Music » Music Lead

Like a Brain Surgeon

No dummy, ¨Weird Al¨ Yankovic has outlasted many of his parody subjects.


Back to his bread and butter: "Weird Al" Yankovic.
  • Back to his bread and butter: "Weird Al" Yankovic.
He turned "Beat It" into "Eat It." "Like a Virgin" into "Like a Surgeon." "Rico Suave" into "Taco Grande." And most recently, "Zoot Suit Riot" to "Grapefruit Diet." He orchestrated his own TV show. He starred in UHF, a certified cult classic, single-handedly igniting the career of Michael Richards, the man who would be Kramer. He directed a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion video. He remains the funniest man ever to appear on MTV. He reigns supreme as King of the Joke Parody. He now commands his very own VH1 Behind the Music special. He is modern music's sole polka crossover superstar. And now, as he approaches the age of forty, he looks as schmoove as ever.

Show some respect. You have entered the domain of "Weird Al" Yankovic, the undisputed master of his craft.

That's right, forty. Alfred Matthew Yankovic has clung to the pop landscape for twelve billion years now, outlasting many of the one-hit-wonder artists he gleefully parodied back in the day. Witness Running With Scissors, Al's tenth studio joint, barreling through luminaries such as Puff Daddy ("It's All About the Pentiums") and the Offspring ("Pretty Fly for a Rabbi"). Don't forget the usual string of quirky Al originals; "My Baby's in Love With Eddie Vedder," for example. And at the record's cornerstone, we find "The Saga Continues," a literate Star Wars tribute sung to the tune of, what else, "American Pie."

This last bit leaves even Weird Al a little flustered. Speaking via phone during an off-day on his tour, the master jokesmith can hardly find the words. "I mean, it's "American Pie,'" he says incredulously. "That's almost treading on sacred ground."

Sacred ground? This from the man who once lit his accordion on fire à la Jimi Hendrix. Ah, the secret is out: Weird Al is not merely weird; he's also intelligent, reverential, and obviously market-savvy. But can he convince people of this? Do people automatically pigeonhole him as some accordion-toting screwball? Do Weird Al and his celebrated backing band crave respect?

"In a way," Al admits. "Certainly hard-core fans appreciate what we're about, and they certainly appreciate the professionalism." He goes on to describe the Touring With Scissors setup: a full-blown two-hour extravaganza replete with costume changes, lighting wizardry, and film clips.

Al clearly bristles at the joke-band tag, a charge often leveled at entities like him and the Barenaked Ladies, who find their hit "One Week" reconfigured on Scissors into a Jerry Springer tribute. Are the Ladies stealing Weird Al's money? "I love the Barenaked Ladies, and more power to them," he says. "I think there's a lot of room for humor in music." As for his own career: "I don't have any compulsion to be serious with my music. I just do what I do."

Few do what they do so well. Al always has. After graduating from a Lynwood, California high school as class valedictorian (!) at the tender age of sixteen (!!), Al scored a degree in architecture (!!!) from a local technical university in the early '80s. His real passion, however, lay in the work of Dr. Demento, a syndicated radio host known for his taste in quirky musical creations.

Already an accomplished accordion player, a young Al mailed his own warped parodies ("Another One Rides the Bus," "My Bologna"), which Dr. Demento gladly aired. A few years later, a record contract. Wa-boom: A parody career is born, though those parodies take effort. Al works hard to capture every nuance of the song, be it Nirvana or Madonna or Chumbawamba. And though legally he doesn't really have to, Al contacts each of the original artists beforehand to ask permission. Most are completely flattered — the Weird Al tribute, in some ways, signals that you've really made it.

Al admits artists have turned him down in the past. Anyone in particular? "Well, I can't really say his name, as it's an unpronounceable symbol," Al begins. Oh, Prince. How can you deny the world a comedy shot of "When Doves Cry" or "Little Red Corvette"?

And of course, there's Coolio, who was none too pleased to discover his "Gangsta's Paradise" turned into "Amish Paradise," a ghetto-level tale of terror and hardship reimagined as a butter-churning, barn-raising megahit. Coolio's anger radiated through the media, as did Al's genuine remorse and sincere apologies. He now describes the ordeal as a miscommunication. So has the rapper calmed down? "I certainly hope he has," Al says. "If I had known up front that he wouldn't want me to do that parody, I wouldn't have done it."

No punch line, folks. Polka pranksters are people, too. And sometimes they branch out. As mentioned before, Weird Al has gone multimedia. His videos are every bit as hilarious as the songs surrounding them. A series of Al TV features on MTV, featuring brief skits and video archives, always scores a big hit for the otherwise humorless network. Al's well-tended website ( fields constant questions and debates over UHF — no sequel yet, though the demand and interest are definitely there.

Even Saturday morning cartoons can't hide from this man. Witness The Weird Al Show, a CBS offering that ruled the airwaves from 1997 to 1998. Though bigwigs demanded an "educational" focus (oh, lord), Al still managed to sneak in a bit of subversive humor. It was educational for him, too — he found out not everyone understands him. "I had a lot of problems," Al admits. "They would say, "Chicks don't know who Yoko Ono is, so you can't make a joke about Yoko Ono.' And I said, "Well, they can learn.'"

So Al has returned to his self-described "bread and butter": the parodies, the music. But one other facet demands attention: the look. Gone is the traditional goofy mustache. Laser surgery has rid him of his trademark big whompin' glasses. The hair is under reasonable control. Could Weird Al become . . . a sex symbol?

"For the first time in my life, I'm getting letters from fourteen-year-old girls saying, "Wow, I didn't know you were such a hottie,'" Al says. He thinks a moment. "Maybe I should've shaved the mustache a long time ago."


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