Last summer,in the middle of what struck me as an otherwise very full life, I went to my first Weird Al Yankovic concert. Weird Al, for anyone reading this through a golden monocle, is the most renowned comedy musician in the history of the multiverse — a force of irrepressible wackiness who, back in the 1980s, built a preposterous career out of song parodies and then, somehow, never went away. After 40 years, Yankovic is now no longer a novelty, but an institution — a garish bright patch in the middle of America’s pop-cultural wallpaper, a completely ridiculous national treasure, an absurd living legend.
I have spent much of my life chortling, alone in tiny rooms, to Weird Al’s music. (“I churned butter once or twice living in an Amish paradise” — LOL.) And yet somehow it had never occurred to me to go out and see him live. I think this is for roughly the same reason that it has never occurred to me to make my morning commute in a hot-air balloon or to brush my teeth in Niagara Falls. Parody is not the kind of music you go out to see in person — it’s the joke version of that music. A parody concert felt like a category error, like confusing a mirror for a window. To me, Weird Al had always been a fundamentally private pleasure; I was perfectly content to have him living in my headphones and on YouTube and — very occasionally, when I wanted to aggravate my family — out loud on my home speakers.
The show was in New York, at Forest Hills Stadium — a storied outdoor arena that once hosted the U.S. Open, as well as concerts by the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. It was late July, the hottest weekend of a punishingly hot summer, and the humidity was so thick it felt as if gravity had doubled. The backs of my knees were sweating onto the fronts of my knees. A performance in this context struck me as a heavy lift, even for a normal rock star. For a parody rock star, it seemed basically impossible. Deep in my brain, a blasphemous little wrinkle kept wondering, secretly, if the concert might even be sad. Weird Al was on the brink of turning 60, and his defining early hits (“Eat It,” “Like a Surgeon”) were several decades old, which means they were made for a version of the culture that is now essentially Paleolithic. Down in my sweaty palm, every 10 seconds, my phone dosed out new shots of racism and bullying and disaster and alarm. I felt exhausted, on every possible level, and I assumed everyone else did, too. Would anyone even show up?
Yankovic with 232 fans on January 18, 2020. Art Streiber for The New York Times
The answer, to that at least, was yes. Long before showtime, the Weird Al fans started streaming in. The vibe was lighthearted reverence. It was a benevolent Weird Al cosplay cult. There were so many Hawaiian shirts that it felt like an elaborate code, some secret language composed entirely of loud patterns: parrots, hot dogs, palm trees, flowers, cars, accordions, pineapples, whales, bananas, sunsets. Everyone was so floridly mismatched that they seemed, paradoxically, to be matching — a great harmony of clashing. I saw Weird Al T-shirts from 10 tours ago, Weird Al hats covered with Weird Al pins, every possible colorway of checkerboard Vans. Down toward the stage, hard-core fans greeted one another like relatives reunited at a wedding. Ages seemed to range from 80 to 4.
When Weird Al appeared, waggling his arms zanily, long hair flapping in the hot wind, the crowd greeted him with a surge of joy. Yankovic’s Hawaiian shirt was black and gold, traced with a pattern of tropical fronds. He still looked oddly young, as if his face had been locked into place, for copyright reasons, in 1989. Although he no longer sports a mustache or wears glasses — he shaved and got Lasik surgery more than 20 years ago, to the dismay of some fans — the other essentials remain. Weird Al has a face designed for making faces: large nostrils, wide forehead, bendy mouth, chin like a crescent moon. His eyeballs seem somehow double-jointed, able to bulge wide or disappear into a squint. His cheekbones pop like crab apples. He uses that face to mimic music-world clichés: rock-star sneer, boy-band smolder, teen-pop grin, gangsta-rap glower.
Onstage, Weird Al sat on a wooden stool and started to snap like a lounge singer. With an orchestra swelling behind him — the tour was called “Strings Attached” — he kicked into a soulful medley of 1980s parodies. If that does not sound great to you, if it in fact sounds like a very particular flavor of sonic hell, I am here to tell you something. Weird Al was absolutely belting. He was singing the bejesus out of this ridiculous music. I leaned back in my chair, reassessing core assumptions I had made about life. Was this somehow part of the joke — that Weird Al was an amazing singer? His voice was athletic and precise; he was rippling through intricate trills and runs. By the time he reached the medley’s climax — “Like a Surgeon,” his 1985 parody of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” — Yankovic was stretching for high notes and holding them over his head for the crowd to admire, like an Olympic weight lifter who had just snatched 500 pounds.
The show went on for two hot hours. The concrete theater was a convection oven powered by body heat, and Weird Al stomped and strutted and danced through the crowd, occasionally kicking his leg straight up, like actually vertical, 180 degrees. Sometimes he disappeared for 30 seconds and then came bursting back onstage in a costume: Kurt Cobain, Amish rapper, Devo. During “White & Nerdy,” he did doughnuts all over the stage on a Segway. Before long, the masses of Weird Al’s famous curls were stuck to his face, and if you looked closely you could see sweat pouring off his elbows. The parody songs, live, were tight and hard and urgent, supplemented occasionally by video clips, projected onto a giant screen, of Weird Al cameos on “30 Rock” and “The Simpsons” and the old “Naked Gun” movies. It felt less like a traditional concert than a Broadway musical crossed with a comedy film festival crossed with a tent revival.
The crowd was rolling through tantric nerdgasms, sustained explosions of belonging and joy. It felt religious. Near the end of the show, during the chorus of “Amish Paradise,” as the entire stadium started swinging its arms in rhythm, I unexpectedly found myself near tears. Weird Al was dressed in a ridiculous black suit, with a top hat and a long fake beard, and he was rapping about churning butter and raising barns, and everyone was singing along. I could feel deep pools of solitary childhood emotion — loneliness, affection, vulnerability, joy — beginning to stir inside me, beginning to trickle out and flow into this huge common reservoir. All the private love I had ever had for this music, for not only Weird Al’s parodies but for the originals — now it was here, outside, vibrating through the whole crowd. Weird Al had pulled off a strange emotional trick: He had brought the isolated energy of all our tiny rooms into this one big public space. When he left the stage, we stomped for more, and he came back out and played “Yoda,” his classic revision of the Kinks’ “Lola,” and then he left again, and I decided that this was the single best performance of any kind that I had ever seen in my life. Weird Al Yankovic was a full-on rock star, a legitimate performance monster. He was not just a parasite of cultural power but — somehow, improbably — a source of it himself.
Once upon a time, there was a boy who wet his bed. He wet every kind of bed available: bunk beds, water beds, blowup beds, foldout beds. At sleepovers, he wet sleeping bags. If he didn’t have a bed handy, sometimes he just wet his pants. He was fluent in that terrible feeling: warm relief at the wrong time, in the wrong place, turning into cold shame. So many mornings were so shameful.
This was not the boy’s only problem: He also threw up in cars, sometimes in such pungent floods that it would ruin the upholstery forever. Occasionally he would cry at school, for no obvious reason, baffling his teachers and classmates.
The boy’s family moved a lot, which meant that he wet beds in many different houses, threw up in many different cars and cried in many different school districts. When kids played kiss tag at recess, the boy would not be kissed — if a girl accidentally cornered him, she would realize who it was, then turn and run away. And so the boy spent many recesses alone, on the edge of the playground, picking up trash to earn the whole class bonus points so the teacher would allow them to watch a special movie together at the end of the year. Sometimes he would stand near the play structure, hiding his uncool shoes behind a metal pole, watching the other kids play, and he would repeat a mantra in his head: “I wish I could just be normal.”
The idea of normalcy, to the boy, came mostly from television. It was some vague constellation of money, crowds, hair gel, brand-name jackets and confidence — the kind of glittering ease that animated the great American mainstream, visible in its sitcoms and movies and slow-motion basketball highlights and, perhaps most of all, in its music videos. Weirdness, by contrast, meant everything in his own life: chubbiness, loneliness, boredom, clunky glasses, off-brand clothing, frozen bananas dipped in carob, lawn darts in his grandmother’s backyard.
The bed-wetting boy, dear reader, was me. And I tell you this story not just for sympathy (although there is that) but because it was in this era that I first encountered the music of Weird Al Yankovic.
Weird Al, it seemed to me, had a perfect sense of humor. He shrieked on MTV, squeaked rubber chickens and punctuated his songs with percussive belching. But he was more than just funny. Even as a child, I understood on some intuitive level that Weird Al was not merely the Shakespeare of terrible food puns (“Might as well face it you’re addicted to spuds”) or an icon of anti-style (poodle fro, enormous glasses, questionable mustache, Hawaiian shirts) but a spiritual technician doing important work down in the engine room of the American soul. I could not have said why, but I felt it.
As his name suggested, Weird Al’s comedy operated right at the hot spot of my childhood agonies: weirdness versus normalcy, insider versus outsider. What a Weird Al parody did was enact a tiny revolution. It took the whole glamorous architecture of American mainstream cool — Michael Jackson’s otherworldly moves, Madonna’s sexual taboos — and extracted all of the coolness. Into that void, Weird Al inserted the least cool person in the world: himself. And by proxy, all the rest of us weirdos, along with our uncool lives. “Beat It,” a ubiquitous superhit about avoiding street violence, became “Eat It,” a nasally monologue about picky eating. (“Have a banana, have a whole bunch — it doesn’t matter what you had for lunch. Just eat it.”) “I Love Rock ’n Roll,” a churning anthem of hard living and the devil’s music, became “I Love Rocky Road,” a squawking paean to stuffing your face with ice cream. It is no accident that much of Yankovic’s music was about food — everyone ate food, every day, celebrities and nerds alike. It was the great equalizer.
This switcheroo was, for me, thrilling. I would sit there with my brother in our unglamorous living room, in a town where Michael Jackson would never even consider performing, and I would feel dorkily empowered. Weird Al had flipped the polarities of weirdness and normalcy. We had made it into the TV. We were normal.
Weird Al has now been releasing song parodies for seven presidential administrations. He has outlasted two popes and five Supreme Court justices. He is one of only five artists (along with his early muses, Michael Jackson and Madonna) to have had a Top 40 single in each of the last four decades. Yankovic has turned out to be one of America’s great renewable resources. He is a timeless force that expresses itself through hyperspecific cultural moments, the way heat from the center of the earth manifests, on the surface, through the particularity of geysers. In 1996, after Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” became a national earworm, Weird Al took its thumping beat and its heavenly choir and turned it into “Amish Paradise,” a ridiculous banger about rural chores. When Chamillionaire’s “Ridin.” hit No. 1 in 2006, Weird Al took a rap about driving in a car loaded with drugs and translated it into a monologue about the glories of being a nerd. Whatever is popular at the moment, Yankovic can hack into its source code and reprogram it.
His work has inspired waves of creative nerds. Andy Samberg, the actor and a member of the comedy group the Lonely Island, told me that he grew up having Weird Al dance parties with his family. “Each new generation of younger kids is like, ‘Wait, this can exist?’” Samberg said.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Weird Al obsessive, credits Yankovic as an influence on “Hamilton.” Miranda once lip-synced “Taco Grande” (a Mexican-food-themed parody of the 1990 hit “Rico Suave”) in front of his sixth-grade class, He told me that he prefers many Weird Al songs to the originals. “Weird Al is a perfectionist,” Miranda said. “Every bit as much as Michael Jackson or Kurt Cobain or Madonna or any artist he has ever spoofed. So you get the musical power of the original along with this incredible twist of Weird Al’s voice and Weird Al’s brain. The original songs lose none of their power, even when they’re on a polka with burping sound effects in the background. In fact, it accelerates their power. It’s both earnest and a parody.”
Michael Schur, the creator of “The Good Place” and co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” remembers the force of Weird Al’s 1992 parody of Nirvana.
“ ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ comes out, and it’s like the perfect voice for all the simmering anger of an entire generation of kids,” Schur said. “That song is vicious and angry and aggressive but also laconic and disaffected and scary. And it was immediately a gigantic thing in American culture. Then Weird Al does ‘Smells Like Nirvana’ and completely deflates it — the importance and seriousness and angst. That’s a service he has always provided: to remind people that rock is about grittiness and authenticity and finding your voice and relating to an audience, but it’s also fundamentally absurd. Being a rock star is stupid. We as a culture are genuflecting at the altar of these rock stars, and Weird Al comes out with this crazy curly hair and an accordion, and he just blows it all into smithereens by singing about Spam. It’s wonderful.”
Schur paused. He said there were heated debates, sometimes, in comedy writing rooms, about the merits of Weird Al’s work — some cynics argue that his jokes aren’t actually great, that people overrate them because they’re nostalgic for their childhoods. But Schur insisted that, regardless of what you think about this lyric or that lyric, Weird Al represented the deep egalitarian spirit of our culture.
“It’s a truly American thing, to be like: Get over yourself,” Schur said. “Everybody get over yourselves. Madonna, get over yourself. Kurt Cobain, get over yourself. Eminem, get over yourself. No one gets to be that important in America.”
Yankovic performs “Smells Like Nirvana” in a 2019 concert.Jeff Hahne/Getty Images
Weird Al lives in Los Angeles, up in the Hollywood Hills, in a house that, he was told, once belonged to the rapper Heavy D. The house is clean, minimalist, sophisticated — the opposite of Weird Al’s public persona. There are no Twinkie-shaped lounge chairs or florid shag carpets. It is high-ceilinged, full of gliding California light and beautiful furniture. Imagine a house where successful L.A. rappers would have partied in 1991: This is literally that house. It is so quintessentially L.A. that it has been used for film shoots, which means that sometimes the Yankovics — Weird Al, his wife, Suzanne, and their daughter, Nina — will be watching TV and, out of nowhere, they’ll see their house onscreen: Andy Garcia will be standing in their living room or Eazy-E will be floating in their pool. Yankovic’s friend Joel Miller insists that he has seen pornography set in the Yankovics’ living room. To which Weird Al responds, with polite embarrassment, “I’ll take his word for it.”
The Yankovic family is wonderfully wholesome. Al and Suzanne met fairly late in life, when both were established in their careers. Suzanne was a high-powered marketing executive at 20th Century Fox, and she was skeptical, at first, when a friend tried to set them up. She worried that Weird Al would be wacky, loud, shrill, insufferable, exhausting, always “on.”
He turned out to be the opposite. Offstage, in his civilian life, Yankovic is shy, introverted, extremely private and unfailingly polite. Among the big personalities of the Los Angeles comedy world, his quiet decency is legendary. “He is so, so incredibly nice,” Samberg (among many others) told me. “He is the nicest person you will ever meet, exactly what you’re dreaming he’ll be like.” No one has ever heard Weird Al raise his voice in anger. He doesn’t swear. When a script comes to him with a bad word in it, he politely asks for revisions. Sometimes, experimentally, Suzanne will try to get him to say a curse word at home. “C’mon, honey, it’s just us!” she’ll say. But he refuses.
On a bright Saturday morning, the Yankovics invited me to join them for a family hike. Weird Al wore jeans, a large floppy hat and a muted Lacoste polo. (He avoids Hawaiian shirts in everyday settings, not wanting to draw attention to himself.) Suzanne, an avid photographer, seemed to notice every plant and bird we passed. She and Al are classic opposites: he is internal and unobservant and can disappear into his head for days at a time; Suzanne is chatty and social and hyper-present. Their daughter, Nina, is a precocious 16-year-old who looks uncannily like the actress Ellen Page. She and her father share a talent for math — sometimes he invents trigonometry problems for her — and she also has his sense of humor. (Once, when her school had an ’80s-themed dance, Nina showed up in a pilgrim dress, like someone from the 1680s.) At one point on our hike, Nina scampered off the trail, disappeared behind a tree and returned with a time capsule that she has been stocking and reburying since she was little. Inside was a feather, dried leaves, old Polaroids, a Swiss Army knife and a handwritten note from her dad: “It’s a beautiful day and I’m going for a walk with my wonderful family and our little poodle Sandy. If you find this note, we hope you’re having a lovely day too.” Nina added a rock, then closed it back up and reburied it.
After the hike, the Yankovic family took me to their favorite vegan Mexican restaurant and then drove me around L.A. We passed a man who was trying to attract Instagram followers by playing guitar solos on top of a parked car. When we stopped at a red light, a film crew went rolling by, hauling a vintage car, shooting a driving scene. It occurred to me that Weird Al might be comfortable in Los Angeles because the place is already a self-parody. He is off-duty, liberated.
Back at the house, Yankovic showed me his accordion collection — two large piles of cases — and some old costumes, including the original “Eat It” jacket: red leather, zippers everywhere. It still fit him perfectly. He showed me a walk-in closet that contained more Hawaiian shirts than I have ever seen in one place. (“This represents a very small percentage of them,” Yankovic said.) He showed me the corner where he composes music: a nest of keyboards and computer equipment underneath a wall of gold and platinum records. In the middle of it all, flopped like a beached jellyfish, sat an old Kurt Cobain wig.
When I asked about his writing process, Yankovic took out his laptop, sat down at a big wooden table and told me to pick a song. I chose “White & Nerdy.” It is archetypal Yankovic: a parody rap that captures all the musical energy of the original while nerdifying its lyrics. (“First in my class here at M.I.T./Got skills, I’m a champion at D and D/MC Escher, that’s my favorite MC.”) “White & Nerdy” went viral in 2006, in the early days of YouTube, and drove the album “Straight Outta Lynwood” into the Top 10, rekindling Weird Al’s popularity for the new millennium.
At his dining-room table, Yankovic clicked around on his laptop. He has a file for every song, and each file is many levels deep. At the top stands the finished lyric. Below that, like archaeological layers beneath the surface of an ancient city, descend all the stages of writing it took to get there.
Perhaps you have always imagined that Weird Al tosses off his lyrics while juggling rubber chickens on a unicycle. I mean, this is a man who once recorded a parody of Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Want a New Drug” called “I Want a New Duck,” the first verse of which goes: “I want a new duck/One that won’t try to bite/One that won’t chew a hole in my socks/One that won’t quack all night.” He also converted “She Drives Me Crazy” into “She Drives Like Crazy” and “Addicted to Love” into “Addicted to Spuds” and “I Think We’re Alone Now” into “I Think I’m a Clone Now” and “Zoot Suit Riot” into “Grapefruit Diet” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” into “Girls Just Want to Have Lunch” and — honestly, the list could go on forever.
But it turns out that Weird Al approaches the composition of his music with something like the holy passion of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Looking through the “White & Nerdy” file felt like watching a supercomputer crunch through possible chess moves. Every single variable had to be considered, in every single line. The song begins with a simple sentence — “They see me mowing my front lawn” — and even here Yankovic agonized over “lawn” versus “yard” and “my” versus “the.” He sifted through phrases in gradations so small, they were almost invisible:
Escher’s really still my favorite MC.
Tell ya Escher’s still my favorite MC.
Escher is my favorite MC.
Escher’s still my favorite MC.
MC Escher’s still my favorite MC.
MC Escher is my favorite MC.
Y’know Escher is my favorite MC.
Y’know Escher’s still my favorite MC.
For weeks at a time, Yankovic told me, he goes into a creative trance — what he calls “the zombie phase.” “I walk around the house with a thousand-mile stare,” he said. “My wife asks if I’m OK.”
He’s fine. In fact, in some ways he’s in his favorite place: three leagues deep in his head, building an alternate universe entirely out of jokes. He lines up phrases next to one another — fragments and couplets, nerd brags and white jokes, most of which will never reach the final lyric sheet:
In snowstorms it ain’t easy to be seen.
I know a tangent from a vector. I love mayonnaise, that sweet nectar.
I ate an enormous amount of dairy while I watched “Little House on the Prairie.”
I know all the RadioShack employees by name.
Got an Ethernet jack inside my shower.
I can calculate how much water a sphere displaces.
I know the molecular weight of magnesium.
I know the proper names of all the Smurfs.
He reads these options again and again, agonizing, putting his current preference in bold and then changing his mind and putting something else in bold to see how it feels. He spent a long time, for instance, deciding what book would be funniest for his nerd narrator to brag about having in his library: J.K. Rowling, Douglas Adams, Stephen Hawking or hardbound comics. (He chose Hawking.) He composed whole stand-alone quatrains that were later thrown out:
I’m so white I’m almost translucent
Check out the S.P.F. I’m usin’
In my hooptie I go cruisin’
I find Jay Leno amusin’.
“I could havewritten a whole second ‘White & Nerdy’ based on the alt lines,” Yankovic said. “I figure I’m going to be living with this song for a long time. We’ll probably be doing it onstage for the rest of my life. It’s got to be right.”
After 10 minutes of staring at this verbal barbed wire, my brain felt as if it were starting to cramp. I told him I didn’t know how much longer I could take it. “We’re not even halfway through,” Yankovic said. We had yet to reach, for instance, his encyclopedic lists of possible rhymes, all categorized by syllable count, running on for page after page like Homer’s list of ships in the “Iliad”: “Polar bear/Voltaire,” “my back is peeling/Darjeeling.” At one point, he lined up 35 potential rhymes for the word “geek.”
Yankovic has done a version of this process for just about every song he has ever written, parody and original, from “Eat It” to today. In the years before computers, he would do everything by hand, sifting and sorting in a binder with color-coded tabs. He used to spend weeks roaming through the West Hollywood Library, compiling facts and keywords about cloning for “I Think I’m a Clone Now” or hospitals for “Like a Surgeon.” Songs that may seem dashed off are in fact the product of months of self-imposed hard labor — lonely, silent, obsessive world-building.
Alfred Matthew Yankovic grew up not in Los Angeles proper but outside of it, near Compton, in the working-class suburb of Lynwood. He was an only child, a miracle baby, born late in his parents’ life near the tail end of the baby boom, in 1959. His father, Nick, was a beefy, goofy man who served as a medic during World War II, where his heroism earned him not only two Purple Hearts but also an appearance in the syndicated newspaper comic “Combat Spotlight.” (“No one dared go for a wounded man left on the field — ‘Hell,’ said Yank, ‘I’ll get him.’ And he did.”) Weird Al’s mother, Mary, was a stenographer from Kentucky. She was quiet, shy and guarded. She made casseroles, had an iron sense of propriety and loved her son nearly to the point of suffocation. She would devote her life to protecting him from all the many dangers of the world, real and imaginary. Although the Yankovics didn’t collect art, they kept a single oil painting hanging in their living room, right above the mantel, like a shrine: a framed portrait of their son.
Alfred was a blend of his parents. He was eccentric like his dad — the two of them used to dig tunnels around the foundation of the house together, just for fun — but he was also painfully shy. He started kindergarten a year early, and at the beginning of second grade his teacher decided he was overqualified and sent him up to third grade. This meant that, for most of his life, he was two years younger than the rest of his classmates. Although Alfred’s grades were perfect, and he could solve any math problem you threw at him, his social life was agonizing. Imagine every nerd cliché: He was scrawny, pale, unathletic, nearsighted, awkward with girls — and his name was Alfred. And that’s all before you even factor in the accordion.
It came from a door-to-door salesman. The man was offering the gift of music, and he gave the Yankovics a simple choice: accordion or guitar. This was 1966, the golden age of rock, the year of the Beatles’ “Revolver” and the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.” A guitar was like a magic amulet spraying sexual psychedelic magic all over the world. So Yankovic’s mother chose the accordion. This was at least partly because of a coincidence: Frankie Yankovic, a world-famous polka player, happened to share the family’s last name. No relation. Just a wonderful coincidence that would help to define Alfred’s entire life.
He took his first accordion lesson the day before his 7th birthday and progressed quickly. He had plenty of time to practice. Mary Yankovic was so overprotective that her son spent much of his life alone in his room. He never played at friends’ houses, never had sleepovers, never explored his neighborhood on his bike. The farthest he was allowed to ride was half a block, to his Aunt Dot’s house, and his mother would stand on the lawn and watch. For Alfred’s protection, she would censor the mail, sifting through catalogs page by page with a black marker in hand, scribbling out anything inappropriate: bra ads, pictures of women in bikinis.
Alfred’s bedroom was his own little kingdom, devoted entirely to his enthusiasms. If he wanted to collect and organize dozens of license plates from all over the country — which he absolutely did — there was nothing stopping him. If he wanted to rig a contraption involving pulleys and string so he could flip on the light switch without leaving his bed, he could do that too.
The years passed. Alfred sat in his room, wheezing away on his accordion, diddling its buttons, dutifully memorizing polkas and waltzes and marches and the “Mexican Hat Dance.” All of his classmates hit puberty before he did. He never had a girlfriend, never went to a party or a dance. His parents never taught him about sex. “Stay away from women,” his father once told him. “They have diseases and stuff.” Lynwood High School was directly across the street from the Yankovic home, and when Alfred went there his mom would sometimes watch him during gym class, through binoculars, just to make sure he wasn’t being bullied.
As a teenager, Yankovic’s enthusiasms began to widen. He became obsessed with Elton John. He would grab his accordion and play along with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the whole double album, start to finish, memorizing it. He watched Monty Python and amassed stacks of Mad magazines, in which he would read parodies of movies he was not allowed to see. Comedy, for a smart, sheltered kid, was a cheat code — a way to use his intelligence to rearrange the world, to build pleasure out of drudgery. He loved George Carlin’s album “FM & AM” so much that he transcribed it on a manual typewriter.
One night, Alfred’s passion for music and comedy came together in the form of a radio D.J. named Dr. Demento. Every Sunday, Demento played four hours of novelty music, both from absolute comedy legends (Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, Stan Freberg) and from nobodies who sent in unsolicited cassette tapes. Alfred Yankovic wanted, desperately, to escape his room and live in this world. He started writing his own comedy songs. One night his mother overheard the show, decided it was inappropriate and said he couldn’t listen anymore. But this tide was rising too fast for even her to stop. Every week, Alfred would huddle under his blankets and listen to Dr. Demento. And it would not be long before he heard his own voice coming back at him out of the speakers. In 1976, Demento picked out “Belvedere Cruising,” a song Yankovic wrote about his family’s jalopy of a car, and played it on the air.
At 16, Alfred Yankovic graduated high school. He was valedictorian, and his speech at the ceremony was dutiful, serious and formal — except for one passage in which he described the future destruction of the world, how the polar ice caps would melt and civilization would be drowned. As he described this hypothetical apocalypse, his voice rose to a grating shriek, until he was suddenly screaming about humanity’s imminent doom. The crowd roared with laughter, interrupting his speech with a round of applause.
And then Yankovic finally escaped his lonely bedroom: He packed up his things, loaded up the junky old family car and drove off — alone — to start a new life. He would study architecture at California Polytechnic State University, about four hours north of home. As he drove off, Alfred’s parents got in their new car and followed directly behind him. Alfred watched them in his rearview mirror. As soon as he hit the freeway, he gunned the engine and lost them.
The nickname “Weird Al” started as an insult. It happened during his first year of college. This was a fresh start for Alfred — a chance to reinvent himself for a whole new set of people. He had no reputation to live down, no epic humiliations. And so he decided to implement a rebrand: He introduced himself to everyone not as Alfred but as “Al.” Alfred sounded like the kind of kid who might invent his own math problems for fun. Al sounded like the opposite of that: a guy who would hang out with the dudes, eating pizza, casually noodling on an electric guitar, tossing off jokes so unexpectedly hilarious they would send streams of light beer rocketing out of everyone’s noses.
The problem was that, even at college, even under the alias of Al, Yankovic was still himself. He was still, fundamentally, an Alfred. He was, in all kinds of excruciating ways, not your average freshman. He was 16. He wore thick glasses and had a regrettable mustache. He was skinny and pathologically shy. He had the social skills of a ceramic frog. He didn’t drink, smoke, party, date or swear. He still felt most comfortable alone in his tiny room.
The other guys on his dorm floor knew Al Yankovic only as this mysterious oddball haunting the place like Boo Radley. They would all be hanging out, sprawled around in someone’s room, door open, laughter spilling into the hallway — when suddenly this pale kid would come slumping by, off to class or to the library, saying nothing, casting a shy glance in the door. He often wore a variation on the same outfit: a striped shirt, a floppy bucket hat, like Gilligan on “Gilligan’s Island,” and flip-flops even when it was raining outside. The guys would watch him pass, only very slightly interested, like a pack of lions watching a distant ibis, and Al would look in through the open door, and there would be this moment of mutual regard: the in-group and the outcast, staring each other down.
Over time, this silent encounter became a ritual, awkward but familiar. Eventually, Yankovic started to play variations: as he walked by he would stare inside and make a face — screw his eyes up, lower his eyebrows, seriocomically glower. It was the weird guy being weird, silently acknowledging his weirdness, performing it to entertain himself.
Once, in the fateful silence that followed, a guy in the room spoke up.
“Hey,” he said, “It’s [expletive]’ Weird Al!”
This was not meant as a compliment. It was an attempt to return, in words, the strange energy Yankovic was pouring into the room through his eyes. The nickname got repeated every time he went shuffling past — “Hey, Weird Al!” — and so it stuck. And slowly Al began to embrace it, to reclaim the insult as a badge of honor.
It took him a long time to make a real friend. One day, Joel Miller, one of the normal guys in the dorm room Yankovic stared into, walked into the communal bathroom to find a group of kids laughing. He asked them what was up. Turns out they had just pulled a prank on Weird Al: Knowing how cringingly awkward he was, they had sneaked in while he was showering and stolen his clothes. In his panic Weird Al had ripped down the shower curtain, wrapped himself in it, and sprinted off to his room, soaking wet. Miller threatened to bash the guys over the head with a chair, got Weird Al’s clothes and returned them.
This was the beginning of the longest close friendship of Al Yankovic’s life — a friendship that still endures. Miller noticed the accordion in Yankovic’s dorm room and asked if he actually knew how to play. Yankovic said yes — he could play any song anyone wanted to hear. Miller, trying to stump him, said how about Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” an 11-minute piano-rock dirge. Al strapped on his accordion and played the song, note for note, all the way through. This earned Weird Al an invitation to hang out in the dorm room, where he played his accordion for everyone else. Miller grabbed his bongos and the two of them jammed for hours.
If, in the superhero narrative of Weird Al Yankovic,there is a radioactive spider-bite moment, it has to be open-mic night at Cal Poly in 1977. Imagine the scene: a bunch of longhaired idealists with banjos and acoustic guitars, ready to shock the world with the beauty of their fingerpicking. And then Weird Al steps onstage. He brought with him not only his accordion and his large glasses and his little mustache but his whole awkward chaotic energy. Miller set up his bongos, and together the pair launched into the exact opposite of earnest folk music. Yankovic played “Wipeout” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and a 10-minute medley that he claimed covered every song ever written in the history of the world.
Before that night, Yankovic’s public performances included childhood accordion competitions and a cousin’s wedding. Now he was sharing his own music, the essence of himself, with a roomful of strangers. The odds were high that he would bomb, then disappear back into his tiny room forever.
Instead, the opposite happened: The crowd went crazy. Weird Al’s ridiculous music got a standing ovation. The applause would not stop. People hollered for more.
For a kid who had spent his whole childhood being either ignored or bullied, that sudden validation was transformative. Miller remembers looking over at his shy friend and seeing Yankovic’s face lit with total joy. “It was glowing,” he once said, “like Chernobyl melting down.”
“I think it was the first time I’d ever had that kind of positive reinforcement,” Yankovic told me. “It probably did flip a switch somewhere in my head.”
That Chernobyl moment changed everything. Yankovic’s schoolwork began to recede. He was on fire with dumb music. Weird Al wrote new songs constantly and played them at every venue that would have him. He and Miller were once heckled at a fraternity barn dance. But success was coming. In 1979, during his junior year, Weird Al stood in a men’s bathroom at Cal Poly (he liked the acoustics of the tile) and recorded a parody of the No. 1 song in America, the Knack’s “My Sharona”: a lusty, humpy, cringe-y ode to seducing a teenage girl. Weird Al’s version was a two-minute romp about lunch meat called “My Bologna.” It had a crazy, D.I.Y., nerd-punk energy — you could hear Yankovic committing every fiber of his lonely soul to the bit, crooning and grunting like a man driven insane with desire. It didn’t matter that the pun was bad, that the singing was raw — all of that was exactly the point. Dr. Demento’s listeners went crazy for it, and radio stations picked it up nationwide, and the lead singer of the Knack urged Capitol Records to release the song as a 45 — and suddenly Weird Al had his first recording contract. To this day, Cal Poly marks that bathroom with a plaque as the birthplace of Weird Al Yankovic’s career.
In underground comedy circles, the legend of Weird Al began to grow. He became a staple on Dr. Demento’s show, answering phone lines and playing his accordion in studio and generally hamming it up. He turned Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” into “Another One Rides the Bus.” By the time Yankovic graduated from college, joke music was all he cared about. He hardly had time for anything else. He moved to Los Angeles, slept on a couch, briefly lived in his car. He got a minimum-wage job in a mailroom. He moved into a tiny apartment with a Murphy bed and a view of the Hollywood sign. He sat there by himself, recording music, building his oeuvre joke by joke. Sometimes he taped silverware all over the walls, just to be weird.
On April Fools’ Day, 1984, MTV did something preposterous. The network, back then, was influential but also desperate for content, and Yankovic’s outsider weirdo shtick killed with its audience, so the network gave Yankovic four hours to fill with whatever he wanted. He created “Al TV,” a parody of MTV. The conceit was that Weird Al had taken over the station with a pirate transmitter. Hour after hour, he made fun of music videos, read fake fan letters, announced fake contests and spliced together footage of celebrities into preposterous fake interviews. (Weird Al: “Mr. George, if you were on an Arctic expedition and you got stranded, who would be the first people you’d eat?” Boy George: “Housewives, young kids.”) This made Weird Al a brand name on the network — a sort of stand-in for the audience itself.
Yankovic used “Al TV” to promote the video for “Eat It” — a nearly shot-for-shot parody of Michael Jackson’s original. The song would make him a true international star. The single reached No. 12 on the Billboard Top 100 and won Yankovic a Grammy. Its album, “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic in 3-D,” went platinum. When the video first aired, Yankovic was out on a very modest tour — he and the band traveled together in a blue station wagon pulling a trailer — and in Virginia they stopped at a fast-food restaurant for lunch, and suddenly Yankovic was mobbed. “You’re the ‘Eat It’ guy!” everyone shouted. It happened just like that, overnight. Weird Al had discovered some secret wormhole in pop-cultural space-time that sent a portion of Jackson’s megafame dumping onto his own dorky head. After the success of “Eat It,” Madonna wondered aloud to a friend when Weird Al would turn “Like a Virgin” into “Like a Surgeon,” and word got back to Weird Al, and he did. In 1988, he turned Michael Jackson’s megahit “Bad” into “Fat.” (Last year, after more public allegations of child sexual abuse against Michael Jackson emerged, Yankovic announced that he would temporarily stop performing his Jackson parodies.)
Weird Al likes to say that every one of his albums is a comeback album. That’s because a parody career is not like a normal career. It has no internal momentum. Everyone always expects you to go away. Yankovic’s lowest point came in the early 1990s: It had been years since his last big song, and his attempt at a movie — 1989’s “UHF” — had bombed, and his phone had stopped ringing. Out of desperation, he decided to settle back into his old shtick, writing a food-based parody of Michael Jackson’s latest hit, the racial-harmony anthem “Black or White.” Yankovic’s version was going to be called — I would prefer not to tell you this, but this is actually what it was going to be called — “Snack All Night.” And it was about — well, it was about snacking all night.
The only thing that saved him was that Jackson, for the first time, said no. (Technically, a parodist does not need permission, but it is a legal gray area, and Weird Al prefers to have every artist in on the joke.) This was a reprieve, because it set up the success of “Smells Like Nirvana.” Weird Al actually loved Nirvana — the music hit him deep in his soul — and before the band performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on “Saturday Night Live” in January 1992, Weird Al called the set and managed to get Kurt Cobain on the phone to ask his permission to do a parody. “Is it gonna be about food?” Cobain asked. No, Yankovic said: It was going to be about how no one could understand Nirvana’s lyrics. Cobain thought that was hilarious.
Once more, Weird Al had caught the wind of a new phenomenon, and so his career took back off. He has been around ever since. In 2014, 30 years after “Eat It,” his album “Mandatory Fun” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. National economies collapse; species go extinct; political movements rise and fizzle. But — somehow, for some reason — Weird Al endures.
I am writing this profile, and you are reading it, in an impossible world. Comedy, a disembodied spark between distant people seems more crucial than ever. Over the last several weeks, from his house, Weird Al has been posting jokes online: a video of his (increasingly agitated) face being assaulted by tiny hands; a photo urging people to resist hoarding accordions. He recently performed a song on “The Tonight Show” in his robe. These virtual appearances are funny and sweet — little notes of solace in a wide landscape of devastation. But I keep returning, in my mind to the before times, to the summer when I not only saw Weird Al in concert but joined him on tour for a couple of days. I hung around empty arenas as his crew lugged equipment up ramps and tested lighting rigs and stocked the merch tables: Weird Al lunchboxes, Weird Al stickers, an old Weird Al T-shirt that was suddenly popular again because it had been worn by a character on “Stranger Things.” Sometimes I watched the actual shows from backstage, where I could see spit-mists blowing from Weird Al’s mouth when he hit high notes; other times I watched from so deep in the venue that Weird Al looked like a small particle in a sea of waving arms. Late one night, on the tour bus, I drank from a bottle of Crown Royal that had been signed by the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd (long story) and got into a deep debate with a backup singer about the plausibility of chemtrails. When I finally fell asleep it was inside the bus, in what everyone refers to as a “coffin bunk,” and all night long I could feel the bumps and swells of I-94 as it unspooled a section of the Great Plains beneath us. I woke up in a whole new place, under a whole different sky, and watched the crew set up a fresh stage.
During all of this, I saw almost nothing of Weird Al. He was like a ghost haunting his own tour: There but not there. On the road, Yankovic is reclusive, obsessed with saving his voice and life force for his fans. He spent all his free time holed up in his own small room at the back of the bus, keeping strange private hours — falling asleep at 7 a.m., waking up midafternoon. Seeing him anywhere before showtime felt like seeing a panda out in the wild. He moved in a bubble of hushed, exotic, respectful excitement.
The only real exception to Weird Al’s self-isolation came late at night, after the shows, when he would interact with fans in elaborate V.I.P. sessions: photos, autographs, chats. Yankovic would do basically anything fans wanted. He would mug for the camera or flex like a bodybuilder or sign people’s arms. He signed posters, cassette tapes, action figures, accordions, spatulas, glow-in-the-dark snorkels. I saw him sign a package of bologna and an exact replica of a “Star Wars” storm trooper helmet. These were not autograph hounds but true devotees, exactly the kinds of people Yankovic placed at the center of his songs: nerds, misfits, weirdos. Many fans seemed to have just emerged, for the first time in forever, from tiny rooms of their own. They were less interested in a photo op than in a sort of spiritual transfer.
Most of all, the fans thanked Weird Al. They thanked him for his music, for not dying of heatstroke onstage, for voicing the character Banana Man on the cartoon “Adventure Time,” for helping them survive cancer, for helping them survive their mother’s cancer.
“I got introduced to your music when I was going through — struggles — in my life,” said a young, balding man wearing a brown suit, and the word struggles was surrounded on all sides by an unfathomable gulf of feeling. “You helped me pull through.”
Weird Al listened with deep eye contact. “Thank you,” he said. “That means a lot to me.”
“Thank you for all the joy you bring to the world,” said a woman in Minnesota.
“Thank you for making my best times brighter with your songs,” said a young man in North Dakota.
“Thank you for letting us all be ourselves.”
“Thank you for being you.”
Weird Al’s bond with his fans is atomic. He will stop and speak with them anywhere — at airports, outside the tour bus — for so long that it becomes a logistical problem. The fans approach him like a guru, and Weird Al responds with sweet, open, validating energy.
Joel Miller, the friend who defended Yankovic from college bullies, said the relationship between Weird Al and his hard-core fans is deeply personal. “He’s giving them validation,” he told me. “They feel a kindred spirit. When they’re at his concerts, they are in a safe space. They are able to be stupid or outlandish or whatever, exactly as they want. And nobody judges them. In fact, it’s the opposite. People appreciate them for what they are, not for what they aren’t.”
The connection is so deep that it is more like a merging, and after a while it struck me that Weird Al has spent basically his whole life making his music for exactly these people, which is to say for his childhood self. For many decades, he has been trying to delight Alfred Yankovic, the bright, painfully shy kid who grew up alone in his tiny bedroom. For the benefit of that lonely boy, he reshaped the whole world of pop culture. His ridiculous music sent out a pulse, a signal, and these were the people it drew: the odd, the left out. A crowd of friends for that lonely kid. As I watched him with his fans, sometimes I felt as if Weird Al was multiplying all around me, multiplying inside of me. We were one crowd, united in isolation, together in a great collective loneliness that — once you recognized it, once you accepted it — felt right on the brink of being healed.
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