Few things could have been more amusing to a twelve-year-old in 1996 than an Amish-themed parody of the late Coolio’s portentously grim life-in-the-hood anthem “Gangsta’s Paradise.” As luck would have it, “Weird Al” Yankovic released just such a song in 1996, when I happened to be twelve years old myself. Like everyone who’s been a kid at some point in the past 40 years, I grew up hearing and appreciating Yankovic’s prolific output of parodies, pastiches, and even original songs. From “Eat It” to “Smells like Nirvana” to “White and Nerdy,” there was hardly a pop-music phase of my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood that he didn’t make funny.
That’s to make funny, as distinct from to make fun of: unlike that of a predecessor in comedy songwriting like Tom Lehrer, Yankovic’s body of work evidences not the least tendency toward harshness or ridicule.
Hence his appeal from his very first recording “My Bologona,” an accordion-based parody of “My Sharona” recorded in the bathroom of his college radio station, to no less an advocate of silliness than Dr. Demento, whose airplay launched the young Weird Al’s career — a career that, as Yankovic acknowledges while telling the stories behind his iconic songs in the GQ video above, has not gone without its strokes of luck.
Yet few living performers more clearly personify the old aphorism describing luck as the meeting of preparation and opportunity. “Weird Al approaches the composition of his music with something like the holy passion of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” writes Sam Anderson in a 2020 New York Times Magazine profile. Seeing Yankovic’s notes for “White & Nerdy” “file felt like watching a supercomputer crunch through possible chess moves. Every single variable had to be considered, in every single line.” To work in musical form, even the silliest humor demands his total dedication.
Yankovic has long showed a willingness straightforwardly to discuss what it’s like to be Weird Al, as well as what it takes to be Weird Al. For a considerably less straightforward version, we can watch The Roku Channel’s new Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Most biopics take artistic liberties with the lives of their subjects, but Weird goes all the way, parodying the very form of the biopic itself while performing colossal (and surely fan-delighting) exaggerations of the facts of Yankovic’s life. In the GQ video, for example, he mentions getting the idea for “Like a Surgeon” by hearing Madonna throw it out in an interview; in the trailer above, Madonna turns at the door at his opulent mansion, a veritable succubus ready to drag him into the musical underworld. And it seems a safe bet that things only get Weirder thereafter.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.