When comedian, musician, and parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic broke through to the mainstream in the '80s thanks to hits like "Eat It" and "Fat" (parodies of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and "Bad," respectively), it was something of a coup for nerds. There on MTV, wedged between Madonna and Bruce Springsteen, was a frizzy-haired, four-eyed oddball who played it so straight that his parodies were almost indistinguishable from the originals (unless, of course, you paid attention to the clever lyrics.) Among the '80s pop bombast and sheen was Al, a goofball who, to paraphrase a Yankovic song title, dared to be stupid.
A lot has changed since then, of course. The Internet has accelerated every aspect of pop culture, and funny songs and videos are a dime a dozen. Yet Yankovic, who brings his tour to the Wilbur Theatre for three shows on June 2-3, remains not only hugely popular but vital, as up-and-coming comedians tout his influence and invite him on their podcasts. Last year's "Mandatory Fun" — the final album for his record contract with Sony — reached No. 1, the first comedy album to top the Billboard charts since 1963. "Weird Al" Yankovic has, somehow, become hip.
With the close of that 33-year-long record contract, he also finds himself at a crossroads. Yankovic, over the phone from Los Angeles, said he's ready for the change. "I think that going forward I'll just release things independently," he said, "and probably a track or two at a time. I think that's the best way for me to put myself out there going forward, because I try to be timely and topical with my parodies, and I prefer not to wait around until I've got 12 songs to release all at once, as I have in the past. I'd like to think that I'll just be able to release tracks whenever I feel like it."
He pointed out that "Word Crimes," his grammar-snob parody of "Blurred Lines," came out nearly a year after the Robin Thicke hit. While this is a risk he has always run, the frenzied pace of entertainment consumption has made that lag time more and more detrimental.
"Back when I first started out, there was a bit more of a monoculture," said Yankovic. "It was more obvious what the mainstream is, what the hit songs were, who the superstars were. And there still are hit songs and superstars today, obviously, but everything's a bit more transient. You have to be careful picking your targets and wondering if whatever you pick is still going to be popular 10 months from now."
So far so good. Over the years, Yankovic, 55, has skewered songs by everyone from Jackson to Nirvana, Lorde to Don McLean (his Star Wars-themed parody of "American Pie" is nothing short of an epic). Actually, "skewered" may be the wrong word: He hardly ever mocks the original song or its artist. There are a few exceptions — his Nirvana parody, for example, ribbed Kurt Cobain for being unintelligible — but for Yankovic, it's more about contrast.
"There's something funny about the randomness about taking a hit song and doing something completely unrelated to the original subject matter. There's other times when I take the subject matter and do something that's diametrically opposed. Like with 'Amish Paradise' '' — his hit parody of Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" — "I couldn't think of anything more different to the gangsta lifestyle than the Amish lifestyle, and the complete randomness of that, for me, made it funny."
Yankovic, 55, is also funny to many, many record buyers, some of whom wound up being comedians. LA-based comedian and rapper Zach Sherwin counts Yankovic as one of his influences. "I was about 8 when I discovered Weird Al," he said. "I had never encountered an adult who was so earnestly enthusiastic about such ridiculous things, but I got the joke instantly, and I thought it was terrific. Al makes comedy music look effortless, he has a very clear sense of what he thinks is funny, and he's an expert at communicating it. I'm also always pleasantly surprised by how well he raps."
Fans like Sherwin will have to wait for new material until after Yankovic's current tour, which will bring him around the world through October. Like his songs and videos, Yankovic's shows are known for their high production values: think video displays, an absurd number of costume changes, and, of course, meticulous attention to parodic detail.
"This tour," he said, "will include a lot of songs from 'Mandatory Fun,' and a few deep cuts and surprises for the hardcore fans, so it feels very familiar and very new at the same time. And I'm very excited about it. We try to top ourselves every time out and make every tour bigger and better than the one before it. I certainly think that's the case here."
"WEIRD AL" YANKOVIC
At: Wilbur Theatre,
Tickets: $52, 617-248-9700, www.thewilbur.com
David Brusie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.