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'Weird Al' Yankovic wants to 'bring sexy back' to the accordion

Al Yankovic — aka the parody artist known as "Weird Al" — wants to change the way you think about the accordion. He first learned to play the instrument as a kid in the 1960s. Even back then, he admits, the accordion didn't have the hippest reputation.

"It was mostly polkas and waltzes and various classical pieces," he says. "It was hard to join my friends' rock bands. ... For some reason, nobody wanted to have an accordion player in their band."

So Yankovic forged his own path by teaching himself to play rock 'n' roll on the accordion. Decades later, as a parody artist, the instrument would factor into a number of his hits, including "My Bologna" (modeled off of The Knack's "My Sharona") and his polka mashup of songs from the musical Hamilton.

"The accordion is actually a beautiful instrument, a very sensual instrument," Yankovic says. "I'm just trying to bring sexy back to the accordion."

The music "biopic" parody Weird stars Daniel Radcliffe in an over-the-top version of Yankovic's life. In the film, making up words to songs that already exist is considered the work of a visionary, playing the accordion is akin to being a guitar hero and Yankovic is asked to be the next James Bond.

If an artist doesn't want me to do their song, I will back off. No matter what the courts or the law says, I just want to do good by then because I respect artists and I don't ever want them to feel like I'm stepping on their toes.

Although Yankovic never achieved the status his character does in the film, he's been quite successful. He's the third music performer, after Michael Jackson and Madonna, to have a top 40 single in each decade since the '80s, with parodies like "Eat It," "Like a Surgeon," "Amish Paradise" and "White & Nerdy."

Yankovic says that even though courts generally rule in favor of parody artists, he never riffs on another musician's material without first getting the blessing of the original songwriters: "If an artist doesn't want me to do their song, I will back off. No matter what the courts or the law says, I just want to do good by them because I respect artists and I don't ever want them to feel like I'm stepping on their toes."

Interview highlights

On being a nerd

I knew I was a dork. I didn't really fit in at school or with my friends. I was eating lunch by myself at the lunch tables a lot. So I didn't think I was a social butterfly or a big man on campus. I was a nerd. And this is back before being a nerd was considered cool. Like, nowadays, people are like, "Oh, I have always been a nerd or they brag about their nerd cred." And when I was in high school, that was not a thing you bragged about.

On his "Weird Al" persona

That nickname was given to me in my dorms in my freshman year in college. It was a nickname that I think a couple of people were calling me because they found me to be weird. I did not fit in and they just thought I was just a strange guy wandering the halls of the dorm. And they said, "Oh, there goes Weird Al." It was kind of derogatory at the time, but I decided to take it on professionally when I started doing college radio because everybody on the air needed some kind of wacky nickname. And I thought, Oh, I've already got a wacky nickname. It's Weird Al. So it was the Weird Al show every Saturday night, and it just stuck. ...

When I'm performing, especially on stage, I'm a little bit more outgoing and weird, I suppose, than I am in normal life. But it's not like some entirely different being up on stage.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Yankovic in the film <em>Weird</em>.
Aaron Epstein / Roku Channel
Roku Channel
Daniel Radcliffe stars as Yankovic in the film Weird.

On his parents' support of him pursuing music

[My mother] told me more than once that there are "evil people in Hollywood" and I should be very careful. And she's not wrong. But she was just a little leery about me doing anything involving show business. But I was always very adult-minded. It's not like I ran away to L.A. to become a rock star or anything like that. I went to college. I got my degree in architecture. I remained a fairly good student and I was pretty adult minded.

I actually didn't quit my day job until I was on the Billboard charts.

I actually didn't quit my day job until I was on the Billboard charts. So I think they knew that I wasn't some kid that just had stars in his eyes, and I was going to do this crazy thing for a living because I didn't think I'd be able to make a living out of it either, things just kind of worked out that way.

On parodying rap

I can understand why some people might think that that's problematic. But I think the fact that I respect the music so much goes a long way towards making people feel better, because I'm not making fun of rap music or hip-hop music. I'm really taking pains to emulate the sound and the intonations. And, in fact, I got a lot of nice compliments, like from Chamillionaire. When I did [the "Ridin' " parody] "White & Nerdy," he was really impressed by my rapping skills. ...

I'm not being like, "white guy doing rap music, ha ha" — that's not the joke. I'm just using the music to do my comedy, like I have for any other music I've ever done in my life. And I love doing rap music for a number of reasons, one of which being that there are a lot of words to play with because for a lot of pop songs, it's limiting because it's either repetitive or there aren't that many syllables. And I have to be very concise in my humor and jokes because I only have a finite amount of space to be funny in. But in rap music, there are a lot of words and it just opens it up and gives me more breathing room.

On the sudden death of his parents by carbon monoxide poisoning in 2004

As best as we can figure out, the flue in the fireplace was closed. There was a fire in the fireplace. And I guess they went to sleep not knowing that and they both passed from carbon monoxide poisoning. My wife called me. I was on the road at the time, so she called me. I was handed the phone on my tour bus and my wife was weeping and she told me, and it was the worst moment of my life. ...

I was literally in the middle of a tour, and I certainly didn't want to be performing that night or any time in the near future. But I realized that I had a small army of people working for me. I had people that had bought tickets to all these seats, and I didn't want to disappoint anybody. So I kind of wanted to keep it under wraps. I wanted to grieve privately and quietly and not even let people know what was going on, because I didn't want people walking on eggshells around me. I didn't want people who would ostensibly come to a comedy show, watch a guy trying to suppress his grief on stage. So my initial thought was, OK, well, I'm going to somehow get through these shows, but I just don't want anybody to know what's going on. But within an hour, it was like global news and everybody knew about it.

I did a tribute to my parents ... before the concert, and then got through it. And, you know, for two hours every night, I would just try to put on a smile and pretend like my life wasn't crumbling and do the show. ... I just wanted to do my job and then just get back to the bus and grieve quietly and honestly. It was a bit therapeutic for me because it was nice to have the outpouring of love from the fans because the fans know what was going on in my life. And it was just really nice to have them respond so supportively. And it kind of helped me move on a bit from where I was.

On how it felt becoming famous

It was a little odd for me because I've always had an outsider status, especially starting out because I was just this weirdo kid from L.A. playing the accordion and making fun of all the people on the inside ... like, all the big rock stars and the pop stars and all these famous people. And here was this dorky kid, like, making fun of them. And now all of a sudden, I was finding myself inside that bubble. I was at the same awards shows, sometimes the same parties, and rubbing elbows with the people that I was making fun of. So that was a little bit of an adjustment. I'm still kind of getting used to it. It's kind of strange.

I'm by nature actually a very shy person. And being somewhat famous has helped me be more social and talk to people. I mean, I would always be the person, like, hanging on to the wall at parties and waiting for somebody to come up and talk to me — which is nice, having some notoriety — because now people do: People will come up and talk to me.

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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