The Great Novelty Songwriting Contest

The enduring role of the contests in the novelty songwriting world—a phenomenon that started with Dr. Demento and today reflects one of its late, great icons.

Hey all, Ernie here with another piece from David Buck, who last hit us with a heaping helping of Weird Paul. This time, he’s back with something just as novel.

Today in Tedium: At some point in the past two decades, I found myself on the mailing list for “The Song of the Year Songwriting Contest.” Each week, I received an email with the rather cryptic subject line “Songwriting Opportunities.” I rarely open them simply because I’m not much of a songwriter or musician these days. However, the unlikely combination of one of these emails, the posting of an archived Dr. Demento Show on the subject and a chance meeting with a Dr. Demento Show alum propelled me toward a strange songwriting experience of my own. In today’s Tedium, we’ll go down the rabbit hole of comedy songwriting contests. — David @ Tedium

Today’s GIF comes from Dr. Demento’s onetime gig hosting a countdown show on MTV.

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#1

The chart position attained by Dr. Demento Covered in Punk following its 2018 release, where it remained the #1 comedy album two weeks in a row on the Billboard Charts. The double CD/triple vinyl release was released to widespread acclaim that year, almost 15 years after the good doctor’s last album, Dr. Demento’s Hits from Outer Space barely made a blip on anyone’s radar. The Covered in Punk album—set up as a self-contained episode of The Dr. Demento Show—features punk rock versions of numerous demented hits, performed by not only artists inspired by the show, but also by some of the most well known artists in the show’s long history.

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Dr. Demento’s The Greatest Novelty Records of All Time box set.

The rise of The Great Novelty Songwriting Contest

While the Covered in Punk album is a fun and refreshing take on the show, this isn’t the first time Dr. Demento has been featured in Billboard.

Back in 1981, the show—just one year past its tenth anniversary—hosted what he called The Great Novelty Songwriting Competition. That year, the Dr. Demento Songwriting Contest was announced in a small blurb on page 15 of the Nov. 11 issue of Billboard Magazine. The race was on to find the next big novelty hit of the ’80s! Listening to many of the shows from that time turns up a few mentions of the contest, but nothing on the level of what one might expect for advertising a nationwide songwriting competition.

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(Billboard screenshot)

“Songwriters are invited to submit ‘musical selections with lyrics that are humorous, bizarre, and/or topical,’” the four-sentence article, buried on page 15, stated. The contest promised prizes of, fittingly, a Tascam PortaStudio for the winner, but (more importantly) the possibility of being on a compilation album.

(Editor’s side note: Bruce Springsteen recorded Nebraska on a Tascam PortaStudio about two months after the contest was announced—which introduces a theory we hope Demento fans debate for the next 30 years: Was he trying to record a bunch of novelty songs for this contest, and did he just screw it up?)

Per Dr. Demento (via the official Facebook group), his manager at the time—Jay Levey—set up the contest with an LA-based company called SRS Songwriting Solutions. The contest was open to both amateur and professional songwriters, turning out a variety of incredible, hilarious music, some of which we’ve heard on the show over the years.

1,300+

The number of entries in the Great Novelty Songwriting Contest. In the May 15, 1982 issue of Billboard, the winning contest entry was announced—”Bodine Brown (She’s Fun to be Around)”—a song about a woman who makes music with her armpits. The winner—Purvis Pickett, birth name Jerry Powell—had already released a country single under his own name (it wasn’t a hit), but the contest was open to everyone, including semi-pro musicians. In the official Dr. Demento Facebook thread about the contest, he discussed the winning song: “Bodine Brown’ was a deserving winner, but three or four of the finalists wound up being more popular on the show than that one was.”

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Demento’s Mementos. (David Buck)

Winning a songwriting contest doesn’t always guarantee success or popularity

In the grand scheme of The Dr. Demento Show, the contest winner turned out not to be a major hit with the show’s audience. Based on searching individual titles from the album on the Demented Music Database, “I get Weird” (46 plays) and “My Wife Left Town with a Banana” (28 plays) both received more plays than “Bodine Brown” (22 plays), or the second prize winner, “Smut” (less than 18). Other highlights include “Swedish Western” (28 plays), “Space Invaders” (60 plays) and “I Wanna Kiss Her” (82 plays), the latter two having debuted in the show earlier than the announcement of the contest.

(Powell was sure to promote his status as a Dr. Demento contest winner, however.)

The album Demento’s Mementos catalogues the winners of the contest, with an intro from show mainstays Barnes & Barnes. Following that, the entire record is more a mix of then-current and older novelty material, including the famous Three Stooges bit, “The Alphabet Song” and break-in, fake interview pioneer Dickie Goodman’s irreverent satirical take on the style of 60s comedian Allan Sherman, “Harry’s Jockstrap.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Demento’s Mementos album is Showdown’s “the Rodeo Song.” A bleeped tune about a guy named Johnny who goes to the rodeo, the song appeared in the uncut version of Stephen King’s The Stand during a scene where the Trashcan Man is picked up by an evil character called The Kid. It also made an appearance on the movie soundtrack of King’s Sleepwalkers. (Is King a Dr. Demento fan? It’s entirely possible—he clearly loves music and performed as a member of The Rock Bottom Remainders.)

A deep search through the known history of the shows The Great Novelty Songwriting Contest is a bit of an anomaly. Though it was not the first contest held by the show—that honor belongs to the 1973 “Pico & Sepulveda Roll Your Own” contest for a new version of Dr. D’s theme song of the same name—nor was it the last, it was the only songwriting contest the show held that yielded a full length LP album. When I asked about the contest on the official Dr. Demento Facebook group, the good doctor responded, “it seemed to be successful, but for whatever reasons, we never had another one.”

100+

The number of times the Funny 25 hit “Squirrels,” by The Beastly Boys, has been played on Dr. Demento since its first appearance in 1987. A parody of the Beast Boys classic “Girls,” the song features David Seville-style sped up vocals and is sung from the perspective of, well, squirrels. As Dr. Demento tells listeners during that broadcast, the song was the winner of a local novelty songwriting contest held on then affiliate radio station KZZP in Arizona. Though not an officially sanctioned Dr. Demento novelty songwriting contest, it had a lasting effect on the show. To date, “Squirrels” has been played over 100 times on the show—in both standard and censored forms—and remains a listener favorite today.

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Logan Whitehurst. (via his website)

The continued role of contests in the novelty songwriting world reflects one of its leading lights

Per Dr. Demento Show historian Jeff Morris, the show held a smaller scale contest in 2000 and announced the winner of the Blue Microphones Silly Summer Songfest in 2003, on the Nov. 2 show—which coincidentally is one of the shows where Tedium favorite R. Stevie Moore received airplay for his song “Hug Me.”

Later, Dr. Demento judged the comedy/novelty category for the International Songwriting Contest, spotlighting selections/winners on the show between 2008 and 2012. Fast forward to today and it seems the days of novelty songwriting contests for the show are over. But something else entirely has grown to fill that void. These days, the legacy of the comedy/novelty songwriting contest lives on with The Logan Awards (or the Logan Whitehurst Memorial Award for Excellence in Comedy), awards focused on the continuing legacy of comedy/novelty music inspired by The Dr. Demento Show and one of its most phenomenal contributors—Logan Whitehurst.

Logan—a talented, hilarious musician, with a penchant for writing catchy and intelligent songs—passed on in 2006 due to complications from a brain tumor. He’s been sorely missed by our community ever since. His songs “Me and the Snowman,” “Lizard and Fish,” “Do the Confusion,” “Robot Cat,” and “Happy Noodle vs. Sad Noodle” are remarkable, witty, meaningful and eloquent.

That’s not even mentioning how catchy they are! Unfortunately, there isn’t enough space to do Logan justice in this piece—but we hope to revisit his remarkable life and music in a future issue of Tedium dedicated solely to Logan himself.

nine

The number of years the Logan Awards have been running, as of 2019. Many Dr. Demento Show contributors—Devo Spice, The Great Luke Ski, Insane Ian, and many other wonderful folks at The Funny Music Project—sort of spearheaded the awards following Logan Whitehurst’s untimely passing. The Awards are a spectacular look into some of the best comedy from around the funny music community as well as the internet at large. An archive of previous winners in each of the three (Outstanding Original Comedy Song, Outstanding Parody Song and Outstanding Comedy Music Video) can be found at the Logan Awards Archive.

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Chris Mezzolesta (a.k.a. Power Salad), shown with his Logan Awards. (Ian Bonds)

A look at the inner workings of The Logan Awards

Communities like the FuMP and The Dr. Demento Official Facebook Group are doing wonders for keeping comedy music alive. While a songwriting contest traditionally pits artists against each other in competition, the Logan Awards work based on nominations from the community. In an interview with Tedium, 2019 chairperson “Insane Ian” Bonds told us about how the process works:

As far as the winners? Well, we have open nominations every year, where anyone can nominate 5 choices for any comedy song or music video that came out in the year prior. From that initial group of basically write-ins, we weed out the ineligible nominations: stuff not from last year, stuff misspelled, miscategorized, etc. From that group we then select a batch of nominees in each category for the jurors to listen to and vote for. The jurors then select their top 5 nominees, we tabulate the votes, and any tie breakers will be handled by either additional voting, the chairperson, or Dr Demento (as he is the permanent juror and is usually brought in for tie-breakers if a decision cannot be met).

Though regular Dr. Demento contributors (and FuMP members) Chris Mezzolesta/Power Salad, Devo Spice and Luke Ski have all taken home several Logan Awards for their incredible, hilarious work, many other fantastic artists have earned a robot cat of their own. Garfunkel & Oates received an award in 2013, They Might be Giants won in 2016, Rhett & Link snagged one in 2015, Paul & Storm won in 2017, and who can forget OK Go & the Muppets winning a Logan Award in 2012 for their cover of the “Muppet Show Theme?”

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The Great Luke Ski with his Logan Awards (and cat). (Ian Bonds)

The awards themselves are real, too. They’re based on Logan’s song “The Robot Cat” and features the titular feline perched atop a base with the winning artist’s name, song, year and category. The future of The Logan Awards is looking bright, but it’s always something the community is looking to share and support. Per Bonds:

Overall, though, I’d like to see the awards get even bigger. Not just three categories, but maybe include comedy albums as a whole, and have the other comedy music acts (basically folks who are more well known like NSP, Tenacious D, etc) be excited for the awards themselves. We still have a bit to go before that, but it’d be nice to have the awards be something that folks outside of the smaller comedy music community be excited for. As far as what you can do for next year? Get the word out! Nominate songs when open nominations...open. Word of mouth is the best way we have to get more people involved and interested. We are planning on doing a Kickstarter for next year’s awards (to finance the actual trophies themselves) and will have all sorts of related goodies for that, too.

For his part, Dr. Demento certainly approves and promotes The Logan Awards on his show and via social media.

“I had nothing to do with the decision to name them after Logan, but I was very pleased to see that the organizers had done that,” Demento told me last month. “I’m happy to see them continue to honor Logan’s memory.”

“Logan’s lyrics could be silly and hilarious one moment, then poignant and beautiful a bit later.”

Dr. Demento, from the Feb. 16, 2019 broadcast of The Dr. Demento Show, which featured the 2019 nominees for Outstanding Original Comedy Song. On the air, Demento called Logan’s album Goodbye My 4-Track “the Sgt. Pepper of comedy music,” adding: ”Like Sgt. Pepper, the Goodbye, My 4-Track album ranges through many genres of music.” (As Dr. D told us, he stands by this comment today.) The Goodbye, My 4-Track album was recently released on CD, vinyl, and cassette via Needlejuice Records, on the heels of a successful Kickstarter campaign.

The Logan Awards honor Logan Whitehurst’s legacy and keeps his music in our collective minds.

Perhaps the spirit of novelty songwriting contests lives on in newer comedy music and The Funny Music Project. Comedy songwriting contests are probably never coming back in full force, but there’s always a corner of the internet where the genre continues to thrive.

The community continues to grow and The Logan Awards are just the next logical step for comedy songwriters to compete in a friendly manner—in the spirit of fun and good humor the songs themselves are intended to convey.

Today’s story ends with a personal anecdote. In 2016, I decided to enter The International Songwriting Competition—in the comedy category, of course. My candidate for the contest was song, “Pineapple Pizza”—recorded with Dr. Demento legend Brad Stanfield—is a silly song about my favorite pizza topping.

By the time everything was complete, it turned out I missed the deadline for entry. Then I forgot about it up until recently. This year, I think I’m going to take the plunge and give it a shot.

Wish me luck—I think I’m going to need every bit I can get!

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David Buck

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David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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