Dr. Demento: Off The Air, But Still Happily Deranged

Jun 23, 2010

For 40 years, Barret Hansen, known on the airwaves as "Dr. Demento," has broadcast everything weird in the music world. The Dr. Demento Show has become a cult radio institution, providing an outlet for what Demento describes as "mad music and crazy comedy." This past month, the show has finally gone off the air.

The Dr. Demento Show began in 1970 as a rock 'n' roll and oldies radio program that featured B-sides, rarities and other nuggets. But it was zany songs like Sheb Wooley's "The Purple People Eater," Barnes & Barnes' "Fish Heads" and Elmo & Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" that caught the public's ear.

"I found that most of my requests were for those funny things -- 'The Purple People Eater' and 'Transfusion' by Nervous Norvus," Demento says in an interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep. "And so, the more I played that kind of thing, the more popular the show got, and I became the funny-record guy."

Demento frequently spins the music of Spike Jones, Monty Python, Stan Freberg, Tom Lehrer and, of course, Frank Zappa. Early in Demento's career, fans began sending in their own joke songs and parodies. Most notably, a 16-year-old "Weird Al" Yankovic sent a homemade cassette tape to Dr. Demento, who embraced the young accordion player's oddball sense of humor.

"I think without The Dr. Demento Show, the probability is high that Alfred Yankovic would be a professional architect today," Demento says.

The End Of The Golden Age

Although changes in the radio and recording industries have allowed parodists and niche recording artists to make their music at quicker rates, in higher volume and with better quality, The Dr. Demento Show has been officially taken off the broadcast airwaves.

"Stations that call themselves Top 40 usually play a particular style of music aimed at women aged 18 to 30," Demento says, "and The Dr. Demento Show, for some reason, has not tested too well in focus groups among that particular demographic."

Still, fans need not fear. The Dr. Demento Show will continue on Internet radio. His fan base is still going strong, and he says he hopes to remain an attraction for music aficionados who don't fit into the traditional mainstream demographic of radio listener.

"There are exceptions, of course, and The Dr. Demento Show is for all of the exceptions of the world," Demento says. "And that is why I think that Internet radio is a good fit for us, because they can find us anywhere."

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(Soundbite of song, "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer")

Dr. ELMO (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Grandma got run over by a reindeer...

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We've been talking with a man who gets some of the credit for bringing you songs like this. His name is Barret Hansen, though you may know him better by his nom de guerre: Dr. Demento.

(Soundbite of song, "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer")

Dr. ELMO: (Singing) ...but as for and Grandpa, we believe.

INSKEEP: Dr. Demento's famous radio program went off the air this month. He is still heard on Internet radio, but his broadcast cancellation marks a milestone. For 40 years, he made the radio a slightly weirder place.

(Soundbite of song, "Fish Heads")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads.

INSKEEP: What kind of music is it that you have brought to the public's attention all these years?

Mr. BARRET HANSEN (Radio Personality and Programmer, "The Dr. Demento Show"): Well, in a phrase, I call it mad music and crazy comedy. It's the music of Weird Al Yankovic, my most famous protege. It's also Spike Jones, Monty Python, some of the giants of the not-too-long-ago, including Stan Freberg and Allan Sherman, Tom Lehrer - two out of those three still very much alive - and, oh, Frank Zappa, of course. I've introduced a lot of people to Frank's music.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by calling Weird Al Yankovic a protege?

Mr. HANSEN: Well, he started on my show. He sent me a homemade cassette tape when he was 16 years old, and I played it on my show. I think without "The Dr. Demento Show," the probability is high that Alfred Yankovic would still be a professional architect today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSEN: That was his - that's what he wanted to do originally.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: He ended up being an architect of a different kind.

Mr. HANSEN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "I Love Rocky Road")

Mr. WEIRD AL YANKOVIC (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Baby, I love rocky road. So you won't you go and buy a half a gallon, baby? I love rocky road. So have another triple scoop with me.

INSKEEP: And you're trolling in this brand of music. I don't know if you'd call it novelty songs. Also, it's a kind of music that's been around as long as there's been recorded music, anyway. And you got excited about that kind of music when you were a young man?

Mr. HANSEN: Oh, yes. It actually started when I was four years old and my dad brought home a copy of "Cocktails for Two" by Spike Jones, which was then a new release. So that was the first funny music I heard, that along with "Too Fat Polka" by Arthur Godfrey that some may remember. A little politically incorrect, though not maybe as much, though, as "Slap Her Down Again, Pa," another Arthur Godfrey hit of the 1940s. But after "The Dr. Demento Show" started in 1970 as kind of a rare rock and roll oldies show, I found that most of my requests were for those funny things, "The Purple People Eater" and so on, and "Transfusion" by Nervous Norvus. And so, the more I played of that kind of thing, the more popular the show got. So I became the funny-record guy, though that was not my original intent.

INSKEEP: Now, we're talking to you now because, of course, the program has finally gone off of the broadcast airwaves, although I understand you're continuing it on the Web. What happened to the radio show?

Mr. HANSEN: Oh, I don't know. Tastes change, but mostly the radio industry has changed. Now, for instance, stations that call themselves top 40 usually play a particular style of music mainly aimed at women 18 to 30, and "The Dr. Demento Show," for some reason, has not tested too well in focus groups among this particular demographic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSEN: There are exceptions, of course. "The Dr. Demento Show" is for all the exceptions of the world, and that is why I think Internet radio is a good fit for us, because they can find us anywhere.

INSKEEP: So you've brought along some songs that you have been listening to now that you think reflect on the news. As a matter of fact, one of them is about the oil in the Gulf of Mexico, "Black Water" by Steve Goodie.

Mr. HANSEN: OK.

(Soundbite of parody song, "Black Water")

Mr. STEVE GOODIE (Singer): (Singing) Oh, black water, keeps on flowing. Fill the Gulf soon, but we'll keep refining, BP. Oh, black water, keeps on growing. Executive goons, we're nickel and diming, BP. Oh, black water, keeps on rolling, up the Mississippi soon, got to keep on lying, BP. Yeah, keep on lying tonight. Got to say...

INSKEEP: Laughing to keep from crying.

Mr. HANSEN: Yes.

INSKEEP: You've also brought along a song about President Obama.

Mr. HANSEN: Oh, yes. This came out shortly after Barack Obama was elected. And it kind of points out - in those days, just as he was about to begin his term, we all kind of expected him to be able to walk on water, and this song kind of plays on that.

(Soundbite of parody song, "Save Me, Obama")

Mr. ROBERT LUND (Singer): (Singing) Save, Obama. Stimulate my life. Please improve my credit, my job, my wife....

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: I like it already.

(Soundbite of parody song, "Save Me, Obama")

Mr. LUND: Bailout my bar tab, subsidize my rent. Isn't that the point of the government? Bills and banks and Baghdad, are a bummer.

INSKEEP: It's amazing what you can do when you have a $50 home electric piano.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSEN: Oh, yes. I still get about the same amount of submissions every week that I have for many, many years. But they sound so much better now, whereas they used to just have the little portable cassette machines, such as Al Yankovic sang into on his very first efforts.

INSKEEP: Now, Weird Al Yankovic still is a staple on your program, I imagine.

Mr. HANSEN: Oh, absolutely.

INSKEEP: And you've brought along a song called "White and Nerdy."

Mr. HANSEN: Yeah. That's - it's a parody of a rap called "Riding Dirty." And it's his most popular song of the last 10 years, and his highest charting single ever.

(Soundbite of parody song, "White and Nerdy")

Mr. YANKOVIC: (Singing) They see me mowing my front lawn. I know they're all thinking I'm so white and nerdy. Think I'm just too white and nerdy. Think I'm just too white and nerdy. Can't you see I'm white and nerdy? Look at me, I'm white and nerdy. I wanna roll with the gangstas, but so far they all think I'm too white and nerdy...

Mr. HANSEN: That song, of course, helped along no end by a really masterful video, probably best remembered for Al dressed up as the total suburban nerd riding around on a Segway.

INSKEEP: I'm listening to you closely and wondering if you feel perhaps that the golden age of this mad music, as you call it, has perhaps passed.

Mr. HANSEN: In terms of a commercial goldmine, yes. But in terms of the quality, no way. I mean, I think some of things we've been listening to can hold their own with "The Purple People Eater."

INSKEEP: There's a standard to aspire to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSEN: Why, sure. I mean, that was something - I mean, I was a teenager when that came out, and I saw the immediate impact that it had on my friends. They all thought it was hilarious.

INSKEEP: Dr. Demento, it's been very pleasant talking with you. Thank you very much.

Mr. HANSEN: Well, thank you. DrDemento.com, and don't forget to stay, ay-ay, de-e-e-e demented.

(Soundbite of song, "The Purple People Eater")

Mr. SHEB WOOLEY (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) It was a one-eyed, one-horned, flyin' purple people eater.

CHORUS: One-eyed, one-horned, flyin' purple people eater...

INSKEEP: If a song is now hopelessly stuck in your head, you can write a complaint in the comment section for this story at our Web site. But wait. There's more. Just last week, Weird Al Yankovic stopped by NPR to perform with his band. They recorded this song you're hearing now, and you can check out the video at NPRMusic.org.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of song, "CNR")

Mr. YANKOVIC: (Singing) Charles Nelson Reilly was a mighty man, the kind of man you'd never disrespect. He stood eight foot tall, wore glasses and he had a third nipple on the back of his neck. He ate his own weight in coal and excreted diamonds every day. He could throw you down a flight of stairs... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.