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Weird Al Yankovic’s real life is so boring he had to make up his own biopic

The singer-comedian is one of the few Gen Xer icons who hasn’t failed us — no bad boy behavior, no political controversies, just fun and laughs.
Daniel Radcliffe in "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story."
Daniel Radcliffe in "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story."The Roku Channel

If you’ve grown weary of the factual inaccuracies of major musical biopics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “The Dirt,” the new Roku Channel movie “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” is a breath of fresh air for not hiding its fabrications. The hilarious production is an inversion of the famed musical comedian’s life, positing what would have happened if the skinny, accordion-wielding jokester had turned into a buff, mega-platinum artist who indulged in the rock star excesses that defined ’80s pop culture. (Dating Madonna, for starters.) 

The over-the-top yet poignant portrayal by star Daniel Radcliffe both entertains us and reminds us of why the real man is so endearing. Yankovic’s life has been defined by a consistency and lack of controversy that shows you can do what you love and break big if you’re willing to keep a sense of humor about the world — and yourself. And he proves he’s up for the challenge by poking fun at himself, as well as the biopic genre, in the movie devoted to his achieving fame.

Weird Al, known for taking famous pop and rock songs and sending them up by rewriting the lyrics. He famously appeared as a teenager on the Dr. Demento radio show in the mid-1970s, performing the parodies and funny polka ditties that would land him club gigs and occasional TV appearances. When his take on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” became a hit on MTV in 1984, he became a crossover video superstar who remains popular to this day because of his affability, clever wordplay and the cheeky videos that became married to his image.

Other standout hits include “Like a Surgeon” (parodying Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”), “White & Nerdy” (“Ridin’” by Chamillionaire) and “Smells Like Nirvana” (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Yankovic claims Nirvana’s label thanked him because his rendition helped it sell a million more copies of the album “Nevermind.”)

Fittingly, the film “Weird” has an atypical origin story. It began as a fake movie trailer that director Eric Appel made in 2013 as a sketch for Funny or Die. It featured Aaron Paul, Olivia Wilde, Gary Cole, Mary Steenburgen, Patton Oswalt and yes, Weird Al. Appel explained at a news conference at last month’s New York Comic Con that he feels biopics often play fast and loose with the facts of their subjects’ lives, which made for good parody material. So he thought it would be fun to create “a fake biopic trailer about a real person who is alive now and then just completely make the story up.”

Years later, he and Yankovic co-wrote the script for a full feature. (Interesting side note: Weird Al made a mockumentary called “The Compleat Al” in 1985 that also mixed fact and fiction and featured his real parents.) The result starts streaming Friday, just three weeks before the publication of a graphic novel anthology inspired by and using Yankovic’s lyrics.

“I can’t think of any other way that I would have done this movie, because there’s some interesting things that have happened in my actual life, but not anything interesting enough that would merit a Hollywood biopic,” Yankovic said at New York Comic Con. “So we figured that we needed to spice it up a little bit, take a few artistic liberties and make it a little bit more interesting. We tweaked the facts just a hair here and there to make it more palatable for audiences.” (That’s an understatement.)

Indeed, as Josh Bernstein, chief business officer and partner at Z2 Comics, told me, “He is our only childhood hero not to let us down.” Weird Al is one of the few Gen Xer icons who hasn’t failed us — no major scandals of any sort, no bad boy behavior, no political controversies, just fun and humor to unite us all. He’s eternally cool for being a nerdy, polka-loving outsider who has amassed a lot of respect and devotion for his body of work.

He’s not Lawrence Welk vanilla — he can get a touch racy, and he has admitted to a couple of failings back in the ’80s — but he is almost as far from cancel culture fodder as you can get. It’s an impressive feat considering his parodic stock in trade could likely offend somebody at some point. 

Perhaps his most contentious career moment came when Coolio expressed his unhappiness with “Amish Paradise,” Yankovic’s parody of his hit “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Coolio was unhappy that, because of fair use laws, Weird Al could parody him even though he had denied him his blessing. But that tiff eventually got patched up, and Yankovic posted a tribute on social media when the Grammy Award-winning performer died in late September.

It seems highly apropos that “Weird” should make a farce of its subject’s life in the same way he has turned hit songs into comedy gold. That approach gives the movie a very meta vibe, especially during the end credits sequence blurring the real and fictional Als’ lives.

There is some truth behind the exaggeration in the film itself, however. Yankovic reported at Comic Con that a door-to-door accordion salesman did, indeed, come to his neighborhood offering music lessons. He did record “My Bologna” in a public bathroom. Madonna actually suggested the song “Like A Surgeon,” and word got back to him through mutual industry friends. Still, most of the concoctions are far removed from reality — even though they have fooled some fans. Yankovic noted that the day after the trailer came out, “if you did a Google search for Weird Al, the first thing is, ‘Did Weird Al date Madonna?’ Everybody wanted to know. That amused us to no end.”

The movie also mirrors how Yankovic has pulled rising and established stars into his videos over the years. In one scene filled with modern celebrities playing counterculture icons like Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, the comedian said he simply went through his address book and asked friends like Conan O’Brien and Jack Black to show up one afternoon. They did — just like other friends, including Aisha Tyler and Margaret Cho, came by for the single-shot video for “Tacky” from his first (and so far only) No. 1 album, 2014’s Grammy Award-winning “Mandatory Fun” (a particularly impressive feat given that he scored it later in his career).

Weird Al Yankovic as he poses with various food items during a photo shoot, March 20,1984 in Los Angeles.
Weird Al Yankovic during a photo shoot in Los Angeles in 1984.Bob Riha Jr. / Getty Images file

Yankovic took a similar approach for his forthcoming graphic novel anthology from Z2 Comics, “The Illustrated Al: The Songs Of Weird Al Yankovic.” The work features stories and pin-ups inspired by and using his lyrics, and he handpicked artists, including Bill Plympton, Peter Bagge and Mike & Laura Allred. This is not Yankovic’s first dance with comics; in 2015, he was the first-ever guest editor of Mad Magazine, a job that, funnily enough, he took very seriously.

In truth, Yankovic has worked hard to build his name and career on his “White and Nerdy” persona. At the same time, not even he could have predicted the heights of his future fame. If anything, he has proved that being true to and poking fun at yourself can reap its own rewards — to thine own self lampoon.

“It’s not a message movie, but there is a nice subtext to it,” noted Yankovic of “Weird.” He pointed to a scene in which Radcliffe as Al gives a speech at an awards show essentially saying, “Be as weird as you want, and you’ll never be truly happy unless you accept who you are.” Yankovic concluded: “There is a part in the movie about finding your people. That’s all stuff that’s not just the subtext of the movie but the subtext of my entire life.”