When Dr. Demento Ruled the Airwaves
As music educations go, Barret Hansen has compiled an impressive scholarly background. He holds a BA and MA in classical and folk music from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and the University of California, Los Angeles, respectively. In high school, he was a disc jockey for dances like sock hops. In Portland, he was station manager for the campus FM channel. His UCLA thesis was on the growth of rhythm and blues music from 1945 to 1953. Out of college, he took a job reissuing vintage blues, gospel, and rock songs.
All of this experience has perhaps made Hansen uniquely overqualified to assume the radio persona of Dr. Demento.
From 1970 to 2010, Hansen’s aural alter ego spent between one and four hours on Sunday nights curating a selection of comedy and novelty song tracks, from the holiday classic “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by Elmo and Patsy to the work of a teenager named Alfred Yankovic, who wrote a song about his family’s Plymouth Belvedere titled “Belvedere Cruising.”
While other disc jockeys were spinning hit records and adopting cool personas, Dr. Demento seemed content to fill the niche of the weird. In addition to well-known parody or satirical songs, he solicited submissions from listeners like Yankovic, who composed several originals before he began doing parodies. “My Bologna,” set to the tune of The Knacks’s “My Sharona,” was an early Demento favorite, and it helped “Weird" Al get a record deal.
This peculiar bent on novelty music began, according to Hansen, at age 4 in Minneapolis, when his father brought home records by humorist Spike Jones. The musician’s “Cocktails for Two” employs numerous sound effects and people screaming “Whoopee!” The contrast of music and comedy made an impression on Hansen, who grew to appreciate all kinds of music—his collection eventually grew to more than 300,000 records in varying formats—but he was particularly fond of the hybrid of humor and singing that came to dominate his radio program.
After college, Hansen moved to Los Angeles, where he found work at burgeoning FM station KPPC (later KROQ). Producers there wanted him to spin oldies excavated from his already-sizable record collection.
During one early broadcast, Hansen played a morbid tune titled “Transfusion,” about teenagers getting into an auto accident. A station employee said someone would have to be “demented” to play it, and Hansen’s radio persona was born.
“I found that most of my requests were for those funny things—‘The Purple People Eater’ and ‘Transfusion’ by Nervous Norvus,” Hansen told NPR in 2010. “And so, the more I played that kind of thing, the more popular the show got, and I became the funny-record guy.”
Taking Weird National
In 1974, Dr. Demento went national from his new home base of KMET in Los Angeles. The more offbeat the record, the better the audience response. In addition to more Yankovic music like “Another One Rides the Bus,” Hansen scored with “Fish Heads” by Barnes & Barnes, a song that became the most requested in the history of his program.
Hansen did have some limits. Barnes & Barnes had previously submitted “The Vomit Song,” which exceeded the boundaries of his station’s good taste. Nor did they appreciate Hansen playing “It’s a Gas,” a song purportedly recorded—or rather belched out—by Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman.
Hansen was also an early proponent of punk music, playing The Ramones and other soon-to-be-famous acts at a time when the genre was still taking off. “There was a little bit of ‘What the … is that?’” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2018. “But mostly people took it in stride. They were used to hearing me drop in odd things that might have been unexpected. In fact, I’m sure that was part of the appeal of the show for many people. My audience was quite young in those days—lots of high school kids. That’s how the show became popular: Monday morning conversations about songs I’d played the night before, some of which were scandalous for various reasons.”
Hansen’s program wound to a close in 2010, when fewer radio listeners made specialty programming a harder sell. Hansen still releases a weekly show via his website. And in 2018, some Dr. Demento fans contributed to a Hansen tribute album, Dr. Demento Covered in Punk, which featured luminaries such as Joan Jett, William Shatner, and Yankovic covering popular punk songs. It was another chapter in Hansen’s career of highlighting irreverence in popular music—a place where "Weird" Al could feel right at home.