Though “Weird Al” Yankovic has been in the nation’s consciousness for more than 30 years, he may not have had a hotter streak than the past 12 months. His latest album, “Mandatory Fun,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts last summer — the first chart-topper in his career — and in February, it won Best Comedy Album at the Grammys. To follow it up, he guest-edited this month’s issue of “MAD Magazine,” something he readily describes as a dream come true. As he puts it: “I feel like a Make-A-Wish Kid.”
With the issue — “MAD” #533 — out this week, CBR News spoke with the musical parody icon and longtime “MAD” Editor-in-Chief John Ficarra about Yankovic’s status as the first-ever guest editor in the magazine’s 60-plus year history, the natural pairing of the two satirical institutions, working with many of the legendary “MAD” cartoonists and Yankovic’s ambitious upcoming tour in support of “Mandatory Fun.”
CBR News: “Weird Al” Yankovic and “MAD Magazine” certainly feels like a natural pairing. How did this partnership come about — or maybe I should ask, why did it take this long?
“Weird Al” Yankovic: Yeah John, how come?
John Ficarra: [Laughs] That’s a good question. We had always talked about having a guest editor. We saw what other magazines did, and we were never quite sure that it would work with “MAD.” It was sort of a confluence of a couple of things — over the years, we’ve known Al. He’s done some things for us, like a book introduction and what have you. We knew that his sensibilities really lined up with “MAD.”
I happened to have been having dinner with him and his manager, Jay Levey, back in September. Once I knew I was going to see him in person, I said, “Maybe this is the time to pitch it to him.” The staff immediately jumped on it, because I have a staff of Al fanatics. I said, “Al, would you like to guest edit?”
Yankovic: I said, “Yes!” That was the answer. It didn’t take a lot of thinking on that one.
Ficarra: Then it was just a matter of fitting it into both schedules. There was a sweet spot right before Al was going to begin touring, and we had an opening with nothing big going on in the magazine, so it came together very, very quickly.
There have definitely been “guest editors” on magazines before, where it didn’t necessarily mean that much, and was more of a promotional tool. Al, what can you say about your involvement in this issue?
Yankovic: Well, calling me a “guest editor” is very generous. Certainly John and the rest of the normal editorial staff did all the heavy lifting. But I tried to be as involved as I could. I wrote a few pieces for the issues. I did a six-page spread called “Pages from Weird Al’s Notebook,” which was ostensibly parody ideas that somehow didn’t make the cut, mostly because they were so stupid. Also, I answered all the reader mail for the issue. I did a short piece explaining how I got corralled into being the guest editor. And I also got several of my friends to contribute pieces to the issue. Patton Oswalt, Thomas Lennon, Seth Green, John Hodgman, Chris Hardwick, Kristen Schaal, Emo Philips. It was a dream to be involved to this level in an issue of “MAD.” I’m a lifelong fan, and this is very much a dream come true for me.
Ficarra: We also did some other features that we surprised Al with. We had Al Jaffee do a “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” special Weird Al edition. Al also picked one of his favorite articles of all time for the “MAD Vault.” We also had, just by the way we did the issue, 11 different “MAD” artists working on Weird Al caricatures in this issue. So it’s fun to see all of the different takes on him.
So it sounds like pretty much the whole issue is going to be Weird Al-centric.
Yankovic: There are a few things here and there that somehow they managed to avoid shoehorning me in. [Laughs] But it’s the most Weird Al-centric issue, I think, that “MAD” has ever put out.
Ficarra: We did not do “Spy vs. Spy vs. Weird Al.” We talked about it, but we did not do it.
There’s always next time.
Ficarra: Oh no there won’t be! [Laughs] I’m sorry, shouldn’t have said that.
So there’s two of the great Als in one issue — Yankovic and Jaffee.
Ficarra: Three! What about Alfred E. Neuman?
Al, for you, as a lifelong fan as “MAD,” what was your era of really being a fan of the magazine — and some of the artists and contributors over the years that meant the most to you?
Yankovic: I think that this new issue is ushering in a new golden age of “MAD,” so I think the current era is probably my favorite.
Ficarra: We like to think of it as the first golden age. [Laughs]
Yankovic: My peak obsession years were probably the late ’60s and ’70s. A lot of the artists that were my favorite back then are still around and still working for “MAD.” I’ve always been a big fan of Al Jaffee and Mort [Drucker], Don Martin, and Sergio [Aragones], of course. I’m at a loss for words here, trying to describe how much it means to me that Al Jaffee is drawing my likeness. Sergio Aragones is drawing my likeness in this issue. It’s almost inconceivable.
A lot of the friends you mentioned as contributing, such as Patton Oswalt and Thomas Lennon, are comic book fans. Beyond “MAD,” are you a comic book fan yourself?
Yankovic: Certainly I’m a “MAD” nerd, but I can’t say that I’m a comic book nerd in general. I enjoy them and I appreciate them, but the only one I was ever obsessed with was “MAD.”
Al, the past year has been a big one for you, between winning a Grammy and the success of “Mandatory Fun.” It’s tough for anybody to sustain success for as long as you have — especially in comedy. Tastes change so much, and you don’t often see people stay relevant and attract new audiences the way you have. How are you feeling about the current phase in your career, where it seems that a lot of things are going quite well for you?
Yankovic: I’m feeling pretty darn good about it! I’m still very grateful that I’m just able to make a living. The fact I seem to be peaking after 35 years, that’s extremely gratifying. This whole last year — I guess surrealistic would be the word. Things that I never dreamed would ever happen. Doing this project with “MAD” is certainly the icing on the cake.
Ficarra: We have full confidence that his association with “MAD” will bring his winning streak to a halt. This is going to put the brakes on it, no problem.
John, for you, how much do you see Al as a kindred spirit — not only in parody, but in “MAD Magazine” being around for several decades, still doing what it’s known for, but managing to stay in people’s minds and successful?
Ficarra: We’re the last man standing, certainly, in print humor. It’s a tough environment. I’m not telling you anything out of school here — with the Internet, and changing tastes. We’ve always been blessed with some very, very talented freelancers, both on the art side and the writing side, who bring a certain je ne sais quoi to “MAD” that people seem to enjoy. Thank god for them, because I still have a few more payments on my mortgage. But once the house is paid off, who cares?
Yankovic: “MAD” is such an institution, and it’s often been said I should be institutionalized. So it just seemed like it was a good idea for us to work together.
John, Al is the first-ever guest editor for the magazine — could you see the possibility of “MAD” having another one? Or is Al a special case?
Ficarra: I think Al is a really special case. I wouldn’t close the door on it completely, because you never know. But I couldn’t see the stars aligning any better with anyone going forward, just in terms of Al’s enthusiasm, his comic sensibilities and what he brought to the table in doing this issue. He’s really downplaying his involvement — I sent him a PDF of the entire issue last night, and he went through everything with a fine-toothed comb, right down to grammatical corrections. He really cares about this. I’m not surprised, because when you see the level of detail in his videos and his song parodies, he brought that same type of level of detail to “MAD.” That’s something that’s never been brought to “MAD” before, by the way. So we were really grateful for him. In fact, I just offered him a proofreader job before he came on the line. [Laughs]
Yankovic: I’m still thinking about it.
Ficarra: Let’s see how the tour goes. If it doesn’t go good, you’ve got Plan B.
Speaking of that tour, it looks super-ambitious — something like a hundred dates right now, a couple dozen countries. Are you mentally prepared for all of that?
Yankovic: I’m exhausted already just thinking about it. I’ve certainly done long tours in the past, but we’re cramming a lot into this one. Usually I build breaks into a tour to come back and relax, and we decided we’re just going to go straight through for the next five or six months, and it’s going to be five or six cities a week. It’s an actual world tour. We called it a world tour first, almost facetiously, but then it sort of became an actual world tour. It’s going to be a lot of fun, but it looks like it’ll be pretty exhausting as well.
And it’s comprehensive — you’re playing the biggest major cities, and some cities I’ve never head of before. Really running the gamut.
Yankovic: I heard from my manager not too long ago that we had gotten an offer from Romania, and Austria — places where I didn’t even know that people were able to listen to my music. “Oh, they have the Internet there. That’s great!” I’m looking forward to it all.
Unfortunately, I never get a chance to do much sightseeing when I’m in these places, because I have to sort of live like a monk on the road, so that I can save my energy and not lose my voice. But it’ll be nice to know that my bus is in Romania.
“Mandatory Fun” was the last album in your long-term record deal, and you’ve talked about the possibility of releasing songs as their own, as the inspiration strikes, rather than waiting until you had a full album. You’ve had a lot going on lately, certainly, but are you still thinking that might be your plan going forward?
Yankovic: I do. I’ve talked so much about it that I feel like there’s no going back at this point. I don’t think that albums are really the best way for me to get my stuff out. They’re certainly not the most efficient way any more. I haven’t honestly been thinking too much in terms of new material, because I’ve been really busy getting ready for the upcoming tour. But it’s a nice freedom. It’s nice to know that if an idea came to my head, I could turn it around very quickly and get it out online, and get it out for public consumption. I have to assume that at some point I’ll start taking advantage of that, but right now I’m really focused on the live show.
We haven’t seen you on TMZ “ambushing” any pop stars lately.
Yankovic: [Laughs] That’s usually a last resort. I don’t usually ambush people just for fun.
Ficarra: Well, the restraining orders are the reason for that.
Though no more albums would presumably hurt your chances of winning another Best Comedy Album Grammy.
Yankovic: Well, here’s the loophole: The Grammys consider anything with five tracks eligible. So a five-track EP would be eligible. In fact, I did that once with “Internet Leaks,” which gave a sneak peek of the “Alpocalypse” album. I released five tracks early, and those five tracks were nominated for a Grammy, and then when the full album came out, that got nominated too. [Laughs] I was playing the system.
For both of you, what are you most excited about for fans of “MAD” or fans of Weird Al — or both — to see when they open up the issue?
Yankovic: I’m mostly excited for myself. [Laughs] For the people that know me really well, they know how excited I am about the whole thing. I’m at a bit of a loss for words, because this is one of those kinds of things that I just never dreamed would happen. If I could go back in time and tell my 12-year-old self that one day I’d be guest-editing “MAD Magazine,” it would have been inconceivable. I feel like a Make-A-Wish Kid. [Laughs] Like John came up to me and said, “OK, you can have one thing happen in your life, go.”
Ficarra: I’m most excited because of the artwork in it, there are some terrific caricatures. Sam Sisco did a great one of Al, a full-page face of him. Also Hermann Mejia did some really great caricatures.
The other thing I’m really looking forward to: On April 20, Al and I are going to do a big signing in New York in the Barnes & Noble on 17th St. That is really special for me, because unlike Al, who can go out into arenas, and get some feedback and hear some applause, it’s pretty lonely being a magazine editor. You put it out on the newsstand, and you’re not there to hear the people laugh. So I’m looking forward to meeting some fans face to face.
“MAD Magazine” #533, guest-edited by “Weird Al” Yankovic, is on newsstands Tuesday, April 21.
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