BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Twenty years ago, "Star Wars" creator George Lucas would
not have returned a phone call from a guy called "Weird Al"
Yankovic. Packages bearing such a moniker likely would have
been routed to Skywalker Ranch security.
Today, though, everyone knows "Weird Al." He's famous.
"I've skewered enough famous people that they kind of
know who I am now. Sometimes that helps, sometimes not,"
Yankovic said in a conversation this week. "At least now I
get phone calls returned."
Even with George Lucas,
though, Yankovic was nervous. Just because he's sold more
comedy albums than anyone else didn't mean Lucas would sign
over permission to skewer the context of "The Phantom
Menace," which Yankovic does in the first track on his
latest album, "Running With Scissors." The song, "The Saga
Begins," recounts the tale of young Anakin Skywalker to the
tune of Don McLean's "American Pie" ("So my, my, this poor
Anakin guy / may be Vader someday later / now he's just a
Yankovic recorded the song, set a release date for the
album and booked the tour. Then he sent Lucas a tape of the
song. Fortunately, Lucas loved it.
Song parodies are Yankovic's stock in trade, and over
the last two decades his witty gag covers have established
the largest and longest career for a musical humorist. From
his first parody — turning the Knack's "My Sharona" into "My
Bologna" — to his latest transubtatiation — turning the
Offspring's "Pretty Fly for a White Guy" into "Pretty Fly for
a Rabbi" — you haven't really made it big until "Weird Al"
makes fun of you.
"I've never made fun of the actual performers, though — I
mean, nothing mean-spirited," Yankovic said. "It's all in
fun, and most of the artists are very positive about it.
It's not about them, really." Sometimes the fans of the
artist being parodied don't think so, though.
"Well, there's one letter in a hundred from someone who
completely misses the point. They say, 'How can you make
fun of Michael Jackson or Nirvana?' But they're the ones
who gave me permission to do it, and they think it's very
funny," Yankovic said.
"Weird Al's" passion for parody began when, growing up in
California, he discovered "The Dr. Demento Show," a popular
weekly show of humorous music that just celebrated its 30th
year on the air. Tuning in each week, Yankovic heard the
musical wits of Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg and
Allan Sherman. He was hooked.
"Comedy and music were the two driving forces in my life,"
he said. "To have them together, I thought, would, well,
save a lot of time."
Yankovic saw Dr. Demento as a "kindred spirit," and when
he was 13, Dr. Demento spoke at his school. He was
conducting a song contest at the time, and Yankovic gave
him a tape of his recordings he'd begun at home with
"I didn't win — the stuff was awful — but it was the first
thing I gave him, and I decided to keep sending him tapes.
I got better over the years, and pretty soon we kind of had
a relationship, and he played my songs," Yankovic said.
The first "Weird Al" song Dr. Demento played on his show
was "Belvedere Cruising," a pop song about the family
Plymouth. It was driven by Yankovic's trademark accordion,
and it received great feedback from listeners. The song
that set him up, though, was "My Bologna" in 1979. Not only
did listeners love it, the Knack themselves enjoyed it and
persuaded their record company, Capitol Records, to release
the song as a single.
After that, all chart-toppers were targets. Queen's
"Another One Bites the Dust" became Yankovic's "Another One
Rides the Bus." Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" became
Yankovic's "I Love Rocky Road." Toni Basil's "Mickey" became
"Ricky," satirizing both the hit song and the TV show "I Love
It was the latter song that ensured Yankovic's immense
stardom. The humor of the song could now, in 1983, be
amplified with visuals via the fledgling MTV music video
network. Yankovic's relationship with MTV would become his
main source of success — and excess.
"We've had a symbiotic relationship," Yankovic said. "It's
often difficult for me to get into radio playlists, but MTV
loves to put my videos into rotation, so people have always
known that I've had a new album out. Plus, you get more
dimensions to the humor. Background gags and sight gags
allow you to flesh out the humor a lot."
Since then, Yankovic has resurfaced just in time to
remind us that pop stars are not gods and can be taken down
a peg or two. He's been rewarded for his efforts, too,
winning Grammy awards for his note-for-note (and, in the
videos, scene-for-scene) versions of Michael Jackson hits --
"Eat It" (Jackson's "Beat It") and "I'm Fat" (Jackson's "Bad").
"I've been lucky, but I think what I do is important on
some level. We need satire in the culture to keep balanced
and keep things in perspective."
"Weird Al" Yankovic performs 8 p.m. Thursday at the
Brady Theater, 105 W. Brady St. Tickets are $28 at the
Brady box office and all Dillard outlets. Call 747-0001.
Tulsans remember Al, filming of `UHF'
Tulsans know "Weird Al" Yankovic a bit better than most
Americans because, as his career took off, Yankovic wound
up here filming his first — and, so far, only — feature film,
In 1988, Yankovic shot the bulk of the film in the
then-vacant Kensington Mall on 71st Street (now the
Southern Hills Marriott hotel). The film — about a TV
station owner who tries to keep his UHF channel alive by
programming very off-beat shows — co-starred quirky "Saturday
Night Live" alum Victoria Jackson and was the film debut of
future "Seinfeld" star Michael Richards.
"We got a really good deal on the use of an empty mall
there, so we were able to rent it and set up nearly all of
our soundstages there," Yankovic said. "Almost all of the
interior shots were filmed there, plus we did some exterior
things around town."
Other locations used throughout Tulsa included the
former Joey's Home of the Blues club, where fans of the
fictional station protested, and Woodward Park, where
Yankovic was made up as Rambo for a slapstick fight,
complete with bulging, latex muscles. The First Christian
Church downtown was used as a city hall building. Tulsa
songwriter Jerry Hawkins ("I'd Be in Heaven in a Truck") was
one of the many local extras hired for several scenes in
"UHF." He remembers some of the goofy fun on the sets.
"They had the `Wheel of Fish,' a parody on the `Wheel of
Fortune' (game show)," Hawkins said. "As the show host would
ask the contestants, 'OK, now, which do you prefer — the box
on the table containing some terrific prize or the fish on
the spinning board on the wall?' We, as extras in the
audience, would yell out ... 'The fish! The fish!' It was a
Hawkins also recalled the "incredible amounts of
attention" Yankovic got around town, "and all without saying
much at all and without doing much."
"He was one funny dude," Hawkins said, and "definitely
Yankovic said he's been too busy with the current tour
to think about making another film, but he enjoyed his
Tulsa experience. "I loved it there," he said. "We spent
the whole summer, despite that insane heat."
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.