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Song parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic hunts for "the right person to suck"

Song parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic was the talk of the 2022 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival for a hit movie about him, Eric Appel's off-kilter biopic "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story," starring Daniel Radcliffe as the title loon. I spoke with Weird Al in 1992, back when I was the Toronto Star's rock critic and he was still gaining fame for his wicked parodies of hit pop songs. He'd just released an album, "Off the Deep End," that had a song and cover image satirizing the famous baby-and-hook cover of Nirvana's "Nevermind" LP. Weird Al obligingly agreed to recreate the album cover, posing in a Toronto hotel bathtub with the donuts and fishing rod I'd brought to the interview. But my editor went with another shot, one of Al mugging with the donuts.

Peter Howell

Toronto Star

You've now got to be hotter than Michael Jackson, Hammer or Mick Jagger if you expect "Weird Al" Yankovic to really make fun of you.

Oh sure, the king of pop parody is happy to lampoon all three stars with comic makeovers of their hit songs, as he explained yesterday during a Toronto visit.

But neither Jackson nor Hammer nor Jagger are currently as ripe for a satire hit as grunge rock band Nirvana, which gets the full Weird Al treatment on his new album, Off The Deep End.

"Timing is very important in what I do, " said Yankovic, resplendent in his trademark Hawaiian shirt, casual pants and stretch running shoes, a stack of doughnuts by his side.

"I'm dependent on the shifts and swings of pop culture — I have to wait for a phenomenon. When you're a leach, you have to wait for the right person to suck."

Few mainstream music listeners had even heard of Nirvana, before it stormed atop the pop charts recently with its alternative rock album Nevermind and hit single "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

But the three members of Nirvana have truly made it, now that they've been speared by the accordion-playing polka fiend who made his name satirizing everybody from Michael Jackson to Madonna to the I Love Lucy show.

For the cover of Deep End, Weird Al, 32, appears naked in a swimming pool, floating toward a doughnut proferred on a fish hook. It's a send-up of the famous Nirvana cover that shows a newborn baby floating toward a U.S. $1 bill, symbolic of the band's feelings of having sold out to the big money of corporate rock. The song parody is called "Smells Like Nirvana" ("We're so loud and incoherent/Boy, this oughta bug your parents, " he sings) and the Yankovic, as always, was a stickler for detail.

For the album cover shoot, he used the same photographer and the same swimming pool. The woman who did his hair and makeup was the mom of baby Spencer, the newborn seen floating in the Nirvana original.

The video shoot for "Smells Like Nirvana" was even more authentic. It used the same high school gym, most of the same cheerleaders, the same janitor ("He's the plumber for the guy who directed the Nirvana video") and even the same caterer.

Yankovic's quest for parodic perfection is often spurred on by the stars being satirized. Michael Jackson let him use both his sets and his actors to recreate the videos for "Beat It" and "Bad" (they became "Eat It" and "Fat"), and Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler insisted on playing guitar himself when the time came to send up his song "Money For Nothing".

Even weirder was the problem Weird Al faced with Mick Jagger, who was so co-operative that Yankovic felt he had to make fun of him even though he didn't want to.

The problem was the song, "Ruthless People", from the movie of the same name a few years back. Yankovic figured it would be a hit, but after Jagger said "I'd be flattered" to have Yankovic do him in, Jagger's song turned up snake-eyes on the pop charts, killing its satire value.

"It didn't make the Top 40. But I couldn't very well call back Mick Jagger and say, 'Gee Mick, if your song hadn't stiffed, we'd have loved to put it on the album (1986's Polka Party!).' So we put it on there, and it's still a cute song."

The same who's hot/who's not formula explains why Weird Al didn't put his Hammer sendup, "I Can't Watch This", on the cover of Deep End — Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" peaked last year — and why he didn't do a parody of Jackson's recent "Black Or White" song and video.

That would seem an obvious choice, after all the fooferaw over Jackson's crotch-grabbing and car-smashing. But Weird Al shuns the obvious.

"Part of me was thinking, I've had success with him in the past, it's a sure-fire thing. But part of me was also thinking, 'It's so obvious, it's so incredibly obvious.' I don't want people saying, 'Oh, there he goes doing Michael Jackson again.'

"Nirvana was more of the cutting-edge way to go. The subject matter was more satirical than doing yet another song about food."

U.S. law requires Yankovic to get permission from his subjects before he satirizes them. There have been few who said no, but the biggest name so far is Prince, who apparently doesn't get the joke.

"Which really kind of amazed me, because I'd always heard that midgets had a good sense of humour."

Now that alternative rock has been covered, and he's already done country, disco, soul and rap, is there any music left for Yankovic to play with?

"Viking music!' he cried. "If you can think of one I haven't done yet, we'll put it on the next album." 🌓

(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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