He was ridiculed plenty throughout his extraordinary career, but it seemed Michael Jackson wasn’t averse to poking fun at himself. This was nowhere more evident than in the work of spoof songsmith “Weird Al” Yankovic, who parodied ‘Beat It’ as ‘Eat It’ and ‘Bad’ as ‘Fat’ respectively.
The two men share distinctive looks. Weird Al (real name Alfred Matthew Yankovic) has sported the same curly-haired, accordion-carrying image for decades, whereas Jackson had his various phases, each as iconic as the last. Perhaps it made sense for the pair to gravitate toward each other in this unexpected way.
In a tribute piece to Jackson, published by Rolling Stone shortly after the King of Pop’s death in 2009, Weird Al mentioned how sceptical he was approaching the great man in the first place, describing it as “a shot in the dark.”
This was back in 1984 for ‘Eat It.’ While a parody doesn’t legally require the subject’s say so to proceed, Yankovic always obtains permission. To his surprise, Jackson was more than alright with the idea.
“He not only returned our phone calls, but he approved it. He thought it was a funny idea. Then when we did the second parody, ‘Fat,’ he was nice enough to let us use his subway set for the video, so he’s always been very supportive.”
It was a major career boost for the long-haired lampooner. He’d gotten his break at 16, when radio personality Dr. Demento put debut effort “Belvedere Cruisin” on the air in 1976. Though an original composition, he was already creating his comedic takes on popular tracks.
Jackson’s involvement however was in a different league. Yankovic told Rolling Stone “I don’t know what kind of career I would have today if it hadn’t been for Michael Jackson… ‘Eat It’ basically changed me from an unknown into a guy that got recognized at Burger King.” It got to the point that Madonna supplied her own idea to him for ‘Like A Surgeon.’
He didn’t always have a smooth ride with his intended targets. A 2016 Mental Floss article runs down those who weren’t keen on the Weird Al treatment. These included Prince and Weezer. Paul McCartney took Yankovic’s idea of turning ‘Live and Let Die’ into ‘Chicken Pot Pie’ in good humor, but refused to endorse it because he was vegetarian.
As for his legendary version of Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise,’ titled ‘Amish Paradise’, it got released, but it could have come to a shuddering halt. According to Weird Al, “Two separate people from my label told me that they had personally talked to Coolio … and that he told them that he was okay with the whole parody idea … Halfway into production, my record label told me that Coolio’s management had a problem with the parody.”
Top 10 Weird Al Yankovic original songs.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Yankovic laid down the track. An apparently unhappy Coolio criticized it at first, then said sorry and embraced it in later years when it became clear a misunderstanding had taken place.
Weird Al and Michael Jackson’s paths actually crossed several years after the release of ‘Eat It.’ The accordion player was bowled over, saying “Seeing him in person was amazing, it was otherworldly. He was and continues to be so iconic, it’s hard to even conceive of him as a human being. He always was bigger than life.”
Jackson was reportedly a fan of Yankovic’s movie UHF (1989), in which he played an eccentric TV station manager alongside Michael Richards, who was about to break through as Kramer on “Seinfeld.” However when Weird Al hatched a plan to spoof ‘Black or White’ (1991) he got the thumbs down.
“(He) thought ‘Black or White’ was more of a message song, and he didn’t feel as comfortable with a parody of that one, which I completely understood, and in a way, he did me a huge favor, because I was already getting pegged as the guy who did Michael Jackson parodies, and because he wasn’t so into it, I decided to go with Nirvana, which wound up revitalizing my career.”
Just as MJ had sparked something off for Al with ‘Eat It,’ so he helped him again, this time by rejecting his offer. Yankovic does sometimes put out free versions of spurned songs, but only if he knows the artist wouldn’t mind.
In a 2015 feature for The Independent to promote his world tour, he was referred to as “the third artist to have a Top 40 hit in each of the last four decades. The other two are Michael Jackson and Madonna.” Weird Al has entered music’s Hall of Fame, and he did it by thoroughly roasting its inhabitants.
Steve Palace is a writer, journalist and comedian from the UK. Sites he contributes to include The Vintage News, Art Knews Magazine and The Hollywood News. His short fiction has been published as part of the Iris Wildthyme range from Obverse Books.