There’s no denying that “Weird Al” Yankovic has been a fixture of American popular culture for the last four decades and counting, thanks to his rich catalog of pop song parodies, artist-specific style pastiches, thematically-layered polka medleys, and supremely underrated original compositions. The accordion-clad musical satirist has amassed a multitude of music industry milestones: 14 standalone full length albums, four Grammy Awards, and six platinum albums. He’s only the third artist to have a Top 40 song ranking in each decade since the ’80s and he uniquely straddles the worlds of being a recognizable celebrity icon and the leader of a rabidly devoted fan base that veers charmingly close to cultism.
Perhaps the most clever thing about how “Weird Al” has balanced substantial fame and devout fandom is the means by which he has achieved it. While he plays to his strengths by both striking while the pop cultural iron is hot (he released “The Saga Begins” just a month after The Phantom Menace hit theaters) and crafting intricately-layered comedic ridiculousness (his longest song on an album is an 11-minute-plus fever dream about his hatred for sauerkraut called “Albuquerque”), Yankovic understands that the secret to operating as both notable and niche lies not in specificity, but in commonality. Of all the common denominators shared by humanity, Yankovic seems to have found that the most widely relatable and humorously mineable material is food.
Yankovic had this comedic epiphany early on, evidenced by the food songs that make up a substantial part of his early work. That’s why an artist who already carried the moniker of “Weird Al” also earned himself a second nickname: the “Eat It” guy. Whether in countless interview intros, album liner notes, his most recent Questlove Supreme podcast episode, or even his own Twitter profile, Yankovic either quickly acknowledges or self-deprecatingly refers to himself as “the ‘Eat It’ guy.” To be fair, Yankovic’s 1984 single “Eat It”—a food-based song parody of Michael Jackson’s mega-hit “Beat It”—was Yankovic’s cannonball splash into mainstream popular culture’s deep end.
Prior to the release of “Eat It,” Yankovic managed to occasionally blip the cultural radar via the Dr. Demento radio show, the release of his debut album, and a few early MTV music videos. But nothing came close to the surprise smash of “Eat It” as the lead single off Yankovic’s second album, “Weird Al” Yankovic In 3-D. The song reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, earned Yankovic his first Grammy, and was certified as a gold-selling single (the album itself went platinum). Yankovic doubled down on the satirical nature of the track by essentially filming a shot-for-shot remake of Jackson’s brilliant “Beat It” video, all the way down to the choreographed street gang fight/dance-off and the iconic multi-zipper, red leather jacket. Not only did the “Eat It” video earn Yankovic heavy rotation on MTV, but it also led the network to give him the recurring blank check of Al TV, a multi-hour block of airtime to essentially do whatever he wanted.
Following the widespread success of “Eat It” (both on radio and MTV), Yankovic’s songs have trafficked in a number of different concepts and subjects. But food always resurfaced. This is partially due to the quantity of food-related work—his early albums featured songs like “I Love Rocky Road” (a parody of The Arrows/Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”), “Addicted to Spuds” (Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”), and “Lasagna” (Ritchie Valens/Los Lobos’ “La Bamba”)—and their instant-hit quality. His debut single “My Bologna” (The Knack’s “My Sharona”) was released by Capitol Records, “Eat It” went to No. 1 in Australia and practically made him a household name in America, and “Fat” (Michael Jackson’s “Bad”) earned Yankovic his second Grammy award and helped Even Worse become his first album to reach platinum status (his earlier albums didn’t achieve platinum status until after the success of Even Worse).
Yankovic’s food songs are such a presence that they’re even the cause of two of his most unfavorable experiences. The song “Girls Just Want to Have Lunch” from 1985’s Dare to Be Stupid was only recorded because his label demanded he produce a Cyndi Lauper parody—Yankovic’s protest is readily apparent in his surly vocal take—and his 1993 compilation The Food Album was released by his record label against his displeased insistence that it was just a cheap cash grab of already-released material. You can see Yankovic’s protest in the album artwork, featuring a monster devouring “Weird Al” and picking his bones clean.
There is perhaps a debate to be had. On one hand, the connection between Yankovic’s food songs and his status as a pop culture icon has valid points: Yankovic often tells the story of how he tracked down Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain to seek approval for an upcoming “Smells Like Teen Spirit” parody and, upon agreement, was then asked by Cobain, “Is it going to be a song about food?” On the other hand, there is greater merit in assessing his food work as merely one notable portion of a diverse whole. In terms of their overall place in Yankovic’s song catalog, many of Yankovic’s most popular songs—“Smells Like Nirvana,” “Amish Paradise,” “Word Crimes,” and the Billboard Top 10 hit “White & Nerdy”—have nothing to do with food at all. His highest charting album (2014’s Mandatory Fun) went all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart without containing any songs with food as their central theme—though, a couple lyrics do make reference to Cheeto dust, pizza crust, and the culinary benefits of aluminum foil.
So while “the ‘Eat It’ guy” nickname was well-earned, especially in conjunction with his earliest material, his food-based parodies represent only one creative weapon in his multimedia artistic arsenal. Apart from all of his albums, music videos, and concert tours, Yankovic has amassed an expansively diverse resume that includes appearing in multiple movies and television shows, including co-writing and starring in the cult classic UHF in 1989; hosting the mid-‘90s Saturday morning fever dream The Weird Al Show; directing a variety of film projects and music videos for other artists (Ben Folds, The Black Crowes, Hanson); performing voice-over work on over 30 different animated shows; and serving as the band leader for the final season of the Comedy Bang! Bang! television series.
Yankovic should certainly be applauded—and studied—for building such a long and illustrious artistic career on a foundation that is heavily comprised of food-based song parodies. However, as Yankovic himself has suggested in where those song lie on his song-catalog spectrum, they should be the relatable (and dare I say, easily digestible) entry points into the weird, wide world of Al, and should not be seen as the pinnacle of his creative abilities and achievements.
I propose that it’s time we, as the collective consumers of popular culture, stop reducing “Weird Al” to some flash-in-the-pan novelty act. Referring to Yankovic as just “the ‘Eat It’ guy” trivializes the vast multi-decade, multimedia creative output that followed his initial introduction into mainstream pop culture in the same way that calling Justin Timberlake “the blond Mouseketeer” or Beyonce “the soprano from Destiny’s Child” would. It’s a woefully misleading oversimplification. Maybe he hasn’t played the Super Bowl halftime show or delivered a historic headlining set at Coachella, but Yankovic’s creative catalog is essentially a time capsule capturing the last 40 years or so of popular culture. Yankovic has proven time and again that he’s so much more than just “the ‘Eat It’ guy”—and he’s done it all under the only nickname he’s ever really needed.