Weird Al Yankovic is coming to Berlin. For the first time in his 40-year career, the world’s most famous music satirist is playing in Berlin. In the 1980s and 1990s, he caused a sensation with his bizarre songs and videos, quickly becoming a superstar of the MTV era. He turned Michael Jackson’s “Beat it” into “Eat it”, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became “Smells Like Nirvana,” and he rewrote Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” into “Like a Surgeon.”
We spoke to the 63-year-old American about his artistic beginnings and his mentor Dr. Demento, the art of finding a suitable song for a parody, the disappearance of the mainstream, the Berlin concert and the film Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, in which Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe plays the titular character.
How have things been for you these past 30 years? A lot of us remember “Eat it”, “Fat” and “Smells like Nirvana” from the 1980s and early 1990s – but after that there’s a big gap in public perception of your career.
I kept recording, touring, doing stuff for TV. I’ve never performed in lots of places around the world – like Germany. I think that’s why a lot of people, especially in a place like Germany, only know me for the hits from the 1980s. But I’ve been active all along.
When did you start doing parodies? Was there a moment when you thought, “this is what I’m good at, and I want to make a career doing this”?
Originally, I never thought that doing parodies could be a career for me. It was just something I did when I was a kid. When I was young, there was this radio show produced by a great DJ, Dr. Demento. His show always played bizarre, funny stuff – and I loved it.
Eventually, I sent him a cassette tape of some songs that I had recorded in my living room. Just me and my accordion. The songs weren’t very good, and the quality of the recordings was terrible – but Dr. Demento played them on his show! I guess he found them weird and interesting, and people were into that.
What were your early songs about?
The first song I ever wrote was about our family car, a black Cadillac Plymouth Belvedere. Again, it wasn’t a good song, but it was stupid enough that Dr. Demento decided to play it on his show. My first real hit coming out of his show was “My Bologna”, a parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona”.
You always have to stay up-to-date on the hits and stars to know what to parody, right?
Definitely! “My Sharona” was a big hit in the summer of 1979, and my parody came out very shortly after. The key to a good parody is to be as contemporary as possible. If there’s too much time between the original song and the parody, then no one cares. That means I’m always watching the Billboard charts and looking for songs that I can use as a template and that I could come up with an idea for.
What criteria do you use to choose songs to parody? Do you use songs that you like, or just the most popular songs?
My preferences don’t matter much, but I like most of the songs I’ve made parodies of. I tend to like most music, anyway. It’s always best if I like the songs I parody, because I know I’ll be carrying them around and singing them at concerts for years. The most important thing, though, is that the songs are commercially successful and well-known – and, obviously I have to feel like I can do something fun with a song.
What are your thoughts on the music industry today? You once said that there’s no real sense of a “mainstream” anymore, so the parodies you made in the 1980s can’t be made anymore. Is that still the case?
It’s definitely true, in a way. The mainstream doesn’t exist today in the same way it did in the 1980s. Back then, it was almost a monoculture; now, it’s much more difficult to find out what’s really “successful” because everyone is stuck in their own scenes, genres and subgenres. It’s great that there’s more choice now, but picking a real “mainstream hit” isn’t as easy as it used to be. There are still superstars – like Taylor Swift, Adele or Beyoncé – but capturing the public imagination isn’t as easy in a time when people all don’t sit around the TV and watch the same MTV videos over and over.
picking a real “mainstream hit” isn’t as easy as it used to be
You’re 63. Do you feel like now is a good time to reflect back on your career?
Yeah, I think so. I’m still trying to stay contemporary, but it does feel like I’m looking back more and more these days. It doesn’t feel like it, but I’ve been doing this for over 40 years! So, yeah, I’ve put out some retrospective albums, a graphic novel of my greatest hits, and the biopic is probably the biggest thing in that regard.
You mention the film Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, in which Daniel Radcliffe plays you. Did you ever imagine that there would be a connection between you and the Harry Potter star?
Me and my friend Eric Appel, who directed the film and with whom I co-wrote the screenplay, put a few names on the list of actors who could play me: Daniel Radcliffe was at the top. We liked his energy as an actor, and his prestige fit what we were trying to do with the movie – a comedy that feels like a serious, Hollywood, Oscar biopic. We didn’t want to make a stupid film. We asked Daniel to do all these weird things, but with the utmost seriousness. He did it perfectly.
Did he accept immediately?
Yes! Eric and I met him on Zoom and he was hooked. His only question was, “which accordion should I buy?” as he wanted to properly prepare for the role and learn the instrument. When he came to Los Angeles, I lent him my accordion and he took some lessons with me.
You’ve hardly played in non-English speaking countries. Does the language barrier pose a problem for you?
Hey, it wasn’t my fault! I’ll go anywhere people want to hear me. Up until now, I’ve simply never had a promoter who wanted to take me to Germany, for example. Now I’m coming and I’m very excited.
I’ll go anywhere people want to hear me
On this tour, you’ll mainly be playing your own original songs and not the parody hits like “Eat It” or “Like a Surgeon”. Why?
For my tours in the US, I mainly only play the parody stuff. We put on elaborate productions with costume changes, props and video recordings – it’s a very theatrical multimedia show. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to take this outside of North America due to the high cost. I wish we would bring the full program to Europe – and maybe that’ll happen one day. But for now, I have to apologize to the fans who wanted to see “Eat It”. We’re going to focus on my own songs and it’s going to be a lot of fun, I promise!
Do you have any plans for the future?
When the tour in Europe and Australia is over, I don’t have anything concrete planned yet. Maybe I’ll take some time off and spend time with my family. The film is doing very well, and I’d like to do more films. Maybe a sequel to the biopic? Is that a thing, a biopic sequel? That would be great!
- Adimralspalast Friedrichstraße 101, Mitte, March 5, 20:00, presale from €59, more information here