Cult animated classic Transformers The Movie is thirty years old this week. One of its most memorable contributors "Weird Al” Yankovic, has made a career out of his comedy star turns; from brief cameos in The Naked Gun to his own UHF, as well as his lampooning parody songs. Published for the first time in full, we caught up with the comic genius during his 2015 'Mandatory' Tour, to talk about his involvement in the film, as well as his career to date. Daring to be stupid: Eamon O'Neill.
Hi Al, how are you today?
I’m very well thanks. We’re getting near the very end of the tour. We’ve been on the road for five months, and we just have tonight’s show and then Glasgow on Friday and then that’s it. For as long as we’ve been out, I’m kind of sad for it to be over.
How have you been enjoying the European leg of the ‘Mandatory’ tour?
The crowds have been great. We’re playing a lot of ‘rock’ shows. London is the only show on this leg of the tour where there was a seated theatre crowd, and those are great and I love doing those, but I really do enjoy the rock shows where people are standing up and dancing and really getting into the music. Those are always a lot of fun.
Is a Weird Al show a good way to spend the last night on Earth?
*laughing* Oh that would be my pick, sure. I’d go for that. And for everyone at the show? It might be the last show that they ever see, so I hope they like it.
The tour has been dubbed “the greatest musical spectacle ever seen”.
Really? Did I say that? *laughing*I dunno, it might have been. It’s a pretty nice spectacle. It is a very theatrical show; it’s a highly produced rock and comedy show, and we try to just cram as much entertainment as we possibly can into two hours.
You’ve said that your current album ‘Manditory Fun’ is likely be your last. After achieving a Number 1 album in the Billboard charts might you change your mind?
Well, it did give me second thought, but I do feel that because of the type of comedy that I do, it’s better for me to get my material out as soon as possible. If I come up with a very topical idea, I don’t want to feel hamstrung and not put it out because I need eleven more songs to go with it to put on the album. Also, I’m just kind of feeling the freedom of being unencumbered by a record deal. I signed a record deal in 1982, and I didn’t fulfil it until last year, so I was thirty-two years under contract. They were anxious to re-sign me and made me a very generous offer, but I just enjoy the feeling of being indie and not owing anybody anything. I think the idea of digital distribution of tracks whenever I feel like it, feels like a refreshing and ultimately smart way to go.
You’ve also had the same manager as well for all that time too, haven’t you?
Yeah, that’s correct. I’ve been with Jay [Levey] since 1981. I’m loyal to people and people are loyal to me. I’ve had the same band just as long. My drummer I’ve been with since 1980, and my bass and guitar player since 1982. The keyboard player on the road with me has only been with me for like twenty-three years, so he’s the new guy.
You are probably best known in the UK for your parody songs.
Yeah, and we play a lot of my favourites and fan favourites on every tour. I try to make every tour as different as possible from the previous one, but half the show has to stay the same because there are so many songs that the fans would be extremely upset if we didn’t play. So you’ve got to do ‘Fat’, ‘Yoda’, and ‘The Saga Begins’, and ‘Smells Like Nirvana’ and ‘Amish Paradise’ and ‘White and Nerdy’. We do try to highlight whatever the most recent album is, and also we try to throw in a few semi-obscure tracks for the hardcore fans.
Artists generally seem to take your work in good humour. Didn’t Kurt Cobain call you a musical genius?
Yeah, he wrote that in his journal, which kind of blew my mind.
Back in the 1980s you contributed a song to the ‘Transformers The Movie’ soundtrack. How did that come about?
Well you know what, people give me a lot more credit for that than I deserve. I did the song ‘Dare To Be Stupid’ as the title track of my album, which came out in 1985, and my record label at the time were producing the Transformers soundtrack. And basically they said; “hey, we’re going to use your song on the album”, and I said; “okay”! *laughing*. And that was pretty much it. I was very honoured to be a part of the movie and what is now a cult favourite, but it wasn’t anything that I had written specifically for the movie.
You obviously must have seen the movie. Did you think the song was appropriate for it?
Well, I’m not sure about appropriate. I sure enjoyed it and it seemed actually, you know, *laughing* a little odd, but ‘odd’ in a good way.
You wrote and starred in your own film ‘UHF’, which is a cult classic. Was it a lot of fun making that movie?
It was. We spend the summer of 1988 in Tulsa, Oklahoma shooting the movie, and my manager Jay and I co-wrote it and Jay directed it, and we worked a long time developing the script and figuring out what we wanted to do. We were both really green - neither one of us really knew what we were doing, so we were kind of stumbling around, and we wound up with a movie that I have mixed feelings about.
It definitely has some very funny moments and strong points and at the same time, parts of it like feel could have been better; like the story line feels kind of hackneyed to me now. It didn’t do very well when it came out at the box office, but it’s gone on to become, as you said, a cult favourite, and beloved by a lot of fans.
So I’m glad that a lot of fans have a sense of nostalgia about it now and a lot of people ask; “when are you going to do ‘UHF II’?” and I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. But I’m very grateful that the fans have responded to it the way they have.
What was it like working with Michael Richards who gave a standout performance in ‘UHF’ as janitor Stanley Spadowski?
He was great. I cast Michael because I’d never seen a better physical comedian, and that part called for somebody that had to be very loose-limbed and expressive with his body, and he really nailed it.
It really is a very physical performance.
Yeah, he was not shy about throwing himself around. That was one of the things that struck me. I watched Michael do stand-up comedy in L.A before casting him, and he would do this routine where he would get in an imaginary fight with somebody, and he would mime getting punched. He would literally throw himself across the room as if being punched, and I thought, *laughing* this guy is just not afraid to go for it.
Mark Knopfler actually contributed to your parody of ‘Money For Nothing’ that was featured in the movie, didn’t he?
It was amazing. I always get permission when I do parodies, and when we asked Mark Knopfler for permission we’d never gotten this response before - he said; “of course you can do it, but naturally I need to play guitar on it”. And I said, [ironically], “well, if you must, Mark”!
You appeared in the ‘Naked Gun’ films. Where they as much fun to make as they are to watch?
Absolutely. I was a big fan, a huge fan of [writer / directors / producers] the Zucker brothers who did ‘Airplane’ and ‘Top Secret’ and then ‘The Naked Gun’ series which was based on a short-lived TV series called ‘Police Squad’. Even though that only had six episodes, I still consider that my favourite TV series of all time, because there wasn’t anything else like that on TV. Now that kind of parody and mock-serious tone feels like an old trope, but at the time it was something that you hadn’t seen before. And I just loved it, and I actually knew the producer that worked with them; Robert Weiss - I did some videos with him – and I said, hey, if these guys ever do a movie based on the TV show, you just have to get me involved somehow; I don’t care if I’m in the crowd scene, or whatever – please see what you can do. And as it turned out, they wrote me into the script.
As you got to play yourself.
Yeah, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s on the plane”! And it turned out that I was in all three Naked Gun movies, so that was a delightful little legacy to be able to be involved with that.
What was Leslie Nielsen like?
He was so great. I mean, I love Leslie, he was so funny. All the rumours that you hear about him were so true; he was just constantly trying to crack everybody up on the set. He had his little hand fart machine with him at all times, and he’d like go around and pretend like he passed wind and look around him embarrassed. It was just a great loss for comedy when he passed away. He was a wonderful guy, and very sweet.
Any comment on O.J. Simpson?
Well, I didn’t know O.J. quite as well, but I did work with him in one scene where, ironically I was holding him at gun point. *laughing* It was in the second movie. In the first and third Naked Gun movies I’m playing myself, but in the second one I’m playing some kind of deranged lunatic and it’s a very quick shot. I’m in a doorway holding a gun saying; “okay you pig, say your prayers”, and Leslie Nielsen walks through, knocks the gun out of my hand and it’s like; “good work Frank”. I look so different in that scene that I took a date to see the movie and at the end she said; “I thought you said you were in this movie?”. I said; “I was the guy!”
Finally, could you recommend somewhere to buy a spatula?
Well Spatula City, of course! They have spatulas for all occasions; buy nine spatulas and get the tenth one for just one penny!