Interview With Dr. Demento

Dr. Demento dared to play Frank Zappa.

Back in 1975, “Love Will Keep Us Together” was a HOT 100 single and Barry Hansen A.K.A. Dr. Demento was spinning “Evelyn, A Modified Dog” from Frank Zappa’s stellar album “One Size Fits All?.” How dope is that?

For more than four decades, Dr. Demento is credited with opening the minds of many to unusual/alternative/avant-garde bands. By now you know his story or at least you have heard his influence. “Weird Al” Yankovic rose to fame through the Dr. Demento Show. His first song parody from 1979 was “My Bologna” (modeled after “My Sharona” by the Knack). Other notable earworms have included, Sheb Wooley’s “Flying Purple People Eaters,” Ogden Edsl’s “Dead Puppies,” and Barnes & Barnes “Fish Heads.” However, the catalog of WHAT Dr. Demento showcased on his show goes DEEP, deeper than Atlantis. A personal stand out for myself was “Rappin’ Duke” by Shawn Brown Dr. Demento created a genre almost single-handedly. The “novelty” song has been replaced by an entire subculture of “Demented Music.” Parodies, satire and original music from some very talented artists and musicians.

Now, Dr. Demento’s show is online

He still does a show once a week, posting a new show on Saturdays, but you can now go back and listen to old shows as well, going all the way back to the beginning. There are hundreds of shows available in the archive. For a small fee, you can hear his weekly broadcast, without commercials and without censorship.

Let’s face it, the blandness and conformity of commercial radio have led to digital distribution and iPod connections in almost every car. A lot of us still look for the odd, the obscure and the just plain funny. While I can’t name all of the musical styles and epochs in musical history that Dr. Demento introduced me to, it was a musical education. Musical enlightenment you could dance to while laughing. It even inspired my own songwriting. If you want…or if you NEED a key to a lost world of weirdness and joy, do yourself a favor and look the good doctor up.

Before we discuss anything, I think it’s important to note that you have been doing what you do for over 40 years, how does that feel?

Actually the only time I think about how I feel is when someone asks. Sometimes it feels like forever, other times just an instant.

What is your take on geek culture today? Is it any different than when you were growing up?

It’s much more organized today. That’s a good thing for at least one reason – “geeks” can seek out other geeks, and do things together, either in person or electronically. There have always been people who lived their lives apart from mainstream society, and became greatly fascinated with such things as science fiction, inventions, or old records (my choice). We weren’t called geeks back then, the word “geek” meant other things. We didn’t really have a name, except “weirdos” or something like that. People like me often lived rather solitary lives, since it wasn’t easy to connect with others who might share our persuasions. Today, with the Internet, geeks can find others with similar persuasions, help each other out, and band together in sufficient numbers to hold conventions, and wield greater influence in society.

What was your reaction when you heard “Fish Heads” for the first time? And what about “Weird Al”?

I knew “Fish Heads” would be popular with my listeners.  And I knew right away that Weird Al had a lot of talent for funny music, and wasn’t afraid to be a little, well, weird. In both cases, of course, their impact and magnitude became even more evident over time. With Al, it seemed like every year he showed us something else, something he hadn’t done before, that he could do and do well.

Did you actually break Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince? 

I played some of their songs when they were new, at a time when I didn’t play many hip-hop records (many of the stations we were on despised hip-hop). But no, I can’t honestly take credit for “breaking” them.

I remember that the Dr Demento show was broadcast on the hard rock station here in Salt Lake (KBER)…what other unusual stations did you find yourself syndicated on?

In the early years of the syndicated show (ca. 1974-early 80s) the radio industry really didn’t know what to make of my show except that it got good ratings, so a lot of different sorts of stations tried it. “Active rock” stations like KBER were actually not a bad fit because, like my show, they attracted young male listeners.  Probably the most unusual station I was ever on was one in Teheran, Iran, in the mid-1970s, before the revolution there. In those days a lot of Americans worked for the oil industry in Iran, and there was an FM station especially programmed for them.  (Later, I was on AFRTS for awhile).

When did music start taking itself so seriously? (And Why?)

Pop music (as opposed to classical) began taking itself more seriously in the 1960s. Books have been written about that, but some of the main reasons were: the civil rights movement, and young people’s involvement in that, the Vietnam war (ditto), the rise of Bob Dylan and other mostly serious-minded entertainers, and the shift from singles to albums as the main vehicle for pop and rock music (and the exploitation of the LP medium by brilliant and innovative artists like Dylan, the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, etc.).

Were you ever a fan of Benny Hill?

I never spent as much time watching TV as most people, so I didn’t get hooked on his TV show, but I heard and sought out his records.

Is there a ‘golden era’ for novelty tunes?

If you’re talking about a time when novelty tunes had their greatest influence in the marketplace, on Top 40 radio and so on, it would be from 1956 to 1966.

What is your litmus test for songs that you pick and play?

Over forty-plus years I’ve developed a feeling for what my listeners will probably like. It’s very subjective. No hard and fast rules. It helps if the lyrics are funny, of course, and it’s best if they establish themselves as being funny rather quickly. It helps if the music is listenable, especially if the performer has feeling and what one might call charisma. Of course, now and then there’s something that’s so bad that it’s funny on account of that. Some people cherish music like that, but I find a little of it goes a long way.

What do you define as boring music?

Music that’s not entertaining.  That varies a lot of course, depending on the listener.  For me it would be an unimaginative song, performed without much passion or enthusiasm.  Or maybe a five-minute song that’s supposed to be funny but isn’t, or has just one or two decent lines. I get a lot of those.

What is funnier: A slide whistle or the classic cartoon “boing” sound?

It all depends on the context and the execution.  If you’re expecting a slide whistle and you get a boing, or vice versa, that could be real funny, if it’s well executed.

How is the documentary going? Tell us a little about the process of getting involved in something like that.

No news to report on that right now, unfortunately.   A lot of very nice interviews and other excellent footage is “in the can.”  More funding will be needed to complete the project. (Licensing music can be very expensive!)


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