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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
David Smith in Washington

‘He was a bit of an outcast’: how Weird Al become an unlikely superstar

‘You don’t have to be an outcast to like Al but he’s certainly helping in being a beacon of acceptance for those who are’ … Weird Al Yankovic in 2011
‘You don’t have to be an outcast to like Al but he’s certainly helping in being a beacon of acceptance for those who are’ … Weird Al Yankovic in 2011. Photograph: Startraks Photo/Rex

He is the patron saint of introverts, misfits, outsiders – anyone who didn’t belong in the cool kids’ gang.

“A lot of Weird Al fans, we’re geeks, freaks, losers, misunderstood outcasts, Star Wars nerds or guys playing Dungeons and Dragons,” says Ethan Ullman, who co-hosts a podcast about the musical comedian. “You don’t have to be an outcast to like Al but he’s certainly helping in being a beacon of acceptance for those who are.”

Weird Al Yankovic rose to prominence with comical spoof versions of classic songs, won five Grammy awards and gained a nicest-man-in-Hollywood reputation that rivals Tom Hanks’s.

Now 63, the lanky, longhaired national treasure is the subject of a suitably wacky biopic starring the British actor Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. But Weird Al, too, knows what it was like to be the goofy one who did not run with cool crowd, the bashful boy who never got the girl.

He told the New Yorker magazine last week: “I was not a popular kid, I was not a social kid. I was always a little bit ostracized, because I didn’t quite fit in.”

Born Alfred Matthew Yankovic in Downey, California, he grew up in the nearby working-class suburb of Lynwood, the only child of Nick, a medic in the second world war, and Mary, a stenographer. An only child, Weird Al combined his father’s eccentricity with his mother’s shyness and, having started school early, was always the youngest member of the class.

In a definitive profile in the New York Times magazine two years ago, Sam Anderson wrote: “Although Alfred’s grades were perfect, and he could solve any math problem you threw at him, his social life was agonizing. Imagine every nerd cliche: he was scrawny, pale, unathletic, nearsighted, awkward with girls – and his name was Alfred. And that’s all before you even factor in the accordion.”

Accordion lessons began a day before his seventh birthday and he was able to practice without the normal distractions because of a mother who was protective to the point of stifling. Weird Al lived a mostly reclusive life in his bedroom, never playing at a friend’s house or riding his bike more than half a block.

Anderson again: “All of his classmates hit puberty before he did. He never had a girlfriend, never went to a party or a dance. His parents never taught him about sex. ‘Stay away from women,’ his father once told him. ‘They have diseases and stuff.’

“Lynwood High School was directly across the street from the Yankovic home, and when Alfred went there his mom would sometimes watch him during gym class, through binoculars, just to make sure he wasn’t being bullied.”

If the child is father of the man, Weird Al’s tastes as a teenager revealed the genetic code of his career. He adored British artists such as Elton John and Monty Python, spent Sunday nights listening to novelty hits on The Dr Demento Show and devoured the humour of Mad magazine.

He said in the New Yorker interview: “I saw my first Mad magazine when I was maybe 11 or 12 years old, and it was an epiphany for me. I thought, This is my kind of humor. This was something that I hadn’t been exposed to. I immediately subscribed, and I begged my mother to take me around town to all the used-book-and-magazine stores to buy back issues.”

Ullman, the podcaster, who has met Weird Al many times, reflects: “He came from a loving family, a little bit overprotective, and some of the over-protectiveness maybe is what got Al interested in The Dr Demento Show, where he found his love for comedy music. It was him branching out and trying something somewhat forbidden, although I don’t think he was forbidden to listen to it.”

Daniel Radcliffe and Weird Al Yankovic
Daniel Radcliffe and Weird Al Yankovic. Photograph: NBC/Lloyd Bishop/Getty Images

Weird Al graduated from high school at 16 and went to study architecture at California Polytechnic State University. Anderson’s profile memorably recorded: “As he drove off, Alfred’s parents got in their new car and followed directly behind him. Alfred watched them in his rearview mirror. As soon as he hit the freeway, he gunned the engine and lost them.”

At college, he introduced himself to people as “Al” rather than “Alfred” but he remained painfully young, shy and awkward with a moustache and thick glasses. He was not drinking, smoking and dating as “normal” students do. It did not take long for someone to anoint him “Weird Al”. He decided to run with it.

Ullman adds: “He was a bit of an outcast to some degree. He had friends and his own communities but he wasn’t necessarily the popular kid and, in college, people would give him a hard time and that’s where, as a derogatory term, he was called ‘Weird Al’.

“Al has always been smarter than everyone else in the room and he knows not to let something like that affect him but turn it around and embrace that name. I’d love to see what those bullies think of Al’s career now.”

Weird Al got his big break at the college’s open-mic night in 1977 when he and his accordion were a sensation. He knew what he wanted to do with his life. He performed anywhere and everywhere, wrote his own songs, recorded parodies of chart hits, became a regular on his beloved Dr Demento show and was the perfect choice for MTV on April Fools’ Day in 1984.

In Weird Al’s hands, Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust became Another One Rides the Bus. The Beatles’ Taxman translated to Pacman. Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love became Addicted to Spuds. Michael Jackson’s Beat It was turned into Eat It, and became a top 40 hit and won a Grammy. Madonna’s Like a Virgin spawned Like a Surgeon. Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise became Amish Paradise.

The musical Hamilton was turned into The Hamilton Polka; the Broadway musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a Weird Al superfan. Indeed, artists are usually flattered by his attention, especially as it has been known to give them a boost in sales, as in the case of the Smells Like Teen Spirit homage Smells Like Nirvana. The new film, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, refers to it as “the Yankovic bump”.

The master of pastiche – he carefully crafts every word, every lyric – has built a devoted following. He still draws big crowds to concerts and inspired the 2019 launch of Dave & Ethan’s 2000 Weird Al Podcast, co-hosted by Ullman and Dave Rossi, who has been to 224 Weird Al concerts and helped spearhead the long and successful campaign to get him a star on the Hollywood walk of fame.

Rossi, 48, says by phone from Bloomfield, New Jersey: “Weird Al gives people the permission to be themselves. Certainly, going back to my experience as a child, while I wasn’t bullied or anything like that, I definitely was not part of the in-crowd, part of the cool kids at school.

“I didn’t necessarily connect with the type of music that other people listened to. The parodies gave me permission to say, ‘Oh, I don’t have to fit in with everybody else.’ I’ve definitely heard that from other Weird Al fans as well. I’m sure you will find multiple example of fans who say that they were in a bad place and listening to Weird Al music helped them come out of that bad place.

The oldest cliche in the book is the tears of the clown, the suspicion that comedy performers must be seeking laughs to compensate for a dark side. With Weird Al, however, it does not seem the case. He is happily married to his wife, Suzanne, and has a teenage daughter, Nina. Weird Al is actually Normal Al.

Rossi notes that the cable network VH1 did a Behind the Music special on him. “In general, they would try to dig deep and find dirt on the musician that they were showcasing and, in the case of Weird Al, they couldn’t find anything on him. He’s been an open book and he says he doesn’t have any skeletons in his closet. He’s just in general a really good guy.”

Ullman adds: “He’s a fun guy and he likes making people laugh. Al hasn’t had that kind of weird career where it’s like sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. He’s always been a normal guy and has been treated that way by his fans and I think that’s helped keep him as pure as he is.”

Indeed, Ullman recalls interviewing Weird Al’s longtime friend and former college roommate Joel Miller: “The most salacious thing he was able to mention is that Al may have sworn one time in his presence. Al doesn’t think that happened and Joel doesn’t have anyone to back that up.

“There’s been plenty of opportunities over the years where we’ve talked to people who could have even off the air said something negative about Al or an experience they had with Al and that has absolutely never happened. Somehow Al is just this incredible being who has never done anything wrong.”

  • Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is now available on the Roku Channel

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