By Stacey Harrison
Show of hands: Who thought the guy behind “Eat It” would still be making music — and arguably enjoying his biggest successes — nearly 30 years later?
Somehow, some way “Weird Al” Yankovic has stayed relevant. Through Michael Jackson’s many personas, Madonna, grunge, nu-metal, hip hop and countless other genre shifts, he’s kept his jovial parodies — which occasionally have more bite than you might expect — coming. His latest album, Alpocalypse, which is spearheaded by the Lady Gaga goof “Perform This Way,” scored his highest-ever chart debut. He’s currently touring in support of the album, but fans who can’t make it to a venue can catch a performance this weekend without leaving the house. “Weird Al” Yankovic Live! — The Alpocalypse Tour premieres at 9pm tonight on Comedy Central.
I spoke with Yankovic about how his live show has evolved over the years, and just how much TV and movies figure into his future:
Does your special consist of just a filmed concert or is there other material as well?
Yankovic: It’s pretty much just a flat-out spoiler for my [current] tour. The only thing it’s missing is all the interstitial material because in the actual live show we will do a few songs and then there will be films on a big screen that we use basically to fill time while we do costume changes. But on the Comedy Central show and on the upcoming DVD/Blu-ray I magically change costumes in about a second and a half. It’s amazing how that happens.
Once the concert is filmed, are you involved with editing it, or do you leave that to someone else?
Yankovic: I was very involved. Wayne Isham directed it, so bascially Wayne and his editors did a cut and then I came in and gave some notes and worked with them to revise the cut. I worked with the sound engineer … who mixed all the audio for the concert, and then Comedy Central re-edited the whole thing and, actually made it better. But I’m very involved in the post[-production] process as well. I don’t know if you’d call me obsessive-compulsive, but I pay a lot of attention to detail and I’m always very involved in all aspects of my output.
How has your show evolved over the years? Were costume changes and multimedia always such a big part of the experience?
Yankovic: It’s something that has always in a way been part of the live show, but it was very primitive back in the beginning. It’s just evolved and gotten bigger and better and more elaborate over the years. I think my very first actual tour, if you even want to call it that, the only allusion to multimedia was a 16 mm projector on which we played the “Ricky” music video. That was out of necessity, because it was our hit single at the time, and I was doing a duet with Tress MacNeille, who is the voice of Lucille Ball to my Ricky Ricardo. Tress wasn’t touring with us, so instead of having one of the guys in my band do a female voice, we thought, “You know, let’s just play the video.” The next year it was “Eat It” and I’ve got the Michael Jackson red, leather zipper jacket on the road. Then the costume changes started being a part of the show. Every tour, every year it just got bigger and better. That’s becoming the challenge now. We’re still trying to top ourselves every time out.
You’ve managed to keep your core band together — Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, Jim West and Steve Jay — for your entire career. Has that been difficult?
Yankovic: No, I’ve just been very lucky. It was amazing that I was even able to find those guys early in my career, because not only are they consummate professionals and incredible musicians, but frankly they’re just great guys. They’re grounded, they’re down to earth, they’re nice, they’re funny, they’re my friends. I like hanging out with them. I don’t get tired of playing with them. There’s no drama. There’s no Behind the Music moments on the road. We just get along and have a great time.
Yankovic: I don’t know if there’s anything that I want to do with the exclusion of other things. I still enjoy doing the music aspect of my career — the albums and the touring and all of that. But I’ve always said that I’d like to be more involved in television and feature films. I’m definitely trying to be more proactive about that now and put more effort toward accomplishing that. It’d have to make sense creatively, of course. I get offers all the time that I turn down for one reason or another. That’s the thing, is trying to find things that share my sensibility, or trying to pitch things with my sensibility that other people will see fit to greenlight. That’s always the challenge.
What are some of the reasons you turn down a TV or movie project?
Yankovic: Either it’s not funny, or if it’s mean-spirited. Basically, they’re things that are outside of my comfort level. I’ve gotten offers to be on a few reality TV shows, some of which are extremely popular. I don’t want to give any names, but I’m not a big fan of reality TV and plus I don’t feel comfortable doing that kind of thing. I’m at a good place in my career where I can turn down things just because I don’t want to do them, even if they’re good for my career. … I only do things if I feel they’re specifically right for me.
As the music industry splinters, and delivers very few songs that are universally as popular as songs were in the ’80s and ’90s, music videos are also going away. How has that affected what you do?
Yankovic: It’s been awhile since I’ve done a music video parody where it was specifically a shot-for-shot remake, for the simple reason that most people are not that familiar with music videos. It used to be more of a communal experience in the ’80s when people watched MTV, and MTV played music videos and if you were paying attention you became intimately familiar with every little detail of any given hit song’s music video. That’s not the case anymore. Like you pointed out, there are a lot of songs that don’t have a music video attached to them, and that means when I do my music videos now, same as with my straight song parodies, they have to be funny on their own merit. The jokes can’t be that I’m just twisting what was on the original music video because people might not be familiar with that. They have to be funny just because they’re funny.
Not sure if you spend much time thinking about this, but are there any songs or deep cuts from the past that you wished had been breakout hits?
Yankovic: It’s hard to perceive what would be considered a flop, because if it’s an album cut then you don’t know how people are reacting to it. I will, in fact, pull out some deep cuts every now and then and throw them into the live show. A lot of times it’s only then you find out that a song has fans, because you don’t have a music video and it wasn’t released as a single. On this last tour, I played “Frank’s 2000-Inch TV,” which is a semi-obscure track from an album that’s 20 years old. It was just because it was one of my favorite old songs and I felt like playing it. You know, it’s my show, it’s my prerogative. As it turns out, people came up to me and said, “Oh, that’s my favorite song! I can’t believe you played that!” So even if it’s not an overwhelming fan favorite, every song is somebody else’s favorite song. It’s nice to appeal to the minority every now and then.
The title of your new album is Alpocalypse. Are you painting yourself in a corner there? Sounds like an ending.
Yankovic: Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised and the world won’t end next year, in which case maybe I’ll do another album after that.
Photo: Courtesy of Comedy Central