“Weird Al” Yankovic is best known for his parody songs, but they’re only half the story of his career. In fact, since he first started putting out his records in the 1980s, they’ve all contained a roughly equal number of parodies and original songs.
The parodies made his career—hell, his two Michael Jackson spoofs “Eat It” and “Fat” won him Grammys. Meanwhile, his originals were critically scorned, especially in the beginning. It wasn’t until seven albums into his career, after 1992’s Off the Deep End, that rock critics were willing to concede, as Christopher Thelen did in a 1999 review, “it’s strange to admit, but the originals on Off The Deep End actually are, at times, stronger than the parodies.”
But is it really so strange? In recent years, Yankovic originals like the Devo-inspired “Dare to Be Stupid” and the doo-wop deconstruction “One More Minute” have proven to be among his most enduring songs. In 2013, Erik Adams of the AV Club wrote that Yankovic’s best originals “weather the passing years better than most of [his] direct parodies.” And I think most They Might Be Giants fans will agree at this point that Yankovic’s “Everything You Know is Wrong” is the best song TMBG John Linnell never wrote.
It’s about time his originals got their due. When I bought my first Weird Al album as a pre-teen, I wasn’t cool enough to know that “Mr. Popeil” was a take-off of the B-52s—I didn’t even know who Ron Popeil was—but I still thought it was hilarious. I had never read the Weekly World News, but I loved “Midnight Star,” his song celebrating the weirdness of “The Incredible Frog Boy is On the Loose Again”-type tabloids. I still think his original, Talking Heads-inspired “Dog Eat Dog” (“Sometimes I tell myself, ‘This is not my beautiful stapler!’/Sometimes I tell myself, ‘This is not my beautiful chair!’”) might be the best song he ever wrote.
Yankovic has noticed this shift, too, but, surprisingly, he doesn’t see the new appreciation of his originals as some new validation of their quality.
“I don’t know when the turning point was, maybe 10 years ago or so,” Yankovic tells me. “For the first couple decades of my career, I think people just kept waiting for me to go away. Like ‘Oh, Weird Al, he’s back. Aren’t his 15 minutes up yet?’ Just waiting for me to leave. Now that I’ve passed a certain mark, I think the nostalgia factor has kicked in. Like ‘Oh, I grew up with Weird Al’ or ‘he defined my childhood,’ or whatever people are saying. Now I’ve become such a part of their lives that a lot of my stuff gets looked on more fondly, I think.”
In true Weird Al style, he’s turned this phenomenon on its head with a stripped-down tour that features sets filled with his original songs—some of which he’s never played at shows before—and a few parodies, billing the whole thing as the “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour.” The very funny promos for the tour promise “No costumes! No props! No video screens! Performing a bunch of obscure songs you barely remember. Nobody thought this was a good idea. But he’s doing it anyway.”
In reality, however, the idea for the tour came not out of self-indulgence, but from the realization that he has been playing his parody-heavy sets, dominated by stage design and costumes that often recreate the look of his music videos, for decades now.
“I knew that the parodies were sort of the main draw, so I would always give the people what they want and do an audience-pleasing show. But it occurred to me that I’ve been doing that for 30 years, and the shows have been getting bigger and bigger, and the audiences have been getting bigger and bigger,” says Yankovic. “And I thought ‘you know, we just need a change of pace for the band’s mental health. We just wanted to do one tour where we go the opposite direction and do a very scaled-down tour without any of the theatrics, and just go out there as musicians and do the songs. And not even do the hits—just do songs that the hardcore fans would be familiar with, stuff we’ve never done live before.”
He emphasizes that this is not some kind of new direction for his music. “We wanted to do a possibly once-in-a-lifetime thing where we’re doing these deep cuts and doing it in a very intimate setting,” he says.
Weird Al Yankovic performs Thursday, May 17, at 8 p.m. at the Golden State Theatre in Monterey. For more info and to buy tickets, go to weirdal.com.