- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2015

There are some things that even “Weird Al” Yankovic, that perennial satirist and song parodist, won’t joke about. When asked if Bruce Jenner’s recent transformation into Caitlyn might be ripe for a comedy tune, Mr. Yankovic briskly demurred.

“I was thinking about doing some kind of joke on Twitter, but it’s the kind of thing where it’s hard to say anything that would not be taken wrong by people,” said the singer, who has sold well over 12 million records and earned four Grammys. “I tend to stay away from sensitive issues like [Ms. Jenner] and political topics.”

He added with a laugh, “And I don’t want to divide my fan base if I can help it.”

How strange, perhaps, that the master of mocking celebrities of the moment would have such compunctions. However, Mr. Yankovic is famous for asking “permission” of those whose songs he parodies, even though legally he is not required to do so — a practice that has earned him respect among his colleagues while serving as a barometer of a song’s success. According to Spin, Kurt Cobain realized Nirvana had “made it” when Mr. Yankovic called to inquire about parodying “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

“The other reason I don’t do a lot of political humor is it dates pretty poorly,” Mr. Yankovic told The Washington Times. “Things that are topical in the political arena this week would be old news a month from now, so that’s probably not the kind of thing I want to have as part of my catalog.”

For three decades, Mr. Yankovic’s fans waited anxiously for his next album, which typically featured a collection or parodies of current songs, original comedy tunes as well as the requisite polka medley. But after 32 years, with his recording contract expiring, Mr. Yankovic declared last year that “Mandatory Fun” would be his final record for RCA — if not his last ever.

“I think it makes more sense for me to write and record and release songs as soon as I come up with them as opposed to waiting until I have a whole bunch of them to release all at once,” Mr. Yankovic said. “I know that sounds kind of ironic after having such a successful album, but I just think that [as] a lot of my material is timely and topical, it would behoove me to just get it out as soon as possible.”

With record sales now all but an afterthought for musicians in terms of profitability, Mr. Yankovic and his team came up with a unique strategy to turn “Mandatory Fun” into a 21st century must-see event by premiering eight new videos on the Internet in as many days.

“I was trying to figure out the best way to market an album in 2014, and I had to realize that all the old models were gone,” Mr. Yankovic said. “MTV wasn’t playing these videos [anymore]. Radio has never been a big factor in my sales, and these days, it’s all about the Internet; the Internet is the new MTV [and is] where the buzz is.

“I really wanted to blow it out for the first week,” Mr. Yankovic said. “And I thought, well, things go viral very quickly, but they also die very quickly. I figured the only way to really dominate the conversation was to have a world-premiere video every single day — make it an event. And I didn’t know if it would work or not.”

Social media success

The digital-age strategy succeeded spectacularly, with YouTube views for the videos of “Tacky,” a parody of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” and “Word Crimes,” spoofing Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” nabbing millions of views within hours of their unveiling. Social media snowballed the exposure so much so that by the time “Mandatory Fun” hit the record stores, fans, who already had heard most of the songs online, turned out in droves, granting Mr. Yankovic his first No. 1 album of his lengthy career.

Yet for all the accolades and cash flow from the tricky gamble, Mr. Yankovic nonetheless faced concentrated nerd rage for “Word Crimes,” a song that made gentle fun of those who take English syntax extremely seriously. Mr. Yankovic, who graduated high school at 16 as class valedictorian and is a self-described “grammar nerd,” was pleasantly amused by those who took his gibes at copy editors so earnestly.

“I’m so over the top, and that is part of the joke,” Mr. Yankovic said of the song’s narrator, who drops slyly belittling lines such as “You should know when it’s ‘less’ or it’s ‘fewer,’ like people who were never raised in a sewer” and even toys with the ongoing debate among copy editors about usage of the embattled Oxford comma.

“Bad grammar does disturb me, but I’m certainly not as intense as the guy in the song,” Mr. Yankovic said. “I don’t think I would hit anybody in the head with a crowbar because their syntax was incorrect. So it’s not only making fun of people with bad grammar, but it’s making fun of people who are that insanely strict about bad grammar.”

In a refreshing bit of candor, Mr. Yankovic admits that his favorite thing to Google is, in fact, himself, which he calls “ego surfing,” while also maintaining that it is a way to be up to snuff on what his fans are up to.

“I want to see what people are saying, I want to read reviews, I want to see what fans are talking about,” he said. “So it’s important for me to get that kind of feedback, and I find out a lot of things about how people are responding to my work that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

Socially awkward

Another recurring theme in Mr. Yankovic’s songs is social awkwardness, which he experienced firsthand as an extremely bright introvert who was in his high school’s National Honor Society and National Forensic League. “White and Nerdy,” off of 2007’s “Straight Outta Lynwood” (his Southern California hometown) was at least semi-autobiographical.

“I was one of those kind of nerdy kids that was two years younger than my classmates and awkward on top of it,” Mr. Yankovic said of his formative years. “I wasn’t terribly social, and my parents were very protective, so it was kind of a sheltered childhood.

“But I guess I was always kind of a weird kid too, so it’s very strange that I wound up with a career in show business where I’m on stage every night being so outgoing and gregarious and boisterous, because people probably wouldn’t have guessed that if they knew my teen-aged self.”

Mr. Yankovic says he typically doesn’t get to do much sightseeing — in D.C. or elsewhere — during his tours, but he is grateful for the crowds who continue to support not only his music but also his ventures into film and other media. Despite his film comedy “UHF” foundering in the so-called “Sequel Summer” of 1989 among such heavy hitters as “Batman,” “Lethal Weapon 2” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the movie — and accompanying soundtrack — attracted a cult following thereafter.

“I’d love to be in a feature film,” Mr. Yankovic, who often does cameos as himself or as minor characters, said. “I haven’t been terribly proactive about that, but that’s something that I would definitely be very open to.”

Being free of a record contract, he said, will allow him to not only release one-off songs as the spirit moves him, but also provide the freedom to pursue more film work and other artistic projects.

“I’m not beholden to anybody, I don’t owe anybody anything, and that’s a nice feeling,” Mr. Yankovic said of his newfound liberation. “I got a few very attractive and tempting offers from record labels after my contract expired, and for a minute I thought seriously about it, but I’m just enjoying the freedom too much. So I think I’m going to stay indie for a while and see what happens.”

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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