TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. My guest, Al Yankovic, aka Weird Al Yankovic, is famous for his song parodies, for which he writes comic lyrics to hit songs. "Beat It" became "Eat It." "My Sharona" became "My Bologna." "Another One Bites The Dust" was "Another One Rides The Bus." "Like A Virgin" - "Like A Surgeon." "Ridin'" - ridin' dirty - was transformed into "White & Nerdy." He's recorded a mashup of songs from "Hamilton" Polka style. Yankovic's instrument is the accordion, not exactly a mainstay of rock bands or hip-hop.
In keeping with his style of comedy, the new movie "Weird," which he co-wrote, parodies music biopics, as well as action films and film noir, and offers an alternate version of his life. In the movie, playing accordion gives him the status of a guitar hero. Making up words to songs that already exist is considered a high calling, the work of a visionary. Artists, including Madonna, will do anything to get him to parody their songs, knowing their song will become a hit if Weird Al parodies it. He becomes so popular he's asked to be the next James Bond.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as Al Yankovic. Although Yankovic never achieved quite the status his character does in the film, he's been quite successful. He's the third music performer, after Michael Jackson and Madonna, to have a top 40 single in each decade since the '80s. He recently completed his tour, which he called "The Unfortunate Return Of His Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour" (ph). You can see his new movie, "Weird," streaming on roku.com for free. Let's start with one of his early hits, which is also in the film. Here is "Eat It."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EAT IT")
AL YANKOVIC: (Singing) How come you're always such a fussy young man? Don't want no Captain Crunch, don't want no Raisin Bran. Well, don't you know that other kids are starving in Japan? So eat it. Just eat it. Don't want to argue. I don't want to debate. Don't want to hear about what kind of food you hate. You won't get no dessert till you clean up your plate. So eat it. Don't you tell me you're full.
GROSS: Al Yankovic, welcome to FRESH AIR. I laughed out loud during your movie.
YANKOVIC: Oh, that's so nice to hear. Thank you so much.
GROSS: So we just heard "Eat It." How did you decide to do that Michael Jackson song? Why did you choose that one? And I should mention, this was the era where, like, music videos were really big. And Michael Jackson's videos, including "Beat It," were, like, huge at the time. And, of course, you did a video of "Eat It," too.
YANKOVIC: Well, I mean, in 1983, '84, Michael Jackson was the most popular human being in the universe. And you know, the "Beat It" video was getting played a dozen times a day on MTV. And this is at a time when people were obsessed with MTV. It was a fairly new phenomenon, and people watched it continually. It was like video wallpaper. They just had it on in the house. And people were familiar with every little detail of that music video. So it was very easy to parody because people were already familiar with the source material. And all I had to do was tweak things just a little bit, just make it a little askew to make it funny. So it was just - frankly, just the obvious thing to do.
GROSS: You really capture what some music biopics are like and how they distort certain facts and the turning points that you have to have in a music biopic. In a lot of biopics, the parent doesn't want the child to go into music because it's too much of a gamble, or they think their child isn't really talented enough. Or music is too frivolous. It's not real work, and it won't support you because you're not good enough.
So in your parody of music biopics, when the young version of Al Yankovic gets interested in writing song parodies, his father thinks, like, that's ridiculous. That's terrible. He should work in the factory with the father. I want to play a scene from "Weird" in which the father's been trying to convince him to work at the factory. And this is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. I just think it so captures a trope of music biopics. So let's hear it. And Young Al Yankovic's mother speaks first. How old is Young Al in this scene?
YANKOVIC: Maybe 8, 9 years old.
GROSS: So here we go. So this is a scene with the mother, the father and Young Al.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEIRD: THE AL YANKOVIC STORY")
JULIANNE NICHOLSON: (As Mary) Alfie (ph), aren't you going ask your father how his day was?
RICHARD AARON ANDERSON: (As Young Al) How was your day, Dad?
TOBY HUSS: (As Nick) What, how was my day? We had another fatality down at the factory. Oh, God, a real grisly one this time. It was that McKinley kid that started last week. Kept telling him to stop messing around by that industrial shredder, but he just wouldn't listen. I would've reached out and grabbed him, but I already lost one hand to that cursed machine. Well, anyway, there's an opening down on the factory floor. Maybe I could pull a few strings, and you can spend the summer working with your old man. How's that sound?
ANDERSON: (As Young Al) No, thank you.
HUSS: (As Nick) No, thank you. Well, you're going to have to learn, sooner or later, that factory - that factory'll make a man out of you.
ANDERSON: (As Young Al) But I don't want to work at the factory. I want to make songs.
HUSS: (As Nick) What? You want to make songs? Did you hear that, Mary? We got a regular Bing Crosby on our hands, don't we?
NICHOLSON: (As Mary) Nick, you're embarrassing him.
HUSS: (As Nick) Oh, am I? Why don't you sing us a little ditty, Bing, huh? Such a little songbird. Sing one for us.
ANDERSON: (As Young Al, singing) Amazing grapes, how sweet the juice. It tastes so good to me.
HUSS: (As Nick) Oh, stop. Wait, stop. What in God's name are you doing? Those aren't the right words.
ANDERSON: (As Young Al) I know. I made them better.
HUSS: (As Nick) By changing the lyrics to a well-known song? No, boy, what you're doing is confusing and evil. My God.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIST THUMPING TABLE)
HUSS: (As Nick) And I will not have that kind of blasphemy in my own home.
ANDERSON: (As Young Al) But, Dad...
HUSS: (As Nick) What has gotten into you, Alfred? Hmm? With the songs and the crazy magazines? That is all going to stop now, young man.
NICHOLSON: (As Mary) Honey, I know it's hard to hear this. But your dad and I had a long talk, and we agreed it would be best for all of us if you just stop being who you are and doing the things you love.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIST THUMPING TABLE)
ANDERSON: (As Young Al) You don't understand me.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAM)
GROSS: Every line in that scene is so funny.
GROSS: Was "Amazing Grapes" written for the film? Or did you actually write that as a kid?
YANKOVIC: No, no. That was - I mean, I certainly could have at some point. But that was written for the film, yeah.
GROSS: Your father worked in a factory like the father in the movie. And it was a steel factory? Did he make steel? Is that...
YANKOVIC: I believe it was a sheet metal manufacturing plant. But he was very blue-collar, worked in a lot of different, random jobs over the years. But, you know, it wasn't some oppressive factory as portrayed in the movie, of course.
GROSS: Did he want you to work in the factory? Or did he want you to have a different kind of life?
YANKOVIC: No, I think he was glad that I was a nerdy kid. I was a smart child, you know, valedictorian, straight A's and all that. And he was very proud of that. And he wanted me to do something where I could, you know, earn my living by thinking rather than, you know, by doing hard labor.
GROSS: I love the mother and father's advice in this to the young Al. Like, stop being who you are and doing the things you love (laughter), you know, 'cause that's basically the advice people are given in the biopics. But what was your parents' reaction to you loving the things that you love, like music parodies, Mad Magazine, you know, like, silly and crazy jokes.
YANKOVIC: I think they were very supportive. I mean, in the very beginning, I think my mother was a little reluctant because she was extremely protective. And when I first started, like, knocking on doors and trying to get something going with a recording career, she was, I have to say, maybe a little apprehensive, because she told me more than once that there are evil people in Hollywood. And I should be very careful. And she's not wrong (laughter). But she was just a little leery about me doing anything involving showbusiness. But I was always very adult-minded. It's not like I ran away to LA to become a rock star or anything like that. I went to college. I got my degree in architecture. I remained a fairly good student. And I was pretty adult-minded. And I actually didn't quit my day job until I was on the Billboard charts.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Al. Yankovic And his new movie, "Weird," is a parody of biopics depicting a very funny, untrue version of Al Yankovic's life. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEO BIRENBERG AND ZACH ROBINSON'S "DEMENTO'S POOL PARTY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Al Yankovic, who's famous for his song parodies of hit records. And his new movie, "Weird," is a parody of biopics using a totally fictionalized version of Al Yankovic's life.
In biopics, in music biopics, there's always something that the songwriter sees or hears that makes them, like, stop dead in their tracks and think, wait, wait, wait, that's a song (laughter). And they write a song.
YANKOVIC: Right (laughter).
GROSS: And you have a take on that. In the movie, you know, Al is in college at this time. And one of his roommates puts on the radio. And "My Sharona" is playing. And Al opens the refrigerator to make a sandwich. And there's really nothing in it except some bologna, which belongs to his roommate. And the roommate says, you can have my bologna. And Al stops and thinks, oh, that's a song (laughter). And next thing, like, he writes "My Bologna" to the melody of "My Sharona." So has that ever happened to you, that a song kind of came to you based on something that you were experiencing in that moment?
YANKOVIC: It happens pretty rarely. I mean, that's the thing with almost all of the biopics - musical biopics, is they want to show the moment of epiphany. Like, where did this idea come from? And usually, the truth of the matter is it's not a cinematic moment. You know, it's something very internal...
GROSS: (Laughter) Yes, exactly. Yeah.
YANKOVIC: ...For the songwriter, which you can't really show on the big screen that well. So a lot of times, it's fabricated for the sake of the movie. And obviously, we take that trope. And we exaggerate it. And most songwriters, I think, will tell you that they don't have any kind of, like, eureka moments like is shown in so many biopics.
GROSS: OK. So here's "My Bologna." This is "Weird Al" Yankovic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BOLOGNA")
YANKOVIC: (Singing) Ooh, my little hungry one, hungry one, open up a package of my bologna. Ooh, I think the toast is done, the toast is done. Top it with a little of my bologna. Never going to stop. Eat it up. Such a tasty snack. I always eat too much and throw up. But I'll soon be back for my, my, my, yi (ph), yi - woo. My bologna. Spreading on the mustard now, a-show me how. Spread it on a little of this bologna. Hoping that we don't run out, don't run out. If we do, I'm sure that I'll miss bologna. Never going to stop. Eat it up. Such a tasty snack. I always eat too much and throw up. But I'll soon be back for, my, my, my, yi, yi - woo...
GROSS: That's "My Bologna," one of the songs that's included in the new movie "Weird," which is a parody biopic of parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic's life. And it's streaming for free on therokuchannel.com. So you know, after that song comes to you, your roommate says, I don't know if that comes from God or the devil. But the world needs to hear it. That's also another trope from biopics and of, like, rock 'n' roll movies in general. Like, is this the devil's music, you know, or anything pertaining to the blues.
GROSS: This is like the devil's music. Or is it great, you know? So as a parodist and as an accordion player, did you feel outside of that whole world of, like, this is the devil's music or, you know, like, rock 'n' roll unleashes all these, like, wild feelings (laughter), you know? Or, like...
GROSS: Or gangster rap, maybe it's dangerous. Like, you were so in a different world. Even as a child, like, playing accordion, you just weren't a part of, like, the danger and sexual thrill that, like, pop and rock was supposed to be, and rhythm and blues and soul music.
YANKOVIC: Yeah. Accordion music was always considered extremely safe to the point of being corny. It was - people thought of "Lawrence Welk Show" and Myron Floren. It didn't have a very hip reputation in the '60s, which was when I started taking my accordion lessons. And - yeah, and there was humor to be gleaned from the juxtaposition of accordion music and rock 'n' roll because they just felt like such disparate genres, you know? And I toyed with the whole satanic thing a couple times because I used some backwards masking in some of my songs, just because at the time, people were all up in arms like, oh, he said something backwards on this song. That must be satanic.
YANKOVIC: And my messages were always things like, wow, you must have an awful lot of free time on your hands.
YANKOVIC: Or Satan eats Cheez Whiz, you know? So I always had a little bit of fun with that. But as far as I can tell, there was nothing actually satanic in my music.
GROSS: Accordion is, I think, a great instrument. And if you listen to, like, you know, zydeco or polka or things like "The Threepenny Opera" or, like, some avant-garde, jazz, tango, like, accordion is just, like, a mainstay of that. And it's really such an interesting instrument. What did you learn when you were taking accordion lessons? Like, what did you grow up on?
YANKOVIC: When I started taking lessons - and again, this would have been ages 7 to 10 - it was mostly polkas and waltzes and, you know, various classical pieces, a lot of public domain stuff. They didn't teach Iron Butterfly on the accordion.
YANKOVIC: You know, rock 'n' roll wasn't something that was part of the daily lesson. So I got a little bit bored after age 10 and decided I would just kind of learn on my own. So I learned to play by ear a lot of rock 'n' roll songs on the accordion. And getting back to what you said, yeah, it's - the accordion is actually a beautiful instrument. It's a very sensual instrument. And a lot of indie bands have discovered that in the last couple of decades and incorporating it into their arrangements and instrumentation. And even back in the '50s with Dick Contino, I mean, he was kind of a sex symbol playing the accordion back then. So, you know, I'm just trying to bring sexy back to the accordion.
GROSS: Well, speaking of not bringing sexy back to the accordion, Myron Floren (laughter). So he was the accordion player on "The Lawrence Welk Show" for years and years. And, of course, Lawrence Welk is still on some PBS stations in reruns of reruns of reruns. And my husband and I watch it a lot because it's such an odd show. I mean, to see what passed for entertainment then and how really square and corny the music was, although there were some great musicians in the band. But, like, Myron Floren on accordion, he had to, like, smile all the time. Like, you could not not smile.
YANKOVIC: Right (laughter).
GROSS: And his playing was like...
YANKOVIC: So happy. So happy.
GROSS: Yeah. And the playing was, like, so flashy but so corny. And I was wondering if you watched him on "Lawrence Welk" when you were taking lessons.
YANKOVIC: I loved Myron Floren. Myron Floren was the first autograph I ever got.
GROSS: No kidding. Really?
YANKOVIC: He came to my town, and there's a picture of me smiling next to Myron Floren as he gives me my first autograph. And it was a big deal for me because, you know - and granted, OK, not the hippest entertainer in the world, but he was great. He was a great, great accordion player. And I admire him tremendously.
GROSS: What did people think of you? What did your contemporaries think of you when you were a kid and when you were a teenager playing accordion?
YANKOVIC: It was hard to join my friends' rock bands 'cause when I was in my early teens, you know, that was my goal was, like, oh, I just want to jam with some, you know, like-minded musicians. Let's - you know, let's play some rock 'n' roll. And for some reason, nobody wanted to have an accordion player in their band. And that's one of the few things in the biopic that's actually true because Daniel Radcliffe as me just cannot seem to fit in anywhere in mainstream with rock bands. But yeah, so I figured out that I just kind of had to go my own direction and just, you know, follow my own muse if I wanted to have any kind of career whatsoever.
GROSS: And that was parodies? I mean, did you ever try just, like, playing songs that you liked on accordion and trying to create your own band?
YANKOVIC: My brain sort of deviated into comedy because it was hard for me to take playing the accordion seriously because if you play the accordion seriously, then, you know, you're playing, you know, Italian weddings and bar mitzvahs and things like that. And I was obsessed with the "Dr. Demento Show," and I loved all the funny music on that. And Dr. Demento loved my accordion playing because he said the reason he played me on the air was because I was this teenage kid playing the accordion thinking I was cool. And that was a pretty novel concept back in the early '70s.
GROSS: Did you think you were cool?
YANKOVIC: Well, not as such. I mean, I knew I was a nerd. I knew I was a dork. I didn't really fit in at school with my friends. I was, you know, eating lunch by myself at the lunch tables a lot. So I didn't think I was a social butterfly or a big man on campus. I was - you know, I was a nerd. And this is back before being a nerd was considered cool. Like, nowadays, people like, oh, I have always been a nerd or, like, they brag about their nerd cred. And when I was in high school, that was not a thing you bragged about.
GROSS: Who nicknamed you Weird?
YANKOVIC: I'm not entirely sure. I know that nickname was given to me in my dorms in my freshman year in college. It was a nickname that I think a couple of people were calling me because they found me to be weird. You know, I did not fit in, and they just thought I was this, like, strange guy wandering the halls of the dorm. And they said, oh, there goes Weird Al. And, you know, again, it was kind of derogatory at the time, but I decided to take it on professionally when I started doing college radio because everybody on the air needed some kind of wacky nickname. And I thought, oh, I've already got a wacky nickname. It's Weird Al. So it was "The Weird Al Show" every Saturday night, and it just stuck.
GROSS: So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Al Yankovic and his new movie "Weird" is a parody of biopics depicting a very funny, untrue version of Al Yankovic's life. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ALTERNATIVE POLKA")
YANKOVIC: (Singing) Here I come, I come, I come, I come 'cause all I wanna do is have some fun. I've got a feeling I'm not the only one. All I wanna do is have some fun. I've got a feeling I'm not the only one. All I wanna do is have some fun until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard. Help me. I broke apart my insides. Help me. I got no soul to Help me. The only thing that works for me - help me get away from myself. I wanna - you like an animal. I wanna feel you from the inside. I wanna - you like an animal.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Al Yankovic, who's famous around the world for his parodies of hit pop tunes and rock tunes and hip hop music. And his new movie, "Weird," satirizes music biopics and also is a totally upside-down version of Al Yankovic's real life. I'm wondering what it was like for you when hip hop came along and gangsta rap. Because there's a - it's a very popular form of music, but it would be somewhere between problematic and offensive to a lot of people if, you know, a white musician was parodying Black songs, you know, songs by Black artists. So I can see how you dealt with that, looking at your music. But can you talk about that a little bit about the challenges that presented to you and how you went about dealing with them?
YANKOVIC: Yeah, I can understand why some people might think that that's problematic, but I think the fact that I respect the music so much goes a long way towards, you know, making people feel better about that because, you know, I'm not making fun of rap music or hip hop music. I'm really taking pains to emulate the sound and the intonations. And in fact, you know, I got a lot of nice compliments, like from Chamillionaire when I did "White And Nerdy." He was really impressed by my rapping skills. So I think the fact that I'm not, like, being, like, white guy doing rap music, ha ha - that's not the joke. I'm just using the music to do my comedy like I have for any other music I've ever done in my life.
And I love doing rap music for a number of reasons, one of which being that there are a lot of words to play with because for a lot of pop songs it's limiting because it's either repetitive or there aren't that many syllables. And I have to be very concise in my humor and jokes because I only have, you know, a finite amount of space to be funny in. But in rap music, there are a lot of words, and it just opens it up and gives me more breathing room. So that's one of the reasons why I've always enjoyed doing the rap songs.
GROSS: Well, I want to play "White And Nerdy," and this is a parody, as you said, of Chamillionaire's "Ridin'." And the lyrics originally are about how the cops are trying to catch him riding dirty, riding with weapons or drugs. And so "White and Nerdy" is like a nerdy white guy talking about, you know, mowing his lawn and things like that. So do you want to say anything about your approach to parodying this specific song?
YANKOVIC: Well, this is one of my favorite songs, not only because it was my highest-selling song and my only platinum single and my only Top 10 single. But I didn't have to do any research whatsoever because I spent my whole life doing research to write "White And Nerdy," so it came very easily to me.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, let's hear it. This is Al Yankovic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE AND NERDY")
YANKOVIC: (Rapping) They see me roll on my Segway. I know in my heart they think I'm white and nerdy. Think I'm just too white and nerdy. Think I'm just too white and nerdy. Can't you see I'm white and nerdy? Look at me - I'm white and nerdy. I'd like to roll with the gangsters, although it's apparent I'm too white and nerdy. Think I'm just too white and nerdy. Think I'm just too white and nerdy. I'm just too white and nerdy. How'd I get so white and nerdy? I've been browsing, inspecting X-Men comics - you know I collect them. The pens in my pocket, I must protect them. My ergonomic keyboard never leaves me bored. Shopping online for deals on some writable media. I edit Wikipedia. I memorized "Holy Grail" really well. I can recite it right now, and have you ROTFLOL.
I got a business doing websites. When my friends need some code, who do they call? I do HTML for them all. Even made a homepage for my dog. Yo, I got myself a fanny pack. They were having a sale down at the GAP. Spend my nights with a roll of bubble wrap. Pop, pop - hope no one sees me get freaky. I'm nerdy in the extreme and whiter than sour cream. I was in AV club and glee club and even the chess team. Only question I ever thought was hard was do I like Kirk or do I like Picard? Spend every weekend at the Renaissance fair. I've got my name on my underwear.
GROSS: That's Weird Al Yankovic and his recording "White And Nerdy." His new parody of music biopics that also parodies his own life is called "Weird." So among other things that you did along similar but different lines is you did a mashup of songs from "Hamilton" with the original lyrics, but all done as polkas. And it's so much fun. How did you get the idea of doing this?
YANKOVIC: This is something that I've done since the beginning of my career. I've had a polka medley on - not every album, but almost. I think I've had, like, a dozen or so polka medleys over the years. And Lin-Manuel Miranda is a good friend of mine, and we're mutual fans. And at one point Lin said, hey, why don't you do a polka medley for "Hamilton"? And I jumped at the chance. It's something that I probably would have done even if he hadn't asked me first.
But I was part of his Hamildrops series. Once a month, he would release a new song inspired by "Hamilton," and he wanted one of those Hamildrops to be "The Hamilton Polka." So I put everything I had into it because, you know, I love Lin and I wanted to do good by him. And I took about a dozen or so songs from "Hamilton" - not the saddest ones, I thought that might be a little too much, but a lot of Act I songs - and put them together. And he loved it. And in fact, if you look online, he - his wife Vanessa recorded his reaction the first time he heard "The Hamilton Polka." And it's something that I treasure to this day.
GROSS: What was his reaction?
YANKOVIC: He was almost crying, he was just so happy. He just loved it.
GROSS: OK, let's hear it. This is so much fun. So this is Weird Al Yankovic's polka medley of songs from "Hamilton."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HAMILTON POLKA")
YANKOVIC: (Singing) No one else was in the room where it happened, the room where it happened, the room where it happened. No one else was in the room where it happened, the room where it happened, the room where it happened. No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made. We just assume that it happens. But no one else is in the room where it happens.
We are outgunned - what? - outmanned - what? - outnumbered, outplanned. We got to make an all-out stand. And yo, I'm going to need a right-hand man. Hey, Hamilton - sir, he knows what to do in a trench - ingenuitive and fluent in French. I mean Hamilton - sir, you're going to have to use him eventually. What's he going to do on the bench? I mean Hamilton - no one has more resilience or matches my practical tactical brilliance. Hamilton - you want to fight for your land back? Hamilton - I need my right-hand man back. Get your right-hand man back - you know got to get your right-hand man back. I mean, you got to put some thought into the letter, but the sooner the better to get your right-hand man back.
It must be nice, it must be nice to have Washington on your side. It must be nice, it must be nice to have Washington on your side. Look back at the Bill of Rights - which I wrote. The ink hasn't dried. It must be nice, it must be nice to have Washington on your side. Somebody has to stand up for the South. Somebody has to stand...
GROSS: That's Weird Al Yankovic and his medley of polka songs from "Hamilton." So let's take a short break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Al Yankovic. And his new movie, which he co-wrote, is called "Weird." It's a parody of music biopics and also a parody of Al Yankovic's life. It's now streaming online for free on therokuchannel.com. And you can also see it on Roku devices. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WOOKIE SONG, "SCRAPPY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Al Yankovic, who's famous for his song parodies of hit records. And his new movie, "Weird," is a parody of biopics using a totally fictionalized version of Al Yankovic's life.
So I want to ask you about another song. You did a parody of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." And what you did was "Smells like Nirvana." And the song is about how you can't figure out any of the lyrics and have no idea what the song is about - you know, what "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is about. Were you more puzzled by his singing or by what the lyrics meant or both of them?
YANKOVIC: Kind of all of the above. I mean, you know, and it wasn't an opinion that I came by out of a vacuum. I mean, I think when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a big hit, a lot of people were like, what's he saying? And what does it mean? And there was just sort of a lot of confusion. So I just took that general attitude, and I parlayed it into a song. And "Smells Like Nirvana" is one of only, like, three or four songs that I've done which are, I think, actually considered satirical because they are commentary on the actual song or the artist. I've done that with Lady Gaga and, I think, Billy Ray Cyrus and maybe one or two others, I'm not sure. But certainly, "Smells Like Nirvana" was one of those where the whole song is about, like, what are we talking about here?
GROSS: So let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMELLS LIKE NIRVANA")
YANKOVIC: (Singing) What is this song all about? Can't figure any lyrics out. How do the words to it go? I wish you'd tell me. I don't know. Don't know, don't know, don't know, oh, no. Don't know, don't know, don't know. Now I'm mumbling, and I'm screaming. And I don't know what I'm singing. Crank the volume. Ears are bleeding. I still don't know what I'm singing. We're so loud and incoherent. Boy, this ought to bug your parents. Yeah. (Imitating vomiting).
GROSS: That was Weird Al Yankovic's take on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and his version is called "Smells Like Nirvana." I was wondering, what was your reaction when Kurt Cobain died? Did you feel any regret about having done the song? Not that I think that you should feel regret, I'm just wondering how you experienced that.
YANKOVIC: I was extremely sad 'cause I loved Kurt. You know, I didn't - I wasn't close with him. But, I mean, I'd met him a couple times, and I was a huge fan of his music - still am a huge fan of his music. So I just felt a profound sense of loss. I didn't have any regret about doing the parody because Kurt loved the song. And he wrote very nice things about me in his personal journal, which got published after his passing. He called me a modern rock genius. I mean, it was, like, this mind-blowing stuff.
The - it did make it a little awkward for me because when he died, I was in the middle of a tour, and "Smells Like Nirvana" was my big hit. And it made it a little awkward for me 'cause I thought, is this - you know, how are people going to react to this? Is it going to be bad taste for me to now play this song, you know, after Kurt has just died? And I was about to play Seattle, you know...
GROSS: Oh, gee (laughter). Yeah.
YANKOVIC: ...A couple weeks later. Like, can I play this in, like, Kurt's hometown?
YANKOVIC: You know? And what I wound up doing was before we played this song, I did a very solemn, you know, thank you to Kurt and tried to have, like, a moment of respect. And then, we went into the song. And I will say it got its biggest reaction in Seattle. People appreciated it and loved the spirit in which I was, you know, delivering it. And it all worked out.
GROSS: What kind of permissions do you legally need now to do a song parody, the kind that you do where often it's, like, musically note for note from the original recording but, you know, the lyrics are different? So, you know, you're satirizing the lyric, but the music isn't really - the instrumentation isn't really a satire. It's the thing. It's the - sounds like the original thing.
YANKOVIC: It's a gray area in terms of legally what I need to do especially in cases like "Smells Like Nirvana" because, again, that's satire. And that's considered free speech and fair use. And if push came to shove, if it went to the courts, generally, that's - you know, the courts rule in favor of the parody artist. But I - you know, I don't go by just what's legal. I go for what I think is right. And what's right to me is always getting permission from the original songwriters and get their blessing. Because if an artist doesn't want me to do their song, I will back off. I mean, no matter what, you know, the courts or the law says, it's like, I just want to, you know, do good by them because I respect artists. And I don't ever want them to feel like I'm, you know, stepping on their toes.
GROSS: In a lot of music biopics, the musician's life and career are nearly ruined by alcohol or drugs because success leads to excess, which leads to addiction, which leads to being nonfunctional. And then, either that's followed by death or by a comeback and getting sober. This happens in your movie, which is really funny because you're known for, you know, abstaining from alcohol and drugs. But I imagine you felt like you needed to put this in the biopic because it's such a staple.
YANKOVIC: Yeah. I think I want to get into alcohol and drugs in my 80s. I'm just kind of building up to it. I don't want to rush into anything.
YANKOVIC: No, it's - I think all biopics have that dramatic arc. And we're obviously making fun of that. So in order to have a traditional Hollywood biopic, I had to have, you know, this descent, this downward spiral, you know, the alcohol, the drug abuse, everything else. And we're just kind of playing off of that, because the same thing with "Behind The Music" - in the '90s, MTV did - or VH1 did a "Behind The Music" on me. And "Behind The Musics" are always famous for the same things. There's like, you know, 35 minutes into it, always it's, and then things went horribly wrong. And they talk about the artist's spiral into depression and drugs and everything else. And I never had that. I didn't have that in my life. So we had to manufacture some drama for the biopic.
GROSS: Has it been challenging to not drink or do drugs in the music world because you became a star and were a part of the music world and hung out with stars and probably were invited to parties with a lot of excess?
YANKOVIC: No, it wasn't hard. I mean, you know, you can always turn things down. I didn't have a lot of peer pressure. No one was like, what are you, a chicken? Come on. What are you, a chicken?
YANKOVIC: You know, we're all adults. It's like, you can just say - like Nancy Reagan, just say no.
GROSS: What was it like for you when you did become famous and suddenly you were a part of the world that you were an outsider from and never thought you'd really be a part of because you were not a rock God, you didn't play guitar or drums or keyboards?
YANKOVIC: It was a little odd for me because I've always had an outsider status, you know, especially starting out because I was just this weirdo kid from LA, playing the accordion and making fun of all the people on the inside of the elite and the - you know, the people in the - at the top of the pop stratosphere, like, all the big rock stars and the pop stars and all these famous people. And here was this dorky kid, like, making fun of them. And now all of a sudden, I was finding myself inside that bubble. I was at the same awards shows, sometimes the same parties and rubbing elbows with the people that I was making fun of. So that was a little bit of an adjustment. But it was - yeah, I'm still kind of getting used to it. It's kind of strange.
GROSS: How has that changed your self-image?
YANKOVIC: Well, I mean, it's good for my self-esteem. I mean, you know, I'm by nature actually a very shy person. And being somewhat famous has helped me, you know, be more social and talk to people. I mean, I would always be the person, like, hanging onto the wall at parties and waiting for somebody to come up and talk to me, which is nice, you know, having some notoriety because now people do. People come up and talk to me, which is nice because I'm not a very, you know, outgoing person socially. My dad was very gregarious and was always, you know, in people's faces. But my mom was very introverted. And I think I got - probably got more of my mom's personality in terms of my social life.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Al Yankovic. And his new movie, "Weird," is a parody of biopics depicting a very funny, untrue version of Al Yankovic's life. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PATTI SMITH SONG, "WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Al Yankovic, who's famous for his song parodies of hit records. And his new movie, "Weird," is a parody of biopics, using a totally fictionalized version of Al Yankovic's life.
I want to ask you about something, like, very serious, which is that your parents both died in - I guess you could call it an accident at home from inhaling - was it carbon monoxide from the fireplace? That sounds so horrible and so unnecessary, like it should never have happened. Do you understand what happened?
YANKOVIC: Well, as best as we can figure out, the flue in the fireplace was closed. There was a fire in the fireplace. And I guess they went to sleep not knowing that. And they both passed from carbon monoxide poisoning.
GROSS: How did you find out about this?
YANKOVIC: My wife called me. I was on the road at the time. So she called me. I was handed the phone on my tour bus. My wife was weeping. And she told me. And it was the worst moment of my life.
GROSS: So you were on the tour bus. You weren't at home. How did you decide what to do next?
YANKOVIC: Well, it was tough because I was literally in the middle of a tour. And I certainly didn't want to be performing that night or any time in the near future. But I realized that I had a small army of people working for me. I had people that had bought tickets to all these seats. And I didn't want to disappoint anybody. So I kind of wanted to keep it under wraps. I wanted to grieve privately and quietly and not even let people know what was going on, because I didn't want people walking on eggshells around me. I didn't want people, who had ostensibly come to a comedy show, watch a guy trying to suppress his grief onstage. So my initial thought was, OK, well, I'm going to somehow get through these shows, but I just don't want anybody to know what's going on. But within an hour, it was, like, global news, and everybody knew about it. So...
GROSS: How did they find out if you were keeping it secret?
YANKOVIC: Well, I mean, people find out. It was on CNN. It was everywhere within a couple hours. So people knew. So I continued with the show. I did a tribute to my parents before doing the show, before the concert, and then got through it. And, you know, for two hours every night, I would just try to put on a smile and pretend like my life wasn't crumbling and do the show. And we canceled the meet-and-greets because I didn't really want to talk to anybody or hang out or be social. I just wanted to do my job and then just get back to the bus and grieve quietly. And honestly, it was a bit therapeutic for me because, you know, it was nice to have the outpouring of love from the fans because the fans knew what was going on in my life. And it was just really nice to have them respond so supportively. And it kind of helped me move on a bit from where I was.
GROSS: I know you are Christian. How do you explain to yourself when a tragedy like this happens?
YANKOVIC: I don't have any kind of greater explanation for it. It's horribly sad, and it's horribly unfortunate. And, yeah, I don't know how to explain it other than that. And you just kind of deal with it the best way you can. There's no getting over it, really. I mean, I've never gotten over it, but I've learned to accept it. And it's now - that sense of loss is just something that is part of my life now.
GROSS: So I want to close with a song, and this is "Another One Rides The Bus," which is your version of Queens' "Another One Bites The Dust." And this is an important song in your career because it's how you hooked up with the person who became your longtime drummer. So tell us the story behind writing the song and finding the drummer.
YANKOVIC: I recorded "Another One Rides The Bus," the original version, on September 14, 1980. And that's a big date in my life because that's when I not only did that song live on the "Dr. Demento" radio show, but that's the night that I met Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz, my drummer, who is my drummer to this very day. And I wrote the song in maybe, like, 20 minutes. It was just something I kind of dashed off because "Another One Bites The Dust" was a big hit, and I thought, oh, I need something to play on the "Dr. Demento Show" this Sunday night. And I got a bunch of people around the studio together, around the microphone. And Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz said, hey, I'm a drummer. And I said, oh, well, great, you can bang on my accordion case. And everybody made noises and shouted and sang along. And thankfully, Dr. Demento had a reel-to-reel tape recorder going for an air check because that live performance was the only recording that we had for "Another One Rides The Bus." That version was what wound up on the album. And up until the soundtrack to the movie, that was the only version of the song that existed.
GROSS: So you rerecorded it for the movie.
YANKOVIC: We did. We - except for "Eat It," I think we rerecorded all of the parody songs because they were meant to sound like live performances. So we needed to be able to have slightly different versions than the actual studio recording. So, yeah, everything - all the parodies in the movie are the 2022 version of the song.
GROSS: It's been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for your music. Thank you for the new film, and I wish you well.
YANKOVIC: Well, thank you so much. This was a pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Al Yankovic co-wrote the new satirical biopic "Weird," which is an imaginary version of his own life. It's streaming for free on roku.com.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER ONE RIDES THE BUS")
YANKOVIC: (Singing) Ridin' in the bus down the boulevard and the place was pretty packed. Yeah. Couldn't find a seat, so I had to stand with the perverts in the back. It was smellin' like a locker room. There was junk all over the floor. We're already packed in like sardines, but we're stoppin' to pick up more. Look out. Another one rides the bus. Another one rides the bus. And another comes on and another comes on. Another one rides the bus. Hey, he's gonna sit by you. Another one rides the bus.
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the increasing tensions between China and the U.S. over Taiwan, which was one of the subjects of this week's meeting between President Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. Our guest will be New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins, who will explain the history of the conflict between China and Taiwan, China's increasingly threatening military exercises and how an armed conflict might play out. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LASAGNA")
YANKOVIC: (Singing) La-la-la-la-lasagna. You want-a some-a lasagna magnifico or a-maybe spaghetti.
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LASAGNA")
YANKOVIC: (Singing) Have-a some marinara. Have-A some marinara, I know-a you like, I know-a you like, I know-a you like. La-lasagna, la-lasagna, la-lasagna.
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