WE HAD A THUNDERSTORM with hail here yesterday,” Barry Hansen, aka Dr. Demento, informs you, as if you were the one on tour and he was the local providing color commentary on the weather. Then the 67-year-old DJ, fidgety in a Belltown hotel lobby, tears off in another direction: “Allen Sherman’s best-known song parody is ‘Hello mudda, hello fadda, here I am in Camp Grenada,’” referring to one of the hundreds of comedy music acts that have made The Dr. Demento Show a cult radio hit for more than 30 years.
Hansen, whose Orange County, California–based program still airs coast to coast and online, stormed through town on a March weekend to deliver a talk on censorship, “Don’t Hear This,” part of a speaking tour sponsored by Reed College, his alma mater. But the doctor owes a debt to Seattle. In January 1974, KZOK 102.5, then a classic-rock station, was the first outside Los Angeles to carry Dr. Demento. By the end of the year nearly a hundred stations around the country were broadcasting the show. The weekly, two-hour Sunday-afternoon ensemble of novelty songs and parodies launched the career of Weird Al Yankovic. It also drew the ire of listeners not in on the joke. When Hansen played what is now his most requested song of all time, “Dead Puppies [Aren’t Much Fun],” a station in San Francisco, barraged by complaints from animal lovers, cut Dr. Demento from its schedule. Another song, Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag,” which Hansen says “makes literate, clever fun out of the Catholic Church,” sent the biggest radio advertiser in Wichita, Kansas, a car dealer and devout Catholic, into an ad-pulling rampage. “He took all his advertising off the station, not just my show but the whole station, so the station, needing to get his money back, canceled my show.”
The weekly ensemble of novelty songs and parodies launched the career of Weird Al Yankovic. It also drew the ire of listeners not in on the joke.
Battles like these, some won, most lost, have made Hansen an authority on radio censorship. But his real expertise is in arcane music history. Yesterday, he explains, just before the hailstorm, he strolled through Pike Place Market. “I went to the magic store,” he says, “and bought a DVD of Le Pétomane, the famous French farter who used to give demonstrations of musical flatulence on stage in the late nineteenth century.” Will we hear it on the air? “On a future Dr. Demento show, maybe a little, teeny bit of it.”