With a career spanning five decades and one that encompasses music, film, television, live shows, and the occasional podcast, “Weird Al” Yankovic has the very definition of a storied history. The performer has 14 albums under his belt — four of which went gold, six went platinum — and has amassed four Grammy Awards and several generations of diehard fans. We were curious about some of the stories “Weird Al” had behind a few of his hit singles, so we asked for a tiny glimpse at the making of these beloved tunes.
In celebration of his triumphant first season as Comedy Bang! Bang!‘s new bandleader, here’s the story behind five “Weird Al” songs as told by the singer himself. (Click here to read Al’s thoughts on joining Comedy Bang! Bang!, his new tour and more.)
1. “My Bologna”
Weird Al: I did [“My Bologna”] when I was 19 years old. I was going into my senior year in college at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. I was doing a summer shift at the college campus radio station, and The Knack was huge that summer — “My Sharona” being by far the most requested song at the radio station. And I just had the most obvious, stupid idea for a parody: “My Bologna.” So I brought my accordion into the bathroom across the hall because the tiled walls gave off a nice reverb sound. And I recorded “My Bologna,” sent it to Dr. Demento, and he played it on his radio show in Los Angeles where it became a hit. In fact, I got a postcard from him saying “My Bologna” was number one on the “Funny Five” for two weeks in a row. And I couldn’t believe it. [Laughs] I thought to myself, “Well, it’s never gonna get any better than this.”
IFC: Did you shoot a music video for “My Bologna”?
Weird Al: Well, it’d be generous to call it a music video. A friend of mine Randy Kerdoon, who was also a DJ at the radio station, had to do a video as part of his senior project. We shot it at a nearby community college, and it was a no-budget shoot. It was me pretending to play the accordion and singing. But it was recorded! It exists! [Laughs] And it wound up being an Easter egg on one of my DVDs.
2. “Eat It”
Weird Al: “Eat It” was my first really big hit. I had a couple minor hits before then, “Another One Rides the Bus” and “Ricky,” but “Eat It” kinda turned me into a household name as a known character, I guess. Before that, nobody would’ve recognized me on the street. But after I did “Eat It,” it went into heavy rotation on MTV and got played six times a day. I became a literal overnight celebrity, and all of a sudden, my anonymity was gone. I’d be in line at a fast food restaurant and somebody would say, “Hey! There’s the ‘Eat It’ Guy!” So that was very dramatic and odd. [Laughs]
IFC: Did you use the original set from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video?
Weird Al: No, that didn’t really exist anymore. We tried to find out where they shot the original stuff, but those sets were gone and the locations looked completely different. So we basically did everything from scratch. We recreated the pool hall and the outdoor scenes on a soundstage in LA very, very quickly. I’m surprised we were able to finish the video. It was a very haphazard shoot. [Laughs] But it all came together. And that video, more than anything else in my career, had an enormous effect.
3. “Smells Like Nirvana”
Weird Al: I think we actually shot that on the same soundstage as Nirvana shot [“Smells Like Teen Spirit”]. It wasn’t an actual basketball court, of course. We got the same janitor, a bunch of the same cheerleaders, and some of the same audience members. We were driving more for authenticity on this one, so we got a lot of the same characters. I could be wrong, but I think it was all done in one day — one very long shoot — which is crazy. We didn’t know that we were going to get [Eight is Enough star] Dick Van Patten, but we knew we needed some random celebrity. So we went down the list to see who we could get, and somebody said, “Hey, I have a friend who knows Dick Van Patten.” We said, “Perfect!” And he showed up and he killed it.
4. “Amish Paradise”
Weird Al: Pretty sure that was a two-day shoot. That was a pretty complicated shoot because we wanted to shoot in Lancaster — again, for authenticity — but we found out very quickly that we couldn’t transport everybody across the country to go to Pennsylvania. So we had to shoot that in Southern California. And Lancaster’s very flat, and where we shot was very hilly. So we had to camouflage that there were hills everywhere. [Laughs] I got a lot of my family members in the video to play Amish people.
There’s a set piece at the end where we filmed an entire shot backwards, and I had to learn the chorus phonetically backwards, which was a real challenge. Of course, Florence Henderson’s there because, you know, when Michelle Pfeiffer can’t be in the video, Florence Henderson’s always available. [Laughs] She was amazing, and again it was a lot of fun. I think that was around the time that MTV stopped playing music videos. And it was a very popular video, but it was moot because MTV was just starting to say, “Yeah, we’re not so much a music video channel anymore.” [Laughs]
5. “Word Crimes”
Weird Al: That was basically a lyrics video done with kinetic typography, and I’m a big fan of that style of animation. And I was looking online to try to figure out who I wanted to actually do it, talent scouting on the Internet. [Laughs] And I saw a Jonathan Coulton video called “Shop Vac,” which was done by Jarrett Heather.
I saw in [Jarrett’s] work a sense of humor and a consummate level of skill, and I just liked his timing and the fact that he knew how to work with comedy. But I had checked all of his social media, and it was like he dropped off the face of the earth. His Twitter account had been inactive for a couple of years, and I thought, “Did this guy die?” [Laughs] So I emailed Jonathan Coulton and I tracked Jarrett down. He was working at his day job and just hadn’t been doing too much of that kind of work in his free time. And I said, “Hey, I really love the ‘Shop Vac’ video. Would you be interested in doing a video for my new album?” And he was thrilled and he did an amazing job. He spent over 500 hours working on the “Word Crimes” video, just basically him and his laptop. And he would go back and forth with me — I’d be giving him notes and he’d come back with these amazing ideas. And it was the song that ended up being the Top 40 single on the album, putting me in rare company of being one of three artists to have a Top 40 single in each of the last four decades.
Watch a clip of Weird Al’s diabolical twin from this week’s brand new Comedy Bang! Bang!.