20 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Weird Al Yankovic
Even today, Weird Al Yankovic is the most well-known and successful parody artist on the scene, despite starting all the way back in 1976. Yankovic has outlasted many of the biggest ‘real’ pop stars, and many current musicians have said that you’re not truly successful until Yankovic has parodied one of your songs.
Today we’re recognising this big-haired, big-hearted weirdo with 20 facts that you probably didn’t know about Weird Al, prolific parody master.
20. Like a Surgeon was Madonna’s idea
Weird Al Yankovic’s Like a Surgeon is such a quintessential parody song that it seems impossible that anyone other than the man himself could have come up with it. However, it was actually Madonna herself who, after releasing the single, wondered out loud when Yankovic would parody it. Funnily enough, Madonna was actually the one to joke about swapping the word ‘virgin’ for ‘surgeon.’ When Madonna said this, she probably didn’t realise that the friend she was speaking to was also a mutual friend of Jay Levey, Yankovic’s manager.
Madonna’s friend passed on the idea, who passed it on to Levey. who passed it on to Yankovic, and the rest is history. Apparently this is the only instance where Yankovic collaborated with the original artist on a parody song, as he usually prefers to work on his parodies by himself.
19. He was pelted with fruit at his first major performance
As an artist who primarily parodies other musicians’ songs, Weird Al Yankovic has a weird position in the music industry. Some artists have gotten mad at him for individual parodies that he has made or disregarded his whole shtick as requiring no creativity or originality. But Weird Al’s fans largely regard him as a genuinely kind, creative and funny guy. However, this respect was hard-won, as Weird Al was not quite so beloved when he went out on stage to perform his first major concert.
Yankovic and his band were asked to support the band Missing Persons at their Santa Monica show, but they didn’t even make it through one song before the crowd started pelting them with food and loose change. After the gig, Yankovic was even approached by a 12-year-old kid who exclaimed “Are you Weird Al? You suck!”
18. Prince banned Weird Al from looking at him
Despite not legally needing to, Weird Al Yankovic has made a point of always asking the artists he plans on parodying for permission before writing the songs. This is largely in order to avoid trouble with their record labels further down the line. Most artists were either thrilled about the idea or completely indifferent, but not everyone was so happy to accommodate him.
According to stories, Prince refused to speak to Yankovic time and time again, until the parody artist finally got the message and gave up. However, when the two were set to sit near each other at the American Music Awards, Prince’s management made his position even clearer. They went as far as banning Yankovic from even making direct eye contact with the singer.
17. ‘Weird Al’ was originally his college DJ name
Many performers work under names that are different from the ones they were born with, and sometimes those names are pretty wacky. However, normally stage names come about exactly as you would expect them to: on stage. In contrast, Alfred Yankovic was going by Weird Al all the way back in his college days, and it didn’t have much to do with his music career.
The Weird Al moniker came about when Yankovic was asked to host his college’s midnight music show. It was chosen in honour of other comedic radio hosts, like Dr Demento (aka Barry Hansen). Demento later went on to become the first person to give Yankovic’s songs any airtime, creating a nice full-circle moment.
16. Michael Jackson was his biggest fan
A fair few musicians found Weird Al Yankovic’s parodies hilarious as he moved through his career. Some of the more aloof megastars he approached, however, were much less happy to have their work adapted. That’s why it’s so surprising that of all the musicians who loved him, Yankovic’s biggest fan by far was Michael Jackson. Weird Al was convinced from the beginning that Jackson would never agree to a parody of Beat It named Eat It, but to his surprise Jackson found the concept hilarious.
Jackson even went on to approve a parody of Bad (though he never allowed Black or White to be touched due to its political message). He even wrote Yankovic a hello note when the two were recording next to each other in separate studios. How sweet!
15. He was a child prodigy and valedictorian
If you’ve ever asked yourself what kind of mind could come up with the ridiculous and often surreal parodies written by Weird Al Yankovic, then the answer is simple: a smart one. You might not have guessed it from his class clown demeanour, but Yankovic was actually the smartest kid in his class. Yankovic was so far ahead of his peers that he even got to skip second grade in school. Unfortunately for him, being in a class with older students only exposed him to more bullying.
“My classmates seemed to think I was some kind of rocket scientist so I was labelled a nerd early on,” Yankovic has said. Hopefully getting to be his year’s valedictorian, and also going on to become a household name, made all the torment worth it in the end.
14. James Blunt was thrilled to be parodied… but his label wouldn’t allow it
One of Weird Al Yankovic’s lesser-known parodies is You’re Pitiful, which was based on the 2004 James Blunt song You’re Beautiful. The reason this is a more obscure track is that it was only ever released online for free. This was instead of being featured in one of Yankovic’s albums, as was originally intended.
The song was initially meant to be the lead single on Yankovic’s 12th studio album Straight Outta Lynwood. Yankovic didn’t expect to have to leave the song off his record, as when he approached James Blunt about the idea, Blunt reportedly said it would be a “huge compliment” to be made fun of. Unfortunately for both of them, Blunt’s label disagreed, and rescinded the permission even after the singer himself had given it.
13. His parents made him learn the accordion
Aside from his huge mop of curly hair, the thing you associate with Weird Al Yankovic the most is probably his accordion. The unusual instrument was the first thing he learned to play, and is something that remains a huge part of his musical identity even now. The only question is: why an accordion, when most kids learn to play a more ‘orthodox’ instrument like the piano or guitar? The answer is simple. The day before his seventh birthday, a travelling salesman came to Yankovic’s house and convinced his parents that what he really needed for his birthday was music lessons at the local school.
The salesman offered them a choice of guitar or accordion and, since Yankovic shared a surname with ‘America’s Polka King’ Frankie Yankovic, they chose the latter. Yankovic also went on to say that his parents plumped for the accordion because “they were convinced it would revolutionise rock.”
12. He was tricked into thinking Lady Gaga hated him
Weird Al Yankovic’s habit of getting approval before parodying people’s work usually worked out great, but in one case it turned out to be a major problem. For his 2011 album Apocalypse, Yankovic wanted to use his Born This Way parody Perform This Way as the lead single. But he was told by Gaga’s management that she would need to listen to and approve the track.
After sending the song over and waiting months for a response, Yankovic decided he couldn’t delay his album release any longer. Yankovic decided to solve the problem by simply removing the parody from the tracklist entirely. It was only when he republished the song on YouTube that Lady Gaga revealed that she loved it, and that it had never even been passed on to her by her management. The song was put back on the album with full permission, and a release date was set soon after.
11. He apologised to Coolio for Amish Paradise
When Yankovic first released Amish Paradise in 1996, Coolio, who wrote the original Gangster’s Paradise, was not happy. Coolio lashed out at the parody, saying: “I ain’t with that. No. I didn’t give it any sanction. I think that my song was too serious. It ain’t like it was Beat It. Beat It was a party song. But I think Gangsta’s Paradise represented something more than that.”
Yankovic, being the kind guy he is, apologised to Coolio personally and said that he was led to believe he had permission. The hatchet was buried, and a decade later Coolio spoke about the song and his response to it again. He said: “I was like, ‘Wait a minute.’ I was like, ‘Coolio, who the f**k do you think you are? He did Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson didn’t get mad.'”
10. He recorded his first song in a college bathroom
Weird Al’s first song was called My Bologna, a parody of The Knack’s song My Sharona. Yankovic recorded it in 1979 in the tiled bathroom across the hallway from his college radio station. He used a microphone cord that was long enough to reach back to the radio station’s tape deck. The song was an instant hit – it was so popular that The Knack asked to meet with Yankovic after they heard the song.
The group’s lead singer, Doug Feiger, was a particularly big fan of the parody song. Feiger went as far as asking the VP of Capital Records to release the song. He agreed and Yankovic went on to sign a six-month contract.
9. Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page have both turned him down
Apparently only “2 to 3 percent” of artists reject Yankovic’s requests to parody their songs. But although Yankovic doesn’t receive many rejections, he’s received a few from pretty high profile artists. Although Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is reportedly a big fan of Yankovic’s work, he wasn’t keen on the idea of Yankovic parodying any Zeppelin songs. Yankovic did manage to use a sample of Black Dog in a parody of R Kelly’s song Trapped in the Closet.
Paul McCartney also asked Yankovic not to parody the Wings song Live and Let Die. This was purely because Yankovic wanted the new version to be called Chicken Pot Pie – which McCartney disapproved of because of his vegetarianism.
8. White and Nerdy is his highest-charting song
Yankovic has had some hits in his time, with songs like Amish Paradise and Like a Surgeon gaining immense popularity. But his biggest hit is White and Nerdy – a parody of Chamillionaire’s popular song Ridin’. Chamillionaire was ecstatic that Yankovic decided to cover his song and claimed that the parody gave the original song “mega-record” status.
He even went as far as crediting Yankovic for his success after winning the 2007 Grammy for Best Rap Song for Ridin’. As of 2021, the White and Nerdy video has accumulated over 148 million views on YouTube. It’s also Yankovic’s only Billboard Top 100 hit to make the top 10. The song peaked at number nine.
7. Don McLean used to accidentally sing Weird Al’s parody of American Pie live in concert
In The Saga Begins, Yankovic performs as Obi-Wan Kenobi as he recounts the plot of The Phantom Menace to the tune of American Pie. Yankovic wrote the song’s lyrics after finding spoilers for the film on the internet prior to its release. He then attended a pre-screening which charged $500 a ticket just to make sure the spoilers were correct. After seeing the screening Yankovic only needed to make a few changes to the song.
Star Wars director George Lucas loved the song. Don McLean’s children were also big fans and played the song at home almost constantly. Unfortunately, this led to McLean occasionally accidentally singing the words to The Saga Begins while performing American Pie live.
6. The number 27 comes up in a lot of his songs
Eagle-eyed fans may have noticed that Yankovic refers to the number 27 a lot in his songs. Initially Yankovic only used the number because it fit well and, according to him, it was a “pretty funny number.” When a fan pointed out the continued references to the number in his work, Yankovic started to include the number in his lyrics even more. He references the number in Cable TV when he says that his friends are jealous because he’s seen Porky’s 27 times that week.
In The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota, the kids start singing “started singing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall for the 27th time that day.” These are just two examples – Yankovic has referenced the number 27 in his songs, music videos, in interviews, in movies, and in concerts over 50 times.
5. He couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s before he got famous
It’s fair to say that there’s no one else in the music industry quite like Weird Al Yankovic. Yankovic has been hugely successful in his career and is now worth an estimated $20 million. However, the future best-selling artist did face a few setbacks and rejections early on in his working life.
Notably, after graduating from college with a degree in architecture, Al applied for a job at McDonald’s. Unfortunately, he was rejected from the job – although this was largely because they thought he was overqualified. Yankovic later got a job in a mail room before going on to break into the music industry.
4. He’s written two children’s books
Yankovic is a musician first and foremost, but he’s a man of many talents and has even written two children’s books. Yankovic dabbled in kids’ entertainment by trying to launch a kids’ TV show, but when that didn’t work out, he decided to write books for children. The two books were called My New Teacher and Me and When I Grow Up.
The books proved successful – My New Teacher and Me has a rating of 4.2 out of five stars on Goodreads, while When I Grow Up has a rating of 4.4 stars. It’s arguably no surprise that Yankovic proved to be a dab hand at writing children’s books. It’s clear from his songs that he has all the creativity and imagination needed to create a good book for kids.
3. Nirvana helped revive his career
The 1992 song Smells Like Nirvana was written during a bit of a low point for Yankovic. His 1989 film UHF flopped. It was a big financial failure which marked a blip in Yankovic’s career. Yankovic only made a proper comeback in 1992 when he released the hugely popular Smells Like Nirvana.
The song mocked Kurt Cobain’s inaudible singing style and was set to the tune of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Cobain loved the song and viewed it as a sign that Nirvana had “made it” as a band. The song helped revive Yankovic’s career and saved him from fading into obscurity in the 90s.
2. He helped Jeopardy! regain popularity
Back in 1984, Weird Al Yankovic released the song I Lost on Jeopardy – a parody of the song Jeopardy by The Greg Kihn Band. The song’s lyrics centred around the TV game show Jeopardy!, which had been off air for five years by the time the song was released. The video featured Jeopardy’s former host Art Fleming and was hugely successful and renewed interest in the show.
As fate would have it, NBC was looking to find another game show to air after the success of Wheel of Fortune. Due to the song’s success, people were keen for more of Jeopardy and so NBC decided to bring it back. This incident just goes to show the extent of the impact Weird Al Yankovic made on pop culture.
1. He’s a hoarder
In an interview with Vice in 2018, Yankovic revealed that he find it hard to let go of things and is something of a hoarder. “I’m kind of a hoarder,” he confessed. “My wife has been slowly trying to get me away from that. When we got married, she went through my collection of shirts and sent literally several hundred of them to Goodwill immediately.”
“If you go through my Twitter and Instagram, you could see me sadly saying goodbye to things – I went to my storage unit and I had 30 or 40 boxes’ worth of fanmail,” he continued. “How can you throw those away? Those are love letters. But at the same time, it was like, well, are you ever gonna read them again? So I had to say goodbye to that. We live in a nice house on the Hollywood Hills and we’re trying to not have it cluttered full of my junk,” he said.