It’s sort of like a quirky take on the hits-compilation series “Now That’s What I Call Music!” Every couple of years, pop satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic puts out a new album parodying new hits and old chestnuts as parodies or polkas or both, and it’s always some of the best silly fun to be had on the pop charts.
Last year, however, Yankovic’s most recent effort achieved a uniquely rarefied status. “Mandatory Fun” (RCA Records) debuted at No. 1 – not on the polka or comedy chart, but on the main Billboard 200, just ahead of Jason Mraz. It was Yankovic’s first No. 1 album, as well as the first comedy album to reach that summit since Allan Sherman’s “My Son, The Nut” in 1963.
Packaged with iconography and symbols associated with revolutions and dictators, “Mandatory Fun” works Yankovic’s time-honored formula. It parodies current favorites by acts including Pharrell Williams (“Tacky”), Lorde (“Foil”) and Imagine Dragons (“Inactive”), among others, plus a “Now That’s What I Call Polka!” medley that works in Miley Cyrus, Foster the People, Ke$ha, PSY, One Direction, Gotye and a half-dozen others.
But “Mandatory Fun” also ventures well behind the modern-day Top 40 on a couple of original tunes mimicking well-known styles. “Mission Statement” perfectly mashes up riffs from a couple of Crosby, Stills & Nash (& Young) classics dating back to the Aquarius era, “Carry On” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” with the ironic juxtaposition of business-buzzword lyrics. And Chapel Hill’s own Southern Culture on the Skids serves as template for “Lame Claim to Fame,” a rewrite of the Skids’ 1995 radio hit “Camel Walk.”
In advance of Yankovic’s upcoming show in Cary, we rang him up to ask how he does it.
Q: So what was it like seeing yourself at No. 1?
A: It was insane! The headline wasn’t just that it was my first No. 1, but the first No. 1 comedy album for anyone in over 50 years. Steve Martin, George Carlin, Richard Pryor – all my heroes, they never did it, and I just assumed I never would, either. The fact that this one did blew my mind.
Q: How did Southern Culture on the Skids cross your radar?
A: My albums consist of half original songs in the style of other artists as pastiches, and they’re not necessarily the popular zeitgeist. Southern Culture on the Skids has always been one of my favorite bands with a very unique and recognizable style, and I always had “Southern Culture” in my notebook. Finally got around to it and had a great time with it. That one is in the setlist.
Q: People must constantly accost you with suggestions, “Hey man, you oughtta parody such and such.” You ever use someone else’s suggestion?
A: No! With one exception, Madonna in 1985. She suggested through a friend that I should cover “Like a Virgin” and it got back to me, so I did “Like a Surgeon.” I met her briefly after that. Not much to it: “Hey, good to see you. Loved the song.”
Q: So other artists pitch themselves directly?
A: Oh yeah. I’ll meet an artist at a party or an award show and they’ll ask, “So when are you gonna get around to one of my songs?” I never know if they’re being earnest or just making conversation, but it’s always nice to hear. I was in New York on a press junket last year and met Graham Nash, and he asked when I was gonna do “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” As it happened, I had just recorded “Mission Statement” for this album and I had it on my phone. “Funny you should mention that,” I said, and I played it for him on the spot. That was fun. He loved it.
Q: What sort of reactions do you get from artists you cover?
A: They’re almost universally positive. Maybe the best was “White & Nerdy,” the parody of “Ridin’ Dirty.” Chamillionaire came up to me at the Grammys right after he won and said, “I wanna thank you for this Grammy because your parody was a big reason my song was undeniable as rap song of the year.” It was very sweet.
Q: Using the latest Iggy Azalea hit for parody fodder seems obvious, but how does something like a four-decade-old song from Crosby, Stills & Nash wind up surfacing now?
A: The parodies, I generally try to make topical. The pastiches, I don’t have any parameters other than it being artists I like. They can be new, old, popular, obscure; they just have styles that are fun to emulate. Those are mostly for me without worrying, “Does this have commercial potential? Are people gonna get it?” It’s a selfish thing, actually.
Q: “Mission Statement” is a really good re-creation of the original Crosby, Stills & Nash musical arrangement, especially that opening “Carry On” guitar riff.
A: Credit for that goes to the band. I’ve had the same guys with me forever, they know the drill and they make me look good. Some songs are hard to nail because nowadays, there are so many samples, things created digitally. Those are harder. The hardest one on this album was the Imagine Dragons “Radioactive” parody because there’s so much production on that song. My band guys actually contacted Imagine Dragons to ask about their drum sound, and I think we might have even gotten one of their drum samples on there. Thankfully, they were fans and willing to help us get their sound.
Q: Ever have a total-disaster gig, one where everything went wrong?
A: That would be my first big show at the Santa Monica Civic in 1982. I’d just put the band together and was opening for Missing Persons, thinking, “I like Missing Persons and I’m SURE their audience will appreciate accordion-driven parody!” Wrong! I was pelted for 45 minutes straight. It was not only the worst reception I ever got, but the worst reception I’ve ever seen anybody get, ever.
Q: So if you hadn’t hit upon parody and satire, do you think you’d be playing straight-up polkas at weddings and folk festivals now?
A: Doubt it! I dunno, that would be a road not taken. I got a college degree in architecture and then shortly after graduation I decided, “I am not gonna do this.” I shudder to think about what might have happened if I hadn’t gotten some lucky breaks taking me down this path. Honestly, I don’t know. But I’ve gotten to do things I couldn’t even imagine, like a TV series, a movie. Maybe someday I’ll do an actual successful TV series or movie! I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a Broadway musical down the line. But I’ve been very fortunate to get to do a lot of crazy things. If I can just continue making a living doing Weird Al, that’s enough for me.
Who: “Weird Al” Yankovic
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, June 18
Where: Booth Amphitheatre, 8003 Regency Parkway, Cary
Info: 919-462-2025 or boothamphitheatre.com