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Dr. Demento titleAfter Reed, rejected by two Portland commercial stations, Hansen moves to Los Angeles to complete a master’s degree in music. While working for a record company doing liner notes for reissue compilations, he appears as a guest on various local radio shows, bringing in rare records for musical trivia contests. Eventually he gets his own program on a public, free-form station, playing “anything that wouldn’t get played elsewhere.” In the fall of 1970, a fellow DJ remarks that “you got to be demented to listen to this music,” and the Doctor is born. Today the Doctor Demento Show, with its trademark whoops, bells, and honks, as well as the Doctor’s inimitable hiccupy voice, brings the joys of oddball music to listeners nationwide, in the form of old Monty Python bits, freshly minted parodies penned by sixteen-year-olds from Encino, and the latest Weird Al hits. (Yankovic got his first exposure on the Doctor’s show.) Along the way, Hansen has compiled several albums for Rhino Records, written articles for the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, and completed a guide to blues music, Rhino’s Cruise Through the Blues.

Young Dr. Demento pictureIf the suburban home doesn’t seem to fit the Doctor Demento persona, Hansen himself appears even less demented. In person, he is genial but reserved; without the Doctor’s trademark top hat, he has the air of the professor he long intended to become. People who meet Barry Hansen often react with disbelief: “No way you’re Doctor Demento,” said the late John Belushi on their encounter. (“I had to do a few ‘whoo-whoo-whoos’ to convince him,” Hansen recalls.)

But when we step out back, to what appears to be an ordinary garage, we see the full measure of Dementia. Next to the home studio—Hansen prepares each show himself, using a computer, tape machines, CD burners, DATs, and the like—is a storehouse packed floor-to-ceiling with records, part of his collection of hundreds of thousands of discs. Suppressing the urge to hunt for old Alan Arkin 45s, we turn on the tape recorder.

People may be surprised to find out that Doctor Demento is a serious student of music. What did you conclude in your thesis?

That Berg’s “Wozzeck” and Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande,” two very different pieces of music, shared similar structural elements that differed from traditional opera, and that the structure of Wagner’s operas was a likely influence on both of them.

How did Reed affect your approach to music? Does the Reed experience creep into your show (or how you listen to songs)?

I would probably not be in radio now if it hadn’t been for KRRC, where I learned to be comfortable behind a mike, and all the other nuts and bolts of doing a radio show, in a low-pressure situation. Without KRRC, it might never have occurred to me that I had any talent for radio.

My Reed experience, in and out of class, taught me to form and express my thoughts more clearly. And while deciding whether a new song about Viagra, online porn, Harry Potter, or Osama bin Laden deserves airplay isn’t quite the same as analyzing a Bach fugue or a Webern passacaglia for a Reed assignment, it is still analysis, and there’s no doubt that Reed sharpened my talent for that.

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