Weird Al Yankovic knows how to put on a show. During a two-hour concert in 2013 before a capacity crowd at Cain Park, the satirist did a bit of everything. He changed into a countless number of different outfits and played funny, home-made videos in which he took clips of celebrity interviews and inserted his own colorful commentary. That show, his last appearance in town, was a crowd-pleasing concert that catered to both the families and hipsters in attendance.
With his latest effort, last year’s Mandatory Fun
, he proves that he’s still at the top of this game as he turns Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” into “Word Crimes,” Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” into “Tacky,” Lorde’s “Royals” into “Foil” and Iggy Azaela’s “Fancy” into “Handy.”
Yankovic says he never imagined that his career would take off the way it has.
“This wasn’t anything that I thought I would make a career out of but every Thursday night at the college they had what they called ‘the coffeehouse,’” he says in a phone interview. “The students would go and sit and have a coffee and watch local artist and students perform. Nine times out of ten, it was some guy playing an acoustic guitar and singing a Dan Fogelberg song. It was very mellow and laid back. Then, I would come up with my accordion and sing some goofy song in my strangled voice and freak everyone out. It would always get a huge reaction because it was just so different. That’s where I first got my love of performing. I realized I could make people laugh and make people have a good time. It turned something on in my brain. By the time I graduated from college, I didn’t think I would do architecture for the rest of my life but I thought I could maybe do something with the performing thing.”
Initially, Yankovic had a hit with “My Bologna,” a sendup of the Knack tune “My Sharona.” That was the first of many Weird Al songs to become hits on the novelty radio program hosted by Dr. Demento.
“That was No. 1 for several weeks on the Funny Five, and that wasn’t me stuffing the ballot box or calling up on the request line and trying to disguise my voice and saying, ‘Please play that Weird Al song again,’” says Yankovic. “That was actual people thinking it was funny. That was at the point when the guys in the Knack heard the song and liked it. Capitol Records decided to release it as a single. That blew my mind. I was still in college. I hadn’t even graduated yet. They wanted to put out my record. If I was at all waffling, that really sealed it for me and convinced me I needed to take a shot at this recording thing.”
From point on, it was on. Throughout the ’80s, Weird Al was a staple on MTV as he parodied pop stars such as Michael Jackson. When grunge hit in the ‘90s, Yankovic was there to poke fun at Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and when hip-hop became huge, he delivered “White & Nerdy,” a sendup of "Ridin'" by Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone. But with all that success, he never had a No. 1 album. Until now. Mandatory Fun
debuted at the top of the charts upon the first week of its release.
“It’s amazing that it’s my first number one,” says Yankovic. “That’s not really the headline. The headline is that it’s the first comedy album ever to debut at No. 1. I think of people I listened to while growing up like Steve Martin and Cheech and Chong and George Carlin and Richard Pryor. They’re legends. The fact that I’m the first one to have a Number 1 album is hard to comprehend.”
The album also won a Grammy.
“It’s my fourth Grammy but that never gets old,” says Yankovic. “My first one was in 1985, I think. It’s nice to have the vote of confidence from your peers. It was a real tough category. I was up against Louis CK and Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman and Jim Gaffigan. Real heroes of mine. That fact that I was even mentioned in the same breath as those guys was amazing. It’s been a surrealistic year for me.”
The album also comes at the end of the 14-album contract Yankovic had with his record label. Now that he is no longer obligated to put out albums, he says he might not continue to put them out. After all, we live in a world where timeliness is everything. Songs become hits and then quickly fade so any attempt at parody has to be swift.
“I hate to make any firm statements or draw any lines in the sand,” Yankovic says. “I have said it’s my last conventional because it’s the end of my record contract. It’s the 14th album in a 14th album contract. I was under contract for 32 years. I like the feeling of freedom and knowing that I don’t have to do anything and I’m not obligated to do anything. I also feel that with comedy and satire, it’s more important to be timely or topical. The best way to do that is to release tracks or singles as soon as I come out with them not wait until I have 12 tracks. That doesn’t seem like the best way to get myself out there. If I had come up with my ‘Blurred Lines’ parody in the summer of 2013, I would have thought it would have been a good single. When the album came out, it was still the most popular track on the album, but I wasn’t as confident about saying it’s the first single because by that time there were like 10,000 parodies of the song on YouTube. You don’t want to come out a year later with your parody.”
This album has been described as Yankovic’s best work. He agrees with that assessment.
“I always say without any sarcasm or irony that every album I put is the best I’ve ever done,” he says. “I feel like every album is better than the one I put out before. It’s not always that everyone agrees with me but this time, people are agreeing.”
With so many songs, Yankovic admits it’s become hard to pick the ones to play live.
“That is a bit of a puzzle,” he says when asked about the current tour’s set list. “There’s only a finite amount of time. We can’t play all night long. I have to respect the fact that people’s bladders are only so big and I don’t want to build bathroom breaks into the shows. We try to feature as much stuff as we can from the most recent album. We play all the greatest hits. There are songs we have to play or people will get upset. I try to make every tour different but at least half the set is songs that people expect to hear. It’s a matter of giving people what they want and trying to promote the new material and trying to through in the occasional surprise or deep cut for the hardcore fans.”
Weird Al, 8 p.m., Saturday, May 30, Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 2014 Sycamore, 216-622-6557. Tickets: $27.50-$49.50, livenation.com.