I’ve made no secret over the years about my love for “Weird” Al Yankovic. Well, thanks to the internet, I have found out that I’m far from the only fan out there. Nathan Rabin, head writer for the Onion’s AV Club, is another big fan. But now, he’s also a collaborator. Nathan was selected by the man himself to help write Weird Al: The Book.
We’ve been lucky enough to score Nathan’s first interview about the book, which will hit stores on October 1st. (I’d like to think our past relationship led him to select SCP specifically, but I think I probably just emailed him first.) We talk about Weird Al’s music, his influence on pop culture and how many of his songs are included on the Ipod playlist of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
SCP: This book is a career retrospective, not a straight biography. Why go with this format? Is a straight biography or autobiography of Weird Al something that we may ever see?
NR: For the definitive answer to that question and many others, you’d have to ask Al himself. When I was brought into this project the format had already been established: it would be a coffee table book driven by images but with 15,000 words or so of straight biography. I think the coffee table format is uniquely suited to Al’s career and aesthetic because he’s such an extraordinarily visual artist. Sweet blessed Lord does that man have a ferocious decades-long love affair with the camera. It loves him and he loves it right back. The other upside to making this a coffee table book is that because Al is so plugged into the times the book doubles as a funhouse mirror of the past three and a half decades of pop culture as filtered through Al. As for a straight biography or autobiography, you’d once again have to ask Al for the definitive answer. Al is a very cautious man so my hunch is that we’re not going to see a full-scale biography or autobiography any time soon but I am human and consequently am wrong much, if not most, of the time, as my subsequent answers will no doubt betray.
SCP: How did you end up working on the book? Where does this rate among your career accomplishments so far?
NR: Al contacted me himself via Twitter and said that of all the writers in the world he had chosen me to tell his story. I jumped up and down and did an ecstatic jig and ran around my neighborhood in a state of delirious joy. I really felt as if my life had changed. So getting to work on a book with my childhood hero definitely ranks high among my career accomplishments. Sometimes when I’m feeling insecure or down or anxious I’ll remember that I’ve collaborated with an american icon and that fills me with a sense of pride.
SCP: What’s Al Yankovic’s favorite Weird Al song? What is Nathan Rabin’s favorite Weird Al song? What is Lady Gaga’s favorite Weird Al song? What is former Senate majority leader George Mitchell’s favorite Weird Al song?
NR: Again, I am unqualified to speak for Al or Lady Gaga or George Mitchell. I’m barely qualified to speak for Nathan Rabin but I am going to guess that his favorite Al songs include “Why Does This Always Happen To Me”, “Frank’s 2000 Inch TV” and “One More Minute.” I tend to like the originals more than the parodies and those songs are all lovely in their own right (they really are; Al has written some very sweet, elegant melodies) but also convey a distinct satirical depth: “Why Does This Always Happen To Me” is especially scathing and viciously funny in its depiction of noxious self-absorption and ugly, toxic narcissism.
SCP: Speaking of Ms. Gaga.. she was at the center of Weird Al’s most recent controversy. Can you explain what happened there? Other musicians, like Kurt Cobain and Coolio, have reacted to being parodied in very different ways (Cobain loved it, Coolio… no so much.) Those are the most famous stories. Are there others?
NR: We may never know exactly what happened but my sense is that Lady Gaga’s manager turned down Al’s request to parody “Born This Way” without telling Gaga, thinking he was doing her a favor. That seems transparently very silly and apparently when Gaga actually discovered what her management had done on her behalf she reversed it instantly. She’s a fan of Al, which makes a lot of sense. As I write in the book, he’s one of the only entertainers in the world who might actually go through more costume changes per show than Gaga herself.
SCP: You are famous for writing the AV Club’s My Year of Flops, so you know from unknown and under appreciated movies. UHF: Go.
NR: I couldn’t really say UHF is unknown or under-appreciated at this point. It’s a huge cult film with a large and devoted following that I’m sure has made someone a nice chunk of change at this point. My colleague and cubicle-mate Scott Tobias did a great write-up of UHF for his New Cult Canon column that I very highly recommend.
SCP: It seems like Weird Al has been going through something of a career renaissance (appearances on the WTF and Sklarboro Country podcasts, a Comedy Central Special, this book.) I think that probably has a lot to do with the fact that people like me, who grew up listening to his music, have finally reached a point where they are dictating the tone of the pop culture conversation. Am I right? Am I over thinking it? Is Alf next?
NR: I think Al has always been incredibly savvy and ahead of the curve when it comes to pop culture. He is a quintessential early adapter; he was one of the first big celebrity fans of The Onion back when it was still a pretty small, local, underground thing and I know he was a big Mr. Show guy before that was cool as well so it makes sense that he’s been very plugged into the whole comedy podcasting movement. I think you’re definitely right in that a lot of people in our generation grew up on Al and never lost affection for him. They’ve carried that love for him wherever they go. A good case in point is Jimmy Fallon. Like myself and many other folks, Al was Fallon’s first concert so when he got his own talk show he made sure to have him on as a guest. Al’s career really is a marvel: he was never supposed to last beyond a single silly song yet three and a half decades later he’s become an American institution. He’s done it through a formidable combination of guile, resilience, determination and talent.
SCP: I think Weird Al should host Saturday Night Live. Can you help me get an internet campaign going to make that happen?
NR: Yeah, sorry, no, you’re on your own on that one. Good luck, though! I’m rooting for you.
SCP: In his own recent Comedy Central special, comedian Paul F. Tompkins talked about meeting Weird Al and, as a joke, referring to him as “Weird” instead of “Al.” Please tell me you did that at least once.
NR: It took a long time for me to not feel like a phony or a name dropper referring to him as “Al” instead of “Weird Al” or Mr. Yankovic but I feel like I’ve earned that at this point. Perhaps in a few years I will feel comfortable calling him Weird.
|Paul F. Tompkins – Right of Complaint Pt. 1|
SCP: My friend, Izzy, recently bought me a pack of Weird Al trading cards. I’ll give you an “I Lost on Jeopardy” and a “Weird Al in Concert: Yoda,” for an “Eat It.”
NR: I’d like to think that if the “Weird Al” trading cards studied hard, graduated valedictorian, went to a good college, met a nice girl, got married and really applied themselves, they would become Weird Al: The Book when they grew up. That’s not a bad thing to be, and I say that as an impartial third party observer. Now I can finally tell you what Al really thinks and, oh, it looks like I’ve run out of time. Sorry about that.