FOR WEIRD AL Yankovic, it's all about the parodies . . . and, always, the permissions.
Take "The Saga Begins." Please.
Yankovic proved particularly prescient with this parody of George Lucas's much ballyhooed "Star Wars"-prequel, "The Phantom Menace," its plot retold Weird Al-style to the melody of Don McLean's "American Pie."
"I was very thankful that they both approved [of the parody] because they're such huge American icons," says Yankovic from the road. "I was dealing with two pretty weighty pieces of pop culture here."
With his usual cheeky irreverence, of course, though this particular song--and the accompanying video that further sends up the film--proved something of a puzzle, mostly because of the veil of secrecy that surrounded "The Phantom Menace."
"It was a terrific challenge to do that song, to do it well, and to do it six weeks before the film came out, which is what I did in order to get the ["Scissors With Hands"] album out in a timely manner," says a proud Yankovic, who previously celebrated Lucas's "Yoda" to the melody of the Kinks' "Lola."
Though Lucasfilm was helpful, "they weren't amenable to giving me a copy of the script before the movie came out," Yankovic adds. He was nonetheless able to figure out the plot by scouring the Internet's many fan-based "Star Wars" Web sites. Though Lucasfilm had no public comment on "Saga," it did graciously plug Weird Al's new album on its official Web site (www.starwars.com).
"It's always been a personal policy of mine to get permission," says Yankovic, "even though under fair use and the recent Supreme Court decisions that have ruled in favor of parody, it seems like I could get away with just doing whatever I felt like doing and not worry about the reactions of the original artists. But that's not the way I do business. I don't like to step on people's toes. I don't want people to feel upset or put out by what I do. I like the artists to feel like they're in on the joke."
"The Phantom Menace" almost inspired a second parody--"Pretty Fly for a Jedi"--but Yankovic instead recast the Offspring's "Pretty Fly for a White Guy" as "Pretty Fly for a Rabbi." Sample: "they say he's got a lot of chutzpah, he's really quite hhhhip/ the parents pay the moyel and he gets to keep the tip."
"There's a lot of different ways you can go," Yankovic explains, noting that the Offspring song was "a pretty good candidate for a parody. Like I do with most of my songs, I'll come up with a list of potential variations on a theme. I'll have a couple of pages worth of ideas, of different parody titles, and I'll look at them carefully to see which has the most comedic potential. Those two were right at the top of the list."
Other sterling parodies on the new album include "Jerry Springer" (to the melody of Barenaked Ladies' "One Week"), the obligatory food song, "Grapefruit Diet" (to Cherry Poppin' Daddies' "Zoot Suit Riot") and the geek-oriented "It's All About the Pentiums" (to Puff Daddy's "It's All About the Benjamins").
The latter has produced another hilarious video--this one sending up the hyperkinetic style of director Hype Williams, and featuring Drew Carey playing Mase to Yankovic's Puffy. "I talked to him personally on the phone to make sure there wasn't any kind of miscommunication, because the last thing I wanted was to have Puff Daddy mad at me," Yankovic says.
Most folks, of course, tend to be pleased at being Yankovic-ed. And plenty of them have been since he first made his mark 20 years ago with the food-based parodies "My Bologna" (to the Knack's "My Sharona") and "I Love Rocky Road" (to Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll"). In 1983, Yankovic added scene-by-scene video parody with "Eat It" (to Michael Jackson's "Beat It").
"The only additional permission that we needed doing the videos was a synch-license, which is almost automatic in most cases," Yankovic says. "We don't go to the video directors and say 'Do you mind if we do this?' I don't think 'Saturday Night Live' or 'Mad TV' or anybody else goes to that much trouble. If the song is approved, I assume that everything else is going to be alright."
Where he can, Yankovic prefers to approach the to-be-spoofed artists directly, saying they're usually "more agreeable and cool than the people who surround and protect them. I've had a number of occasions in the past where we'd be dealing with a publisher, agent or manager and they wouldn't return calls--or would flat out say no--and then I'd run into the artist at a party or award show and say, 'Hey, too bad I couldn't do one of your songs.' And they'd go, 'What are you talking about? You wanted to do one of my songs? You're kidding, I'd love it, that would be great.'
"So whenever possible we try to cut right through the middle men and go right to the source." And sometimes, right back to the set: for 1993's "Smells Like Nirvana," Yankovic used the same gymnasium set, janitor, cheerleaders and extras to make fun of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Kurt Cobain, whose mush-mouthed lyrics were lampooned, loved it--and Rolling Stone placed it in the Top 100 Videos of All Time.
Still, Yankovic never writes a lyric or video script before getting permission. "On the odd chance that they say no, that's a whole lot of effort wasted. I spend a long time writing lyrics." He does offer up concepts.
"For example, I told the Cherry Poppin' Daddies 'I'd like to do a parody of 'Zoot Suit Riot' about a guy with a weight problem who goes on a 'Grapefruit Diet.' What do you think?' And they'll say 'Yeah, okay, fine.' Then I'll go to the trouble of writing the song."
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC -- Appearing Sunday at the Warner Theater.
* To hear a free Sound Bite from "Scissors With Hands," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
CAPTION: Weird Al works hard to keep a leg up in the humor business.