Here’s something kind of funny: Over the course of his long and varied career, “Weird Al” Yankovic has been written off by some as a joke. Hard to believe that the guy who makes silly songs arguably better than anyone else in the world would have trouble being taken seriously.
Whatever criticism he may have endured in the past, however, nobody could reasonably dismiss Yankovic’s musical or comedic prowess at this point. Over 30 years into a steadily fruitful career, the accordion-loving artist saw his 2012 album, Alpocalyspse, land in the Billboard top 10, his highest position on the charts yet. The only thing funny about this success now is that it would still surprise people anymore.
The premiere pop culture parodist got his start in the late-1970’s by sending homemade tapes of his music to popular offbeat DJ, Dr. Demento, who was known for playing comedy and novelty songs. It was through this nationally syndicated platform that the Weird one released his first singles, parodies of The Knack and Queen. (“My Bologna” and “Another One Rides The Bus,” respectively.) Soon, he started delivering on a record contract with parodies of songs by iconic artists such as Michael Jackson and Nirvana, which would go on to be huge hits themselves.
With the recent release of “Weird” Al: The Book, co-written by author Nathan Rabin, the entire unlikely story has been documented for posterity. It’s just the right time too. Now that YouTube has leveled the distribution playing field, every smash song by the likes of Gotye or Carly Rae Jepsen inevitably inspires an avalanche of insta-parodies, of varying degrees of quality. (Many of them actually go beyond tedious, inspiring an almost hostile level of boredom.) Although some groups like Key of Awesome might get millions of views for their videos, overall the entire Internet could learn a thing or two from someone who’s stayed relevant on- and offline far longer than many of the artist’s he’s parodied.
Below, “Weird” Al Yankovic offers some tips for how to write the kind of parody that cuts through.
I cut my teeth on MAD Magazine–I was obsessed with it when I was about 12, and I would study the song parodies crafted by Frank Jacobs and others. They were always really well done, and I found them hilarious even if I had never heard the song that they were “to the tune of.” That became my first rule of parody: It’s got to be funny, whether or not the listener is familiar at all with the source material.
The spirit in which a music parody should be created is a personal choice–many parodists and satirists go for the jugular, but I’ve always gone for humor that was a little less biting and derogatory. I like to say that my parodies are more of a poke in the ribs than a punch in the face.
Generally I’ll study the charts and focus on the songs that seem to be the biggest hits or have the most mainstream appeal. Then I try to think of clever ideas for those songs–and I’m only successful in a small percentage of cases. So the parodies that get written are in the overlapping part of the Venn diagram of Big Hits and Clever Ideas.
I don’t often do meta-parodies where I make fun of the song or the singer, but I certainly did that with Nirvana, Lady Gaga, and Billy Ray Cyrus. It wasn’t that I was “out to get” anybody–I just looked at all my ideas for each song, and in those particular cases I just thought it was the funniest choice to make the parody lyrics about the original artist. A lot of parodies are funny until the hook or punchline, and then they go nowhere after that. These are basically “one joke” songs. So the best advice I can give is, pick a concept where you feel you can maintain humor through the entire length of the song.
It’s certainly more work to do a genre parody. With a straight parody, you don’t have to write the music or produce a demo–it’s already done for you. With a pastiche, not only do you have to do all the work that one necessarily does with an original song, but you also have to do a fair amount of research into the chosen genre or other artist’s work. I suppose rap music lends itself best to parody, if only because there are so many words. Sometimes pop songs don’t give a parody writer a whole lot of syllables to play with. It’s helpful to have enough words to be able to adequately set up jokes.
The originals, parodies, and polkas are all completely different in terms of the writing process, but let’s talk about one of the parodies–say, “White & Nerdy.” After hearing Chamillionaire’s hit on the radio for the thousandth time, I figured I should try to do something with it. I made a long list of song titles that were puns on “Ridin’ Dirty,” and “White & Nerdy” just kind of jumped out at me–it was basically my life story. I was a little concerned that it might be a little close to another parody of mine (“It’s All About the Pentiums”) but thought that nerd culture was fertile enough ground that it wouldn’t matter. My manager secured permission for the parody from Chamillionaire, and then I started stockpiling a long list of ideas, gags, and random thoughts about what it means to be white and nerdy. Then, like a puzzle, I tried to assemble all those ideas–in rhyming couplets–within the parameters of the original song arrangement. Then I brought in the band, we recorded it, mixed it, and voila, we had a finished master.
It all comes down to a criticism that I heard early on in my career. “Hey, what’s the big deal? ANYBODY can change the words around to hit songs–my KID does that.” And that’s perfectly true–anybody can do that. The trick is, it’s considerably harder to do it well and do it well consistently.
[Image: Flickr user Roger Ho]