The scene is the set of a craptastic public access TV channel. A woodwork demonstration with a table saw is underway as the cameras roll. The demonstrator is a gangly, seemingly spaced out man in white overalls; he’s being interviewed by a young guy with a mop of permed hair and glasses. Overalls says “There’s only a few basic principles to keep in mind before attempted to operate a sophisticated piece of machinery.” The host looks like he’s going to fall asleep.
He wakes up screaming as Overalls slices his thumb clean off. Arterial blood goes everywhere as the host, in shock, starts searching for the severed thumb on the floor. “Oh boy,” says Overalls staring sheepishly at his squirting stump, “… is my face red.”
The 13 year old me thought that was brilliant. Both he and his larger/hairier future self love the film that scene is from: The Vidiot From UHF. Made for US$5m, the 1989 film is basically a vehicle for Yankovic to parody just about every mass audience TV show and film popular at the time. The plot revolves around the character of George Newman, a nobody with an overactive imagination (cue arbitrary dream sequences parodying Indiana Jones and Rambo!) who inadvertently becomes the manager of a failing UHF TV station. He and his mates save the station by tapping George’s out of control imagination and filling the schedule with shows like Conan The Librarian, Wheel Of Fish and Druids On Parade.
The film bombed very hard at the box office. Roger Ebert offered this smackdown: “Those who laugh at “UHF” should inspire our admiration; in these dreary times we must treasure the easily amused.” I don’t really have a comeback to that, except to say 25 years later I still quote Spatula City regularly to confused people on the train.
Already a star at the time, Yankovic and his accordion simply kept on going, producing albums mixing his stock-in-trade parodies with polka medleys of familiar tunes and longer genre pastiches. He’s won four Grammys and tours the world with a high energy multimedia show (which he’s bringing to New Zealand in January). While it’s true he’s got a broad comedy style that’s more Stan Freberg than the infinitely cooler Flight Of The Conchords, he’s so far avoided the two dollar bargain bin of cultural oblivion and surfed the transition into the digital age with aplomb.
The Vidiot From UHF is twenty five years old, I wonder how the film sits with you now after all this time?
I’m very happy it’s achieved the kind of cult status it has. I was kind of licking my wounds after it came out because it had tested very well with test audiences, I was being led to believe that it was going to be a reasonably sized hit. It was made by Orion pictures and they were saying “oh, you’re going to be our new Woody Allen. We’re going to be doing movies with you forever!” After the first opening weekend that all went away. I remember going to the Orion office building and people were avoiding eye contact, like I was a ghost walking around.
It was a bit devastating for me, actually. Every night when I went to sleep I thought of one thousand different things I should have done differently. But the movie found its audience about a decade later on cable TV and on VHS. The fans who are into it are really, really into it.
Having watched the film again recently, it’s got a lot of that goofiness but I forgot there are moments of very dark, dark humour. Probably the best examples are the guy sawing his finger off and Raoul’s Wild Kingdom where the host is literally throwing dogs out of a window trying to get them to fly.
That’s my personal sense of humour. My stuff falls under the banner of “family friendly” but there is some dark stuff in there. At the time Orion was begging me to take two scenes out of the movie and they were those two scenes. Those were two of my favourite gags and I said, “no, those have to stay in the movie.” And they said “well, we’re going to get a PG-13 rating if we keep them in. If we take them out more people will be able to see it if we take them out and it’s rating PG instead.”
I just thought that it had to be the movie I wanted to make and if it has to be PG-13 then so be it.
The music industry has obviously changed over the years thanks to the internet and digital distribution. How did you manage the transition?
Back when I started out MTV was a thing and now they famously don’t play music videos any more. Pop culture is always changing, by definition it’s sort of an ephemeral art form and it goes through phases. Everyone has had growing pains, but I like to change with the times; that’s part of my job description. When the means of distribution started changing I didn’t cling to the old business model. I wasn’t kicking and screaming, I said “ok, let’s do this now.” That’s how I was able to market my last album so effectively.
Right, you had the “Eight Videos In Eight Days” campaign where you released music videos for the album Mandatory Fun onto the internet in a very short amount of time. It really feels like you couldn’t do that 15 ago.
In the old days you’d put out an actual single and then try to get airplay on MTV and radio stations. Then maybe eight weeks later put out another single [laughs]. Nowadays people consume things very rapidly, especial the comedy and novelty parody stuff, people get bored of that very quickly. So I thought I’d just bombard them for the entire week of release, release a music video every day and it became an event. It worked beyond my wildest dreams; it gave me my first number one album.
And yet you had to go to other outfits like Funny Or Die, Nerdist and CollegeHumor to get those videos made.
The last big budget music video I did was for my Lady Gaga parody Perform This Way. The label fronted the budget for that, but they said [laughs] “don’t expect this the next time around.”
I was like “how can I make these music videos and not bust the bank?” I’d been working with all these online portals, doing videos just for fun. They’re always looking for content and I was looking for a free music video, so I thought maybe we could partner up. Basically I did all eight videos for free because we gave each portal an exclusive on their channel for two weeks. They got all the ad revenues, while I got all the exposure. An extra bonus was because I partnered with eight different portals I was able to hit all different areas of the internet and different fan bases. In a sense I became omnipresent for that week.
How did that work with the label?
Thankfully the label decided to follow my lead on that, I didn’t get much pushback from them. A few of the [online] partners that I was working with were saying “uuh, you sure you want to do that?” I was just like well, let’s give it a shot. Let’s see if it works. It worked a lot better than I thought it would.
(In terms of numbers the campaign did extraordinarily well. In seven days the videos had attracted more than twenty million views. Word Crimes, a parody of Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke has over 28 million views.)
When you’re choosing songs and artists to parody, are they songs you genuinely have an affection for? Or is it purely a commercial decision?
Even though I’m poking fun at them, it’s not in a mean spirited way. I generally pick songs that I actually like. I don’t generally need to, the primary criteria is whether it’s a popular song or not, by having said that I usually pick songs that don’t drive me crazy because I have to live with them for a long time.
Weird Al plays Auckland and Christchurch on January 5th and 6th of 2016