"Dr. Demento Achieves 25 Years
of Musical Madness On the Radio..."

Dr Demento

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 August.

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," Demento said.

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 recalled.

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 records."

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 audition.

"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 bleep."

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 car phones.

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 radio delivery.

"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 it."

"Legend of the USS Titanic" generated the largest petition with more than 10,000 signatures.

"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 KMET."

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."