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"Weird Al" Yankovic Profile (1996)

"Weird Al" Yankovic will be a featured performer at DiCesare Engler's "Quintex Wing Cook-Off and Music Festival" [tonight], but you can bet he won't be sampling any chicken wings.

Yankovic may play a junk-food munching maniac in his videos but in real life he's a total vegetarian.

The guy known for his grinding voice, wild lyrics and loud shirts is quiet -- almost mellow -- backstage. When fans are escorted in for post-show autographs Yankovic shows no trace of celebrity, just a bubbly welcoming grin of sincere appreciation. He's also the most professional guy in show biz. Yankovic works so hard, a concert tour is practically a vacation.

"I basically went without sleep for the first six months of this year," Yankovic says. "I'm trying to sublimate my puritan work ethic for a couple of months and just enjoy myself," he says.

The work ethic paid off. Yankovic's ninth new collection of original songs and parodies, "Bad Hair Day," has gone platinum in the U.S. and Canada. His new release of hilarious music videos was Billboard's number one best-seller for three weeks straight this summer, his MTV and Canadian "MuchMusic" cable specials earned terrific ratings and most critics agreed that his opening sequence for "Spy Hard" was the highlight of the movie.

The "Bad Hair Tour" is consistently selling out arenas of 2000 to 4000 seats, with audiences of up to 20,000 at outdoor festivals. Considering his show at the I.C. Light Amphitheatre is free, come early. "We've played some places in Wisconsin where it looks like Woodstock. You can't see the end of the crowd," says Yankovic.

The tremendous response isn't so weird when you consider that the new album is the best-selling release of his sixteen-year career. Its success is partly due to the smash single "Amish Paradise," a parody of rapper Coolio's "Gangsta Paradise." The Amish parody briefly outsold Coolio's version in parts of Canada.

Coolio is only the latest in a series of artists honored by the "Weird Al" treatment. Beginning with his self-titled first album in 1983, Yankovic has improved upon the work of chart-toppers like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Billy Ray Cyrus and Nirvana.

Before Yankovic's local gig was booked, I drove out to see the third date of the "Bad Hair Tour" at Hersheypark last May. That's 240 miles for the record. I had seen Al when he played Metropol in 1992 for the "Off The Deep End Tour," and previously in 1985 at Graffiti for the "Stupid Tour." On both occasions I met him after the shows. Imagine my thrill when he remembered me this time around.

Yankovic did two shows for SRO crowds at Hershey and I got to hang out backstage before and between, observing and enjoying my biggest brush with greatness to date.

Now, I don't get to hang with many bands, but I got the distinct feeling that Yankovic's wasn't like a normal band. I mean apart from the obvious.

I noticed that the fridge was full of pop (no beer) and a giant bowl of fruit graced a table. Even their catered din-din was vegetarian.

No drugs, no groupies, a lot of wedding rings.

The most decadent thing backstage was a giant chocolate chip cookie decorated to look like the cover of "Bad Hair Day," compliments of a shop at the mall where, ealier that day, Yankovic had signed autographs for couple thousand fans.

Talking with Al before the first show, I learned that some party-pooper had lobbed an egg during the autograph event. We agreed it must have been a local Amish sympathizer unhappy about "Amish Paradise."

Actually, most of the song's lyrics give a pretty fair reflection of life among the Amish, but the video depicts some oddities like feeding pizza to chickens and some suggestive butter churning. That's comedy. "If I did a song with an accurate representation of their lifestyle," explains Yankovic, "Well, that would be called a documentary."

The egg missed Al but unfortunately dropped on Lynette Bibbee, the tour's manager and publicity director.

After sound check I engaged in some harmless flirting with Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz, Yankovic's drummer and maintainer of my favorite web site, The Bermuda Files. How do you think I knew about Hershey in the first place?

Meanwhile the keyboardist, Ruben Valiterra, engaged in some questionable flirting with the two dancers who had been brought in to play the cheerleaders for the performance of "Smells Like Nirvana." Bermuda and I threw water on him before he got out of hand. Later we found someone's old "Hollywood" sign in another room and rearranged it to read "Oh Holy Moo."

I even got to see the crew setting out Yankovic's two MIDI accordions. All this and a concert, too.

After two months on tour, Yankovic isn't even road-fried yet. "I'm still actually enjoying this quite a bit," says Yankovic. "Ask me again in September or October."

Seeing Yankovic in concert is like seeing the best of rock and pop music all together in one show, but with the added bonus of comedy. But he does much more than add jokes to pop tunes. In the studio and onstage, Yankovic and his incredibly talented bandmates recreate the sounds and styles of all the bands he uses as source material.

Bermuda works with a vast but plain-sounding array of percussion instruments so he can adjust it to sound like anyone else's drum kit and reproduce sound effects. Guitarist Jim West can get any sound you'd need out of a couple of electric guitars and only occasionally electrocutes himself. Bass player Steve Jay also supplies a bass voice for some songs. Valtierra covers most of the keyboard work that Al used to do and then some.

"I work with one of the best bands in the world," says Yankovic, "and I'm very happy that they've hung with me for so long."

Yankovic also works closely with his recording engineer, Tony Papa, to build the music for his parodies from scratch. "We try to figure out what kinds of instruments and what kind of effects and outboard gear that the original artists used and try to match it as much as we can," Yankovic says. "It's kind of like pulling a song apart and excavating."

In 1992, Yankovic began producing his own recordings and directing his own videos. Last year he directed two videos for comedian Jeff Foxworthy and he may direct for some alternative bands after the Bad Hair Tour.

As the king of parody, indeed the king of all rock comedy, Yankovic says he's had no desire to try writing anything serious. "I think there's enough people who do unfunny music," he laughs. "That would go against my grain pretty harshly."

Something else that goes against his grain is gratuitous filth. Yankovic used to play mostly clubs and did just a few bits for the over-21 crowd, but now he's completely family-safe. "It's just my natural style," he says. "I don't use swear words in real life, and I'm generally a clean kind of guy. It's just an extension of my own personality." As if hanging out with Yankovic for a day weren't cool enough, after the shows we engaged in one of Yankovic's favorite pasttimes. Amid autograph seekers, we rode the newest roller coaster at Hersheypark, and guess what? Al screams just like you think he would.

The Fine Art of Lying (1995)

No capes, no magic words, no white doves. There is a bunny, but no top hat. Instead, Penn and Teller run their bunny through a chipper-shredder.

Penn Jillette, the tall one, harsh in voice and manner, and Teller, the silent one who endures the more physical stunts, are so far-removed from the wand-and-sequin rabble that their tricks often lampoon traditional magic.

"We never started off calling the show a magic show," says Teller (yes, he speaks). "Absolutely never. When we went off-Broadway, our producer said to us, 'From now on, magic is the M-word,' because if you say the word 'magic' in connection with the show, they will either think that it's some sort of dance spectacle, like David Copperfield, or they'll think it's a show that you drop kids off at."

What truly separates them from the flashy David Copperfields and the mystical Doug Hennings is the fact that Penn and Teller recognize the intelligence of the audience.

"I think Penn and I are the only people who do tricks who are willing to acknowledge the fact that the culture is savvy to magic," says Teller. "They're not benighted savages. They're sophisticated and enlightened dwellers of the 20th century."

To appreciate a Penn and Teller show, audiences should sharpen their minds rather than suspend their disbelief.

"The more you know about the physics of the real world, the more you'll enjoy us lying about the physics of our world," says Penn. "The more you go 'Aw, come on,' the more fun it will be."

Penn credits his partner of 19 years with the concept of magic for thinking people. "Teller's idea was that magic is essentially an intellectual form. And that the idea that you're being fooled is the interesting intellectual idea, not the actual special effect," he says. "What's going on is not a special effect. What's going on is a trick."

The distinction is significant, Penn says. "We come out and say, 'We are doing this trick. What are the implications of that?' Copperfield comes out and goes 'watch this!' And those are really different. One is very passive, very victim-like. You sit there and I will blow this by you."

People naturally want to examine the illusion that the performer presents, according to Teller. "You can't sit and watch a magic trick passively. You can't let it just wash over you and say, 'Ah, yes, the dove and birds from nowhere.' Even the lousiest dove act makes you go, 'Well, it looked one way but I know it has to be another.'"

As grand masters in the sport of lying, Penn and Teller have created a body of work around ingenious hoaxes. Their first book, "Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends," was packed with instructions for advanced lying. In fact, the directions themselves contained coded lies to confound the casual reader. "How To Play With Your Food," their second book, continued on the theme of lying to friends for fun and profit. A third book is in the works.

Their film, "Penn and Teller Get Killed," portrayed them lying to one another until only the title spoke the truth -- they got killed at the end.

Their short feature for Showtime, "Invisible Thread," based on a story originally penned by Penn, deceives on two levels. The secret within the story is that invisible thread doesn't really exist, but there's a gimmick to make people believe in it. The real secret is that the gimmick to make people believe in invisible thread is itself fictional.

Even Teller's silent style stems from his attraction to lying without talking. "I just love being able to tell a fictitious story without the benefit of the verbal lie," he says. "The idea of being able to tell a lie, in artistic circumstances, just fascinates me. Lying is usually relegated to speaking falsely. The idea that you could act and have that same kind of effect on a person, I just find sort of psychological bedrock."

Though his first introduction to magic was a set of Howdy Doody toy tricks, Teller says he was disillusioned by simple gimmicks as a child and instead was drawn to more cerebral trickery.

"I watched all the Alfred Hitchcocks and got into my head the idea that it was fun to watch something where there was an uncertainty where make-believe left off and reality began, which was a major theme of the Twilight Zone, and certainly a major theme of the Hitchcock shows, where it always had some sort of twist at the end which made you see the whole thing in a different perspective."

Years later, he and Penn would devise ways to apply that twist at the end. A classic example is their television trick in which they sit behind a desk and appear to defy gravity, making several objects leap mysteriously out of their hands toward the ceiling, while Penn insists they employ no special effects. At the end, the camera pulls back to reveal that the scene was shot flip-flop and the two men were suspended upside down, so the only special effect was gravity.

Tradition forbids magicians from revealing their tricks, but Penn and Teller share secrets for certain stunts if the revelation of the secret is more amazing than the trick itself. "You need this big 'aha,' this big release, and that's usually visual and it has to be very visceral," Penn explains. "Because otherwise it's not satisfying."

The complexity of Penn and Teller's tricks makes their show spectacular in a minimalist way, free from decorative glitz and girls. "I was brought up that torturing nameless women was not part of entertainment," says Penn. Instead, they torture one another, introducing the dramatic aspect of exploring their relationship onstage.

This results in images like Teller dangling over spikes and trying to escape before Penn finishes speed-reading "Casey at the Bat" as though he didn't care what happened to the little guy.

Although they studied magic independently from the time they were children, Penn and Teller were first introduced to one another in 1975 in Amherst, Massachusetts, near Penn's home town of Greenfield. A mutual friend invited them to perform with him, Penn juggling plungers while riding a unicycle and Teller reciting poetry while feigning blindness.

The trio worked around Philadelphia and later San Francisco, using their illusions at renaissance festivals and sˇances while developing a club act. In 1985, three years after the third guy left, Penn and Teller earned national recognition by dumping Madagascar hissing cockroaches on David Letterman's desk.

Currently, Penn and Teller are preparing material for a Broadway show to commemorate their 20th anniversary. Some of the new stuff is already in the act, hence the title of the show, "The 37% New Tour."

Actually, the show is 100% new for us since this is their first visit to Pittsburgh, not counting the time Penn flew in to see Lou Reed's concert, which was canceled, forcing Penn to wander around Station Square for an evening.

While in Pittsburgh, both Penn and Teller plan to visit the Andy Warhol Museum. It seems Andy was a fan, and he even had a cameo in "Invisible Thread." After seeing their show in New York, Warhol suggested an idea that involved staging a classic play like Arsenic and Old Lace with random effects throughout the production. They haven't done it yet, but Teller says they considered it. "We thought about it a lot, because he's certainly not known for bad ideas."

Resident Becomes Grandma with Romania Baby Adoption (1992)

A couple from Wilkins Township have become parents just in times for Mother's Day, but grandma says this is no ordinary bundle of joy.

Joseph Robert Christian Lukinich was delivered not by conventional methods, but by airplane. Mother and child arrived from Romania on March 14. Born on March 1, 1990, Joey was adopted by Joseph and Jaqueline Lukinich of Santa Rosa, Calif., this spring.

Joey's grandparents, Joe and Norene Lukinich, live here in Wilkins Township. His other grandmother, Betty Club, lives in North Versailles. Mrs. Lukinich says her daughter-in-law can hardly believe she finally has a son.

The struggle to become parents began 20 years ago for Mrs. Lukinich's son and his wife. When they could not conceive their own child, they applied to adoption agencies but were repeatedly turned down.

During the Vietnam War, they applied to adopt a Vietnamese child. They had also applied to take home a Korean baby, but they never got one. Mrs. Lukinich believes one reason for their denials may have been the fact that her son serves in the Coast Guard. He is currently stationed in Alameda, Calif., but has served in Japan, Turkey, and many other countries.

When they heard the plight of Romanian babies last January, they quickly applied to adopt one. They immediately were told to come to Romania. After a week, the baby still could not be released, and Mr. Lukinich had to fly in to take over for his wife.

He stayed for three weeks, but could not get any more leave from the Coast Guard, so his wife returned to Romania for another week and a half to finalize adoption proceedings and bring the baby home.

Grandma Lukinich, who had flown to California to see her new grandson the week before, only got to see Joey for a day and a half before returning home.

The entire process cost the family about $15,000. The flight alone cost $2,000. The couple paid $1,000 to Joey's biological mother, who never learned their real names.

Mrs. Lukinich says conditions in Romania necessitate such transactions. "They get money for their little ones to feed their older children because the conditions are so poor there."

Much of the money was borrowed, and when they can afford to make the trip again, they plan to adopt a little sister for Joey.

When he is old enough, his parents will tell him about his adoption. The entire event, from mom meeting baby to mother and child flying home, has been preserved on video.

Joey's aunts, uncle and cousins all live near grandma. Next summer, his parents plan to bring him home to Wilkins Township to be baptized.

During one of the precious moments she spent with Joe, Mrs. Lukinich says her daughter-in-law could not help staring at the baby. "I asked her why, and she said 'I just can't believe he's mine, after all these years.'"

Dentist Earns Military Promotion (1992)

A Turtle Creek dentist learned on his birthday that he has been selected for promotion to the rank of captain in the U.S. Navy.

Dr. E. W. Meharra will receive the promotion officially next year.

Meharra maintains his civilian practice at Penn Plaza Shopping Plaza in Turtle Creek. He has practiced family dentistry for the past 14 years, with a dental degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a master's degree from George Washington University. He received his undergraduate degree from St. Vincent College in Latrobe.

Meharra also serves as the commanding office of Fleet Hospital 18, Detachment J, a 500 bed combat zone Naval Reserve hospital, based in Ebensburg.

A decorated veteran of the Vietnam conflict, Meharra served with the 1st Marine Division and as a former department head aboard the U.S.S. Guadalcanal, a helicopter carrier stationed in Norfolk, Va.

He served actively for eight years, and has served for the past eight years as a reservist. About half of his 40-member detachment of field doctors and nurses were called to active duty during the Persian Gulf war, and though Meharra says he was prepared to go, he was not called up.

"I was disappointed in a way, but they needed more corpsmen. They needed more trained people in the field than they needed trained officers."

In preparation for the possibility of going to the gulf, Meharra wrote a letter that he planned to send to his patients to explain his absence. A few colleagues had volunteered to take some of his office duties if necessary. When the war started, some patients called to see if their dentist was sill in the United States.

Working with the reserves, Meharra uses all of his medical ski9lls to coordinate the training of medical personnel.

"That's one of the refreshing things about being a reservist, " he says. "Knowing the military and medical sides of things. There are different problems."

On active duty, he would work in triage, sorting casualties as they arrived at the field hospital.

Later this month, Meharra will work for two weeks at the Mayport Naval Air Station near Jacksonville, Fla., as a dentist. The assignment will give him the opportunity to bring the family down for a vacation, including a trip to Disney World.

Weekly reviews and promotion of improv show.

Some articles online... 

KDKA Radio History

Cool Pick Hotel (an early web surfing column)

You can also look up Amanda's articles here...

Chicago Tribune

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In Pittsburgh