Still Demented After All These Years An Interview with Dr. Demento By Skizz Cyzyk. In the late ’60s, disc jockey Barry Hansen got an idea to slip some records from his own record collection into his set...
In the late ’60s, disc jockey Barry Hansen got an idea to slip some records from his own record collection into his set. Having been an avid fan and collector of many styles of music, Hansen recognized that many bands of the day, like The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin, were covering old R& B songs that most of their fans had never heard. He figured it would be a hoot to play the original versions while everyone else was still playing the more-popular cover versions. Interspersed, he would throw in novelty records, like “The Purple People Eater” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight)?” The request line began lighting up and the novelty records quickly became the more popular staples of his show. In 1970, a fellow disc jockey overheard someone describe Hansen as “demented” for playing Nervous Norvus’ “Transfusion” on the air, and thus was born “Dr. Demento”. A nationally syndicated radio program quickly followed and thirty years later, the good doctor is still at it, turning young and old audiences alike on to some of the greatest comedy recordings ever made.
To celebrate, longtime collaborator Rhino has released Dementia 2000!, a 2-disc 30th Anniversary collection with 42 tracks on it. There’s something for everyone, including classics (Bryan Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini,” The Coaster’s “Charlie Brown,” Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling”), parodies (Weird Al’s “Yoda” & “Another One Rides The Bus,” National Lampoon’s “Deteriorata,” Big Daddy’s “Hamster Love”), comedy skits (the Dead Alewives’ “Dungeons And Dragons,” Cheech & Chong’s “Pedro & The Man Part 1,” The Frantics’ “Last Will and Temperament,” The Vestibules’ “Bulbous Bouffant,” intellectual humor (Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements,” Henry Phillips’ “On The Shoulders Of Freaks”) and a whole lot more.
Skizz Cyzyk: When you first started, did you have any idea you’d still be doing this thirty years later?
Dr. Demento: No. When I did the first Dr. Demento Show I wasn’t even sure I’d be doing one the next week.
SC: And now you have this CD out, Dementia 2000: the 30th Anniversary Collection. This is the third collection, isn’t it?
Dr. Demento: It’s the third in this series. There was a 20th Anniversary collection and a 25th. Before that there was a single CD and various LP’s.
SC: There’s so many great songs on this 30th Anniversary CD, but reading the liner notes, you keep mentioning all these other amazing songs. Meanwhile I’m thinking, “Oh yeah, I remember that song,” and then you mention that they’re on the other anniversary collections, making me think, “Oh man, I gotta go out and get all the other collections now.”
Dr. Demento: Well, we never want to duplicate the earlier ones on the anniversary series.
SC: Any chance there’ll ever be a box set of all of them?
Dr. Demento: It’s been talked about.
SC: A 40th Anniversary?
Dr. Demento: Uh, I don’t know. It has come up in discussions with Rhino. But no firm plans.
SC: Over the thirty years, what sort of changes have you noticed in the funny music business?
Dr. Demento: Thirty years worth of new stuff has come out. When I started the show, I was playing for an audience of people who had, in many cases, grown up with their parents Spike Jones records. Now much of my audience barely knows who Cheech & Chong is and Spike Jones is ancient history. But that doesn’t stop me from playing Spike’s work fairly often.
SC: I have to admit when I was little I didn’t know who Spike Jones was, but I was a huge fan of Cheech & Chong, much to my parents disapproval. But it was your show that turned me on to Spike Jones, who I still love today. It was probably your show where I first heard Ogden Edsl’s “Kinko The Clown,” too.
Dr. Demento: Probably so.
SC: Have you had to tone down the material over the years because of the whole politically correct movement?
Dr. Demento: Oh, there’s a few cases of that. “Kinko The Clown,” is still on the playlist once in awhile.
SC: Is it? Wow. I used to get tons of complaints for playing that on college radio ten years ago.
Dr. Demento: Well, I may get more complaints about that than any other song. Outside of that, probably the one I get the most complaints about is “Dead Puppies” by the same artists.
SC: That one? That’s hysterical!
Dr. Demento: Right. That’s also our number two most requested song of all time, right after [Barnes & Barnes’] “Fish Heads,” so you can’t please everybody. I guess examples of things that I used to play that now you aren’t too likely to hear would be, uh, “gay-baiting” humor that was really big in the ’70s. Some examples of that are “Big Bruce,” (which was actually late ’60s) “CB Savage,” and “The Ballad of Ben Gay.” Those are the sort of the changes I’ve come to; to realize that those are hurtful to people and they probably just aren’t as funny as they used to be. Of course, in the years past, before I even started my show, humor that made fun of black people was extremely popular. “Amos & Andy,” for instance. So times change.
SC: Do you still actively seek out material or are you just bombarded with submissions? I would imagine that the people making “Demento material” would know enough to send it to you.
Dr. Demento: I get a lot of it in the mail, but I still do some shopping. I still go to thrift shops, though maybe not quite as often as I used to. And I’ll still pick up reissues that come out on CD, and the occasional new comedy album that comes out from one of the major labels.
SC: How much of the stuff that’s sent to you, do you end up turning down or not using?
Dr. Demento: Oh, I try to add, on the average, three to four things per week that I’ve never played before. And we get, oh, fifteen or twenty CD’s and tapes every week.
SC: I know you get a lot of submissions. Has it changed a lot from cassettes to CD-Rs lately?
Dr. Demento:: Definitely in the last two or three years.
SC: So when you get new stuff, what sort of things are you looking for and what sort of things make you say, “No, absolutely not”?
Dr. Demento: I try to stay objective. If I think it’s entertaining then it gets considered. If it bores me then it probably won’t. Of course, I look at other things too. I mean, I may enjoy a piece of music a lot, but somehow feel it isn’t quite right for the show.
SC: Something like The Vestibules’ “Bulbous Bouffant,” if someone had sent that to me, I wouldn’t know what to make of it. I mean, personally, it’s the sort of thing I would love, but I’d wonder whether other people would get it.
Dr. Demento: That original album has like 28 tracks on it, and that one’s down towards the end. But I’d heard the group before. They’d sent me tapes, so it was an album that I certainly listened to carefully making sure I heard it all. That particular track, I just heard it and said, “Well, that’s different!” It kind of reminds me a little bit, in it’s pacing, of a couple other things that I play, but I thought I’d take a chance with it. I never thought it would become as popular as it did. I thought there were maybe three or four other things on that CD that were just as strong, but that’s the one that caught on. I think it’s because it goes a little beyond just being comedy. The hypnotic wordplay just kind of generates a little aura of it’s own.
SC: It kind of starts off sounding like a Bert & Ernie skit from Sesame Street, and then goes way out in left field from there.
Dr. Demento: I think when I first heard it, the first thing I thought of was The Frantics, a Canadian group from the ’80s. Their stuff is still very popular on the show. They did a sketch about two guys waiting in line to buy tickets at a bus station, and the delivery is kind of similar. That was the first thing it reminded me of but then it went on to an entirely different place.
SC: Are there a lot of particular favorites that you love that just never seem to get requested, that you sort of wish you could get more people to like?
Dr. Demento: Well, we really don’t get that many calls for Spike Jones anymore. There’s a few diehards. Or anything from before the rock era, there’s a few die hards, but I still love to put that stuff on. The calls tend to be dominated by fans of Weird Al Yankovic and some of the other relatively young people that I play, which is normal, times change.
SC: You get a lot of credit for being the person who put Weird Al on the map. Are there any other artists from over the years that you thought were really going to make it big and it just didn’t happen?
Dr. Demento: Well, nobody really is in Al’s class. He’s in a class by himself. So with the others, I’m just happy with the success that they have. I can’t think of anybody right off hand who has really disappointed me. I mean there are good people who put out albums that may be not as good as the previous one, that happens of course. It happens with the best of them. I’d rather not put the finger on anybody, but rather relish the ones who’ve had some success.
SC: One last question, and I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but if you could be any vegetable which one would it be?
Dr. Demento: Oh, let’s see, maybe I’d be the plant in The Little Shop of Horrors, does that count? I mean, I’d rather eat than be eaten I suppose.
SC: Well, doctor, thanks for talking with me, and thanks for thirty years of very enjoyable entertainment. I hope you have another thirty in you.
Dr. Demento: My pleasure. I feel pretty good about it and hope that I do. I’ll do the show as long as I can lift a CD onto the turntable or whatever form of delivery and storage that we’re going to have in the future.
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Article revised and available in the Impossibly Funky Collection