Can humour and mental health ever be an acceptable combination? Does controversial comedy have the potential to make us think more deeply about a subject without mocking or trivialising it in the process?
Many stand-up comedians, most notably the late George Carlin, have stressed the opinion that no topic should be considered out-of-bounds for humorists, particularly if the act of addressing such subject matter has the capability of bringing previously taboo issues into the public eye.
This certainly seems to be the view of the infamous Dr Demento, one of American radio’s most colourful characters, who for the past forty years and more has riffed on the subject of mental illness with a mixture of irreverence and genuine deliberation.
A larger-than-life creation
Dr Demento is the larger-than-life creation of Barry Hansen, a DJ with a special interest in novelty recordings and contentious comedy songs. In spite of his boisterous radio persona, Hansen cannot be pigeonholed as a ‘shock jock’ - with a Master’s degree in ethnomusicology and folklore, he has published widely on the subject of novelty songs and unusual recordings, and has emerged as a leading expert in the field on account of his prolific articles in magazines and books.
His humour, while often controversial in its choice of subject, is always tempered by incisive intelligence and a sharp eye for critical detail.
The influence of the Dr Demento character stems largely from his popular Dr Demento Radio Show, which was broadcast from 1970 to 2010 before Hansen began releasing a weekly programme over the Internet.
With a loyal fanbase of listeners, Hansen used his show as a vehicle to revive novelty songs from past decades as well as showcasing new artists who had produced unusual recordings that would otherwise have fallen into obscurity.
Some of this music included satirical approaches to the issue of mental health, amongst many other topics, and such was the cult popularity of his show that Hansen released more than a dozen album compilations of material in the years 1975-2001, including Dr Demento’s Dementia Royale and Holidays in Dementia.
Like so many of the songs that his show has presented, Hansen gleefully revels in the postmodern chaos of contemporary life. While it would be easy to baulk at the superficially scandalous approach taken by some of his featured artists towards mental illness, such an analysis would overlook entirely Hansen’s subtle correlation between the impaired perception of dementia and the fractured crisis of identity facing modern music.
Creative inventiveness crucial
For Hansen, the commercial popularity of the music he showcases means little (many of the songs he popularised had been long forgotten for decades before he revived them), and creative inventiveness is crucial. From the point of view of the music industry, this is a somewhat counterintuitive approach, and yet Hansen candidly endorses it.
For the Dr Demento Radio Show, what matters is not that a song has the potential for proven marketability, but that it is interesting, parodic, and has the aptitude to make people proactively think about what they are listening to.
So too, in this sense, Hansen seems to be making the point that dementia - and mental illness generally - are not conditions which should set people apart from the mainstream, but that people who are affected by it all part of the same culture and should be recognised accordingly.
Lives celebrated, not isolated or excluded
The lives of these people should be celebrated, he seems to emphasise, and not isolated or excluded. He does not shrink from the fact that dementia is a debilitating condition, but by drawing a parallel with the inherent confusion and commotion of the modern condition he strikes a note of inclusiveness which encourages listeners to feel a mutuality of purpose, a common humanity, irrespective of the condition of someone’s mental health.
This may seem an unusually profound insight for what is, in essence, a novelty radio show, but it remains nonetheless a laudable ethical goal that transcends the ostensible bad taste of Dr Demento’s perennially well-populated turntable.