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Barret Eugene Hansen (born April 2, 1941), better known as Dr. Demento, is a radio broadcaster and record collector specializing in novelty songs, comedy, and strange or unusual recordings dating from the early days of phonograph records to the present.
Hansen created the Demento persona in 1970 while working at Los Angeles station KPPC-FM. After Hansen played “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvus on the radio, DJ Steven Clean said that Hansen had to be “demented” to play that. Thereafter, the name stuck. His weekly show went into syndication in 1974 and from 1978 to 1992 was syndicated by the Westwood One Radio Network. Broadcast syndication of the show ended on June 6, 2010, but the show continues to be produced weekly in an online version.
Hansen has a degree in ethnomusicology, and has written magazine articles and liner notes on recording artists outside of the novelty genre. He is credited with introducing new generations of listeners to artists of the early and middle twentieth century whom they may not have otherwise discovered, such as Haywire Mac, Spike Jones, Benny Bell, Yogi Yorgesson, and Tom Lehrer, as well as with bringing parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic to national attention.
Hansen was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of an amateur pianist. He claims to have started his vast record collection as early as age 12, when he found “that a local thrift store had thousands of old 78 RPM records for sale at 5 cents each.” He attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he was promoted to Program Director of KRRC in 1960 and General Manager in 1961. He wrote his senior thesis on Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck and Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. He graduated in 1963, and later studied at UCLA, from which he earned a master’s degree in folklore and ethnomusicology.
After earning his master’s degree, he lived for two years “in a big house on a hill” in Topanga Canyon with members of the rock band Spirit. He also served briefly as a roadie for Spirit, and for Canned Heat, before being hired as an A&R man, or talent scout, for Specialty Records. The Doctor began his weekly radio show while working for Specialty, and he later worked for Warner Bros. Records.
Hansen created the persona of Dr. Demento in 1970 while working at Pasadena station KPPC-FM. The positive listener response to the offbeat novelties that Hansen included in his rock oldies show led to his eventually turning it into an all-novelty show. At the end of 1971, he moved to KMET in Los Angeles. From 1972–83, he performed a four hour live show on KMET. Later, the show would be a two hour live show on KLSX, and after they converted to a talk-only format, moved to KSCA.
His weekly show went into national syndication in a two-hour all-novelty format in 1974, produced by his manager Larry Gordon of Gordon/Casady and during 1978–92 was syndicated by the Westwood One Radio Network. The Westwood One period marked the height of the show’s national popularity; it was carried in most major radio markets, airing mainly on FM rock stations, usually late on Sunday evenings. The producer Westwood One assigned to work with Hansen from 1978 to 1982 was Lynnsey Guererro, a former track star from UCLA and Senior Producer at the company. In 1982, he handed off the show to a new producer from San Diego, professional journalist Robert Young. It was under Robert Young’s guidance that the show gained in popularity, mainly due to his willingness to foster relationships with national media and with nationally-known and up-and-coming artists, including John Mammoser, Judy Tenuta, Emo Philips, Pinkard and Bowden, Wally Wingert, and Mark Davis (Richard Cheese). Young accompanied Dr. Demento to Portland, Ore.; Dallas, Texas; New York City; San Diego; Montreal; Phoenix; and other cities to do live performances and PR Events, taking photos, setting up interviews and even ‘running the board’ at some of the live shows. He left the radio network in 1992 during a business downturn.
From 1992 to 2000, the show was syndicated by On the Radio Broadcasting. Hansen, under the name “Talonian Productions,” handled syndication himself from 2000 until discontinuing syndication in 2010 (though Hansen did not reveal he was Talonian until being forced to respond to significant criticism of the company in 2007; this despite the fairly obvious fact that Talonian had no involvement in any other show than Dr. Demento). Between the mid-seventies and the mid-nineties, Hansen continued to do live broadcasts on KMET and other California stations, in addition to his weekly taped syndicated show. He also made occasional television appearances, on such shows as The Gong Show (on the 1988-89 revival), Bobby’s World and The Simpsons, and on the Barnes and Barnes music video for “Fish Heads”.
The syndicated radio show normally started with an hour of randomly chosen records and listener requests. The second hour was normally mostly devoted to a specific theme (cars, sports, pets, romance, movies, etc.) with a final segment taken up by a “Funny Five” countdown of the most requested songs. There were also shows devoted to holidays and seasonal events, with the most important being the Halloween and Christmas shows (Hansen produced multiple Christmas shows during the holiday season consisting solely of novelty Christmas music), because of the large number of novelty records those holidays have inspired.) The final radio episode each year was the Funny 25, a countdown of the 25 most requested novelty songs that year (see below). For most of the syndicated show’s history, Hansen produced 52 original weekly shows every year; repeat broadcasts were rare.
The program’s opening theme is an instrumental version of “Pico and Sepulveda” recorded for the show by The Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band. The same Los Angeles area group recorded some of the musical teasers used on the show, such as “It’s time for number one….” The other “countdown” intros come from “Barstow” by the American maverick composer Harry Partch. Hansen’s opening line, “Wind up your radios,” refers to the rare 78rpm novelty records from the days of wind-up phonographs that he has featured on the show, especially in its early years. The closing theme is “Cheerio, Cherry Lips, Cheerio,” a 1929 vocal by Scrappy Lambert (recording under the name Gordon Wallace), which Hansen tells listeners he discovered in a thrift shop. The Doctor closes each show with “Stay Dement-ed!”
Whimsical Will (real name: William Simpson) produced a weekly “Demented News” for the show since the early 1990s. He also has recorded false comedy interviews “break-in” style, following Dickie Goodman, including “Hey Dickie” (1989), which is available on iTunes.
Starting in the late 1980s, the show began to lose affiliates, a victim of media consolidation and other changes in the radio industry that were pushing many alternative rock stations and individualistic broadcasters off the air. In 1992, Westwood One dropped the show which was immediately picked up by another syndicator, On the Radio Broadcasting. This allowed the syndicated show to air records which were popular on the local Los Angeles show, but Westwood One would not allow such as “It’s A Gas” by Alfred E. Neuman and “Moose Turd Pie” by Utah Phillips. It also allowed Whimsical Will’s Demented News, a fixture of the local Los Angeles show, to also air on the national show.
In 2000, Hansen formed Talonian Productions to syndicate the show himself. According to Hansen, the show steadily lost advertisers, and as such, he had to restructure the distribution of the show from the usual barter system to a system in which stations pay a rights fee for the program (though he apparently made exceptions in some major markets, such as WLUP in Chicago). He stated in October 2007 that “unless the show’s financial situation changes soon, I will be unable to continue the show much longer.” After approximately two and a half years, and no significant change in the show’s financial situation, the Dr. Demento official website announced on June 6, 2010 that the show that aired that weekend would be the final broadcast in the terrestrial radio version; however, new episodes of the online streaming version would still continue to be produced for the foreseeable future, with new episodes posted every Saturday. In addition, according to the site, “…by special agreement and due to contractual considerations, a version of the internet show will be heard weekly on KACV-FM (in Amarillo, Texas), at least through the summer.” The show was removed from KACV-FM in January 2011.
Beginning in approximately 2006, The Dr. Demento Show began offering audio streaming at the show’s official website. Large archives from 1992 to the present, as well as a few select archives from the early 1970s, are available, but the syndicated programs from 1978 to 1992 are not because the broadcast rights are currently in limbo (Dial Global purchased Westwood One in 2011, but spun off several of its music shows to Compass Media Networks; it’s unknown whether the Dr. Demento syndicated archive was among the programs). Some live local shows which aired in Los Angeles from this period were added, with a small per-show fee levied for this service so as to make the show profitable. As part of the contract between Dr. Demento and radio stations, radio stations were prohibited from streaming the program online. Several radio stations have been forced to drop the program because of this policy, thus reducing Dr. Demento’s affiliate count (seven affiliates in 2008, versus over 100 at its peak), further exacerbating the show’s financial problems. Despite the show’s terrestrial cancellation, new online episodes are expected to be produced for the foreseeable future. The show ended its terrestrial broadcast on a cliffhanger, with the last terrestrial broadcast devoted to songs involving the word “big” and the first post-terrestrial broadcast devoted to songs involving the word “little.”
The online show follows a format similar to that of the terrestrial show; no longer being limited by a radio time slot, the show usually exceeds two hours and may include “bonus tracks” at the end of the show. The weekly “Funny Five” has been replaced by a monthly Top Ten in order to allow for more comprehensive special topic segments. The new format, along with the ability to play records that previously would have been censored on the radio, has allowed Hansen to delve more deeply into his collection than was possible on the syndicated radio show.
From 2003 to 2005, XM Satellite Radio aired a weekly “Best of Dr. Demento” show (featuring a mixture of old and new material) initially on the Special X channel and then on the 60s on 6, Deep Tracks, and Laugh USA channels.
He was interviewed in the 2005 documentary film about outsider musician Wild Man Fischer, titled Derailroaded: Inside The Mind Of Wild Man Fischer. In September 2007, Dr. Demento portrayed the role of Hippocrates on The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd.
In addition to his syndicated show, he still makes occasional guest appearances for other shows. His most recent guest-hosting stint was for Montel Williams on the now-defunct Air America Media. (Despite the network’s politically-driven format, the guest stint followed his normal format of novelty music, specifically Halloween music, since the show aired on October 30, 2009, the day before Halloween.) 
Dr. Demento has been inducted into both the Comedy Music Hall of Fame (in June 2005) and the National Radio Hall of Fame (in November 2009).
Hansen has been married since 1983 to Sue Hansen, a former clerk and training officer at the Union Pacific railroad for twelve years. Hansen describes himself as “an armchair railfan”, sometimes sampling his extensive collection of railroad-related songs on his show.
Hansen has a longtime interest in the roots of rock ‘n’ roll in R&B and country music, and he has written about it in many magazine articles, liner notes to compilations and new recordings by a variety of artists, and two chapters on early R&B for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. His shows and public appearances display an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of recorded music in general, from the earliest Edison cylinder recordings onward.
Dr. Demento may be best known for bringing parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic to national attention. In 1976, Hansen spoke at the then-unknown Yankovic’s school where Yankovic gave a self-recorded tape of comedy songs and parodies to Hansen. The first song, “Belvedere Cruisin'” about the family station wagon, was featured on the show. Positive listener response encouraged Yankovic to record more parodies, leading eventually to a record deal and pop chart success in the 1980s. Hansen has appeared in a number of Weird Al’s music videos, as well as Weird Al’s movie UHF.
Other artists who made the pop charts after getting exposure on the Dr. Demento show include Larry Groce (“Junk Food Junkie”, 1975) and Elmo and Patsy (“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”, 1979). The show helped revive and maintain interest in novelty hits from the 1950s and 1960s that received scant airplay on mainstream pop or oldies radio stations, including “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles, “The Ballad of Irving” by Frank Gallop, “The Battle of Kookamonga” by Homer and Jethro, “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter from Camp)” by Allan Sherman, “I Want My Baby Back” by Jimmy Cross, and “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” by Napoleon XIV. Hansen also revived interest in the double entendre songs of 1940s Borscht Belt comedian Benny Bell, especially Bell’s signature tune, “Shaving Cream”. He introduced a new generation to the manic big-band parodies of Spike Jones, the musical black humor of Tom Lehrer, and the many novelty records recorded by satirist Stan Freberg in the 1950s.
Another frequently-featured artist is Frank Zappa, whom Hansen cited as a major influence on the show and who appeared several times as a guest. The tribute show following Zappa’s 1993 death was the first time the entire two-hour show was devoted to a single artist.
Another of the show’s highlights occurred in the late 1980s when the satire/parody/improv hard rock trio Spinal Tap came in for a visit. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer appeared in full regalia and stayed in character for a three hour visit. Similar ‘big moments’ occurred in a visit from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“I Put a Spell on You”), when the singer appeared in the studios in Culver City dressed in black cape, distributing explosives flash paper to great effect, and when Mel Brooks came in for an interview and was presented with an “absolutely HUGE” cheese cake from Canter’s Deli on Fairfax Avenue.
Dr. Demento was parodied in an episode of Mr. Show with Bob and David as “Dr Retarded: Novelty Record Collector and Chief Head of Surgery, Mass General” and is featured as an expert in songs about “paranormal monster parties”.
A number of compilations have been released by Dr. Demento, including:
The Demento Society has released members-only demo compilations titled Dr. Demento’s Basement Tapes yearly since 1991.