“Weird Al” Yankovic is farklempt.
We’re sitting next to a rooftop pool in Los Angeles as he attempts to describe the moment he learned that Mandatory Fun, the song parodist’s 14th album, had debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart—Yankovic’s first-ever No. 1 and the first comedy album to hold that position since Allan Sherman’s My Son, the Nut in 1963. Yankovic isn’t crying, but he’s on the verge, and whenever he tries to talk, the words come out choked and his face strains so much from the effort of holding it together that his cheekbones look as if they might poke through the skin. It was the afternoon of July 22, he says, the day before Billboard’s official announcement, and he was backstage, about to make an appearance on the Comedy Central game show @midnight. He’d been following the numbers closely ever since the album’s release on July 15, and signs were looking good. So when he got a message that his manager wanted to see him before the show began taping, he says, “I thought, Ope! I bet it’s the news! And I walked into the dressing room and my whole family was there,” including his wife, Suzanne, and their 11-year-old daughter, Nina. Yankovic’s voice cracks and he turns away to look at the sky. “Excuse me,” he says, laughing. Third try: “Give me a second.” Strangled pause. Fourth try: All that comes out is a nervous giggle: “He he he.” The tears finally arrive. “And they had cake and they had big cards, and my wife’s parents were there, and they had all flown in to surprise me.”
Thirty-one years after his first album, and at 54 years old, Yankovic is suddenly bigger than ever, or at least as big as he was when he was sending up songs like “Beat It” (“Eat It”) and “Like a Virgin” (“Like a Surgeon”) on MTV in the ’80s. His shtick hasn’t evolved much since then, and he’s now competing with millions of amateur parodists on YouTube whom he helped inspire, but somehow the demand for Yankovic’s work only seems to have grown. To promote Mandatory Fun, he released eight music videos in eight days; collectively they’ve been viewed more than 46 million times. (His version of Lorde’s “Royals,” which extols the many virtues of aluminum foil, has racked up nearly 15 million views alone.) Yankovic’s resurgence is something akin to a fun-house-mirror version of Pharrell Williams’s late-career renaissance in 2013, during which the 41-year-old producer-singer dominated the radio with “Happy,” “Blurred Lines,” and “Get Lucky.” Fittingly, Yankovic earned his No. 1 with parodies of songs by Williams, namely “Tacky” and “Word Crimes,” about bad taste and bad grammar, respectively. (“Get Lucky” also made it onto Mandatory Fun as part of Yankovic’s traditional medley of pop songs played in a polka style.)
Yankovic is already dealing with the side effects of his new celebrity. A TMZ cameraman recently followed him home during one of his nightly five-mile walks through West Hollywood. (He grew up in nearby suburban Lynwood, which was “basically the hood,” he says. “My house was a couple hundred yards from the Compton border.”) “At that point,” Yankovic says with a shrug, “you basically have to do an interview.” On the plus side, opportunities are rolling in. He’s in talks to co-write a Broadway musical. He’s thinking about directing a new movie, which would be his first since the 1989 cult classic UHF. It won’t be a UHF sequel, Yankovic says, but fans of that movie may find consolation in the recently released UHF porn parody. Yankovic wasn’t involved, though he did visit the website to look at photos of a naked woman wearing his signature brown curls, ’80s mustache, glasses, and Hawaiian shirt. “I had to!” he says. “It’s my job to be aware of what’s going on, and, you know, how could you not?” He won’t quite call Weird & Naked UHF an “honor,” but “it’s a sign that you’ve definitely hit the mainstream.”
Likewise, Yankovic’s own parody of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (“I’m so handy, you already know / I’ll fix your plumbing when your toilets overflow”) helped cement that song’s status as 2014’s song of the summer. As soon as he heard the original version, he had a gut reaction. “I thought, It’s simple, it’s got a killer hook. This could be huge.” But was he too far ahead of the curve? He asked Nina if anyone was talking about Azalea in the sixth grade, and she said no. “I said, ‘Okay, a little early,’ ” says Yankovic. “So a couple days later, I asked Nina again and she said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s all we’re talking about now.’ At that point, I go, Okay, I can do Iggy Azalea.”
Yankovic says he only parodies songs he likes, “because I have to live with these songs for a long time and possibly play them onstage for the rest of my life.” And he needs to have an inspired idea. What would seem like an obvious pick, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” was relegated to the polka medley because Yankovic thought it was too repetitive. Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” didn’t get a parody either, because Yankovic didn’t think he could come up with anything funnier than the amateur versions on YouTube, “and if I can’t be the best parody, at least in my own mind, I don’t want to do it,” he says. There’s no Kanye West on Mandatory Fun because “he didn’t have a No. 1 single last year. Nothing I felt would’ve been recognized by the general population.” As for Beyoncé, who also released her last album with a lump-sum collection of music videos (a promotional maneuver Yankovic actually pioneered with his 2011 album, Alpocalypse), he asks, “What were her hits this past year?”
Now that Mandatory Fun is out, Yankovic is finally free of the record contract he signed back in 1982. In the future he plans to focus on singles rather than albums. “Part of what I do is try to stay topical and timely,” he says, “and it’s frustrating to hold on to something I know people would enjoy now and have to wait another year to put it out because I need more tracks to release along with it.” Whether that will be the most lucrative strategy for him remains to be seen. “Handy,” Yankovic’s version of “Fancy,” is the most current parody on his new album, but it’s far less popular than “Word Crimes,” which is based on a song that came out a year ago. Is that because audiences need time to get acquainted with a pop song before they can enjoy a parody? Because we’re just naturally more interested in songs about grammar than caulking? Maybe, says Yankovic, “ ‘Handy’ just wasn’t as good.”
As Yankovic digs into a ratatouille-and-burrata sandwich with fries, fans approach. “I had to come over and tell you how happy I am to hear you again,” says a cheery woman with gray hair. “I liked you 30 years ago, and I like you now!” Yankovic is easy to spot because, save for a few lines on his face, he still looks pretty much like he did when he stormed Dr. Demento’s radio show as a college student in 1979 with “My Bologna” (an accordion-powered takeoff on “My Sharona”), his first hit single. He’s often asked whether he’s had work done (no, he says, just the Lasik surgery that let him ditch his glasses). He says his secret is just good DNA, plus he doesn’t drink alcohol and has never tried an illicit drug. Contrary to some reports, he’s not strictly vegan—he has too much of a weakness for dairy products. (An adventurous eater he does not seem to be. “What’s Shurrey-shratcha?” he asks, pointing to Sriracha on the menu.)
But he does keep “rock-and-roll hours,” he says, making time for Suzanne and Nina during the day and working late at night. “I’ve tried writing during the day. When you’re writing, you’re not always scribbling in a notebook. Sometimes you’re just sitting with a blank look on your face,” he says. “So it’s odd for me to be sitting there, doing nothing, and my daughter comes up and says, ‘Dad, let’s play!’ And I’ll say, ‘Honey, I’m working.’ And she’ll look at me and say, ‘You’re just sitting in a chair!’ ”
For now, he can relax a little. He plans to spend the next four weeks slathered in “SPF 1,000” at his vacation home in Maui. In the ’80s, he says, “I felt like it was going to be over at any minute. Which is why I did an album virtually every year back then. Like, ‘Well, I better get my stuff out while I can because people are going to get sick of me!’ ” He says it reminds him of an episode of Cosmos he watched recently with Suzanne, in which Neil deGrasse Tyson explained the difference between climate and the weather—seasons are generally stable over time, but storms are ephemeral, breaking out and then disappearing in a flash. “There are big peaks and valleys in a career, and I try not to get too full of myself when I’m at a peak or too depressed when I’m at a valley,” Yankovic says. “I try to just realize, You’ve got to be the climate and not the weather.”
*This article appears in the August 11, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.