White & nerdy

In his last free minutes before soundcheck, funnyman “Weird Al” Yankovic wishes his wife a happy birthday and bids their daughter, 7, goodbye. The women in Al’s life traveled to see him here in Kettering, Ohio, after stopping at another concert in the Midwest earlier this week — Justin Bieber at Summerfest. But the ladies kept their promise.

“We’ve got a deal where we don’t go more than two weeks without seeing each other,” Yankovic said on the phone from his dressing room outside Dayton.

It seems Alfred Yankovic, the curly-haired, bespectacled wordsmith who paired polka with parody in the ’80s, grew up on us. Gone are the glasses, the moustache, the loud Hawaiian shirts. The man who told us to “Eat It” quit his hot-dog-and-Twinkie diet long ago. He walks five miles each night to maintain his lanky frame. He’s a family man. He’s 50, no less weird, and more famous than ever.

In the mid-’70s, young Alfred sang of cruising in his Plymouth Belvedere and the perils of cafeteria food while he rolled tape in his bedroom. Those cassettes soon caught the ear of a nationally syndicated radio show. “He kept on sending them, and they kept getting better,” Dr. Demento said from his California home.

 Yankovic graduated valedictorian at 16 and pursued architecture in college, where he designed his most memorable project while in the men’s room — a song. Thus “Weird Al” Yankovic’s career was born next to a row of urinals. The restroom offered good acoustics, so the student rigged up a microphone, strapped on his squeezebox and recorded “My Bologna.” The accordion-driven ditty, a takeoff of the Knack’s radio hit “My Sharona,” celebrated lunch meat, an ironic beginning considering Yankovic’s now a vegan.  

 Since his first record deal in 1981, musicians have marveled at the prospect of the “Weird Al” treatment; many consider his parody a badge of honor, confirmation that they’ve made it in the business. Yankovic has lampooned the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna, R.E.M. and Nirvana, T.I. and Eminem. “Weird Al” knows his subjects well. He studies vocal quirks, channels instrumental idiosyncrasies, and carefully arranges every note for his band. “‘Weird Al’ covering ‘Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm’ was a milestone in my career,” singer Brad Roberts of Crash Test Dummies wrote via email. “The man is a gem.” 

“He’s inspiration plus perspiration,” Dr. Demento said. “He does a song, and the first verse is real funny. But then the second one is still funnier, and the third one is the funniest of all. That’s something not too many other people are able to do.”

“I wish it came a little easier for me,” Yankovic admitted. “I’m not one of these songwriters that writes 10 songs before his first cup of coffee in the morning. It doesn’t flow freely for me, and in fact it’s something I force myself to do. I enjoy having written something, but the actual process isn’t usually that fun for me because it’s fairly painstaking.”

But it’s working. Six of his albums have each sold more than 1 million copies. In 2008, Yankovic charted his first platinum single, “White & Nerdy,” 25 years after he cut his first record. His style parodies — songs written and arranged in the spirit of a particular group — often attract unusual guests to the recording studio. Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for the Doors, played on Yankovic’s Morrison-esque “Craigslist,” which appears on his Grammy-nominated Internet Leaks EP.

“He’s always current and relevant. This accounts for Al’s sheer longevity in the business, something that’s rare even for most mainstream artists, let alone one whose genre is comedy,” drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz said.

“I think doing comedy is what I’m good at,” Yankovic observes. “I don’t think I really have any desire to do any different kind of music.”

While Yankovic expects to write and record three more songs for his 13th album later this year, he’s branched out a bit in the entertainment world since his 2006 release, Straight Outta Lynwood. Yankovic’s feature-film production deal with Cartoon Network recently fell through when the channel abruptly dropped all pending projects. He plans to pitch the idea to other networks, and will release his first children’s book, When I Grow Up, through HarperCollins in March. The story follows Billy, a little boy with big dreams of success. He asks his classmates, “And since this profession’s as cool as can be/ Well, who would be better to do it than me?” Seems as though his creator, all grown up, may have answered the question.

“I’ve had a very nice life, and I’ve managed to surround myself with wonderful people,” Yankovic said. “I enjoyed my life before, and I didn’t think it was possible to be any happier. And then my daughter was born.” •

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