Dr. Demento: Talking Turkey About Comedy and Novelty Music
Listening to The Dr. Demento Show, as a kid, was like being in a private club. All of my friends would eventually hear about “Weird Al” Yankovic (thanks to Dr. Demento). But growing up, none of my classmates were talking about novelty songs like “Elvis Was a Narc” by Richard M Bowden. So, like I said, it was a private matter. Fortunately, my older sister “got it” because every Sunday, just before 10:00 pm, she and I would scamper downstairs into our parents’ basement to listen to the radio show. For two hours, each week, we let our brains and bellies spontaneously react to weird, mind-bending and oftentimes hilarious music, like misfit scientists waiting for a chemical reaction to occur. Probably the best part about sharing this kind of comedic music with my sister was when our laughter was in perfect sync. We would listen to the lyrics of each song so intensely, we wouldn’t even look at each other. And yet, somehow, we were aligned with what was funny and what wasn’t. In retrospect, my sister and I owe much of our awkward sense of humor to Dr. Demento. I guess that’s why I was humbled to have the opportunity to interview the 74-year-old radio personality and record enthusiast as he was preparing for his Thanksgiving episode.
Barret “Barry” Hansen (aka Dr. Demento) established his persona in 1970 at KPPC-FM in Los Angeles. As legend has it, a fellow KPPC deejay accused Hansen of being “demented” after playing the song “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvus. By 1974, The Dr. Demento Show went into syndication and remained that way until 2010 when the industry allowed him to digitally produce his show on his laptop and from the comfort of his home. Although Dr. Demento is best known for his show, he was first (and remains) a staunch music collector…
Julie Simmons: Bring me back to that day you were in the thrift shop, as a child, and you came across all of those 78s being sold for 5 cents each. Before you listened to the song on those albums, what did you connect with? Was it the album covers that first got your attention or the band names or something else?
Dr. Demento: Those were all 78s. Some came in albums, but the ones for 5 cents were just single records. Thousands of them. That was all most thrift shops had in the 1950s. (Once in awhile I’d see some wax cylinders, but I had nothing to play them on). I had some idea of what to get…my parents had records, and so did both sets of grandparents (who had given me some of theirs). And at 5 cents I could pick up things that just looked to be worth exploring. Lots of trial and error, learning all the time. One thing I definitely did not have was the kind of information on older music that people take for granted today. I had a book on the history of jazz and Sigmund Spaeth’s “History of Popular Music In America”, but those referred to records only in a general way. In the 1950s, people thought old records were junk, unless they were jazz or classical.
JS: You’re commonly referred to as a walking encyclopedia of musical knowledge (and not just for the eccentric music you broadcast but for knowing a lot about rock history). What is it like to be inside the brain of someone who consumes a lot of music?
DD: Well, at any given time I usually have a tune running through my head, at least in the background. Not necessarily a funny song, and not always a rock song either. Lots of pop tunes from the 20s, 30s and 40s. Sometimes a tune I made up.
JS: What criteria have you used over the years to play a “weird” song? Could you go deeper into what makes the cut for Dr. Demento? And, more importantly, what doesn’t get played?
DD: It’s very subjective. I hear a song and decide whether it will work for the show. There are no hard and fast rules about that. One song will suggest another. Once I’ve played something, audience reaction helps determine whether it’ll get played again. Nowadays I have a database listing everything that’s ever been played on the show, and that will suggest something that hasn’t been played in a long time and deserves a revival…or it will also help me put together sets of songs that have something in common, ideally in a way that a set of songs will have a meaning above and beyond the meaning of each song.
JS: What doesn’t get played?
DD: Boring songs (hopefully). Songs that are too serious or too conventional. Music that’s poorly performed and/or recorded (though there are exceptions to that, especially in the Thanksgiving “musical turkeys” segment). Songs that are offensive to a point where the offensiveness outweighs the humor or other positive things about the song (in my subjective opinion, which occasionally changes). When I was on radio, I of course had to keep in mind the FCC [Federal Communications Commission]. That no longer applies, but I’ve discovered that my audience still prefers things that aren’t overly lewd or crude…especially in the absence of redeeming features. Lots of people listen with their kids, which is great. It’s nice that I don’t have to bleep every incidental cuss word that might pop up, like I did on radio. Even with the f-word, there is a difference between f-words that are just used for incidental emphasis, and those that actually relate directly to sex. The former are now OK in moderation. Any appearance of the latter will only be in the “bonus tracks” that I occasionally add at the end of the show. Even more controversial now are racial and ethnic pejoratives including the now-unmentionable n-word. That word was commonly used in vaudeville up to the 1920s, and in country music a bit longer than that, and it would crop up occasionally in old records I played on the show in the 1970s, but no more. It just causes a whole lot more trouble and bad feeling than it’s worth.
JS: Is there such a thing as a song that’s too “out there”?
DD: Not if it’s funny or entertaining enough!
JS: By playing your particular genre songs over the decades, did you gather insights about humor (as in what’s funny and what isn’t funny)?
DD: Yes, I certainly have! I could write a book about that and may yet do that someday. I can tell you that humor has changed greatly through the years. People in the past were more easily amused; they didn’t need or even want to be shocked into laughter. On the other hand they were not at all shocked by things that outrage and shock people today, especially the racial and ethnic jokes. And until quite recently people appeared to accept a certain level of sexism in humor that many listeners today will no longer tolerate (though others continue to love that stuff).
JS: Whenever you met the artist for a song you played on your show, were they as demented as their songs or seemingly “normal”?
DD: Hard to generalize…different artists are different people! However, very few are “on” through all their waking hours. Many of them can snap into character fairly easily when they have an audience; with others it takes a concerted effort. The more successful comedy entertainers just about all have a fairly serious attitude toward making their entertainment as good as it can possibly be. “Weird Al” is very serious about his work. So was Frank Zappa, probably the most intense workaholic I ever met. I interviewed George Carlin four times, and we spent a good part of each interview talking seriously about what makes comedy work. Of course, many funny people have had problems with substance abuse, which may make them act in an abnormal manner.
JS: Do you have a sense of what kind of a person enjoys your musical selection? Is there something your listeners all seem to have in common?
DD: It helps to be open-minded about music, and I do all I can to encourage that. I would say people who enjoy the show tend to have IQ’s a bit higher than average, sometimes way higher. Though some might associate the show with political liberalism, I’m pretty low key about politics. As I’ve learned from Facebook, we do have some very loyal listeners who are political conservatives and proud of it. I’ve noticed that my listeners, as a group, tend not to be much into drugs or alcohol. There are certainly exceptions to that…but when I used to do nightclub shows, club owners would say that they loved the show and people had a great time, but the bar proceeds were way below average…a big problem for club owners. The word spread about that, apparently, because it became hard for me to get nightclub gigs after a while.
JS: I read that you have a master’s degree in folklore and ethnomusicology from UCLA. My layman’s understanding of ethnomusicology is that it’s the study of music among different cultures.
DD: Correct. I took several courses in that area, along with courses more specifically involved with American traditional music.
JS: You’ve been highlighting a specific genre of music for over 40 years. Has this style of “novelty music” changed or evolved over the years or is weird always weird?
DD: Oh, the styles have changed enormously. When I started, rap music did not exist, but now there are plenty of novelty raps to play. The popular folk music of the late 1950s and 1960s lent itself very well to funny songs, and some of my best material still comes from “folk singers” like Christine Lavin. Funny songs were always a part of country music, though not as much lately. Some novelty music holds its appeal many years after its creation, while other songs have become dated and aren’t as funny as they once were. Songs about politics would be an obvious example of the latter, as well as songs about fads like hula hoops or pet rocks…though I’ll play one of that kind now and then for nostalgia’s sake.
JS: You have a documentary scheduled to be released in 2016 called “Under the Smogberry Trees: The True Story of Dr. Demento and Mr. Hansen.” I think the movie will be a reminder to everyone that you’re really one of a kind. There really hasn’t been anyone who has owned comedic novelty music like you have. So, congratulations on that legacy. Obviously, it’s very common for people in the entertainment industry to give themselves a show name. In reference to the movie’s subtitle, Is Dr. Demento just a show name or do you feel there’s a difference between Dr. Demento and Mr. Hanson?
DD: Dr. Demento talks a little louder, and Dr. Demento tends to emphasize words and names to make sure people understand them, more than Mr. Hansen would normally do especially if Mr. Hansen is talking to just one or two people. Something I rarely mention…one of my influences was the late newscaster Paul Harvey. Not his politics, for heaven’s sake, but his delivery.
JS: Earlier, you said that sometimes you come up with your own tunes. What are those tunes like? Do you have any examples?
DD: Good question! I’ve never had the fortitude/patience/performing talent to put any of those “tunes” into a presentable fashion, or even to “finish” one for that matter. Actually in many cases they’re just a fragment of something I’ve heard, repeated until I think of something else. They can be based on 1920s dance music, blues, or classical music, or most anything. Some pseudo-Native American music I heard when I was 9 made a long-lasting impression and that still rattles around in my head now and then.
JS: Do you remember the name of that “pseudo-Native American” music?
DD: “Little Hawk, the Indian Boy,” a story with several short songs. It was on the Young People’s Records label. They had a subscription program which my parents signed up for, and we got a new record in the mail each month. “Little Hawk” came out in 1950, the year I turned nine. YPR has a fascinating history, detailed in the book “Revolutionizing Children’s Records” by David Bonner. Not long afterward my third-grade teacher played a few pseudo-Indian records for us, including compositions by Thurlow Lieurance and Charles Skilton, both of whom you can read about on Wikipedia and elsewhere. Later on I heard real Native American music, but it’s the imitation stuff that hit my brain in its early formative years.
I’m reminded that my father passed away in 1949, when I was eight, from Hodgkin’s disease. (Often curable today, but not in 1949). That definitely changed my life, which had been fairly placid and pleasant up to that point. We had just moved to the Chicago area, where my dad took a new job just before he became ill. After his death we moved back to Minneapolis where most of our relatives lived. Our house in Kenilworth, IL was just a short block from a busy railroad line, which reinforced my lifelong love of trains. (Kenilworth is one of Chicago’s poshest suburbs, but the houses close to the tracks were not as expensive).
JS: There’s something interesting about hearing music after the death of a loved one…
DD: Yes. My mother had it worse than me…five days after my father died, she lost her mother. Friends of ours took care of my sister and me for a month before she moved us in with my maternal grandfather (who had just lost his wife) and we gradually put our lives back together. In 1952 (age 11) I started finding places that sold used records that I could afford with my allowance, and in 1953 the Salvation Army Book Store which had thousands of them for a nickel each.
JS: Which brings us right back to the beginning of our interview with you in the thrift shop buying those 78s. Seeing as Thanksgiving is coming up, what are your favorite Thanksgiving themed songs?
DD: “Alice’s Restaurant,” of course, though I only play that every five years or so nowadays. Stan Freberg’s Thanksgiving story from “The United States of America.”
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For more information on Dr. Demento, check out his website here.
For information on Dr. Demento’s upcoming documentary, check out this link.
To hear “Elvis was a Narc,” just have a listen.
To listen to “Pico and Sepulveda” by The Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band (the song used for the theme of The Dr. Demento Show), enjoy it here.
Want to hear the song that gave Dr. Demento his name? Listen here.