drdemento.com. He joined us over the phone to talk about changes in the radio business, the golden era of funny records, and why you should always listen to your audience. This interview by Kristina Benson." /> L.A. Record


October 22nd, 2014 | Interviews

courtesy dr demento

After graduating from UCLA with a master’s degree in folk music studies Dr. Demento began playing a free form oldies show every Sunday night on Pasadena’s KPPC (now KROQ). After noticing that the audience responded most favorably to novelty hits like “Purple People Eater” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor?”, he turned exclusively to novelty and comedy records, and Dr. Demento was born. The show ran in syndication until 2010, due to a combination of media consolidation and narrowcasting; now, however, listeners from all over the world can tune into Dr. Demento on his website drdemento.com. He joined us over the phone to talk about changes in the radio business, the golden era of funny records, and why you should always listen to your audience. This interview by Kristina Benson.

I’m so glad to talk to you—I had one of your tapes when I was a kid and I think I listened to it a million times!
Turns out Jack Black listened [to my show] a lot when he was a kid so now that he’s in charge of Festival Supreme, he decided he’d like to have me on the show! I thought that’d probably be a kick so I signed up. I’m going to DJ, not DJing maybe in the sense that people know it today—I’m not going to try to be Skrillex or anything, but I’m going to play songs that people remember from if they listened to the Dr. Demento show along with some new stuff, and I’ll mix in some Halloween songs, and things that I cannot play on the radio, so to speak, because it’s an adult crowd. It’s going to be freeform. I’ll kind of go by how the audience reacts, as far as picking particular songs.
What kinds of things can’t you play on the radio these days? What has changed since when you first started?
Of course, internet radio … that doesn’t apply as much. Of course, there’s the Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television that George Carlin did, and you’re not supposed to say those on the radio either. Things whose context goes beyond what commercial stations’ advertisers want to have associated with them. So there’s a long history of course of records made for people who want to hear things like that. So it’s going to be free form—it will be fun! It’s not going to be dance music, but people are free to dance creatively, of course, if they want to. It’s just going to be the Dr. Demento show live on stage for 45 minutes.
You had 500,000 vinyl records at one time—is that true?
Well, I lost count long ago.
And you sold a bunch of them to CD Trader recently–do you have plans to sell more? And if so, where? And when?
No plans to sell any more at the moment, but who knows what the future will bring. I ran out of room, basically. Many of them are in the house and in a building that used to be a garage. There’s some offsite storage facilities too, I don’t want to be too specific about that! There’s a lot of records and they take up a lot of room! But it’s the quality that counts, of course, and how much you love them.
You originally studied classical music at Reed College, before switching to folk. What prompted you to make the switch?
I started on radio station KPPC [in] Pasadena in 1970. That signal is now KROQ but it was whole different management back then. It was a freeform radio station and they could and did play anything they wanted, though it’s probably best known as the place people tuned in if they wanted to hear Jimi Hendrix, which radio stations weren’t really playing at that time. So they brought me in to do a freeform oldies show, knowing that I had this huge collection—so I played interesting rock ‘n’ roll oldies, like the songs that the Beatles or the Rolling Stones had covered, but I’d take requests too. And a lot of people asked for ‘The Purple People Eater’ and ‘The Monster Mash’ and ‘They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha.’ So I played them and I found the more I played of that kind of thing, the more popular the show got! So I became the funny record guy. I’d always liked novelty records, going back to when my dad played me Spike Jones records when I was a kid, but I’d never thought that I would make that my career. The audience kind of determined that for me, and since I had a lot of that sort of thing available, and seemed to have a flair for presenting it on the radio, I became the mad music and crazy comedy guy and I was happy to run with it. I’ve been doing it for over 40 years now.
What about in your education? You have a degree in classical music from Reed, and a Masters in ethnomusicology from UCLA?
[UCLA] had a program at that time—folk music studies, for a master’s degree. I chose to write my thesis on the evolution of what became R & B music in the 1940s and 1950s.
Did you publish it?
No, a Master’s thesis is generally not something that necessarily would make real exciting reading. But I have done quite a bit of writing through the years, I have done a book about blues, which was published through the auspices of Rhino Records in 2001. But most of my writing has been about funny music of course. But not all.
I read an interview you did with NPR, where you talked about having to focus group your show. You said that it didn’t do well with women aged 18 – 30—
That was not my focus group, that was the focus group of a station that carried our show in Phoenix. I did not hire a focus group.
Ah. Well. Who did it test well with?
My show appealed to all demographics. Looking at my audience you’ll see grandparents and grandchildren, ‘Dr. Demento bringing families together!’ We used that as our slogan for awhile. However, it turned out that with the evolution of commercial radio, that’s not exactly what they want. They want to appeal to a certain segment of the audience. It’s called narrowcasting in the biz, and that became prevalent as we got into the 80s and the 90s. There are very few stations these days that try to appeal to all the audience. They try to choose an element of the audience—such as in the case of a Top 40 station, young women. Or in the case of an ‘active rock’ station, it would be young men.
Now the radio is almost completely corporate, which the exception of a couple NPR affiliates and maybe a college station here and there—but on the other hand, anything and everything is available online. Does it even out?
Radio is still easier to tune in than the internet is. You can listen to it in your car and not pay attention to it. And I miss having my show available on the radio, where people could tune it in by accident and get hooked on it. That’s probably what happened to Jack Black when he was a kid, and I miss that. But on the other hand, the upside of Internet radio is that people can find me—if they know me, they can find me from anywhere, all over the world. They don’t have to happen to be where the show is carried on a radio station.
I guess that’s the key—they have to know to look for you. Otherwise, they won’t find you or know you exist. But on the radio, people can find you even if they don’t know you.
It’s a tradeoff. But that’s just the way it is.
How were you personally affected by the corporate consolidation of the radio in the 1990s? Did it impact how you had to put the show together?
It didn’t impact how I had to put the show together—it ultimately reduced the number of stations that carried the show to the point where we decided it just wasn’t happening anymore on radio so we put all our energies into putting it on the Internet. That was probably something that wouldn’t have happened if not for [the Telecommunications Act of 1997.] It was part of a long process that began back in the Reagan Administration, with the rules of how many stations a given company could own. It used to be very strict. With Reagan, they were gradually loosened to the point where there were hardly any controls at all anymore.
I read one article about the demise of your program on syndicated radio that said you went off the air in part because people stopped sending in funny songs. Is that true at all?
No. There are still a lot of novelty songs being made. People send mp3s, and there are still—not really in Los Angeles much, but there’s the Bob and Tom Show, where they play funny music in the morning. That’s a syndicated morning radio show especially popular in the midwest. And then of course you hear a lot of funny songs in other media too—like iTunes has a comedy singles chart, which is mostly funny music. Flight of the Conchords, and the Lonely Island, along with Weird Al, they’re the biggest people going in that area these days. And a fellow named John Cozart, who’s made funny songs that have been very popular online especially and also on iTunes, and I play them too.
You have a documentary coming out next year called Under the Smogberry Trees.
It’s the story of my career, and my life basically—’under the smogberry trees’ is the thing I’d say at the beginning of each show. ‘Hi! This is Dr. Demento, coming to you from under the smogberry trees!’ Originally it was ‘the smog berry trees of sunny south Pasadena’ because that’s where the studio for the network show was. So the movie is going to tell the story of my career. We interviewed Jack Black, Jimmy Fallon [who] was a big fan when he was a kid, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic of course, and many others who make funny music.
You’ve influenced people like Jack Black, but also Kim Fowley, and Alice Bag—why did you think you reached such a diverse group of people?
I was playing funny music when it wasn’t so easy to find other places. So people who had a hunger for that sort of thing gravitated to my show and were influenced and amused by the kinds of things I played.
I wonder if people even knew they had a hunger for it. I wouldn’t have known I had a hunger for a song about fish heads. But I played it over and over and drove my family nuts.
That took off on my show in 1978. As soon as I heard it, I realized that it would be popular. How popular, I didn’t know for awhile. But it turned out to be that and ‘Dead Puppies,’ neck and neck as to my all time most popular songs. Neck and neck!
You were close friends with Frank Zappa, and when he died you said there would never be anyone like him. Why?
I wouldn’t think so—it was a combination of his talent, and his hard work. He was the biggest workaholic that I ever knew. By the way, Weird Al Yankovic would be number 2. He’s a very hard worker. With Frank, [he was working] practically every hour unless he was eating, sleeping, or having sex.
Is there a golden era for novelty tunes?
So far as them being regular radio and really influencing mainstream society, it would be from the mid-50s to the 60s. Top 40 radio had just started and they were playing anything that sold a lot of singles, so it was a mixture of styles, and that would include funny records. Novelty records got a lot of traction on Top 40 because people would talk about them when they heard them: ‘Did you hear that song they played on WKJY last night? That was the craziest song I ever heard!’ and it would be ‘Purple People Eater’ or something like that. And it would increase the audience’s awareness of the stations, because they’d attract attention and get people talking about them. So that was one of the reasons. And also funny music was also part of the pop music scene since pop music started in this country, and in other countries as well—there were always funny tunes. Today is somehow different in that way because stations that play Top 40 or whatever it is, there seems to be a concept, whether it’s true or not, that it’s a little uncool to play funny stuff on the radio.
Except in the morning. Then it’s OK for some reason.
Yeah. But outside of that—it used to be that when ‘Purple People Eater’ was big, and for that matter, when Al Yankovic was big, they’d be played all day long, but then somehow the perception changed. There’s a true-ism in radio: what people want to hear most when they turn on the radio station is a song that they love. Second best: they’d rather hear a song that they don’t love, or don’t like very much, but know it. What they least want to hear is something they don’t know. At least, that’s what many of the people who run radio stations seem to believe. I don’t believe that.
I think what people say they want, and what people really experience themselves wanting are two different things, odd as that may sound.
What distinguishes a mediocre song from a song that’s really good or really bad?
It’s just subjective for me—do I like it, do I think my audience will like it? Is it something presentable? When I was on commercial radio I had to think of it was something presentable on a major commercial radio station. Which means it’s got to have decent sound quality, none of those nasty words. But it’s all very subjective. Like with anybody picking a hit, there’s no absolute formula. I mean, you can point to various things that hit records have in common, but there’s no absolute formula that has no exceptions to it. There are always exceptions to the rule. If I listen to it, and I like it, and I think my audience will like it, and if people request it, it gets put on again.
You’ve had a very long career in music. What is something you did that you want to encourage others to do so they can learn from it?
I’ve been a lucky guy, I came along at the right time for my talent. The fact that I listened to the audience, and was kind of able to predict what they would like—I was treading new ground in the early days of the show. I couldn’t look to anyone else who was on the air for inspiration, unlike disc jockeys today, who can model their careers after other disc jockeys and follow in their footsteps. Of course, in today’s radio, it wouldn’t have anything to do with music since the DJs don’t pick their music anymore. But I listened to the audience and was fortunate enough to be on a station where I could put practically anything on the show that I wanted to. So I followed the audience by realizing the funny stuff got a bigger reaction than serious things, and I led them by picking other funny things they might not have known about.