A Perfect Storm of Al: “Weird Al” Yankovic on His New Graphic NovelMain photo by Getty. All other images courtesy of Z2 Comics. Preview Pages by Peter Bagge. Comedy Features Weird Al
Is there anybody in the world of pop culture as universally beloved as “Weird Al” Yankovic? Comedians revere him, musicians long to be parodied by him, and anybody who’s been a kid in the last 40 years has probably loved at least one of his songs. The key to Yankovic’s appeal is manifold: his note-perfect recreations of chart-topping pop songs draw you in, but he wouldn’t have lasted so long if his lyrics weren’t genuinely hilarious. He has the skewed, fundamentally silly comic voice of MAD Magazine’s Usual Gang of Idiots, complete with momentary bits of violence and mayhem to playfully darken the mood. And his original compositions and “style parodies”—songs where he apes a band’s distinct style without parodying any specific song by them—give his albums a depth that most novelty acts and song parodists lack. (Those are uniformly the most popular songs among hardcore Al fans.) On top of it all Yankovic has always seemed like a fundamentally good person, friendly and decent and with little trace of the kind of cynicism that came to dominate pop culture and comedy over the last few decades. Styles, trends, and opinions change, but “Weird Al” has always been “Weird Al,” even when he ditched his trademark Afro and mustache in the ‘90s, and that longevity and consistency have made him not just an elder statesman of a sort, but about as dependable as any artist ever. Whether you pick up his very first album from 1983, or his most recent one from 2014, you know exactly what you’ll get from “Weird Al,” and people love him for that.
2023 marks the 40th anniversary of Yankovic’s first album, and maybe that’s why he’s looked back on his career in a couple of recent projects. In November the deeply silly, heavily fictional biopic Weird debuted on The Roku Channel, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Al himself. (If you like “Weird Al”’s music or his 1989 film UHF, it’s obviously a must-watch.) And earlier this month Z2 Comics released The Illustrated Al: The Songs of “Weird Al” Yankovic, a graphic novel anthology featuring over 20 short stories based on some of Yankovic’s most popular songs, from such artists as Peter Bagge, Bill Plympton, Mike Kupperman, and more. It’s like an underground comics tribute to Yankovic’s career, or an extra-sized issue of MAD devoted solely to the musical works of one man, and if you like Al, you’ll love it.
Paste recently talked to “Weird Al” Yankovic and Z2 Comics president Josh Bernstein about The Illustrated Al. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and space.
Paste: So who came up with the idea for the graphic novel?
Josh Bernstein: I would say it’s sort of a hybrid. We approached Al about doing a graphic novel… you know, we tend to not ever want to push ideas upon people, especially someone who is as talented as the artists we work with. Someone like Al, you know, his fingerprints are all over his work. So we picked some general ideas and directions and talked to Al over the course of some time, and he came back with some really fun ideas, including using his lyrics as the basis for these song chapters. And once that happened, we started pairing them with some of the greatest living cartoonists. The magic started coming together and it was just very serendipitous that it was in a year that Al decided to tour relentlessly, put out a movie, do a book, and I guess clone himself. There’s a great expression: “if you want something done, give it to a busy person,” and we found the world’s busiest man and put more on his plate. And that’s what happened.
Paste: So Al, obviously you wrote all the lyrics to the songs in the book. Beyond that how much input did you have into its creation?
“Weird Al” Yankovic: I was very involved in picking the artists. Certain artists were old friends of mine or people that I’d worked with before; Bill Plympton had done a couple of music videos for me. Aaron Augenblick did a video as well as the animated sequence in my movie. Wes Hargis did my children’s books, Felipe Sobreiro illustrated some of Nathan Rabin’s books about me. And I hadn’t really worked with Ruben Bolling or Michael Kupperman before, but they were friends that I knew I could reach out to. And most of the others were people that Josh and Z2 suggested to me. They gave me a long list of artists and illustrators that they thought would be appropriate, and gave me links to look at samples of their work. And based on that, we reached out to the rest of the people. I was amazed by the quality of the people that we got to be involved in this. I mean, really, some couple dozen of the best illustrators in the world, I could not be happier.
Paste: Did you collaborate with them on their ideas for the visuals? Or did they freedom to do what they wanted?
“Weird Al”: Not so much. I didn’t really give—the only notes I gave them were to make sure that they got the lyric , right. Because I think some of them got the lyrics off of Google, and they weren’t 100% accurate. I just wanted to correct them on that, but in terms of their vision, or their interpretation, I wanted to be as hands off as possible and let them be artists. And I was very happy with it and them interpreting things in a way that I would not have thought of myself.
Bernstein: I think Al’s a bit underselling it. One of the beauties of this project was sort of the curation; we submitted some ideas and artists to him and he had some great artists that he’d worked with in the past. There’s sort of a dream team; it was like, “here’s the greatest living artists that we could find, what if we actually went after all of them?” And you know, most people would stop there, but Al was like, “man, like, this guy’s style would really pair with this song.” Like a quick little love song or a parody of, you know, a doowop song. [Different songs] really required a different type of artist that can handle that kind of, you know, sequential debauchery, so to speak. Like I said, we’ve worked with a lot of artists and musicians and some are more involved than others. Some, you know, it’s nice to meet them and then they’re on their way. But this is all Al-approved. And that part of it was really cool to see because most people are not that hands on and his instincts were correct. With some of these pairings I’m like, “Okay, let’s see what happens.” And the results were really magical, as you see in the book.
Paste: Were the artists assigned songs? Or did they have something of a choice on which ones they would draw?
Bernstein: It was like 3D chess the way we did it. We would ask an artist, “okay, like, hey, Al has a lot of original music; of those, what are your three favorites?” So you know if they got any of those three, they probably wouldn’t be disappointed, right? But then we pre-arranged the cheat sheet that Al could then be like—you don’t want to say like, “No, you’re gonna draw this one, you’ll like it,” you know. Just eat it. You don’t want to treat them that way; you want them to be excited about it, too. So again, it was a very deft navigation of curation there that paired everybody, and everyone was excited with the results. And honored—I can’t tell you how many emails are like, “Oh, Al liked my work? He saw my portfolio?!?” So, you know, there’s a lot of that going on. Like I said, Al, you did a mitzvah, you made a lot of people happy.
Paste: Al, how’s it feel when you open up this book, and you see like two dozen different versions of you running around, acting out your songs?
“Weird Al”: It’s amazing. It’s a bit surrealistic, it’s an out of body experience, in a way. I mean, I’m very honored that all of these amazing illustrators took a shot at my lyrics. And yeah, it’s fun to see, like, you know, two dozen different versions of me, because I kind of put on characters when I write these lyrics. I’m certainly not writing any kind of autobiographical songs per se. So every song I kind of take on a character and it’s fun to see artists’ interpretations of each one of those characters.
Bernstein: With Al there was never any coming back with—I’m not going to name any names, but there are [musicians] we’ve worked with where the art looks just like them, and they’re like, “that’s the problem. Like, can you knock off 10 years?” You know, people think they’re getting to be a comic form, you know, they should look like He Man. And you know, Al’s made a career of being fat or being a surgeon or being a caveman or Kurt Cobain or white and nerdy. So like, with Al, there was no vanity about it.
“Weird Al”: It’s a vanity project, but not in that sense.
Paste: One thing that really struck me about the book, especially with, like, “Nature Trail to Hell” and “The Night Santa Went Crazy,” even when your lyrics are violent, the songs are still so silly that it doesn’t really register as being that violent. They’re goofy, and not gross or scary. But then when you see those lyrics drawn out like this, it can get pretty grisly and dark and bloody. What’s it like seeing your more violent lyrics turned into something so visceral like that?
“Weird Al”: Yeah. And that’s been brought up before, you know, a lot of my material is very, very dark and violent, which, you know, it didn’t occur to me until this tour, where I’m playing all these songs live on stage. And it really even hammers the point home more when you see it done graphically. I mean, it’s one thing to hear the lyrics and another thing to actually see the things I’m talking about, especially removed from the music because there are some songs which are very dark but have very lighthearted music, like “Trigger Happy” is like this, you know, Beach Boys, Jan and Dean surf rock kind of thing, very upbeat and happy talking about something very deadly and violent. And when you see those lyrics removed from the music and shown graphically, it’s pretty powerful.
Paste: Speaking of that silliness, there’s sort of this grand tradition of silliness in comedy that goes, you know, from like Looney Tunes and cartoons, to MAD Magazine, to like the Zucker Abraham Zucker movies, to you, and then to, I don’t know, The Simpsons. It seems like the last couple of decades, though, that kind of silliness has taken a backseat to stuff that’s more cynical or absurd, like South Park or Adult Swim. Do you think there’s enough silliness in the world today?
“Weird Al”: Well, I’m doing my part! Yeah, in terms of movies, certainly we don’t see as many things like that. Before there was sort of an era where spoof movies were very popular. And you don’t see a whole lot of that. I mean, people and a lot of critics have responded to Weird: The Al Yankovic Story as almost being a throwback to when movies were funny. Because there aren’t that many movies like that anymore. Whereas there used to be quite a few. So I’d like to, you know, it would be very gratifying if that movie maybe ushered in a new era of comedy in motion pictures.
Paste: That’d be nice. Other than you, who do you think is keeping that silly tradition alive today? Who are some comedians that you like today?
“Weird Al”: Um, well, the Lonely Island are friends of mine. And you know, two thirds of them are in the movie, and I love their music and their movies. So they’re certainly keeping the tradition alive. Jack Black and Tenacious D do the same thing. So I know there are a lot of people, you know, that are not letting the flame die out.
Paste: Yeah. So Weird came out a couple of months ago. Now you’ve got the graphic novel. Why all the introspection lately?
“Weird Al”: That’s just sort of the way turned out? I mean, I don’t think it was that calculated. All these things just kind of came together at the same time. Sort of a perfect storm of Al. I mean, I think maybe that’s one of the reasons why my manager approached Josh about having the book come out when it did, because the movie was coming out. And it’s always nice when several things are happening at the same time, because then there’s this impression that, like, Al’s back!, or like, this is the year of Al!, so I think maybe he masterminded that a little bit. He wanted a lot of things to be happening at the same time, and they did.
Bernstein: You know, one of the first times I ever met Al was an interview about 15 years ago for a zine. And he said this comment, I remember in the interview, that goes, “every two years, I have the greatest comeback in my career. And like, and I’ve been having comebacks since 1983.” It’s just like an album cycle, you know, but it’s so funny because he hasn’t gone anywhere.
Paste: So Al, with all this introspection lately, looking back on your life, your career, what accomplishment are you proudest about?
“Weird Al”: Wow. It’s nice that I’ve just even been able to make a living, you know, doing specifically the thing that I love to do. I never in my life dreamed that I be in showbiz. I mean, I went to college, I got a degree in architecture. I thought I’d grow up and be an adult and have a real job. And the fact that I get to do this crazy stuff… I love comedy. I love music. I get to do both. I have fans that are interested in what I do. I mean, I guess having a number one album was something that I could look at as maybe a high point because that was one of the things that I never dreamed of because nobody ever has debuted on the Billboard charts at number one with a comedy album. That literally never happened before. So if I had to pick one moment, maybe that. But I mean, I’ve had so many moments that I wish I could go back and tell 12 year old me about that he wouldn’t have believed.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.