Sunday, August 22, 2010


I was really nervous about talking to Weird Al. I wasn't sure whether he would respond well to my questions; most journalists seem to set him up to deliver one-liners, and I was much more interested in talking to him as an artist, getting an idea of his comedic philosophy and working methods. But he seemed to enjoy that, so I wound up with much, much more material than I could ever fit into an 800-word feature for the Cleveland Scene. I'll provide a link to that when it runs. But in the meantime, here's the full transcript of our conversation.

What do you make of the quote from Michael O’Donoghue, the Saturday Night Live writer who said “Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy”?
[Laughs] Hm. Michael was an interesting guy. He was very antagonistic and he liked to get a rise out of people, and his satire was probably some of the darkest satire that existed at the time. I loved it. He was a guy that would jam needles into his eyes on Saturday Night Live and do an impression of somebody that had just jammed needles in their eyes. I don’t know if I can agree with that statement totally—I see why he said it and I understand the point he was trying to make, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making people laugh. I think there’s a need for that. I think escapism is a valid goal, something valuable to offer people. I know that my music has helped people out of some rough patches in their lives and there’s no shame in making people laugh. But I understand Michael’s point as well.

Your material is very family-friendly and rooted in pop culture and everyday life. Do you have a personal taste for darker satire or edgier comedy at all that doesn’t make it into your own work?
Well, I’m a fan of many different kinds of comedy. I’m a fan of a lot of different comedians whose work I love and admire but I wouldn’t be doing that kind of material myself. It’s just not the kind of comedy that I personally would feel comfortable putting out into the world. Especially because my fan base expects a certain thing from me now, and if I were to alter it tremendously I think a lot of people would be offended or disappointed, so my comedy doesn’t necessarily describe my entire musical or comedic tastes.

Was there ever a time when you considered moving to a dirtier or harder-edged act?
Not really. I mean, you know, my act always was and is an extension of who I am. So I’m not really holding anything back, let’s say. My act is exactly what I feel like putting out there. So it’s not like I feel restrained in any way, really.

Do you feel like comedians who do “zany” material get less respect from their peers than those who go the more abrasive route? Or have you always found yourself welcomed as a performer?
It’s an interesting question. There are artists that work clean, and I guess I would fall into that part of the Venn diagram, and sometimes they’re viewed as being softer or less biting or even by some people less funny. You know, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to work clean, I don’t have any problem with people that don’t want to work clean. It’s just my personal choice. I think that people that use profanity for a cheap laugh are kind of going the easy route and I always think it’s better to really earn the laugh instead of getting them through shock value, necessarily.

Some comedians have said there’s no subject they wouldn’t joke about, no matter how serious. I’m curious if you’ve ever rejected material for the opposite reason—that it’s too easy, too banal.
Yeah. Not that I haven’t made the obvious joke on occasion. Sometimes it’s inescapable. But whenever possible, I try not to go the obvious route, make the obvious joke, make the obvious choice. And it’s usually funnier to try and surprise people and come up with something that they weren’t expecting.

Yeah, one example of that approach that really leaps out for me was your use of "American Pie" for the Star Wars song "The Saga Begins." Can you tell me how that piece came together?
For that particular song, I knew that I wanted to write a song about the upcoming Star Wars prequel, and I was trying to think of what song would be the best vehicle to tell the story, and I was considering a lot of songs that were popular at the time but they all seemed just of the moment and very ephemeral, and Star Wars as a franchise just seemed a lot weightier than that. So I thought it would be great to maybe pair that with a real classic, iconic American rock song. And when I was going through my head some of those kind of songs, I happened to think about “American Pie,” which I had just heard recently at a club, and I thought of the first line of the song, “A long, long time ago,” which was kind of echoing the beginning of Star Wars. And I thought, well, that’s great, not only does it have the same kind of beginning, but it’s a long song, it really lends itself well to the kind of narrative structure that I’ll need to be able to tell this story. So it just seemed to work very well for me.

Your last full-length album was released in 2006; what’s the current plan for the next full-length? Will it be out by the end of this year?
I don’t know when. There’s a chance it could come out later this year, but it’s just as likely if not more so that it’ll be next year sometime.

Do you feel like the approach you took with the Internet Leaks EP, putting songs out one by one as inspiration strikes, then compiling a half dozen or so, was a good way to go?
Yeah, I don’t know if I’d do it again, I might, but it was a noble experiment. I wanted to try it out because the whole recording industry has sort of been falling apart in the last decade or so and everybody was just trying new things. And I just thought it would be kind of fun, for me particularly, to just put songs out one at a time because that focused attention on just that one song, instead of a song perhaps being lost in the context of an entire album. And also, the whole iTunes distribution system allowed me to be a lot more topical than I would have been conventionally. With my T.I. parody, “Whatever You Like,” I was able to go from concept in my head to having it for sale on iTunes within, I think, two weeks. It was an insanely short turnaround period. And I was able to get my parody out there in the marketplace the same week the original was still Number 1 on the Billboard charts. I don’t you’ve ever had that happen, either. So even though it may not have been as big a commercial success, Internet Leaks did get nominated for a Grammy, and I think it kind of kept fans satiated last year, because otherwise they wouldn’t have had any new product from me. So I think it accomplished everything I needed it to accomplish.

It does seem like that model would work for somebody with your career. Because now it’s three or four years between albums, industry standard, where in the '70s acts like Kiss and Ted Nugent would put out two albums a year sometimes…
In the '80s I was about one every year. That’s just kinda not the way it works anymore.

So it seems like the quick, “Here’s a new thing, click here to buy the song for 99 cents” model would seem to be ideal for you.
Yeah, it seems like it would be a great model for me to pursue, so I’m trying to learn from my experience last year and hopefully build on that.

How much time do you spend writing? Are you constantly working on material?
I’m not always writing. I kind of turn my brain off for long stretches of time. I’m always kinda open to inspiration, like if I get a song idea that can come at any point, and I’ll write that down in the notebook. But once I’m actively writing a song I focus pretty intensely on that until it’s done. I’ll spend a week or two just coming up with ideas for a particular song. It’s something that I really spend a lot of time on, because I do comedy music and I have a lot of fun with it but it’s sort of serious business for me, because I know that I have to live with these songs for the rest of my life and I want to make sure they’re as good as they can be.

So do you generally have a concept and then match it to a song, let’s say, if you’re gonna do a parody, or to a musical style—is it lyrics first and music later, or vice versa, or something else?
Are you talking about the parodies or the original songs?

The song parodies and the style parodies as well—are those typically concept first, and then figure out in what style you’re going to perform it?
A lot of the time with the style parodies it’s sort of mix and match, because I’ll have a list of styles that I think will be fun to try to tackle and also a list of subject matter that I think would be fun to try to do my take on. And often times I’ll look at the two lists and draw imaginary lines between things and see if anything kind of amuses me. Like on Internet Leaks, I’d always wanted to do a Doors pastiche, and I just saw the word “Craigslist” next to the Doors and I thought that was funny because it just seemed so anachronistic and just so totally wrong that I thought it would be kinda funny.

That one really struck me, when I saw it on YouTube. I was astonished by your resemblance to Jim Morrison, for one thing.
I had to channel the very soul of the Lizard King. It was very difficult.

How much of the music are you responsible for? Does your approach—not just the song parodies but the style parodies—demand that you become expert on multiple instruments, or do you just learn how to do what you need to do?
I have the absolute minimum amount of skill required to be Weird Al. I do write all the original songs. I don’t play the guitar, I play only keyboard instruments, but I’m able to make demos for the band which are sufficient to give them an idea what the songs should be like. Often times I’ll also give them copies of other songs that are meant to sound like my songs, so they can more get the feel for it, especially if it’s a guitar-dominated kind of song. But I give them enough direction and allow them to have whatever kind of musical input they’re willing to give and together, mostly by working with people much more talented than myself, I’m able to get my material together.

Your studio albums frequently have a large number of musicians on them to work out the arrangements—horns, strings, stuff like that. Do you use tapes live, or do you re-arrange things in a more stripped-down, live-band way?
We do all of the above. Sometimes we’ll strip it down, sometimes my keyboard player will play the horn parts, and sometimes if it’s a really complex song the horns will be part of the video track, if we have video playing behind us onstage. We try to make it a full production, and that sometimes will involve pre-recorded tracks, but if we can pull it off at all, we try to do everything live.

How do you decide to drop something from the live set—is it when the cultural relevance of the original dips beyond a certain point? And does the Internet, on which everything lives forever, make that a more difficult call?
Well, it’s largely personal taste, whatever gets dropped from the set list. There’s a half dozen or so songs that I think I’m going to be required to play for the rest of my life, because they’re my biggest hits and fans would be, I think, fairly disappointed if we stopped playing those songs. Other than that, I try to mix up the set list as much as I can from tour to tour. But of course, part of that decision revolves around whether or not I think a song is getting dated. We’d been playing “It’s All About the Pentiums” on every tour since that song came out, and I finally decided to give it a rest on this tour because, among other reasons, it had references to Y2K and computer systems which ten years ago would have been pretty happening and now they’re pretty pedestrian. So without changing the lyrics, I thought it’d be easier to give that song a rest for a while. What was the second half of your question?

Does the fact that everything lives forever on the Internet make it a tougher call? Like, maybe people are still laughing about stuff you think is dated?
Yeah, and there’s the whole nostalgia factor as well. I mean, people like a lot of songs that I did early in my career that conjure up great memories for them and bring them back to their childhood, but the songs themselves maybe even aren’t all that good or they’re dated in terms of their pop culture references or for any number of other reasons just wouldn’t be appropriate to continue to play live. But people can continue to enjoy them on their CD collection or online and I’m not taking it away from them.

Does pop-cultural atomization represent a challenge for you? It doesn’t seem like there are many truly broad-based popular musicians anymore.
Well, yeah, that’s been a pet peeve of mine for a while. I often talk in interviews about how when I was starting out, the mainstream hits were pretty well delineated. You knew who the superstars were, you knew what the big hits of the day were, and now with all the genres and subgenres and compartmentalization of our culture, it’s kinda hard to figure out what the mainstream hits are. Certainly there are still major stars, there are still hit songs, but I don’t think they’re as easy to recognize as they were fifteen or twenty years ago.

And the stuff that is hitting is Autotune R&B, which doesn't seem like it would be particularly fertile ground...
Yeah, I mean...yeah. I’d have to say it’s become a challenge.

Obviously at this point you’re a known quantity and people are coming to your shows to see you—you’re not springing yourself on people the way you were in the beginning. But back then, how did you deal with hecklers and stuff like that?
Well, I had the advantage because I have a musical act, and I didn’t have a whole lot of patter between songs, so if you could yell loud enough to be heard over the electric guitar, more power to you.

Your music is filled with pop-culture jokes, so what do you think of the current wave of comedy movies that are just a string of pop culture references, with almost no jokes attached to them?
You’re just hitting the nail on the head. That’s another one of my absolute pet peeves, is all these so-called parody movies which are not really parody movies so much as reference movies. If you want to look at how to do a parody movie, go to Airplane!, go to Naked Gun, go to Top Secret!. The Z-A-Z [Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker] team knew how to do it right. Even they seemed to have lost their way a bit in later years, but they gave us the template for how to do those kind of movies correctly. And what that devolved into over the years was a string of movies that are just filled with pop culture references that don’t really do much other than point out various pop culture things. I never really understood the appeal of those kind of movies, but apparently they make enough money so that they continue getting made.

You have a screenplay of your own in the works, yes?
I got to my fourth draft of a screenplay. I was doing it for Cartoon Network, they had commissioned me to do a screenplay and a couple of months ago they had a major policy change where they decided they’re no longer in the business of making live action feature films. So my screenplay along with a half dozen or so other projects went into turnaround. I got the screenplay back and hopefully I’ll get it produced elsewhere, but right now it’s sort of in limbo.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Wonderful interview! It's nice to think that Weird Al is still doing his thing after all these years.