Weird Al Yankovic recently appeared on The Howard Stern Show and discussed asking Kurt Cobain for permission to parody Nirvana. Howard Stern’s website recapped the interview.
Howard was very curious about the legality of Al’s song parodies, wondering if he gets permission from every artist.
“I think ethically, it’s the right thing to do to ask the original songwriters, and also, we live in a very litigious society where even if there’s no legal grounds, people can sue each other,” Yankovic explained. “And nowadays, with all the rap songs I’m doing, you don’t want to be involved in a drive-by. That’s just never fun,” he joked.
Michael Jackson was one of the first major artists to give Al documented permission to parody one of his songs. “There’s a contract that has my signature next to Michael Jackson’s signature saying we are the co-writers of ‘Eat It,'” Al told Howard.
Another major artist who signed off on a Weird Al song was Kurt Cobain for “Smells Like Nirvana.”
“My manager was having a tough time getting through to his people, so I find out that he’s going to be doing ‘SNL,’ and thought, ‘I’ll just call him up,'” Al recalled. So he simply phoned Cobain at the “Saturday Night Live” studio.
“I told [Kurt] I want to do a parody of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ and his first thing was: ‘Is it going to be about food?’ and I said, ‘no, it’s going to be about how no one can understand your lyrics.'”
Cobain thought the concept was funny and signed off on it.
The video for “Smells Like Nirvana” even managed to pull off some surprising authenticity. “We got the same janitor, some of the same cheerleaders, and a lot of the same crowd,” Al told Howard. “I don’t know how we found them, but we found a lot of the same people that were like, in the moshing scene.”
The “Smells Like Nirvana” song and video ended up being successful for all parties involved. “I was talking to an executive from Nirvana’s record label, and they told me that after my parody came out, they sold another million units of ‘Nevermind'” Al said. “One of my favorite quotes is Kurt Cobain said he didn’t realize he’d made it until he saw the Weird Al video,” the proud parody artist added.