Weird Al Yankovic: 'I think Robin Thicke was glad I just mocked his grammar'

After 30 years in the music business, Weird Al Yankovic has finally broken through. Hadley Freeman asks the cult hero what it's like to be number one

"If you'd asked me 30 years ago whether I'd still be making parody albums, I'd have laughed," Weird Al Yankovic chortles. "And if you said the records would be selling more than ever, I'd have thought you were crazy."

The past few weeks, however, have been the busiest of Yankovic's platinum record-studded career. His latest album, Mandatory Fun, entered the US charts at No 1, his first ever, and the first comedy album to reach such heights for over half a century. When he found out on an American talkshow, his eyes welled up with joy.

How did he celebrate?

"I had a burrito."

It feels apt that Yankovic marked the event by eating, considering he originally made his name with food-based parody songs. There was My Bologna, his take on The Knack's My Sharona, and then his breakthrough song and video in 1984, Eat It, a shot-for-shot parody of Michael Jackson's Beat It.

"People talk about overnight fame and usually that's an exaggeration, but in this case it really wasn't. MTV put the video on eight times a day, and it got very odd: as a person who was fairly anonymous his whole life, I'd suddenly be walking down the street and having people stare at me." To this day, one of the most thrilling-slash-weird moments of his thrilling-slash-weird career is from that era, when he was invited to a party in Beverly Hills for Paul McCartney, one of his great musical heroes. The publicist warned him beforehand that there was no chance he could meet McCartney. But, with the wiliness that would characterise his career, Yankovic squeezed his way through the crowd and tapped McCartney's shoulder.

"Oh, Weird Al!" cried McCartney, before turning to his wife Linda. "Look, honey, it's Weird Al!"

"I basically exploded on the spot," Yankovic happily recalls.

Yankovic, 54, writes original songs, as well as films and books, but he is best known for his parodies. His career raises two questions: first, how can a man who mocks others' songs be adored by fans and artists alike? And, second, how can he possibly stay relevant after three decades in the business? After all, many of the artists Yankovic first riffed off in the 80s have long ago slipped into irrelevancy, while he is bigger than ever.

Yankovic performs White & Nerdy
Yankovic performs White & Nerdy. Photograph: Chris Polk/FilmMagic Photograph: Chris Polk/FilmMagic

The second question can be answered by looking at his strategy for Mandatory Fun. Earlier this month, Yankovic released one song and video a day for eight days across a range of what he calls "internet portals" (Yankovic is as comfortable talking web jargon as he is sharing celebrity anecdotes), including Vevo, Yahoo and YouTube. It was a move born out of necessity. After the release of his last album, Alpocalypse, his record label told him it couldn't afford to help him make videos for his next project. Any other artist would have raged at corporate stupidity and painted "slave" on his face. Yankovic, however, is famously one of the nicest men in the business, even if the description makes him hoot with laughter. "I hope I'm a decent guy," he objects, "but I think fame amplifies your personality and people's responses to it, so people are like, 'Wow, Al is the nicest guy in the world!'"

Instead of griping, he went to various internet sites and offered to give them the video exclusives if they would fund them. "It worked out well for everybody," he says, with some understatement. He has since been praised as "a savvy internet machine", although some have been baffled by his tactics (in a hilariously awkward interview, Yankovic patiently had to teach a Fox Business anchor how the internet works.) "I'm just interested in following along with the zeitgeist and not getting left behind because I'm using some antiquated business model," he says. "I don't know why other people wouldn't do that as well."

The web could easily have killed Yankovic's career, rather than boosting it. When he started, he was pretty much the only musical parodist around, and certainly the only one with radio and MTV exposure. Now, he has to compete for attention with the thousands of amateurs who upload videos to YouTube every day. But Yankovic has nothing but praise for his imitators and says they make him better and force him to "not do the obvious thing". His parody of Blurred Lines, for example, Word Crimes, completely ignores the controversy of the song's original lyrics and instead mocks bad grammar – "and I think [Robin Thicke] was glad I went in that direction as well."

Yankovic always asks permission from the artists before parodying their songs, just out of courtesy. Because his versions, while always sharp and funny, are never mean, nearly everyone says yes (Prince is a notable exception). This time around both Pharrell and Iggy Azalea (whose songs Happy and Fancy have become, respectively, Tacky, mocking bad taste, and Handy, about the joys of DIY) both pronounced themselves "honoured" to be parodied – "which is extremely flattering", says Yankovic. Madonna was so keen to be parodied by Yankovic in the 80s that she came up with the title Like a Surgeon for Like a Virgin ("Like a surgeon, hey / Cuttin' for the very first time / Like a surgeon / Here's a waiver for you to sign"). Dave Grohl said Nirvana knew they had made it when Yankovic turned Smells Like Teen Spirit into Smells Like Nirvana, about how impossible it is to understand what the hell Cobain is singing.

Chamillionaire rightly said people knew he'd made it big when his song, Ridin', about police profiling black drivers, was brilliantly sent up as White and Nerdy, about black people correctly profiling white nerds ("Happy Days is my favourite theme song / I could sure kick your butt in a game of ping pong / I'll ace any trivia quiz you bring on / I'm fluent in JavaScript as well as Klingon!").

Michael Jackson was such a fan that he allowed Yankovic to use the original set from Bad for his version, Fat. And after Coolio saw Yankovic's take on Gangsta's Paradise, renamed Amish Paradise ("I've been milking and ploughing so long / That even Ezekiel thinks that my mind has gone"), he admitted that he'd been "stupid" to refuse permission initially.

Yankovic as a Rambo knock-off in 1989’s UHF
Yankovic as a Rambo knock-off in 1989’s UHF. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/REX Photograph: Moviestore Collection/REX

Alfred Yankovic was born and raised in California, a "straight-A nerdy kid". He grew up reading and listening to as much "weird comedy" as he could, including Monty Python, Tom Lehrer, Shel Silverstein and Mad magazine, as well as learning the accordion (White and Nerdy could justly be described as pretty autobiographical).

"I was always fairly adult-minded and while I was passionate about music and comedy, it was such a fantasy to think I could make a living at that, I didn't even bother pursuing it," he says. Instead, he went to college to study architecture, only to realise in his third year he "wasn't particularly passionate about designing positive and negative space". So instead he started making parody songs – Another One Rides the Bus for Another One Bites the Dust, for example – that got radio play and, eventually, a record deal.

How did his parents react to their son's change of career direction?

"They were pretty much OK with it. They knew I was a bright kid – I wasn't going to do anything stupid, and somehow I'd land on my feet. But, you know, I certainly never anticipated that this would be" – and he makes a faux dramatic pause – "my life's path."

In 2001, Yankovic married Suzanne Krajewski; together they have an 11-year-old daughter, Nina. Ever since his album hit No 1, the family phone has been ringing almost round the clock. How has his daughter coped with all the fuss and early mornings?

"We're all kind of walking round like zombies. But my daughter is very excited about what's going on. She's always a supporter, and it's not like she's rolling her eyes saying, 'My dad's Weird Al.' It's just part of her reality: 'That's my dad and that's what he does.'"

Yankovic never makes plans for the future – "but if I retire, it won't be of my own free will". And while he is happy about reaching No 1, for him the validation comes from the work itself: "I've come up with the job that is perfect for me and I can make a nickel out of it. To me, that's the true sign of success."

• Mandatory Fun is out now on RCA.


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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