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Weird Al's Imitation: A Funky Form of Flattery

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007

A quarter-century into his reign as king of parody, "Weird Al" Yankovic had his biggest chart success ever with the autobiographical "White & Nerdy," a stylistic doppelganger of rapper Chamillionaire's mega hit "Ridin' Dirty."

"First in my class here at MIT / Got skills, I'm a champion at D&D / M.C. Escher, that's my favorite M.C. / Keep your 40, I'll just have an Earl Grey tea / My rims never spin, to the contrary / You'll find that they're quite stationary / All of my action figures are cherry / Stephen Hawking's in my library. . . ."

Yankovic also invokes Segways, fanny packs, Wikipedia, Kirk vs. Picard debates and other signifiers of white suburbia. In the video -- his first big-budget, live-action video in seven years -- a Donny Osmond cameo subs for Krayzie Bone. The parody was so spot on that Chamillionaire bogarted it for his official MySpace page before Yankovic could get it on his.

"At first I was, 'Hey, I'm gonna world premiere that myself!' Then I thought, how cool is it that Chamillionaire himself wanted to put it on his page," Yankovic says. Chamillionaire has also praised Yankovic's skills, telling Rolling Stone that "he's actually rapping pretty good on it. . . . I didn't know he could rap like that."

"White & Nerdy" got 6 million hits in its first three weeks, and, says Yankovic, "the video has been seen 30 million times from MySpace and YouTube alone." That helped "White & Nerdy" become Yankovic's first Top 10 single (and only his second gold single after 1984's "Eat It"). And it's probably responsible for the accompanying album, "Straight Outta Lynwood" debuting at No. 10 -- Yankovic's highest chart debut ever. And yes, Lynwood is the California town where he grew up.

The album includes Yankovic originals (about half of every album, in fact), the obligatory polka medley ("Polkarama!" serves up 50 Cent, Black Eyed Peas, Pussycat Dolls, The Killers, Modest Mouse in straight-ahead, sped-up polka style) and parodies of Usher, Taylor Hicks and Green Day.

It also unveiled what may be one of his finest -- certainly lengthiest -- achievements:

"Trapped in the Drive-Thru," an 11-minute animated parody of R. Kelly's overwrought sex epic, "Trapped in the Closet," describing in hilariously banal detail a couple's attempts to decide on and then pick up their dinner. (R. Kelly's 12-chapter original was so ridiculous it seemed itself a parody -- and he has just released chapters 13-22!) The "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" video was animated and directed by Doug Bresler (Doogtoons), who, says Yankovic, "spent several months on it." Not that there was any thought of anything but the full 11 minutes.

"I wouldn't want to do an edit," Yankovic explains. "Part of the joke is how interminably long it is -- it just goes on forever -- high drama of the mundane for 11 minutes."

Fans at Weird Al's concert Thursday don't have to worry about getting trapped in the Warner Theatre. "We do the middle third -- enough to satisfy the people who want to hear the song and not so much that people who don't want to hear the song take a bathroom break," he laughs.

According to Yankovic, "R. Kelly does have a great sense of humor," which is why he signed off on the parody. Yankovic always gets permission from the original writers of the songs he parodies, though there is no legal requirement for him to do so. Most Yankovic parodies consist of the original song's music with his lyrics, so it's politic to maintain good relationships with artists and writers (particularly since Yankovic gets songwriter credits and royalties as the writer of new lyrics).

There have been a few exceptions: The prince of parodies has never been able to parody Prince, who has turned Yankovic down repeatedly. The first single from "Straight Outta Lynwood" was supposed to be "You're Pitiful," a parody of James Blunt's smash hit "You're Beautiful", whose protagonist is a 42-year-old man who still lives with his mother, wears a homemade Star Trek uniform and works as a Slurpee machine operator.

Blunt himself signed off on "You're Pitiful," but after it had been recorded, his label, Atlantic, nixed it, reportedly on the grounds it was "too early" in Blunt's career for a parody and that it might lead to a perception of him as "one-hit wonder." Don't worry, "You're Pitiful" is available for free download on Yankovic's Web site, http://www.weirdal.com. While there's no official video, one YouTube version simply layers "You're Pitiful" on Blunt's "You're Beautiful" video. (It syncs up better than "Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wizard of Oz.")

"As it turns out, there is a thing called the Internet, and stuff does go out there whether the suits like it or not," Yankovic says. You can expect to hear "You're Pitiful" in concert, where Yankovic often does parodies for which an artist did not give permission or which weren't released for other reasons.

Yankovic's video parodies have been crucial to his success, particularly those with scene-by-scene variations on the original. They're what made Weird Al a star in the early years of MTV -- radio has never been as friendly to his work -- when he could whip up dead-on parodies of Michael Jackson ("Eat It," "Fat") and Madonna ("Like a Surgeon").

"There aren't that many superstars around anymore," he says. "It seems in the '80s the qualities of superstardom were more well-defined; when MTV was actually playing videos, it meant something to have a video in heavy rotation, and there were a handful of real superstars and those were the kind of people that are the most fun to parody. Certainly there's a lot of major stars in the pop culture scene today, but people like Michael Jackson don't come around that often."

What has changed -- and it would seem, for the better -- is the arrival of such sites as YouTube and MySpace that are more accessible and less reliant on gatekeepers.

"It totally levels the playing field," Yankovic agrees. "You don't have to be beholden to any video channel or label executives or any suits whatsoever. If something is good enough, it can be out there and people will see it."

But, he adds, it's a mixed blessing because anybody -- and sometimes, it seems, everybody -- can upload their parodies to the Internet. On his Web site, Yankovic maintains a "Not Al List" of songs and videos wrongly attributed to him, many of them with sexuality and/or vulgarity you'll never find in his work.

Fans know the real Weird Al: They've bought 12 million of his albums (more than any comedy act in history). That's pretty good for someone whose first-aired parody back in 1979 -- "My Bologna" to the Knack's "My Sharona" -- was recorded in a college bathroom. Syndicated mischief maker Dr. Demento was the DJ who took a chance on the 19-year-old architecture student whose alternative career revealed itself in 1980 with "Another One Rides the Bus" (to Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust").

In his first TV appearance, Weird Al did that song on "The Tomorrow Show" with the late Tom Snyder, who must have been amused by Yankovic's accordion antics and Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz's accordion-case percussion. In fact, Schwartz is a real drummer, part of the crack band Yankovic put together in 1981 with guitarist Jim West and bassist Steve Jay; keyboardist Rubén Valtierra signed on a decade later. Able to play in a multitude of styles -- necessitated by Yankovic's all-genres-are-targets agenda -- the band transcribes the original songs by ear and re-records them for Yankovic's parody versions.

"They can do stuff on a dime," he says admiringly. "I feel very fortunate that I've been able to have this band for literally the last quarter of a century. One of the ironies of my career is I've been able to keep all these same guys when a lot of groups don't even last this long, or there's always changing personnel or personality conflicts.

"They're all amazing musicians who can do anything from gangsta rap to polka and everything in between, and do everything expertly well. One of my pet peeves is that sometimes the talents of my band get overlooked because, and it was the same problem that Frank Zappa had, with a lot of groups that use humor, people don't realize there's a lot of craft behind the comedy."

Thankfully, says Yankovic, artists usually get it and have a better sense than the people who represent them. "If we ever have a tough time getting through to somebody, I try to do it artist to artist."

Weird Al Yankovic Thursday at the Warner Theatre The future: Yankovic says his major challenge is "to be as timely and topical as I would like to be because I have to get permission, I have to record the song, produce, mix and master it, get it out in the stores and that process takes months and months. It can't be as fresh as this morning's headlines. . . . Part of the whole [music industry] paradigm shift might be; maybe now I'll take advantage of iTunes, if I can work out some sort of arrangement with my record company. Maybe I can come up with a song, record it and have it on iTunes later that week, which would allow me to be a whole lot more timely and topical instead of waiting until I have an album's worth of parody, hoping that at least one or two of them are still valid."

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