Good Medicine

Dr. Demento prescribes wacky songs, silly videos and funny anecdotes to those in need.

When you hear tell these days of a performance by a renowned DJ, you figure that said jock--usually hailing from New York, L.A. or Ibiza--will be custom-crafting an atmosphere of drum 'n' bass, techno or chill-out music, possibly for a all-night rave. Or maybe the DJ in question will be scratching and mixing 12-inch discs of old-fashioned vinyl to create a hip-hop collage against which a rapper can express urban angst.

Either way, today's young music consumers might not expect a somewhat wacky 61-year-old man in a tuxedo to show goofy videos, play comical novelty tunes and share anecdotes about the likes of Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Frank Zappa and Dread Zeppelin.

But fans of The Dr. Demento Show, a syndicated radio program for more than a quarter of a century, know to expect just that when the good doctor himself (born Barret Hansen) appears on stage Saturday night in the University of Arizona's Crowder Hall.

Speaking on the phone from his Southern California home, Demento explains his raison d'être: "Humans have a need to laugh. That seems as fundamental as anything. I don't know if we can be more subtle about it than that."

The cultural landscape, and the role of disc jockeys in it, has changed considerably since young Hansen began playing rock 'n' roll records for his high-school sock hops in 1957. He found time to spin pre-World War II blues and country in the early 1960s for the Los Angeles radio station KPFK-FM. He was at the time a graduate student at UCLA, writing his master's thesis on the evolution of R&B in the '40s and early '50s.

"I know that these days a lot of people make their employment by playing records for raves and other events. DJs have become recording artists and they are well respected and well played."

After working as a roadie for early rock bands Canned Heat and Spirit, Hansen compiled a few dozen reissue albums for the legendary R&B label Specialty Records. He started playing rock rarities in 1970 on the L.A. free-form radio station KPPC-FM. Soon listeners were demanding more and more novelty tunes in the mix, such as "Monster Mash" and "The Purple People Eater." The Dr. Demento Show was born.

The good doctor moved his show to KMET-FM in 1972 and soon was the most popular Sunday-night show in Los Angeles. Such ratings meant syndication, and Demento went nationwide in 1974, bringing to our great land classic Allan Sherman tunes, Chech and Chong's "Basketball Jones" and William Shatner singing "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."

His show now is played in some 70 markets and Demento currently is negotiating with a station for his return to the Old Pueblo airwaves, he reports.

Demento not only has collected more than a dozen albums worth of novelty songs, mostly on the maverick reissue label Rhino Records, but he has released a home video and done extensive research for box sets by artists such as Aerosmith, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Bette Midler and Randy Newman. His liner notes to The Remains of Tom Lehrer, a three-disc box set released in 2000, were nominated for a Grammy Award.

Musical humor has changed music since Demento began. In recent years, political correctness has limited some of what we find humorous. Ray Stevens' hit "Ahab the Arab" probably isn't OK with many audiences now, the doctor notes. He also diagnoses joke songs about homosexuality as "just plain demeaning."

"But at the same time, humor has loosened up in many other ways. Sex and body functions have become less taboo, and you can find things about not-too-graphic masturbation in songs, and certainly fart jokes are a huge part of our pop culture now. And prime-time TV gets away lots of things we could have never put on the radio decades ago."

As an example of a song he wouldn't have been able to play in the early days, Demento offers the recent "Viagra in the Waters" by acoustic folk artist Camille West.

"That is a song about what happened when Viagra got into a water supply of a small city. It's full of coy little references to erections. A little kid might not get them but they are very familiar to adults. Nobody bats an eye over the sexual edge in songs any more."

Dr. Demento has appeared once before in Tucson. It was in the early 1980s, he recalls.

"It was in a nightclub near the campus. It was notable because it was the first time that 'Weird Al' Yankovic appeared on stage with me outside of Los Angeles."

The frizzy-haired Yankovic got his first big break when Demento played his early singles, such as "My Bologna," "Another One Rides the Bus" and "Ricky"--spoofs of hit tunes by, respectively, The Knack, Queen and Toni Basil.

Demento and Yankovic performed together often in those days. "We've done a number of tours together, but that Tucson show was just a one-shot thing. . . . Eventually he got his own band and own act. By the following year, he had an album that went gold. That was the album that had 'Eat It' on it." And the rest is, as they say, history.

Demento considers "Weird Al," who is the top-selling comedy artist in recorded music, to be a torch-bearer for the novelty-song tradition. "He certainly outshines most of the others."

Demento also says those who attend his gig can expect to hear a few tunes too risqué for broadcast on his show. "They'll show the limits of how far I can and can't go on the radio."

A respected musicologist with degrees in classical music and folk-music studies, Demento admits he was never much of a singer or musician. That doesn't stop him from crooning one, and only one, number during his appearances.

"I will also sing one song, 'Shaving Cream,' and probably make up a few new verses while I'm at it."

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