Weird Al Yankovic still provides the laughs

Weird Al: "It's more of a challenge to get a laugh by not offending."

Last decade — during the brief lull between MTV's lack of music videos and YouTube's still-to-come emergence — Weird Al Yankovic wondered if the medium he had utilized better than any pop-music parodist ever had become obsolete.

"There were definitely a few years where I was thinking, 'Should I even bother doing music videos?'" Yankovic said on the phone last week from a tour stop in New Hampshire. "But I wasn't so much afraid for my job, because there was still pop music. I was not going to run out of material."

Music videos quickly migrated to the Internet, but Yankovic was never too concerned, because there was no shortage of new material ripe for satire. Now in 2015, Yankovic — who headlines Pier Six Pavilion on Saturday — remains a popular comedy-meets-music force, touring across the world in support of last year's "Mandatory Fun," his 14th studio album and the first comedy record to ever debut atop the Billboard albums chart.

Only the great humorists can keep audiences laughing as long as Yankovic, who got his break as an accordion-wielding teenager on the Dr. Demento radio show in the mid-1970s. Whether it's as a comedian or musician, or in this case both, touring is an essential part of staying relevant. For Yankovic, that means not only regular touring but striking the right balance of new material to keep things fresh while reminding audiences of early favorites. It's impossible to make everybody happy, he said, but it doesn't stop him from trying.

"It's a little tricky because I can only play for a finite amount of time. I can't play all night long like the Grateful Dead or an early Bruce Springsteen show," Yankovic, 55, said. "I have to keep people's bladders in mind when putting the set list together."

On Saturday, fans can expect to hear his greatest hits, songs from "Mandatory Fun" and "a couple of deep cuts for the hardcore fans," Yankovic said. His catalog is so vast (his Michael Jackson parody "Eat It," was released more than 31 years ago, for example) that Yankovic and his band often put new spins on familiar hits for the fun of it.

Take "Like a Surgeon," his parody of Madonna's "Like a Virgin." In the '80s, Yankovic said, he performed the song as it was recorded, and even pretended on stage to saw a woman in half with a chainsaw. By the next decade, the performance had grown stale.

"So in the '90s, I think we did the Madonna 'Truth or Dare' version, which is the whole Egyptian vibe," he said. "And now on the current tour, we're doing 'Like a Surgeon' as a part of an unplugged medley. We try to find ways to keep it interesting for ourselves and the audience."

Yankovic has plenty of new material to perform, whether it's "Word Crimes" (his grammar-focused take on Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines") or "Tacky," the faux-pas-shaming parody of Pharrell's "Happy." Yankovic said songs rarely come to him fully formed, and they are often written via a deliberate and time-consuming process.

"For 'Happy,' I made a list of like 100 different ways I could go with that," he said. "I'll look at that list of notes and I'll pinpoint the one that I think, 'OK, this has the most comedic potential.' But it's pretty rare that I'll be listening to a song and go, 'Oh, I know exactly what I should do for this one.'"

The process has worked for decades, not only for the benefit of Yankovic (who won Best Comedy Album for "Mandatory Fun" at this year's Grammy Awards) but also for the artists he chooses to parody. Lady Gaga once called a Yankovic song an artist's "rite of passage." After the success of "White & Nerdy," Yankovic's version of Chamillionaire's 2005 hit "Ridin'," the Houston rapper sought Yankovic out at an awards show.

"He said, 'Your parody made it undeniable that 'Ridin' was the rap song of the year, so thank you for that,'" Yankovic said. "Artists these days, particularly, look at it as a badge of honor."

Few are ever offended because Yankovic has always avoided malice, which stands out in an era when pop-culture commentary is dominated by ugly snark. Yankovic noted it's "not my instinct to go for the jugular," but that the comedian inside wouldn't let him go that route anyway.

"A lot of the song parodies on YouTube are pretty mean-spirited attacks on the artists, and that's kind of a cheap, easy laugh," Yankovic said. "It's more of a challenge to get a laugh by not offending or hurting somebody else's feelings. I think there's certainly a way where you can poke fun at an artist without them getting bruised by it."

With touring comes down time to write, and based on his current schedule, Yankovic should have plenty of time to repurpose the next Top 40 hit or two. He'll be on the road until October, and there are still Australia tour dates to announce. When asked what comes after tour, Yankovic happily committed to nothing.

"I never give too much thought about the future because the future is always changing. I always get offered these amazing opportunities that I never would have dreamed I would be offered," he said. "It's something that's very exciting about my life — it's always going to be something different."

wesley.case@baltsun.com

twitter.com/midnightsunblog

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad

If you go

Weird Al Yankovic performs Saturday at Pier Six Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $30-$60. Call 410-783-4189 or go to piersixpavilion.com.

36°