Awesome Men Throughout History: Dr. Demento
Looking back through the archives of this Awesome Men column, it wasn’t too long before it became a celebration of weirdos and nerds. That’s okay, though – one of the great paradoxes of this world is that nerds do a lot of really cool things, and any men’s magazine worth its weight in bikini model photos should acknowledge that.
Dr. Demento, for example, is a guy who deserves far more coverage than he gets, because he’s been showcasing the ridiculous and obscure on his radio show, now a podcast, since the 1970s. He introduced America to Weird Al Yankovic and Elmo and Patsy (aka the group that did “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”), reintroduced America to “Monster Mash,” and made sure America didn’t forget Frank Zappa. He was also responsible for that “Dungeons and Dragons” parody I brought up in an earlier column.
Along the way, his obsessive record collecting (which began as a kid when he found out that a nearby thrift store sold records for five cents apiece) and background in musicology gave his show’s offerings a range that few others could match. And if you’re just one of those people who loves dumb novelty songs, he had you covered there, too.
Dr. Demento’s radio career started when he attended Reed College. He started off with a half-hour weekly blues show and eventually became the station’s student manager. During that time, he indulged his love of rock music obscurities by editing The Little Sandy Review, which led to him contributing record reviews to Rolling Stone later on.
Demento (whose real name is Barret Hansen, by the way, but it’s more fun using his radio name) would find his character in 1970, when he was asked to bring in some offbeat rock & roll singles for a friend’s oldies show on KPPC. Demento complied, and when he played Nervous Norvus’ “Transfusion,” his friend told him that he’d have to be “demented” to like that song.
Sensing that he was onto something, Demento got his own Sunday night shift and started dedicating more and more time to off-the-wall rock rarities. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1971 and his show got nationally syndication three years later, first from Westwood One and then from On the Radio Broadcasting. Then as now, his show was divided into an hour of random selections and listener requests followed by an hour of songs grouped by theme.
In 1976, Dr. Demento spoke at Al Yankovic’s school, and the young parodist gave Demento a demo tape of his comedy songs, which Demento played on the air. The two have been friends ever since, and Al still credits Demento with getting his career off the ground. Al has also described Demento’s house as being stacked floor to ceiling with records, to the point where he keeps records in his kitchen cabinets instead of plates. One wonders what Mrs. Demento thinks of that.
Even though he’s off terrestrial radio due to reasons too complicated and frustrating to go into here, Dr. Demento has kept his show going with a podcast available on his website, and he’s still as upbeat as ever. I strongly urge you to give it a listen – even if it’s not your taste, it’s never boring, which is more than you can say for the radio business he left behind.
Oh, and if you’re skeptical because Demento doesn’t have enough traditional cool points to be worth your time, he was a roadie for both Spirit (who he lived with) and Canned Heat back in the 1960s, which means that some of his cheerful disposition might be due to a lingering, semi-permanent contact high. I think I’ve made my point.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.