Weird Al Yankovic’s brand of musical parody changed comedy, raising the bar for the level of accuracy expected in parody. And after 14 albums, he’s still at it. As Yankovic puts it, his most recent album Mandatory Fun was his mic drop, as it was his first No. 1 album and it dominated the internet for a week. The standout track was “Word Crimes,” his “Blurred Lines” parody that replaced all the creepiness of the Robin Thicke original and replaced it with valuable lessons about grammar. On this week’s Good One podcast, Vulture’s new podcast about jokes, Weird Al, whose deluxe Squeeze Box box set is available for preorder through March 20, breaks down how the song came to be, what it’s like to try to copy a rapper’s flow, and attempting to needle Prince a little.
Do you remember hearing “Blurred Lines” for the first time? Yeah, and I just thought it was an extremely catchy kind of Marvin Gaye pastiche. I thought, This really jumps out at you, and that it would be a good candidate for parody. This was a good year before Mandatory Fun came out, but it was the big song of the summer of 2013 and I felt if I put out my album and didn’t have a “Blurred Lines” parody, it would be a glaring omission. Like, Why didn’t you do “Blurred Lines?!”
What’s then the first step?
I sat down and made a list of every possible variation on a theme, every possible rhyme and any direction I could go to make that funny.
When you say you make a list of possible options, are you literally going, All right, “Bird Binds.” “Curd Cinds?”
Sorta. Anything I can think of that has a remote possibility of it being a song, I write it down. There are a lot of bad ideas, because the first step is there’s no filter at all. The next day, I’ll go back and look at the list, and 99 percent will just be horrible ideas. But if I’m lucky, one of them will be an idea where I go, Oh yeah, I could maybe twist that and make it into a three-and-a-half minute long song.
Do you remember any of them?
[Yankovic gets out his laptop and opens a Word doc.] This is just going down a list of really horrible ideas that I had: “Dessert Line,” “Absurd Mimes,” “Absurd Finds,” “About a Guy That Hates the Airlines.” Songs that wouldn’t have been as good.
When you’re narrowing it down, you’re just going, Is there legs to this?
Yeah, I can have a concept in mind and I’ll know in my heart of hearts whether it’s going to be a one-joke kind of thing or whether it’s really going to sustain.
Do you operate with a sort of mission statement? Is it a conscious decision, Oh, I’m Weird Al and this is how this fits into the universe of the songs that I do?
Most of my songs are the Randy Newman-esque, untrustworthy narrator kind of things — which is difficult for “Word Crimes,” because there’s a lot of me in that character. Bad grammar irritates me, but I’m not quite as pedantic or prescriptivist as the singer in that song.
The character changes per song?
That’s correct, yeah. People freak out sometimes because, How could you write a song like “My Bologna” when you’re a vegetarian?! Well, these are not all autobiographical songs. I don’t behead people or do most of the things the characters in the songs do. I don’t think I’d ever hit somebody over the head with a lead pipe for bad syntax.
I’ve been taken to task because a lot of teachers tell me they would have liked to use “Word Crimes” as teaching material in their schools, but it’s just too mean-spirited. But it’s meant to be comedy, not classroom curriculum, and part of it is for me to be over the top with the character.
It’s parodying people who are both bad at grammar and people who care too much about grammar.
That’s exactly it. A lot of my songs are two-edged that way. I did a song called “Don’t Download This Song” that made fun of the people downloading illegally as well as people prosecuting people downloading illegally. It gave both sides of the issue. “Word Crimes” is the same thing.
Can you talk about the decision to focus on parody as opposed to satire, with this song in particular?
I’ve done satires on a small handful of occasions — with Nirvana and Billy Ray Cyrus and Lady Gaga. But for this one, that ground had been well-trod. In the YouTube world we live in, a week after Robin Thicke had his hit, there were 10,000 parodies of it. Most of them were takes on him being misogynistic and a little rape-y. I knew that, whatever I did, I couldn’t go down that path.
Though it’s not satire, obviously there’s a contrast of what the original song is and what the parody is. What is that magical sweet spot of that contrast?
A lot of my humor comes from glorifying the mundane, and I love to get a really bizarre juxtaposition. It was a sweet thing for me to be able to take that song, which is pretty sexually charged, and turn it into a song about proper grammar usage.
Let’s talk about actually writing the words of this song. Do you list ideas before you even start writing?
Yeah, I just make pages and pages of notes, just words and phrases having to do with grammar. And I made a list of every little pet peeve I’ve ever had. I went online and read other people’s pet peeves, and made a huge master list. Then it was just a matter of trying to formulate a pop song out of that, Tetris-like.
Before you even set out, is the idea, Well, we’ll start with the premise of this joke and then expand on it?
The subject matter of the joke is there, and sometimes it reveals itself more as I continue writing, but the mission statement’s always in place. I’ll figure out what the choruses are first or if there’s any specific lines which really stand out in the original. Like, “You would not use ‘it’s’ in this case,” lines up with the original. [“You the hottest bitch in this place.”] You go for the points in the song where you feel like you’ve got to nail it and get the exact phrasing, the whole concept spot-on. If you get that right, you feel more confident that everything else is going to fill in.
Are you listening to a bunch beforehand? Beyond that, do you have the original lyrics in front of you? Do you have a rough track of it without the vocals? Or is it in your head?
It’s all of the above. I’m so analytical about this stuff. I listen to the song a lot, obviously. I’ll write out the lyrics. I will have rough lyrics to the right of each line. I will come up with a dozen variations for every line in the song. I’ll go back later and figure out which one rolls off the tongue easiest, or which one is the funniest. It is a bit like a puzzle because I try to make every syllable as good as it can be.
In the first verse, the original line is, “You’re an animal / baby, it’s in your nature.” Which you changed to, “Gonna familiarize you / with the nomenclature.” Obviously “nature” and “nomenclature” rhyme. How much are you trying to create these sorts of inner parody lines?
It’s not absolutely essential, but the closer you can keep to the original source material while tweaking it to a whole different subject matter, I think that makes the comedy play better.
How important is trying to match syllables?
Pretty important. I hear a lot of amateur-ish parody writers that try to jam too many syllables into a line or not enough and — this is a big pet peeve — they don’t get the accents right. There’s a meter to every line and if you get the accent on the wrong syllable, it doesn’t flow that well.
Are you counting syllables?
You kind of get the feel for it, but that’s happened a few times: Hmm, I’ve got to tell a joke in seven syllables.
T.I. has a verse in the original. When you’re parodying a rap, do you take extra care to match the flow of a rapper?
It’s the same as any other kind of music really, but there are a lot more things you can get wrong doing a parody of rap music. It tends to be a little bit more intricate. You have to be very particular about, again, the number of syllables, where the accents are, the internal rhymes. A lot of rap parodies just don’t work for that reason, or they’re kind of corny.
Was the Prince lyric an allusion to the fact that he never let you parody any of his songs?
Well, you know, it’s a direct reference to the fact of his song titles that use the numbers and the letters and things like that. But also, it’s a little nudge. At the time, Prince was still with us and for decades, he’s sort of been my scapegoat because he was always the one guy that has historically and famously never let me do any parodies. So, any time I could give him a little nudge.
Was there much debate about the “cunning linguist” joke that’s in there? It’s a little bit on the bluer side.
Yeah, I know a lot of kids listen to my music, but that’s one of the kind of things where hopefully the parents will get a kick out of it and it’ll go over the kid’s head.
After you have the lyrics locked, how do you prepare then to translate it to the sound?
That’s the easy part, because I work with very talented people. It’s basically me giving CDs to the guys in the band and saying, “Here, learn this.” So the only question is, “Are we changing the key? Are we changing the tempo? Are we editing it? Are we doing anything different arrangement-wise?”
In terms of engineering, how meticulous are you in terms of trying to ape what the original recording sounds like?
We don’t get too crazy or too anal about it, but sometimes the guys in the band do research and figure out what kind of guitar pickups were originally used. If they’re using samples, sometimes we’ll try to track down the original samples. The theory is we want to fool people into thinking they’re hearing the original song on the radio and all of a sudden it’s like, Wait, these aren’t the words!
You’re doing less of a funny voice in “Word Crimes.” The words are funny and there’s a funny lilt to your voice, but why the decision to do it straighter, in terms of performance?
A lot of it is me calming down and trying not to be quote-unquote “funny” all the time. When I started out, I was embracing the whole novelty act thing and being more obnoxious and nasal than I needed to be. You still hear that in the polka medleys, because that’s the gag, but when I’m doing straight parodies or original songs, I’m not pushing my voice to try to be a comic singer. It’s just letting the words do the work for me.
For the album, you released a series of videos — one every day for eight days. I think “Word Crimes” was the third?
Second. It was second, yeah.
What was your thinking with the order?
Well, I thought that “Tacky” was going to get the most media attention because it featured a bunch of celebrities. “Happy” was a huge song, and certainly more current then “Blurred Lines” at the time. “Word Crimes” was perhaps a stronger song, but it was a great one-two punch, starting with “Tacky,” then the next day with “Word Crimes.” And then the following day with “Foil.” By that time, people were like, “He’s doing it every day!”
It was so unexpected. And it was amazing, how popular it was, this many years into your career. How did it feel to you?
It was amazing. I’ve never had as much attention focused on me as I had that week. It was the last album on my contract and my previous two had cracked the Top 10. And I was thinking, I hope this one cracks the Top 10. I have to go out on top. Having a No. 1 album was not in my wildest dreams. I almost started crying on live TV a couple times because I couldn’t believe what was happening to me.
To have a No. 1 album as your last album —
Yeah, it’s a nice little mic drop. [Laughs.]
If “Blurred Lines” plays on the radio, do you hear your own words?
I tend to change the channel or turn off the radio if the original song comes on because it kind of messes with my head. I still have to be singing my version in concert. Once I write my parody and record it, I tend not to listen to the original anymore.
Since Pharrell and Robin Thicke lost the court case for copyright infringement with the Marvin Gaye estate, does that affect you in anyway?
Not directly. I have to assume that whatever royalties I’ve paid them in the past were given to the Marvin Gaye estate in the settlement. And going forward, maybe it just goes directly to the Gaye estate? I honestly don’t know. That’s something for the lawyers to bicker out.
As you said, Mandatory Fun will be probably your last album because it’s the end of your very long contract. How do you feel about it, and “Word Crimes,” as the end of your run?
I’m not retiring, but I think that Mandatory Fun was a strong, last release and I’m very happy with “Word Crimes.” If that era’s going to end, I think it’s ending on a proper note.
What is your current feeling about musical parody as a form that you both defined and defines your career?
I’m still interested in it, and I still intend to do it in the future. Since Mandatory Fun, I’ve been taking a little bit of a vacation from it and seeing what other things I can do. I did a season of Comedy Bang! Bang! I’m getting involved in other feature and TV projects, and other music projects as well. I’m sure the parodies will come again. Part of me is holding back a little bit because we’ve got this box set coming out. It would feel a little weird for me to release new material and then like, Well, how come that’s not in the box set?!