The best novelty songs are hastily written, produced, and released novelty songs about fleeting pop cultural ephemera. I mean, that’s kind of the definition of “novelty” — something that’s fun and amusing but with a shelf life so short that it disappears before it goes stale. Novelty songs about fads are flavorful, easily digestible, and forgettable, just like a food fad, like Crystal Pepsi or the Arch Deluxe.
“Who Shot J.R.?” is a nutrition-free musical snack from 1980. A Cincinnati radio personality named Dr. Johnny Fever Gary Burbank came up with a fun little tune to cash in on the famous cliffhanger that ended the third season of the incredibly popular TV show Dallas. (Evil oil tycoon J.R. Ewing was left for dead after an as-yet-unknown assailant sprinkled his insides with propelled lead.)
Burbank was a big deal in his home market, using his platform to poke fun at then mayor, Jerry Springer (yes that Jerry Spring.) Finding success there, he would turn his satirical wit towards other Cincinnati institutions like the Cincinnati Reds, their own owner, Marge Schott and the Bengals football team. Despite this success, it would be his take on the Dallas cultural touchstone that would give him some national prominence.
Burbank wisely decided to make Who Shot J.R.? a country song, playing into 1980’s almost inexplicable mass popularity of “country” culture — The Dukes of Hazzard was on TV, Urban Cowboy was on the big screen, Kenny Rogers and Eddie Rabbitt topped the pop charts. Perhaps because of this, Gary Burbank’s “Who Shot J.R.” got airplay all over the place.
This song did well over the summer, but in the fall, when J.R. survived the attack and his would-be murderer’s identity revealed, the tune didn’t really need to exist anymore. But it makes for a nice time capsule of the summer of 1980.