Late in his career, Frank Zappa released a concert recording with a title that posed this question: Does Humor Belong in Music? That was in 1986. Even then, Weird Al Yankovic had an answer.
Nearly three decades later as pop music's champion satirist, he remains steadfast in his stance.
"It does belong," said Yankovic, 53, who brings his Alpocalypse Tour to the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond on Thursday. "I think humor is denigrated a lot in music and in a lot of other media. But comedy is such an important part of life. It's certainly important to me. It's important to all civilization.
"A lot of people think, perhaps, that because something is funny, there isn't much art involved in it. I would beg to differ," Yankovic said. "As an example, I would like to think my band is one of the best bands in the world. They do everything from gangsta rap to polka music. The fact that the music is funny doesn't mean they are any less talented or any less skillful. In fact, the opposite is true."
A lifelong Californian, Yankovic began his career by making homemade tapes of songs, accompanying himself on accordion. He eventually got them broadcast on The Dr. Demento Radio Show. But the world got to know "Weird Al" at the dawn of the age of music videos. There, he was able to parody not only the top-selling pop hits of the day but the promotional video clips that accompanied them.
"I've always liked focusing on songs that are, of course, big hits — ideally ones that hit the top of the Billboard charts, songs that are getting a lot of airplay. They could be getting a lot of exposure through the Internet or have some kind of recognizable musical or lyrical hook that really pops out when you hear it.
"More often than not, it really comes down to finding a song that I have a clever enough idea for. There are a lot of songs that seem like they would be good fodder for parody, but either they've been beaten into the ground by everybody else on YouTube or I can't think of what I would consider to be a reasonable idea for it."
What sets Yankovic apart from many satirists — and most comics, in general — is that his humor is seldom, if ever, mean-spirited. By adhering to a pop song's melody but dramatically altering its lyrics, he creates songs that are simply silly. In the '80s, Madonna's Like a Virgin became Like a Surgeon, and Michael Jackson's Beat It and Bad became Eat It and Fat. In the '90s, the Coolio pop-rap hit Gangsta's Paradise was transformed into Amish Paradise. On his 2011 album Alpocalypse, Yankovic playfully skewers songs by Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Queen, along with a polka medley (Polka Face) that crams bits of hits by Lady Antebellum, Katy Perry, Britney Spears and more into the melody of the Liechtensteiner Polka.
"I guess the humor is more of an extension of my personality," Yankovic said. "I just can't go for the jugular. Certainly I have done things over my career that might be construed as mean or perhaps crossing the line. But by and large, I try not to step on people's toes. I prefer poking somebody in the ribs instead of kicking them in the butt."
Most artists (Coolio being a noted exception) have viewed Yankovic parodies as badges of honor. Having a hit receive the Weird Al treatment is regularly seen as a career milestone. Yankovic said the acceptance of one touchstone artist gave almost immediate credibility to his comic adventures.
"All of the artists have been great sports. But Michael Jackson I have to give special thanks to. When I did my parodies of Beat It and Bad, he was the biggest celebrity in the world. He certainly didn't need to even acknowledge me. Instead, he thought what I was doing was funny and he gave me his blessing. That definitely went a long way in getting other artists' approvals.
"The artists that wouldn't pick up the phone before to talk to my manager were all of sudden saying, 'Well, if Michael Jackson says it's OK, then this Weird Al guy must be worth dealing with.'"
Alpocalypse offered another generous artistic blessing. Among the album's highlights is Craigslist, which is set to the vocal and instrumental accents of The Doors. If the vintage pop feel sounds eerily authentic, it's because Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek played on it. Manzarek died in May at age 74.
"That was amazing," Yankovic said of working with Manzarek. "What a great guy. What a legend. I remember when I came up with the idea for Craigslist, before I had even written the lyrics, I thought, 'Hmm, I wonder if Ray Manzarek would play on this?' So I contacted him and without even hearing a single lyric, he said, 'Absolutely.' Definitely one of the high points of my life."
IF YOU GO
Weird Al Yankovic
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10
Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave., Richmond
Tickets: $39, $49. Available at (859) 622-7469 or EKUcenter.com.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.