined to do that. We're close to the third new Star Wars chapter now. Any change of heart where that's concerned?

Well, yeah, that was my stock answer 20 years ago... "I do a Star Wars parody every 20 years, like clockwork." (Laughs.) And actually, this is the 20th anniversary of my last Star Wars parody. So people are like, "WELL!? Where is it?" (Laughs.) And the real answer is I kind of just didn't want my show to become "The Star Wars Show." Because I've already got two big fan favorites, which I sort of have to play (laughs). And if there were any more than that, I think it would just become an inappropriately large percentage of the concert.

If I were to write a third Star Wars song, the best-case scenario would be... I'd have three Star Wars songs I'd have to play. And the worst-case scenario is I'd write a Star Wars song that nobody liked. So neither one of those seem appealing to me (laughs).

I'm sure you've at least toyed with or jotted down a lot of songs none of us have ever heard, but I'm curious as to how many of those have actually been recorded. Is there a vault of unreleased "Weird Al" material waiting for people a century away?

No! So there's no need to look forward to my death! (Laughs.) Because there's none of that kind of stuff. I'm very conservative about what I actually go in and record. Growing up, I heard about all these songwriters [who would say], "Oh, I write 40 songs before breakfast, and I write 100 songs for each album, and we record 40 of them, and we put 12 on the album."

Instead of doing that, I write 12 songs, and I record 12 songs, and I release 12 songs. That's what you get! (Laughs.) That's what I do! And I just make sure all my effort is concentrated into making those songs as good as they can be.

And they all are. On that note, let me just say thank you for taking time to talk with me... and with Broadway fans. I have to tell you, I'm a writer by trade today, but growing up as a kid, truly, you were one of my biggest writing idols and inspirations, and so it means a lot to be able to chat with you.

That's so nice to hear! Thank you so much! I really appreciate that.

BWW Interview: 'Weird Al' Yankovic Talks About Broadway, Nerd Life, Jelly Donuts, and Touring with a Symphony
Photo Credit: TRACY MAY

The North American "WEIRD AL" YANKOVIC: STRINGS ATTACHED tour is just getting started, with nearly 50 cities left to go in the U.S. and Canada (and at eight of those shows, he's expanding the orchestra size to 71). To get tickets, visit the official "Weird Al" website.


Are you a fan of "Weird Al"? Thoughts on our chat? Are you planning to get tickets for the tour? Let me know on Twitter: @AaronWallace

Top Photo Credit: ROBYN VON SWANK
Live Concert Photos Credit: TRACY MAY



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