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Yankovic still 'Weird' after all these years

By Todd Leopold, CNN
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'Weird Al' treatment an 'homage'
  • Accordion-playing "Weird Al" Yankovic has been making music for more than 30 years
  • What's usually a novelty -- song parodies -- has become art, career for musician
  • New double-CD set celebrates career, including hits "Eat It," "Like a Surgeon"

(CNN) -- In the 1980s, it was easy to dismiss the accordion-toting "Weird Al" Yankovic as a one-joke wonder.

Sure, the joke was funny. Those song parodies, such as "Eat It" or "I Lost on Jeopardy"? Clever, as were the note-perfect videos for them that played constantly on MTV. (Occasionally, Yankovic would take over the channel, rechristening it "AlTV.")

But how long could it last? Devotion to song parodies was the stuff of teenage boys, not serious musicians or Top 40 hitmakers. Sooner or later, Yankovic's time would be up, and he'd end up back in the rack with Dickie Goodman or Buckner & Garcia.

"I never expected to make a living at this when I was growing up. My whole career is pretty much by accident," he said from New York.

Twenty-five years later, the joke's on us. And it's still funny.

Yankovic, now a 30-year veteran of the music business, recently issued "The Essential 'Weird Al' Yankovic" (Way Moby/Volcano/Legacy), two full discs of spot-on parody and original musical humor. (It's not the first time Yankovic's material has been gathered on a best-of; there was a four-disc boxed set back in 1994.)

The parodies include the early hits -- the Michael Jackson spoof "Eat It," the Madonna send-up "Like a Surgeon" (which was suggested by the Material Girl herself) -- on through recent entries such as the Green Day parody "Canadian Idiot" and Yankovic's biggest chart hit, 2006's "White & Nerdy," the latter a take-off of Chamillionaire's "Ridin'."

"It's certainly ironic considering that my genre is by and large the domain of one-hit wonders, and I've outlasted many of the artists that I've parodied over the years," he observed with a touch of wonder.

Yankovic owes his start to comedy-mining DJ Dr. Demento, who took a taped submission by the then-high school student and put it on the air. Eventually, Yankovic decided to give music a full-time shot, despite architecture studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

It's been mostly success since then. Besides the hits, Yankovic's starred in a movie (the cult favorite "UHF") and a television show ("The Weird Al Show") and established himself as a video director. Musicians, whom Yankovic consults before recording a send-up, generally treat a Weird Al song as a tribute.

"The list of people that have turned me down is actually pretty small," Yankovic said. "The only person who has consistently said no is Prince." (He has had his run-ins with the suits; Atlantic Records said he couldn't release "You're Pitiful," a parody of James Blunt's "You're Beautiful," despite Blunt's approval; Yankovic retaliated by insulting Atlantic in a video and putting out the song as a free download.)

If Yankovic has a challenge these days, it's finding songs worth parodying. He admires music from a variety of genres, but the splintering of the Top 40 audience has made it harder to find a tune everybody recognizes.

"One of the hardest things to do nowadays is even trying to define what a hit is. Just because it's a hit on one particular radio station doesn't mean it's a mainstream hit," he said.

But he likes rap's bounty of language -- "There are a lot of words to play with. A lot of pop songs are either very repetitive or don't give you a lot of material" -- and figures that pop will change again and provide more opportunities.

Besides, it comes down to the humor, he adds.

"Thankfully, one of my creeds is that my songs need to be funny and enjoyable even if you're not familiar with the original source material," he said.

If the source material should fail him, there's always the accordion. Indeed, Yankovic has given the much-maligned instrument a leading role on his recordings, usually on polka-flavored ditties.

Asked whether there's a possibility of teaming with They Might Be Giants' accordionist John Linnell and polka master Jimmy Sturr, Yankovic chuckles. Could "Monsters of Polka" be in his future?

"No talk as far as I know, but that sounds like a fun project," he said.