Barry Hansen had finished a pair of degrees from a pair of colleges — including a Master’s in folk music from UCLA — and was working on a thesis about the origins of American R&B when he picked up his first radio job. He bounced around from station to station in southern California, before taking his ever-increasing playlists of comedy songs, novelty tracks, and weird-ass sound effects to KMET in Los Angeles.
By 1972, he’d started leaving his real name in the employee parking lot and was doing his show under the equally goofy name Dr. Demento. Although KMET already had some of L.A.’s biggest listener numbers, Demento still made appearances at SoCal high schools to try to expand his audience. When he dropped in at the suburban Lynwood High School, one of the students was a super-brainy sophomore named Alfred Yankovic, who was already a “Dr. Demento” regular.
“While he was too shy to introduce himself after my appearance, he was inspired enough to start making up comedy songs to sing and play on his accordion,” Demento wrote in the forward to Weird Al: Seriously. “By 1975 I was occasionally playing new tapes of comedy songs made by listeners, including a few who were around Al’s age. ‘I can do that,’ he thought, and eventually he came up with a song he thought worthy of being played on the show and sent me a cassette.”
Inspired by seeing Demento in person, Yankovic wrote and recorded an original track called “Belvedere Cruising” and mailed it to KMET. “I put it on, and though it was crudely recorded, probably with one of those little cassette machines with a self-contained microphone, the balance was right, you could understand his words, the words were funny, and he played the accordion — which by itself was new and unusual at that time, for somebody young to play the accordion, and not a polka, not ‘Lady of Spain’ or anything like that,” Demento told Yahoo in 2018, adding that “The line that got to me was, ‘There’s something about a Comet that makes me want to vomit.’”
Demento played it on the air — so Yankovic kept writing new songs and sending them in. Eventually, he transitioned from writing originals to doing parodies of popular tracks, like turning The Knack’s creepy-in-retrospect “My Sharona” into the infinitely more palatable “My Bologna.” (Yankovic, who was then an architecture student at Cal Poly, recorded that one in an on campus bathroom — which the school has since acknowledged with a plaque.)
“The response I got when I played [‘My Bologna’] on the air dwarfed not only that for all his earlier tapes, but practically everything else I played the whole year,” Demento wrote in the liner notes for Yankovic’s Permanent Record box set. That track scored Yankovic his first record contract and, at the risk of saying something totally played out, the rest is history. (And that history includes five Grammys, six platinum albums, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a totally bonkers biopic, and a lot of polka medleys.)
“I think without The Dr. Demento Show, the probability is high that Alfred Yankovic would be a professional architect today,” Demento told NPR in 2010.
As for Demento, he’s still hosting a weekly radio show that streams online. “In the first hour we feature hamsters, snow, and the songs and poetry of the late Les Barker,” the notes from his most recent program read. That sounds just about right.
Rainn Wilson’s Dr. Demento from “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” shows up in a recent Video Rewind.