Weird Al Yankovic dials it back — but he's still weird

Weird Al Yankovic dials it back — but he's still weird
Courtesy of the artist

News flash: Weird Al Yankovic changed his Twitter bio.

Under any other circumstance, this would hardly be newsworthy. But the accordion-wiedling Prince of Parody changed his Twitter bio last week to reflect his public decision to distance himself from the dethroned King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and the music that helped solidify the prolific pun player's respective place in music history.

His bio, which once read "You know... the 'Eat It guy'" now reads, "You know... the weird one."

Yankovic's latest trek, dubbed the "String Attached Tour," finds the celebrated curly-haired humorist backed by a full orchestra, complete with costumery, medleys, Storm Troopers, and a Segway. The hit-packed set, however, has a larger-than-life void — there are no Michael Jackson songs.

"I don't know if that's going to be permanent or not," Yankovic told Billboard of his decision to drop "Eat It" and "Fat" from the set, "but we just felt that with what's happened recently with the HBO documentaries, we didn't want anybody to feel uncomfortable. I felt I had enough fan favorites in the show that I could get away with it."

It may come as some surprise that courting controversy was never the goal for the five-time Grammy Award-winning 59-year-old Grandfather of YouTube (a title he admittedly lays no claim to, though he says he has read a few think-pieces that credit him for the surge of DIY artists) whose career, from the outside, appears as though it was built on the foundation of pissing people off. The opposite is true of Yankovic, who is for all intents and purposes a really flippin' nice guy who, at this stage, feels little pressure to maintain a mantel of strange.

"I don't feel any pressure to be weird," he says. "My weirdness comes pretty naturally."

Perhaps what keeps Yankovic weird in 2019 is his lack of shock-and-awe tactics. Sure, clever wordplay by design can be surprising, but Yankovic says his penchant for keeping his comedy clean is not as much of a conscious choice as it is an extension of his personality. He says profanity isn't part of his daily vocabulary and his mind rarely travels down blue corridors though, sometimes he checks himself as to keep his multigenerational following in mind.

"I think probably that started when I was a teenager," he says of his comedy. "I didn't want to release anything that would offend my parents. You don't want to be labeled safe. Having said that, my material falls under the umbrella of "family friendly," but I still push the envelope every now and then to see how far I can go to get to the point where it's just not going to be offensive or go over kids' heads. And at the same time, it's not the Wiggles. I try to make it so that you're not going to traumatize your 5-year-old if he accidentally hears it."

For more than 40 years, Yankovic has used his genetic weirdness to push the United States' Fair Use Doctrine and its parody clause to the limit. Though the details of the clause do not require someone like Yankovic to receive permission from the original recording artist, he seeks it out anyway, which is how we know both Prince and Paul McCartney turned down Yankovic's pitches. (McCartney suggested a less-funny vegetarian edit to his "Chicken Pot Pie" pitch to honor his dietary beliefs. Yankovic declined.) It's also how we know about Coolio's long-standing beef with Yankovic following "Amish Paradise" (which has since been put to rest). Detroit's own Slim Shady put the kibosh on a music video for "Couch Potato" — Yankovic's parody of Eminem's Academy Award-winning "Lose Yourself."

"I've never spoken to or met the man. There's certainly no hard feelings on my part," he says of Em. "He turned me down for the video, but allowed me do the song for the album, which was more critical."

Lady Gaga referred to the Yankovic treatment as being like a rite of passage, after he poked fun at mama monster in 2011's "Perform This Way." And it's how we know Kurt Cobain famously gave his blessing to Yankovic for his marble-mouthed "Smells Like Nirvana" after a phone call to the Saturday Night Live studio where Nirvana readied themselves to perform "Heart Shaped Box" and "Rape Me" on national television.

"His first thing was, 'Is it going to be about food?'" Yankovic says. "I said, 'No, it's going to be about how no one can understand your lyrics.'"

Thus, "Smells Like Nirvana" was born. Later, Cobain would attribute Yankovic's parody for the surge in Nevermind sales.

"It's odd to be like a footnote in musical history. Like you pick up a Kurt Cobain biography and you'll look in the index and there I am," Yankovic says. "I'm part of their legacy in an odd way. I've always thought of myself as an outsider poking fun of the people on the inside. I'm not in the inner circle, but I'm somehow still attached to all these iconic figures. It's a bizarre thing."

More than a footnote in someone else's Wikipedia page citations, Yankovic has made history of his own. Though he has spent the better part of his career landing songs at the top spots on the comedy charts, it wasn't until 2014's Mandatory Fun that he had himself his first No. 1 album. The record, which spoofs Chamillionaire's "Ridin'" with "White & Nerdy," and gives Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" the "Handy" treatment while flipping Pharell Williams' "Happy" into all things "Tacky," marked the first comedy album to reach No. 1 since Allan Sherman's My Son, the Nut in 1963. Yankovic says it was never a dream of his to go No. 1 because it seemed unattainable, like much of his career.

"I never thought I'd be able to make a living doing this," he says. "When I was a kid, I might've had fantasies of a career in pop music, but I never really thought I'd be able to make it. And my career exists thanks to a number of happy accidents, I guess you could say."

"Once I signed my record deal, I never thought, 'Oh, I'm going to be doing this for the next 40 years.' It was always just like, 'Well, this is fun. Let's see what happens.' So nobody's more surprised than me that I've been able to keep doing what I do for as long as I have."

Weird Al Yankovic will perform on Friday, July 5 at Meadow Brook Amphitheatre; 234 Festival Dr., Rochester Hills; 248-377-0100; Tickets start at $30.

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