BY KATHY GRONAU
Even adults delight in silly songs.
Today, people of all ages get "wigged out"
on recent Weird Al Yankovic parodies of famous rock
songs like "Smells Like Nirvana" and
"Eat It," but novelty songs are not a major
force in the mainstream media these days. Dr.
Demento, however, has blazed his own trail through
L.A. radio to bring his oddball music rarities and
knowledge to listeners nationwide on his weekly show.
This October marks the 25th
anniversary of America's only national hysterical
radio program, the "Dr. Demento Show." The
freewheeling, unpredictable mix of music and comedy
began at L.A.'s legendary free-form radio station
KPPC in 1970. The show had a 15-year stint at KMET
followed by another on KLSX (1987-93) and now resides
at 101.9 FM KSCA, the adult album alternative rock
station (Sundays, 10 p.m. to midnight).
The show is also syndicated to 100
stations nationwide. In honor of the madcap
milestone, Rhino Records, a label partly known for
its novelty records, released Dr. Demento 25th
Anniversary Collection and Country Corn CDs in
Along with the cult classics -- Spike
Jones, Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg and Monty Python --
Dr. Demento (Barry Hanson) spins new funny songs
submitted by amateur and professional singers and
comedians. The music expert introduced the world to
"Weird Al" Yankovic, who became one of
rock's most celebrated novelty acts.
" 'Weird Al' was a high school
kid who sent me a tape while I was at KMET,"
The doc first played "Belvedere
Cruising," a song about Weird Al's family car--
a Plymouth Belvedere -- and later "School
Cafeteria." Yankovic's parody of the Knack song
"My Sharona," called "My
Bologna," gave Weird Al his first big break.
"One of the members of the Knack
heard it on my show and called Capitol Records and
said, 'You ought to put this out,' " the mad DJ
The Doctor is an integral part of the
bizarre in pop culture.
"People know him for his goofy
stuff," said Jim Neill, Rhino Records' senior
director of radio promotions. "But he is a very
serious musical scholar. He knows everything about
music. He has a barn somewhere just filled with
In the studio, Demento looks like he
stepped off the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Wearing an
elegant top hat, he makes funny noises on the air
created by train whistles, duck calls and squeaky
rubber toys, which he purchases based on his in-store
"I test them for sound, which
annoys the people in the toy store," he said.
"Half of them don't work, and they all sound
different, some of them make a feeble little
For more than 10 years, "The
Demented News" has been a key element in the
"Dr. Demento Show." In this four-minute
feature, "Whimsical Will" Simpson talks
about the more offbeat stories in the news and
punctuates them with sarcastic lines from Dennis
Miller or Disney characters. Demento explained that
Will follows the comedy tradition of novelty
recording star Dickey Goodman, whose '60s and '70s
recordings used bits from contemporary hits for the
"actualities" in mock newscasts.
The comedy pro recognizes Howard
Stern's talent for attracting listeners with his
brand of comedy.
"I do not find Howard Stern
funny very often," he said. "I've got to
hand it to him: Anyone who can just blab on the radio
about whatever crosses his mind for five hours a day
and get millions of listeners to slavishly listen to
him has to be smart. Most morning shows have a lot
more structure than there is with Howard."
For his own show, Demento prefers to
play songs that comment about the world's craziness.
"Sensitive New Age Guy" pokes fun at men
who use crystals and tape reruns of "Thirty
Something." "Car Phone" playfully puts
down hot shot executives who bark orders over their
Demento's show was born at the
original, long-haired, freaky, underground
progressive FM station, Tom Donohue's KPPC-FM.
Station management was drawn to the doctor's huge
record collection as well as his expertise on the
roots of rock. He loved playing rare oldies such as
the original R&B versions of songs popularized by
the Rolling Stones.
"We really felt we were doing
something revolutionary; we were the main
missionaries for Jimmy Hendrix, Elton John and The
Who," said Demento, referring to KPPC's seminal
role in L.A. radio history.
Through mentor DJs
"Obscene" Steven Clean and B. Mitchell
Reed, the pro developed his informal, one-on-one
"I'll shout at the beginning and
end of the show," he said. "It was a style
that was popular on top 40 stations and still is on
KIIS and Power 106."
In 1972 Demento's show moved to
KMET-FM, where it became the highest rated Sunday
night show in L.A. High school students, who formed a
major constituency of Demento's audience, would
petition the zany DJ to play their favorite songs. If
the petition was long enough, Demento played the
requests and read their names on the air.
"They would make up a funny name
like Psychotic Pineapples of Pasadena," he
recalled. "The kids would get a charge out if
"Legend of the USS Titanic"
generated the largest petition with more than 10,000
"I like connecting with
kids," Demento said. "I seem to be cast
into a more adult audience now, which is nice,
because I'm still playing to the same people who
first listened when they were kids and listened to
Rhino's Neill was in high school in
the late '70s and early '80s when he started
listening to Demento.
"When I was feeling like an
alien on this earth, like an outcast in society, 'The
Dr. Demento Show' was a haven," Neill recalled.
"He would put callers on the air or read
letters, and it was like, 'My God, there are other
freaks out there too.' "
Neill preferred him to the serious
rock stations that would "crank it up" and
play Led Zeppelin.
"It was like the soundtrack to a
bleak, pot-infested teenage existence," Neill
said of the "serious" rock stations.
"You put on Dr. Demento; and suddenly it warmed
the cuckolds of my heart to know there was a sense of
humor out there too."