The Farce Side
If it weren't for Lawrence Welk, Weird Al Yankovic would be a sex symbol today. Well, a symbol of something sexy anyway. Okay, maybe not today, but some day. On another planet. But it's still all Larry's fault. "There was a kind of a Lawrence Welk backlash," contends Yankovic, the Supreme Being of musical parody who began his career by learning a certain wily instrument. "The accordion used to be a real popular instrument in the '30s, '40s and '50s. Dick Contina was considered a real sex symbol when he played the accordion. Then Lawrence Welk came along, and all of a sudden the accordion became square."Luckily for Yankovic, he didn't have to rely on his famous polka medleys as there was no shortage of one-hit wonders to inspire him during his musical infancy. In 1979, in a fateful but otherwise unremarkable bathroom located across the hall from the radio station on the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus, he recorded "My Bologna," his version of The Knack's "My Sharona.""I recorded it there because of the acoustically-perfect, tiled walls, and the nice, warm, organic reverb effect. Everything sounds better in the bathroom - that's a well-documented fact," claims Yankovic.A devoted disciple of the nationally syndicated Dr. Demento radio show, Yankovic sent his recording to the show where it was aired, raising a temporary dilemma for the budding architecture student and part-time college radio DJ (where he picked up the tag "Weird Al" for all the "weird" music he was playing)."When I was in school for architecture and began doing the college radio, I found that I enjoyed the radio work quite a bit more than hovering over a drawing board for 20 hours a day," explains Yankovic. "When 'My Bologna' hit, I thought, 'Hey, that was pretty easy. I'd like to do that for awhile.' and I began pursuing that a little more."Although "My Bologna" was a moderate hit right off the bat, Yankovic didn't exactly have contract-waving record executives beating down his door to sign him to 10-year, $80-million record deals." 'My Bologna' made me a couple hundred bucks, but it wasn't like it was a bidding war [for my services] afterward," says His Weirdness. "I banged on doors for a couple years because, you know, Dr. Demento airplay does not translate into millions of dollars worth of sales."Yankovic carried the additional yoke of being pegged by the curse of the "novelty act" label, frightening away most record industry people who view that phrase as merely another euphemism for "one-hit wonder," and are loathe to distribute any meaningful contractual obligations to such high-risk candidates. But the release of "Another One Rides The Bus," Yankovic's parody of the Queen hit, "Another One Bites The Dust," erased him as a potential K-Tel client - at least for the time being - and sent him and his accordion bouncing merrily along the road to Parody Kingdom, where he was soon to become its king, queen and entire court. Even now, though, the wildly popular Yankovic surname in the music industry still generates some confusion with Frankie Yankovic, the polka legend who shares no genetic connection to His Weirdness."I get that all the time," muses Yankovic. "It's like the last interview I did they were saying 'Tell me about your dad Frankie Yankovic the polka singer.' You figure how many accordion-playing Yankovics can there be in the world? But when I first started doing live concerts, I had these older women sitting in the front row thinking they were going to hear Frankie's boy play polka music all night, and they hear the first power chord from my guitar player and they would make a beeline for the exit."Yankovic says he has met the conventional Yankovic, and that they are old friends and "send each other Christmas cards every year." But where Frankie shares a name and friendship with Al, not all artists harbor the same beneficience."I don't think there is any artist above being parodied," begins Weird Al, "but I do get permission when I do parodies, so if an artist turns me down, I'll just leave him alone. That happens pretty rarely, most artists have a pretty good sense of humor about that. But there's one guy that consistently turns me down for parodies, and I can't really mention his name because he doesn't have one anymore."Okay, we'll mention it - The Artist Formerly Known As Prince is the humorless musician who keeps dissing Weird Al. However, Paul Westerberg may be added to that list of musical artists without a sense of humor after his verbal tirade and tantrum last year on the irreverent Space Ghost cartoon talk show, one of Yankovic's favorite shows. Weird Al was even a guest on one of the show's earliest episodes."I have to say I just lost a bit of respect for Paul Westerberg," says Yankovic upon hearing of the histrionic episode in which Westerberg stormed off during his interview with Space Ghost. "I prefer to be asked completely stupid questions [on Space Ghost] rather than questions I've been asked 20,000 times."So how does the master of pop parody pick the songs he spoofs? It's the 20,001st time he's fielded the question, but Yankovic is willing to oblige his secret for selecting an appropriate hit to lambaste."There's no pat answer really, I just try to pick something that's very popular and receiving a lot of airplay on radio stations and MTV, and something with a strong musical or lyrical hook to it, as well as something that I can figure out a clever enough idea for," says Yankovich.The cloudier process for Yankovic is trying to distinguish how far he can go in a particular subject area, or with a particular subject matter, before crossing the line of offensiveness and opening himself up to phone calls and letters from Tipper Gore wannabes."I tend to keep my songs somewhat within the bounds of good taste, but every now and then I do push that envelope a little bit," admits Yankovic. "I don't use profanity or overt sexual images. It's fairly clean, but I do tend to get into some pretty dark territory, because some of my humor can get pretty sick." Although Yankovic may have skirted the edge of Middle America's taste for parodied songs such as "Eat It" and "Amish Paradise," he has certainly stomped all over it with his original song "The Night Santa Went Crazy" off his latest release Bad Hair Day."When I was wondering if that song wasn't going a little too far, I ran it by some friends and they said, 'Yeah, Al, you can't kill Santa!' and so I toned down the lyrics a little," he says. "But then it turned out I liked the gorier version better, so I put that as a bonus track on the Amish Paradise CD single. The fans seem to like the gorier version better, so I guess I should have stayed with my original instinct."So far, his original instincts have served him well, allowing him, ironically, to outlast some of the musical artists he has satirized. Those instincts have even lead him into other arenas of entertainment, including The Weird Al Show, a half-hour Saturday morning comedy variety show which will air on CBS beginning on August 16. Although the show is reminiscent of the old Pee Wee's Playhouse series, Yankovic is hoping the viewing public will see the distinction between the two."I suppose if you had to compare it to a show, [PeeWee's Playhouse] would be the closest," Yankovic hesitantly admits. "But it's different in many ways. It takes place in my cave many miles beneath the surface of the earth, and I have Harvey the Wonder Hamster. I've actually had the idea for many years, but there had to be an educational message for the kids included in it, and now we have a running story line so that we can do that for each episode."The show is in post production now, and with his concert tour winding up in September, Yankovic plans to return to writing his next album and directing music videos, an occupation for which he is suddenly receiving major interest. "While I have been on tour, I understand that I have been receiving a lot of requests to direct videos and unfortunately, I've had to turn some of them down because I don't have the time to do them right now. But that is something I would like to pursue more thoroughly later on because I like being on the other side of the camera."After being on the other side of America's pop culture psyche for nearly three decades, it is unlikely Yankovic will have any problems crossing the line in this medium, unless Lawrence Welk reruns become popular again.