Interview: Weird Al Talks Music, Kids’ Books, Being a Dad

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Weird Al author photoWeird Al author photo

Even Weird Al's author photo is interactive in the iPad app.

Below is a transcription of segments of the interview. You can listen to an MP3 of the entire interview (about 23 minutes), or use the embedded player by clicking the tab on the left). The audio version has a few more questions and answers, more about Al’s music, and a lot of starstruck nervous chuckling by yours truly.

Wired.com: Do you write music with your 8-year-old daughter in mind? Does being a parent change anything about how you approach songwriting?

“Weird Al” Yankovic: Frankly, the answer is no. I’ve always approached my music the same way. From the beginning my stuff has always been family friendly. It’s not squeaky clean — I get a little sick and twisted from time to time — but there’s nothing blatantly obscene or vulgar. So a lot of families can enjoy it together. When I go to my live shows it’s often a multigenerational audience, a family bonding experience. So when I got married and became a family man, it’s been kind of business as usual.

Wired.com: Does your daughter listen to your music too?

Yankovic: Yeah, she was sort of the focus group for the new album. She and my wife would listen to the new album in the car as she was getting driven to school, and she had her favorite songs and she would sing along with “Party in the CIA” and “TMZ.” By the time the album actually came out it was like a Golden Oldie to her.

Wired.com: Some of the songs that you parody are ones that I wouldn’t let my young kids listen to, but I’d let them listen to your parodies. Is your daughter familiar with the originals of the songs you parody?

Yankovic: I don’t think so. Sometimes she listens to Top 40 radio when she’s in the car with me. I have to listen to that sometimes — it’s part of my job — but I’m not sure how many of the original songs she’s familiar with. It’s an interesting phenomenon because for a lot of people they know my parody and aren’t even familiar with the original song it’s based on. So that’s why one of my rules of parody writing is that it’s gotta be funny regardless of whether you know the source material. It has to work on its own merit.

Wired.com: Aren’t you breaking some sort of important law of nature by being cool to us and our kids? My kids are going to think my music is lame, but you’ve got something going where my kids are going to love your music, and I’m going to love your music, and that’s a weird situation. Aren’t my kids supposed to hate my music?

Yankovic: I’m not sure how that works exactly. Whenever I do a parody it’s not meant to make you hate anybody’s music really. Like I said, some people call it a family bonding experience because sometimes my music is the only thing the generations can all agree on during family car trips.

Wired.com: About your book, When I Grow Up, what inspired you to write it? Was it having a child, reading a lot of picture books to her, or was it something you’ve always wanted to do?

Yankovic: It’s both. I did have a child, and I was reading a lot of picture books to her, but at the same time writing a children’s book was something that I’d been wanting to do for many years, pretty much since the start of my career. Admittedly I wasn’t very proactive about it, but I always thought I’d be adept at writing children’s literature. I’m a big fan of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. I just thought it’d be a lot of fun. It wasn’t really until I was approached by Anne Hoppe from HarperCollins a few years ago — she was a fan of my work and thought there was a lot of interesting wordplay in my song lyrics, and she thought I would be good at writing a children’s book. So she made the very generous offer that if I ever wanted to go down that path, she would facilitate its publication. When she made that offer I was in the middle of a tour, and I had a lot of other things going on so I couldn’t really wrap my head around it. About a year and a half later, I finally e-mailed her back and said, yeah, I’d like to do this and here’s several ideas. We immediately sparked on one of those ideas called When I Grow Up, and she had me write that book and it was a great experience. I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical, but it’s certainly informed by personal experience. Hopefully it’s empowering to kids who are trying to figure out what they might wanna be doing later in life, just to make them aware there’s a universe of options out there.

Wired.com: Did you have a different approach to writing the book versus writing a song?

Yankovic: You know, it’s amazingly similar. I try not to “write down” to my audience. Even when I was doing my The Weird Al Show, aimed ostensibly at very young kids, I tried not to make it too geared toward kids. I always try to just write what I think is funny and hope that other people will also think it’s funny. So when I wrote the book I picked a subject matter that I thought would be appealing to kids, but once I was locked into that I basically wrote it like I write anything else. I just try to make it whimsical and funny and something that I would enjoy reading as an adult. In fact, the vocabulary in there is probably a little beyond what small children would know. There’s references to “haute cuisine” … My theory is always that if kids don’t understand something then they can ask whoever’s reading the book to them, and that starts a whole dialogue and that’s part of the learning experience. So I was always aware that I was writing a book for young children, but at the same time I wanted to make sure it carried my comedic sensibility and I wasn’t ever talking down to anybody.

Wired.com: GeekDad Jim MacQuarrie mentioned that a few years ago he tried to connect you with Gail Simone about getting you into a comic. Is there anything happening with that?

Yankovic: I was totally up for it. I think I saw Gail tweet about that, that it was something that she wanted to do, but I forget exactly what happened. For what it’s worth, I’m still open to it. If that’s still an option, I’d love to do it.

Wired.com: Ok, we’ll start a GeekDad campaign to get you into a comic book. I think that’d be great. Next, great geek debate topics: Star Wars or Star Trek?

Yankovic: Well, Star Wars. I’ve written Star Wars songs so that’s where my allegiance has to be.

Wired.com: In “White and Nerdy” you do mention the other one: Kirk or Picard?

Yankovic: You know, I’ve remained mum on that subject forever so I cannot give you that answer.

Wired.com: Ok, you can tell me afterwards. DC or Marvel?

Yankovic: Oh, these are all good questions, and I don’t have any pat answers. Uhhh, generally Marvel but … it’s not black or white here, you know?

Wired.com: That’s kind of the point. We give you two things you can’t really pick between and force you to pick one. That’s part of the fun.

Yankovic: This is torturous!

Wired.com: As a parent, what are the things that you’re excited about exposing your daughter to? What are the interests that you as a dad are excited about sharing with your daughter?

Yankovic: Well, there are a lot of things that I enjoyed growing up that I’m exposing her to and it’s really cool to see her taking to them. Like recently she walked in on me when I was watching the animated MAD TV show on the Cartoon Network. She said, “What’s this?” And I said, “Oh, it’s based on MAD Magazine. I was a big fan of it when I was a kid.” She started watching it and now she’s into MAD. She’s been reading my old issues of MAD, and she was all excited when a big ad for my album was on the new issue. So I thought it was really cool that my daughter is now into MAD Magazine. And I got her into Star Wars early on. To this day, I think she’s still pretty excited when the Stormtroopers come out on stage during my live show. So there’s little pop culture things like that that I get tickled by, that I get to pass on my love for certain things to my daughter.

Wired.com: Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you’d stuck with architecture, or any of your other career choices?

Yankovic: It’s kind of a scary thought, because I can’t imagine anything in the world I’d rather be doing than the specific thing I’m doing right now. I got very, very lucky and I feel honored and blessed to make a living doing music and comedy which are my two greatest passions. I’d like to think that even if I’d wound up as an architect that I’d be happy in life and be fulfilled, but I can’t imagine anything cooler than being “Weird Al.”

UPDATE: Gail Simone with a multipart tweet (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) about the comic book situation:

Here is what happened…I am a huge Al Yankovic fan, like all decent humans, and through a mutual friend (Jim MacQuarrie), I was able to ask if Al would be willing to appear in a Wonder Woman comic. I love those crazy old comics where Don Rickles or the SNL cast would show up. Al and his manager could not have been nicer and thought it would be big fun and agreed but I was moved to less appropriate books for such a cameo, sadly. However, now, if Al is still up for it, I have a very funny idea for a story he would be perfect for. Comics need Al Yankovic!

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