at the Evanston Holiday Inn, June 13
By Cara Jepsen
In his 1985 mockumentary, The Compleat Al, "Weird Al" Yankovic encounters a group of fans waiting in line to pay $3 to have their picture taken with his look-alike. When he deigns to step in front of the camera himself, the price goes up to $5.
That was back in Weird Al's heyday, when the videos for "I Lost on Jeopardy" and "Like a Surgeon," his parodies of Greg Kihn and Madonna, had made him nearly as ubiquitous as his targets. But just a few weeks ago, about 200 of Yankovic's real-life fans paid $33 a head to spend the day at a Holiday Inn in Evanston dressing like Al, lip-synching to his songs, eating the food celebrated in his lyrics, and buying things that used to belong to him--and with no promise that Al himself would show up for photos or anything else. Instead the guest of honor at Alcon '98 was to be Al's longtime drummer, Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz, who would screen rare videos by the absent star.
It's been nearly 20 years since Weird Al broke into showbiz. He got his start when, as an architecture major at California Polytechnic State University in 1979, he recorded "My Bologna," an accordion send-up of the Knack's "My Sharona," in a washroom and sent the tape off to Dr. Demento. Though his profile now is considerably lower than it was in the mid-80s, his last album, 1996's Bad Hair Day, went platinum, and he's expanded his fan base through other projects, among them the 1989 movie UHF, with Fran Drescher and Michael Richards, and a Saturday-morning TV show on CBS, which is cool kind of like Pee-wee's Playhouse was cool but nonetheless won't be back next season.
Weird Al's fans keep up with his doings and keep in touch with one another through a number of Web sites, one of which, www.weirdal.com, is updated regularly by Schwartz. The convention was cooked up in a Weird Al chat room, where longtime fan Amanda Cohen--a Chicago stand-up comedian and freelance journalist--was planning a pretend wedding between Al and another fan. "It was so much fun I thought it would be fun to do something real," she says.
Cohen looks a lot like Weird Al, with long, kinky dark hair and large glasses. So did many of the attendees who swarmed the Holiday Inn. Most accentuated the resemblance by sporting Al's trademark Hawaiian shirt and slip-on sneakers; others came in concert T-shirts. What they weren't already wearing they could buy from vendors who were hawking everything from hand-painted jackets to backstage passes to sheet music. A picture disc of "Like a Surgeon" went for $60; one of Al's wisdom teeth raised $500 in a charity auction.
When the fans weren't buying, they were often competing: Alcon '98 pitted them against one another in four contests and a talent show over the course of the day. Most of the contestants in the Look-Al-Like contest stayed in costume for the duration, including the women in fake mustaches. One fan, possibly an entrant in the more general costume contest, stood outside the conference room wearing a six-by-six transparent house containing a huge ball of string--a
visual tribute to 1989's "Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota." And two college students from Wisconsin happily sweated inside a giant number 27.
The figure appears so often in Yankovic's songs and videos that there's an entire Web page (www.webspan.net/-dprossi/txt/27.list.html) dedicated to keeping track. For instance, Al claims to have seen Porky's 27 times in "Cable TV," hits his snooze alarm 27 times in "Callin' in Sick," and closes episode 3601 of The Weird Al Show by saying, "Until next time, brush your teeth 27 times a day, and remember, Harvey is a professionally trained hamster." The students had spent six weeks perfecting the design for the human-size numerals, which included interior pockets that held gum and money and tiny speakers that played Weird Al tunes. One of the structural supports was pitched at a 27-degree angle. "We used a protractor and everything," explained the premed student wearing the 2.
Toward the end of the day, the fans all sat rapt while Chicago native Schwartz gave blow-by-blow accounts of every recording session, every tour, every personnel change, and every fall Yankovic has taken off the stage in the past 20 years. He told the crowd that the rest of the band is as impatient as the they are for Al to put together a new album, and that he recently loaned Al a stack of new CDs to mine for parody material.
The video screen flashed as fans snapped photos of Schwartz's presentation: Yankovic and the band performing a frenzied new-wave polka medley, Yankovic conducting a staid orchestra with one foot stuck behind his head, Yankovic and the band serenading an out-of-it talk-show host Joe Franklin with a rollicking version of "Hey Joe." They even took pictures of a TV segment about Yankovic undergoing laser surgery to correct his vision, which until January was 20/1000. ("I kind of like seeing Al slightly anesthetized," said the reporter.) The tape concluded with a short clip of Yankovic at home in LA, explaining that he was too busy to attend the convention. But then he said, "Oh heck, I'm not that busy"--and two seconds later he walked onstage.
The fans gave each other high fives and I-told-you-so looks. They applauded and shouted "Al!" The usually glib Cohen was momentarily dumbstruck. "I, uh, guess we'll announce the contest winners later or something," she finally said. The students from Wisconsin got off their chairs and back inside their numbers. The last two Alcon '98 T-shirts were snatched up. A man from Ann Arbor said he wasn't completely surprised: "I knew it had to be an absolute secret--otherwise too many people would be here to see him, as opposed to it being friends gathering who like Weird Al music."
It was decided that Al and Bermuda would sign autographs after dinner, which consisted of hot dogs, lasagna, mashed potatoes, and broccoli. Backstage, Schwartz pecked at his laptop, updating visitors to weirdal.com. Yankovic, who was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and glasses (which, he explained, are now just "props for photos"), politely refused Twinkies proffered by volunteers. When pressed for news about his 11th album, he said its completion is "dependent on the next pop culture phenomenon to come out" and cheerfully admitted that he missed the boat on Titanic. He sat with his fans to watch himself in the 1996 Disney special (There's No) Going Home, then went bowling with some of them when the convention ended at midnight. He seemed genuinely delighted by their enthusiasm, and they by his. As a man in a Klingon Nation hat said to his neighbor, "Maybe someone else like the Smashing Pumpkins who doesn't give a crap about their audience wouldn't come to their own convention, but not Weird Al." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Weird Al" Yankovic photo by Carl Studna; anonymous leg tattoo photo by Sandra A. Balyly.