As Yankovic’s delightful biopic parody, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, leaps from its confined home on Roku into wider availability on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD, we marked the occasion by sitting down with Yankovic to talk about his five favorite comedy movies of all time.
Some will be obvious to fans (Yankovic’s adoration for Top Secret is not a secret), but others may surprise them, like his love for an underappreciated 1970s family comedy about an American spy’s attempt to stop a global plot to trigger rampant economic inflation.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Top Secret (1984)
Polygon: Back in 2018, you told our sibling site Vulture that Top Secret is the funniest film ever made. Do you remember the first time you saw it?
“Weird Al” Yankovic: I do. It was during its initial theatrical run, which would have been 1984. I remember the woman I took to see the movie — I think it was the woman I wrote “One More Minute” about. But I remember being in the theater — I don’t think I’d ever laughed that hard in a theater in my life. I was amazed by how funny that movie was.
I wanted to make my top five list for you a bit diverse — I was tempted to put two or three Zucker brothers movies on there, because how could you leave off Airplane! or Naked Gun? But if I have to pick one from their oeuvre, I went with Top Secret, because I think that’s still my favorite movie of all time.
When did you know it was your favorite?
I don’t know if I walked out saying “That’s the funniest movie I’ve ever seen in my life.” But looking back on it years later — I don’t think I’ve ever had that much of a reaction to a movie in a theater before. So it stuck with me. That feeling I had watching the movie never dissipated. I walked out of the theater thinking, I don’t know how that could have been better.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
I remember memorizing every line of this film in junior high, and being shunned as a dork. Then, by the time I hit college, it was a hit Broadway musical. As someone who’s been on the tip of the spear of nerd culture, how have you seen pop culture change when it comes to the nerdy and weird?
You probably know this, but that whole phenomenon of quoting from The Holy Grail is a line in my song “White and Nerdy.” That was sort of nerd code in high school. Like, if you’re hip to The Holy Grail, you were among the nerd elite. That’s how I used to talk to my friends — in Monty Python quotes. With the bad British accent, you know.
I think the world has caught up with the nerds to the point where now you don’t get ostracized for being a nerd. People brag about their nerd cred. And Spamalot is a huge hit on Broadway.
I actually got to see Spamalot last weekend. I did a little Broadway weekend where I saw Gutenberg! The Musical, and I got to see Dan Radcliffe in Merrily We Roll Along. I got to see Spamalot. And I was thrilled, because Taran Killam, who’s a friend of mine, is in the musical right now. And because he knew I was in the audience, he started singing some of my song lyrics in the show. He did a lot, including the chorus of “Frank’s 2000” TV,” which is kind of a deep cut. I don’t think anybody else in the theater knew what he was doing. But I did!
I love the micro-targeting! In that Vulture interview from 2018, you talked about how some of the gags in Top Secret are dumb. And you said, “It’s nice to mix the very clever comedy with dumb comedy. That’s my favorite balance.”
And that’s extremely Python as well!
What about that kind of concoction do you find so appealing?
It’s hard to say. I like to think that I’m a fairly smart person, but I also like really stupid humor. I guess that when mixing them, the smart stuff makes you feel less guilty about enjoying the stupid stuff.
You started high school at 12 and graduated as valedictorian at 16. Do you think being younger but also extremely precocious led your tendency to mix the smart and the silly?
I was the prototypical nerd in high school. And I had an offbeat sense of humor. I certainly didn’t fit in very many places, certainly not socially. So, yeah, I suppose so. That kind of humor was sort of tailor-made for me. And that’s how I found my people, my friends. The people that enjoyed the same kind of humor that I did.
Watching Daniel Radcliffe in Weird, he really nails your energy, even though he looks and sounds nothing like you. You can tell he shares your sense of humor. There’s a famous Graham Norton interview where Radcliffe sings a Tom Lehrer song. And it hit me: He’s just like you!
Have you two bonded? Do you feel a kind of synchronicity?
I had never met Daniel Radcliffe [before Weird]. When I was pitching him on doing the movie, I wrote about that moment in my “getting to know you” letters. Like, “I saw you on The Graham Norton Show doing ‘The Elements Song,’ and I feel like we’re kindred spirits, because we’re both big Tom Lehrer fans. I feel like we’d really get along.”
When we first announced that Daniel Radcliffe was going to star in the movie, there were a lot of people going, What?! Some people didn’t get it. Because it’s not like he’d be the first person you’d necessarily think of to play me in a biopic. But I knew Daniel had the same kind of sense of humor that I did, and the same kind of energy. And I just knew in my heart that he’d be able to nail it.
The In-Laws (1979)
This one was popular in its time, but these days, it’s the least known of your picks. It’d been on my to-do list for a couple of years, so I finally watched it ahead of this interview and was smitten. For young folks who’ve never heard of it, what’s your pitch?
I think it’s a perfectly written, perfectly acted movie. The script is so tight as your quintessential odd-couple, road-movie thing. It’s similar to Midnight Run in that way, which would have been another entry on my list if it was a little bit longer. I love that movie as well.
[The In-Laws] is really about two people. It’s a nebbish doctor played by Alan Arkin, along with a guy who may or may not be a CIA operative, played by Peter Falk. They’re both just so funny in their roles. I saw that in college at Chumash Auditorium. I remember laughing a lot and just thinking that was another perfect movie.
UHF trivia: Michael Lembeck, who played the young groom in the movie, was my acting coach for UHF. You know, his father was Harvey Lembeck. He was on all those Annette Funicello surf movies playing the gang leader.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Weird goes in some unexpected directions with its alternate reality of popular culture. How did Spinal Tap influence you as an artist who likes to blend together the real and the fictional?
Like I mentioned in the commentary of my movie [Ed. note: The commentary is included in the Weird Blu-ray], Spinal Tap was sort of the OG of rock mockumentary. And I just want to give a shoutout: [This Is Spinal Tap director] Rob Reiner has done a ton of my favorite comedy movies. And [Spinal Tap co-writer/co-star] Christopher Guest has done a ton of my favorite comedy movies. Many of those would have been on this list as well, if the list had been larger.
[Spinal Tap] got me thinking about blending fact with fiction. You only have to tweak it a little bit to make it satirical. That’s why this movie has made such a big impact on musicians and rock bands over the years — because it’s not that far from the truth. How many times have I walked through the cavernous backstage shouting, “Hello, Cleveland!”? It’s very close to reality. And that’s what makes it so impactful.
Some critics and fans saw Weird and were like, This biopic isn’t reality! How dare you, good sir?! Was that a reaction you were expecting while making the movie?
I wanted to really confuse people. In fact — I obviously wanted to promote the movie, because I wanted people to see it. But part of me wanted people to go in not knowing anything about [the movie], so they’d think, at least for the first half hour or so, that they were watching an actual biopic.
And there are people like that, who still have that experience. It amuses me to find out at which part of the movie they realized they were not watching a straight-ahead biopic. And there are some people that think the whole thing is true. They think I died in 1985. And you can’t convince them otherwise.
Raising Arizona (1987)
This was the biggest surprise of your five picks, because the Coen brothers have done headier, more Oscar-friendly comedies and dramas. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense: This movie is so slapstick. And Nicolas Cage is cribbing you. His wardrobe is the Weird Al Hawaiian shirt, straight from the ’80s. I’d love to know, what resonated with you about this movie when you first saw it?
It was like watching a live-action cartoon. I love the Coen brothers. This is my favorite movie they’ve ever done. I just thought it was hilarious. I thought Nicolas Cage was great.
And speaking of circumstances, I actually remember who I saw this with in the theater. I was on a date with the late, great Nicolette Larson. We got to see Raising Arizona. And I remember for weeks afterward, I would annoy her by doing the yodeling — that just stuck in my head forever.
That car-chase sequence with the Pampers. John Goodman sticking a drumstick against his head. Weird little things, little choices. I don’t know if they’re active choices or director choices, but I really liked the sensibility of the whole movie. It was extremely weird, but had a lot of heart to it as well.
One last question: You’ve made movies. Obviously, you’ve done music. Would you ever do a video game?
Sure. I mean, I’m not against it. I love video games. Once the pandemic started, I got absolutely hooked on video games. If somebody came to me and pitched me on the right property, absolutely!