comics talk to comics

Jemaine Clement Talks With Weird Al About the Appeal of Parody Music and Bad Dancing

Photo-Illustration: Kelly Chiello and Photos by Getty Images

There are few acts that have more successfully built a case for comedy music than Flight of the Concords and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Though Flight of the Conchords (Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie) write all original music while Weird Al is best known for his parodies of chart-topping singles, they share a similar penchant for unabashed silliness with their nerd cards on the table at all times. Yet whether the Conchords are singing about Lord of the Rings or Weird Al about Star Wars, the clever lyrics and ability to create catchy, memorable songs in nearly any popular genre make their comedy and music talents undeniable. Long before the Flight of the Conchords HBO musical series (2007–2009), a young Jemaine Clement was watching Weird Al’s music videos in Wellington, New Zealand, in the late ’80s. With the final ten episodes of Comedy Bang! Bang!, for which Al is the bandleader, premiering Friday night, and both acts playing Festival Supreme this weekend, Vulture asked Clement to interview Weird Al about his decades of evolving success, bad dancing, and the appeal of parody.  

Jemaine Clement: When I was in high school in New Zealand, I remember acting out the confrontation scene of “Fat,” me and my friend singing: “You ain’t fat, you ain’t nothing. You ain’t fat, you ain’t nothing!” Had you imagined that kind of scope — that it would reach around the world?
“Weird Al” Yankovic: I had no idea that you would be reenacting the confrontation scene from “Fat” on the other side of the world at some point, that’s pretty mind-boggling to me.

J.C.: I know you had songs in the U.S., but “Fat” and “Eat It” were the ones that went global. It seemed to me that you were some strange version of Michael Jackson. Did you have a lot of talks with him about doing his music?
A.Y.: Well, initially I didn’t talk to him directly because I didn’t think we’d even be able to get his blessing for “Eat It.” It was my manager talking to his representatives, but Michael actually signed a contract saying that he is the co-writer of “Eat It.” I did get to meet him a couple times in person, and he was very nice, very soft-spoken. I would describe him as a little alienlike, because he seemed like he was so much bigger than life, so iconic, that it almost didn’t seem like he was real. Like a wax statue from Madame Tussauds.

J.C.: Yeah, but somehow in those videos you seem stranger.
A.Y.: [Laughs.] I suppose so. You have to exaggerate and caricature as much as you can. It’s hard to make them stranger than they are already.

J.C.: That’s part of the appeal. Sometimes I might like the tune of the music but I wouldn’t like the image of the artist. They would seem too serious. But then your songs had the tune that you like without taking yourself too seriously. It had some jokes in it. There must be people who buy your music to have the tune, almost to spite the original artist.
A.Y.: I know a lot of people that didn’t like “Blurred Lines” because they thought it was misogynistic, and they were very happy when I came up with a song using the same tune but made it about the proper usage of grammar. They thought, Finally, we can enjoy this song without having to worry about the rapey lyrics.

J.C.: [Laughs.] That’s a great feat. I read that you started in 1976, so you must have been very young, a teenager, when you had your first song aired. How did you even do that when you’re that young?
A.Y.: When I started out, I was just sending in recorded tapes to the Dr. Demento radio show. He would play my stuff on the radio even though it was horribly recorded. I recorded it on a little cassette-tape recorder in my bedroom, just me singing along with my accordion. But he thought it was kind of a novel concept that some teenage kid was playing the accordion and thinking he was cool. He encouraged me to send in more and ultimately I got a record deal. It was a pretty unlikely way to go about it.

J.C.: That’s incredible, really. And then your first No. 1 album was almost 40 years later. Do you have any idea about what circumstances led to that happening?
A.Y.: I was gonna come right out of the box and have my first album be a No. 1 album, but I thought, No, I wanna wait 40 years and just have a flow, rise, and peak. The internet is largely responsible. MTV was very supportive and helpful back in the ’80s and radio has been intermittently helpful, but the internet was where my bread was buttered. That seems like where my core audience lives and breathes, and I knew that if I were to harness the power of the internet that would really help out during that first week of sales.

J.C.: You’re probably right, the internet also reaches everywhere. Whereas MTV you could watch it if you’re allowed to – if your mum let you.
A.Y.: It’s amazing because I’ve got pockets of fans in parts of the world that I barely know exist. It used to be that if they couldn’t rack your albums in a record store, or if they weren’t playing you on terrestrial radio stations, you were an unknown entity. But because the internet is worldwide, your stuff gets out there literally everywhere.

J.C.: It also cuts down the amount of profit you can make.
A.Y.: [Laughs] Well, that’s true.

J.C.: On a lot of your music videos you put a lot of attention on the dancing. Do you enjoy dancing?
A.Y.: I’m not a dancer – that’s why it’s comedy. Because I have absolutely no skill but I’m totally invested in it. I pretend like I can dance. I have this unearned confidence. The fact that I’m obviously trying really, really hard and I’m this uncoordinated, goofy white guy somehow is funny to people.

J.C.: It’s mostly in the face, isn’t it? You put the confidence in your face and you hope your body is doing the right thing. Once you’ve heard one of your songs you often can’t hear the original the same again.
A.Y.: I certainly can’t. Whenever I hear the original song on the radio I have to change the channel because I don’t want to put the original words back in my head. It’s hard enough for me to remember my own words without being in the middle of a show going back to the original version.

J.C.: That would be a disaster.
A.Y.: I heard that sometimes my parody of “American Pie” messes Don McLean up. He’ll be onstage singing “American Pie” and a part of his brain is thinking about Jedis because his kids were fans of the parody and they would play the parody around the house all the time.

J.C.: Yeah, I think he might get away with that. But it would be strange if you were to get up onstage and sing “Ridin’ Dirty.” They’d be like, “He’s gone too serious now, he’s just doing covers.”
A.Y.: “He’s talking about racial profiling, this is not the Al I know.”

J.C.: When you listen to the radio, do you automatically start rewriting the lyrics?
A.Y.: No, I mean, I certainly can listen to music for fun and for my own personal enjoyment, and when I’m doing a parody it’s something I sort of force myself to do.

J.C.: Was there a phase where you did that? Early on, perhaps, in your excitement of discovering this form?
A.Y.: Probably when I was like 8 years old. I think every kid in the world goes through that phase where they change around the things that they hear on the radio. That’s a phase that to some extent I’ve never grown out of.

J.C.: It’s true. One of the times I remember laughing the most in my life was being at a school camp, my friend who I shared a tent with and I were changing the words to a commercial. I remember crying laughing.
A.Y.: Parody is considered one of the lower forms of comedy, but at a certain time it’s the funniest thing there is. That’s why a lot of people, if you ask what’s their favorite Weird Al album, it’s whatever album came out when they were 12 years old.

J.C.: Right. Does that have a bearing on the demographic of your audience when you do a live show?
A.Y.: Well, it used to be, when I started out, it was a very young audience, but over the years that young audience grew up and I’ve been doing it long enough now that those original kids are bringing their own kids. So it is kind of a multi-generational demographic at the shows. There’s young kids, teenage, college age, hipsters, parents, grandparents, some dead people.

J.C.: That’s a hard audience to get, but worthwhile because there’s so many of them.

Jemaine Clement Talks With ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic