Various Artists - Dementia 2000 - Dr. Demento's 30th Anniversary Collection
So I'll say it: There was a time in my childhood when all the musical geniuses of the world--The Beatles, Beethoven, whoever--paled miserably before the majestic silhouette of one man: "Weird Al" Yankovic. There was, and still is, just something about a man taking apart the carefully-wrought machinery of the Top 40 and rebuilding it in the shape of a moustachioed middle finger.
For many years comedy albums were my morning, noon, & night, and the gatekeeper to this magical place was a man named Dr. Demento (AKA Barry Hansen). Sunday nights were ruined for sleep, because grim Death itself couldn't have kept me from tuning in to the old KZEW FM in Dallas at 10:00 PM, tape recorder at the ready, to ravenously devour both the latest and the greatest comedy releases as selected by the good Doctor.
Sadly, this national treasure is no longer on the air, yet another sign of the End Times. But a birthday present from my parents, Dr. Demento's 30th Anniversary Collection, has opened that musty old mental door for me again, and made me take a second look at the world of the comedy record.
What's interesting is how, even in a "Best Of" collection, the central problem with the comedy record industry comes through: inconsistency. Part of this is due to differing senses of humor, but a good portion of the problem is because of the very small number of qualified artists actually MAKING these records.
You've got Al (who's still the king), Ray Stevens, Monty Python, then who else? Thus on this collection we are subjected to homemade stinkers like the metalfest Kill the Wabbit by Ozzy Fudd and Stress by Jim's Big Ego (isn't it funny how coffee makes you jittery? Huh? Huh? Isn't it? CHRIST).
Even otherwise respectable performers embarrass themselves beyond likeability here. Leonard Nimoy's The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins is possibly the worst record ever made, though it faces stiff competition from Billy Crystal's I Hate When That Happens, a disco platter that surely belongs in the Forgotten Land of Rick Dees.
But once you discover which tracks to skip, the collection becomes highly enjoyable. It seems you can't fill a two-disc comedy set without three Yankovic tracks, which is fine & dandy with little old me. Al got his start by sending Dr. Demento tapes he'd made in a college bathroom, so the Doctor's got the right to be a little preferential.
And these are three of Al's best, starting with the unerringly brilliant Yoda, which runs the rare risk of equaling its parodic host, the Kinks' Lola. The same might be said about Another One Rides the Bus, also included here, but keep in mind that I'm not the biggest Queen fan. Al's skill at original composition shines here as well with The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota, a funny yet very true-to-life American vacation tale with all the sweep of a John Williams score. Ahh...
But that's enough about my close personal friend Al. The Collection boasts some very snappy spoken-word comedy troupe offerings, particularly two by The Frantics, a sadly obscure Canadian ensemble who bring us gems like You Were Speeding (a man is pulled over for thinking too hard in a Controlled Thought Zone--the sign says "School"--with merely a Community College learners permit), and Last Will and Temperament (the will of a dead man is revealed to bequeath a "boot to the head" upon all of his mourners).
Equally brilliant is an "expose" on the sinister world of Dungeons and Dragons by The Dead Alewives, wherein we find D&D dorks at play, rolling dice to see if they're getting drunk or laid at a fictitious tavern. This is funny to me for obvious reasons.
This collection is not just about the yuk-yuks, though. There are a large number of subtle and quietly subversive tunes here, including National Lampoon's deceptively soothing Deteriorata (featuring a then-obscure Melissa Manchester on vocals), and Big Daddy's incredibly disturbing Hamster Love, which really must be heard to be appreciated.
But some of the most interesting material on this collection likely wasn't meant to be included in the world of comedy radio. Notable among these are Loudon Wainwright III's accidental '70s hit Dead Skunk (which is actually a damned good country song) and Jack Blanchard & Misty Morgan's Tennessee Bird Walk (also a damned good country song). The track most oblivious to its hilarity is a version of Downtown by Mrs. Miller, a matronly, warbling alto schoolteacher who apparently sold a healthy number of records in the '60s. Take THAT, Good Ole Days.
A couple of tracks straddle the serious and jesterly, particularly Jimmy Cross's I Want My Baby Back, which actually bleeds a little into the creepy side of town with its tale of a man determined to rejoin his dead sweetheart. And Bowser & Blue's Polka Dot Undies is the best assault on Dylan since Simon & Garfunkel's A Simple Desultory Phillippic (how's THAT for an obscure reference?), but it also takes a powerful swing at Tipper Gore & censorship laws in general.
It would take far too long to enumerate the virtues of these tracks which are far better heard than heard about. But in the end, I think what will always set good comedy records apart for me is the sense, present in all of these tracks, that anything is possible. No hipster restraint, no rock-n-roll posturing, no one to throw a yellow flag when the hand-fart solo cranks up. These people do NOT give a shit. May we all follow their example.
It doesn't even need one.