Let’s travel back to the summer of 1989. I’m 15 years old and have just put two large movie posters on my wall: One for Tim Burton’s game-changing take on “Batman,” starring Michael Keaton, and the other for “UHF,” the theatrical comedy debut for the one and only “Weird Al” Yankovic.
It’s now 2023. Keaton is back as Batman in next month’s “The Flash.” And Weird Al (always Weird Al, not just Al Yankovic!) is the front-runner for this year’s TV movie Emmy, thanks to the Roku Channel parody biopic “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.”
“1989 is back again! It’s all cyclical,” Yankovic says in his signature cheery, upbeat tone. Tell my 15-year-old self that one day he’ll be recording a podcast with Weird Al, and first he’d say, “what’s a podcast?” But after explaining that it’s essentially a radio show, my 15-year-old self would lose his mind. And ask about 2023’s flying cars. Sorry kid.
But back to Al. This is a guy who has now spent five decades in the limelight — far longer than many of the artists he has parodied over the years. “Nobody wanted to sign me in the early ‘80s,” he says. “They thought, ‘comedy music, you’re a novelty artist.’ And historically, novelty artists become one-hit wonders, and then they’re forgotten quickly. So yeah, that’s kind of the big irony of my life is, I’m still here.”
Weird Al is so timeless that he has managed to play the 1980s version of himself on shows like “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Goldbergs,” and get away with it. In “Weird,” Daniel Radcliffe plays Al — but Yankovic is there too, appearing as record company exec Tony Scotti (the guy who first gave Weird Al his record deal).
Yankovic has earned five Grammy awards and sold more than 12 million albums. Some of that is in “Weird,” which he wrote with Eric Appel. But make no mistake, this is by no means an actual biopic. Of course the master of parody would ultimately make a parody of biopics: Despite what you see on screen, Weird Al didn’t have a torrid love affair with Madonna (played by Evan Rachel Wood). He didn’t become a drug kingpin. And Dr. Demento (played by Rainn Wilson) never laced Al’s guacamole with LSD.
“It brought me so much joy to see that was the number one Google search, ‘Did Weird Al and Madonna have a fling?’ or whatever. I don’t know if Madonna is even aware of this movie,” he says. “I’m very curious what she thinks… I hope she’s OK with it.”
Weird Al famously always got permission from artists before parodying their songs — which is why he never got to do his take on anything from Prince’s catalog. But when it came to the movie, “our lawyers said, ‘don’t worry about it.’ Public figure.”
Apparently, a number of viewers who have taken “Weird” as a true chronicle of his life, despite the sheer absurdity of where the story ends up going. “I’ve learned about the Internet and the general population, no matter how ironic and obviously insincere you’re being, somebody’s going to believe it,” he chuckles.
Or maybe just want to believe it. In my youth, I used to live for the moments when Weird Al would show up on MTV, under the illusion that he had hacked into the network to broadcast his own “AL TV.” I knew it was a marketing stunt, but I loved the audacity of the idea that Al had barged into the studios to play novelty music videos and fake, doctored interviews with celebrities.
“They basically gave me the keys to the car,” he remembers. “They’d say, ‘Hey, you’ve got four hours, do whatever you want.’ Literally! They didn’t give me any money, but they gave me complete freedom, which was amazing.”
Take it from me: The 1980s were a weird time. Thankfully, at least one icon from that era still is: The forever weird Al Yankovic.
A few other tidbits from our chat with Weird Al:
- Don’t expect a new album anytime soon. “I signed a record deal in 1982 for 10 albums, and then I renegotiated twice, and it became a 14-album contract, which I finally fulfilled in 2014,” he says. “I just don’t want to sign under the contract. I like being a free agent and doing whatever I need to do or want to do. I’m more into one off-stuff now. Because when you do an album, if you’re doing my kind of material, it’s hard to have 12 songs ready to go all at once and have them all be topical and timely. I like having the freedom of being able to just put out material whenever I feel like it. Granted, I haven’t done a lot of that since 2014.”
- Weird Al knows there are petitions to get him to perform the Super Bowl halftime show. But he doesn’t think he’ll ever be on the NFL shortlist. “I’m just being real here. I just don’t see it ever happening. Maybe the Foo Fighters will do it and have me on as a special guest… That’s that kind of stage scares me for a number of reasons. One of which is, no matter who you are, when you’re put in front of that many eyeballs, you’re going to have a lot of haters. And I know I don’t like being hated.”
- It was the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” that inspired him to do “Weird.” “Biopics historically have always been pretty inaccurate, and that always kind of bugged me,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why I decided to reach out to Eric Appel to write the screenplay. I’m a big Queen fan, and I liked the movie and it won awards and was very popular. But it bothered me that there were so many artistic liberties taken, just flat out changing the facts, changing the chronology, just making it more quote unquote, cinematic, and I thought, ‘Okay, well, maybe I can do a biopic but just like, just throw facts out the window. Just go completely off the rails.’”
- Weird Al knows his parents, who died in 2004, would “have gotten a huge kick out” of the movie, even though it shows them as jokingly disapproving of his music. “They would have gotten that it’s a joke. They know me. My parents were very loving and very supportive, and that’s not the kind of dynamic who ever see in a rock music biopic. It’s just not one of the tropes. So we had to make it so that the whole arc of the movie is I’m trying to get my my father’s love. Because he hates parody music, he hates accordions, he hates everything about who I’m trying to be. The overreaching theme of the movie is like, I’m famous, I’ve ostensibly got everything I could possibly want, except for the love of my parents. So that that had to be what we were going for.”
(Also in this episode, on the Awards Circuit roundtable, we talk about the crazy end of May TV pileup this weekend, which includes the series finales of “Succession” and “Barry.”)
Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, produced by Michael Schneider, is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post weekly.