Free-wheelin' radio man takes on the FCC and censorship
When radio comedy loon Dr. Demento returns to Reed College (his alma mater) on Thursday for the Paideia festival, part of his program will be to show how our freedoms are being eroded.
Don't laugh. No, on second thought, do laugh. That's what the doctor (aka Barry Hansen) likes to hear.
His second show, which takes place Friday, is titled 'Censorship and How It Affects the Music You Hear (and Don't).' He developed the program with the American Civil Liberties Union to pinpoint the forces that determine what's on the airwaves.
For example, the Federal Communications Commission will fine and sanction stations playing anything not to its liking, Hansen noted.
'The FCC recently pursued action against KBOO (90.7 FM) for playing a feminist rap song,' said the genial Hansen, talking from his Los Angeles home.
'Any citizen can complain, then the FCC decides what's offensive. I'll play examples that might offend people (for the Friday program), but I bet I play some things where people think: What's wrong with that?'
Hansen has returned to Reed for Paideia (pronounced pie-day-ah) every year since 1994, and he's made sporadic appearances since the early 1970s, when the festival began.
'It's when the inmates take over the asylum,' he says with a chuckle. 'Between semesters, the students are given a small budget to arrange classes they find interesting. It's usually computers, cooking, self-defense and games like chess and Go. Classes range from very serious to underwater basket weaving.'
Hansen's first lecture, on Thursday, will cover the history of musical comedy records, which date to the 19th century. The second is on censorship, and the third evening is his Festival of Dementia, featuring his greatest hits and videos.
'There was a guy named Dan W. Quinn who was doing music hall songs in the 1890s,' he says. 'Funny songs really became popular in the first decade of the 20th century. One of the first stars was Cal Stewart, who played a character called Uncle Josh. He made about 100 records, but there's only two or three that modern audiences can laugh at Ñ one about driving a car, for one.'
Hansen, who's 61 ('same age as Bob Dylan Ñ he has more money; I look better') started collecting comedy records in the 1960s, at a time when the rock 'n' roll business was making fun of itself with 'Purple People Eater,' 'Please Mr. Custer' and 'They're Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haaa.'
But by the late 1960s everybody got serious. Led Zeppelin threatened to sue Little Roger and the Goosebumps for their hilarious amalgamation of 'Stairway to Heaven' and the 'Gilligan's Island Theme Song.'
Hansen, who had started out playing oldies on his nationally syndicated radio show, leaned more and more to comedy and launched Dr. Demento in 1970.
These days, the Internet has given his specialty a huge leg up.
'You can count on your fingers the number of people doing comedy on major labels, but I get 15 to 20 CDs a week,' he says, referring to homemade recordings.
Dr. Demento's biggest success story is Weird Al Yankovic, whom he helped get started: 'He heard my show, and he thought, 'I could do that.' He started sending me songs, and they kept getting better.'
Hansen also has a serious job these days, writing liner notes and organizing projects for Rhino Records, but he still tracks the top five comedy songs every week on his show.
By the way, the top comedy song last year was by the Great Luke Ski. His 'Peter Parker' was based on the 'Spider-Man' film and parodies 'Peter Piper' by Run-DMC.