IT’S NOT QUITE fair to say that MAD magazine put “Weird Al” Yankovic on the road to a career in parody.
Now, once again, the timelines of the performer and the publication — as twin institutions of American silliness and satire — have arrived in tune and in comedic unison.
On newsstands today lands the latest issue of MAD — on one hand, just another testament to the magazine’s 63 years of “smart stupid” humor; yet on the other hand, it’s a landmark. This is the first issue ever guided by a guest editor. “Weird Al” commandeers the edition, from front (literally — his caricatured face graces the cover) to back (literally — the last-page fold-in is an homage to Al).
It was an invitation and an assignment that MAD honchos John Ficarra and Sam Viviano, at least publicly, are not yet regretting.
“I’ve always been a big fan of his work,” says Ficarra, the longtime MAD editor. “And when the idea of a guest editor came up last year, Al’s name rose to the top. From there, all the stars aligned.”
Last fall’s decision marked the second time within months that stars and cartoons aligned for Al (who allows an interviewer to drop the “Weird” in conversation: “Better that,” he laughs, “than just dropping the ‘Al.’ “). Last May, Yankovic received the ACE Award from the National Cartoonists Society during a formal San Diego ceremony.
“I was very honored, but it’s kind of a strange award,” Yankovic says. “They’ve given the ACE Award to people like [newsman] Morley Safer. It seems to be for failed celebrity cartoonists.”
Yankovic allows, though, that MAD helped set him on a path toward becoming a highly successful parodist — one who, much like the magazine, feeds off the pop-culture zeitgeist to “shamelessly” mock it. The accordion-playing singer-songwriter (who’ll play Baltimore and Vienna’s Wolf Trap in June), has five Grammys, has sold north of 12 million albums, and last year had the first opening-week No. 1 comedy album (“Mandatory Fun”) of his career.
When young Alfred Matthew Yankovic was going to school in the L.A. County city of Lynwood (“Same high school as Suge Knight,” he offers), it was the magazine’s very irreverence that had him hooked.
“I was absolutely obsessed,” Yankovic says. “Mort Drucker was one of my all-time favorite artists during my teenage years. And the MAD sensibility bored into my brain at an early age. It struck in me a responsive chord, and helped inspire everything.”
To this day, Yankovic sees his act as an extension of that sensibility.
“I like to think that what I do is sort of the audio version of MAD magazine,” the 55-year-old entertainer says. “I certainly went beyond MAD magazine to discover Spike Jones and Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer, but it all started with MAD — that kind of irreverent humor that hadn’t been explored.”
Yankovic was still a teenager when he gave his music to syndicated radio personality Dr. Demento, who played it on his cult show, launching the 16-year-old’s career. MAD’s satiric approach was already translating into his music.
“What resonated with me is that this irreverence is a way of fitting in,” Yankovic says. “It’s a way of dealing with a distrust for authority figures. It’s about always questioning things, and it’s about not taking things at face value.”
That sensibility is so well-honed now that Yankovic had little trouble adapting it to his guest-editing of MAD. That includes one piece in the new issue that’s a faux notebook of Yankovic’s “rejected” parody lyrics.
“Well, at least one or two of those ideas, I actually considered for real,” he says, laughing. “But most of those are just really bad ideas.”
But Yankovic turns completely serious when he notes how much Al Jaffee’s tribute cartoon meant to him. “The fact that I was the subject of the fold-in — it just blew my mind,” he says. “I can’t articulate just how touched I was to be a part of that legacy. …
“It’s something from my childhood that I get to be a part of now.”