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Interview w/ Dr. Demento
By Holly Day
(more articles from this author)
2001-01-20
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Like thousands of deviants, I can trace the roots of my insomnia back to The Dr. Demento Show. After my father put his fist through the television when I was three, my parents decided that it would be much better for my sister and I to grow up without the evil influence of TV. Dr. Demento's radio world of funny songs and Cheech 'n' Chong skits would come on around midnight in on Z92 in Omaha, Nebraska, when I was seven, and I’d lie awake in bed for hours waiting for the clock to strike twelve, pretending to be asleep. Lucky for me, while my dad hated television, he was more than happy to give me and my sister any of his cast-off stereo equipment, including a decent stereo and a pair of sound tech headphones. The Dr. Demento Show gave me my first exposure to Devo, Jim Carroll, and punk rock—he was my salvation.

Born Barret Hansen in 1941 in Minneapolis, Dr. Demento was raised in a household filled with music, from his father’s collection of Spike Jones records to the piano lessons he was forced to take as a child. "I still own an electric keyboard," he confesses. "But I never play it." While his father’s love for playing the piano didn’t take with young Barry, their shared love for old-time novelty music did. The two fo them would often visit used record bins in Twin Cities’ thrift stores, where Barry spent most of his extra money buying old 78s at 5 cents a pop. This collection—consisting mostly of popular music from the 40’s and 50’s with novelty B-sides--grew with Barry, making him the DJ of choice at high school sock hops. The collection also followed him through his undergraduate days at Reed College, Oregon, and on to L.A., where he landed a gig as a station DJ at KPPC-FM in Pasadena, California.

Dr. Demento's weekly two-hour festival of comedy and mayhem has provided a welcome break from corporate rock for nearly 30 years. Since its first humble beginnings as a primarily oldies radio show in 1974, The Dr. Demento Show has been broadcast in just about every state at one time or another. While station format changes and corporate buy-outs have reduced the range of The Dr. Demento Show--only about 100 stations carry the show now as opposed to at least twice that in the Eighties--the show and the Doctor himself are still going strong, bringing both classic Demento hits and new, unsolicited and undiscovered talent to its listeners’ ears. Rhino Records has just released the 30th Anniversary collection of some of these hits, featuring Tom Lehrer's "The Elements", "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota" by "Weird Al" Yankovich (whom Dr. Demento first introduced to the world after receiving the 16-year-old's "demo tape"), and Monty Python’s classic "Lumberjack Song." And what novelty collection would be complete without at least one passionate cover from an ex-Star Trek cast member? Leonard Nimoy's torturous rendering of "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" is here, too.

Perhaps one reason that the Dr.’s show doesn’t get carried on as many stations now as it used to is that, for the most part, radio DJs have become these vibrant, albeit incredibly irritating, personalities since 1974. The DJ used to be this cool intermission between songs whose purpose was only to report on what you just heard and give a preview for what was about to come on. Now, most morning radio shows rarely play Top 40 music—-they play comedy skits, or novelty music, or just sit and yack their way through impromptu political humor and field listeners’ calls. When the Dr. Demento Show first came out, there was none of this. The music of that time took itself way too seriously, and Dr. D. and his good-natured humor was a welcome break from a world ruled by Pink Floyd and Genesis, no doubt inspiring many of the DJs of today who have adapted his show’s format to fit their own. But who knows? Maybe the next decade will see the end of the Morning Zoo Crews and the shock jocks of the world, bringing back the impersonal DJ and paranoiac musicians intent on prophesying the end of the world. If so, don’t worry--Dr. Demento will still be around to save us all.

The good Doctor spoke to us over the phone from his alma mater campus of Reed College, Oregon, where he was preparing to give a lecture about the history of rock 'n' roll.

[H] How did you get your start in radio?

[D] When I was quite small, I used to like to play "DJ", where I'd just play records on the phonograph and pretend I was introducing them on the radio. I started playing records at the sock hops at my high school--I had the biggest record collection in school, so I would play records and introduce them. When I got out to Reed College, I got to be on an actual, not very powerful, but still a real FM station on campus. Later, after I'd gone on to get my Master's degree at UCLA, I became known around Los Angeles for being something of an expert on the early days of rock 'n' roll. I was asked to do some guest appearances on a local FM radio station, playing records from my collection. That grew into The Dr. Demento show.

[H] When did you first start using the "Dr. Demento" moniker?

[D] Here's actually how it happened: At that first FM station, most of the personalities had funny names. On one of my first guest appearances, I was playing a song called "Transfusion," which came out in 1956 and was what they used to call a novelty record, or a funny song that was actually on the charts. I was playing this thing, and one of the other members of the station's staff came into the room and said, "You've got to be demented to play that shit on the radio!" Those were his exact words. One of the other on-air personalities overheard that remark and started calling me Dr. Demento. I started calling my show "The Dr. Demento Show" about a week after that.

[H] What did your family think when you’d decided to become a DJ?

[D] I think they would have preferred that I’d become a university professor, but they were fine with it. My mom’s quite proud of me now, I think.

[H] What do you think of the current state of popular radio?

[D] Well, it's become ever so corporate, with huge corporations buying up 5-10 stations in every major city, which has it even more difficult for mavericks, such as me, to find a place in a stations timeslot. Which is why you can't hear the show in Minneapolis. I'm a prophet without honor in my hometown! [He laughs.] But the show has been out there in the past; we keep trying. So outside of that, I mean, radio is a business, and it's never been more obvious than now.

[H] So do you think the fact that anyone can record and release an album from their living room is going to make the music climate more interesting?

[D] Oh, sure. Of course, in a way, it’s just a technological improvement over what they could always do on cassette, except for being able to just transmit things instantly on the ‘Net. MP3 files are going to change things, too. The hardware is expensive, but at the same time, it’s less expensive than pressing up CDs and printing the booklets and all that. Bands have to resort to alternative ways to get their music out despite problems with record companies, such as MP3s, and the ‘Net and all its possibilities, and, of course, playing live.

[H] A few years ago, you introduced the Meat Puppets at a show when they came through Minneapolis. How did that come about?

[D] Well, I had heard that they had been fans of my show, I guess when they were growing up. And after a show they did in Los Angeles, I went up and introduced myself to them. We ended up hanging out for a while and eventually became friends. The night I introduced the Meat Puppets in Minneapolis, I myself was also doing my stage show down the street at the Fine Line Café. My road manager just said, "Oh, hey, the Meat Puppets are playing two blocks away. You want to go see the Meat Puppets?" And I said, "Sure," so when we got there, we went in through the backstage door, and greeted each other as friends, and Curt Kirkwood said, "Would you like to introduce us?" so I did. So it was as simple as that. It was really just a coincidence that we were all in town at the same time.


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