The clowing and general goofiness begin immediately. Dennis Locorriere, looking like a reject from the 1974 Sears catalogue -- faded jeans suit, blown-dry hair a little too long and too thin to be stylish -- launches into one of his character monologues. A mafioso type with the strained, scratchy voice of Brando's godfather says, "I love music. My fadda was the same. I was raised on opera-serene and peaceful.My fadda taught me. I'd run through the room with the opera record on. I'd make the record skip, and he'd break my leg. He's a saint, that man."

Ray Sawyer, country pirate with a black patch over his right eye, a battered straw hat and tufts of red/blong hair at his ears that might be mistaken for hay, guffaws at Locorriere's vignette.

City huckster and country hayseed, they are the lead singers, writers and front men for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, a band that's been angling the waters of country rock for eight years now; they've caught a few big ones, but just as many have gotten away. They return to the Washington area tonight to perform with Sha Na Na at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House.

It's Sawyer's resemblance to a pirate that gave the band its name: It's borrowed from Captain Hook of Peter Pan fame. The Captain is the epitomy of piracy with a conical twist; his foil, a ticking crocodile, renders Hook absurd. And Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show project that absurdity on stage in a whacky, eccentric hodgepodge.

But success in the world of rock 'n' roll is as flighty as Tinkerbell, and instant fame and the promise of oblivion are part of the same package deal. One day you're on the cover of Rolling Sone magazine, the next day you haven't the change in your pocket to buy the current issue. Which is just what happened to Dr. Hook.

In 1972 their hugely popular "Cover of the Rolling Stone" got them exactly there with the caption "What's -Their-Names Make the Cover." It also got them banned by BBC and two other English radio stations because "the constant repetition of the title of the magazine... quite simply infringes our policy over advertising matters."

But it wasn't long after that -- the end of 1974 to be exact -- that the band had to declare bankruptcy. Locorriere, whose comedy talent perhaps masks a strain of sentimentality, feels that the time when the band was down and out was a period of solidarity of them. "We know a little bit of what the black hole of Calcutta is like.... Of course we were fortunate because we all went down together." -- (but the seriousness cannot hold) -- "After all, how often can you drag your best friends to Hell right along with you?"

But the band stayed together, and finally a rendition of Sam Cooke's "Only Sixteen" from the album entitled "Bankrupt" got them back on their feet. Today they have a new album out, "Pleasure and Pain," and a chart topper with "Sharing the Night Together."

Dr. Hook's music is an amalgam of styles. They came out of the bar-band tradition, playing rock 'n' roll, southern boogie, blues and pure country, though their country roots seem to have had the more lasting impact on their sound.

That sound has been in part the creation of Shel Silverstein, a songwriter in his own right, whose simple melodies and satiric lyrics became the songs for Dr. Hook's first two albums. Since then Sawyer and Locorriere have taken over a good portion of the songwriting responsibilities, though Silverstein still contributes.

Some of their songs do a good job of turning sacred cows into hamburger meat: "Cover of the Rolling Stone," "Freakin' at the Freakerhs Ball" and even "A Little Bit More." They've parodied everything from rock 'n' roll stardom to lachrymose country songwriting.

Their tongue-in-cheek stance extends to their stage show which has an upbeat, zany, good-time feel to it. "We think of ourselves as entertainers, and rock music as a chance to have fun. Leave the heavy ideas to Kierkegaard." The show is never the same; you can't count on a blood-vomiting segment as in Kiss; you can't even count on a preplanned ordering of the songs. That happens right on stage.

Once they were playing in Ohio, and The Guess Who, their opening act, guess what? Got sick. Says Sawyer, "We though, 'It don't seem fair, really, to the people. They paid to see two groups.' Rick the guitar player said, 'Well, we all know rock 'n' roll, why don't we just try that.'" So they went on as their own opening act, and half the audiance believed it was another band.

This put-on was elaborated on is Copenhagen when they opened for themselves as a glitter band -- tight sparkly suits, teased hair and all. "They booed us off the stage," Sawyer said. "They kept screaming. 'Docta Hook, Docta Hooook.' We did five songs and left the stage and then came back as ourselves. Then during the last song, 'Cover of the Rolling Stone,' I turned my back to the stage and put on the vest and shades I'd worn during the opening. The audience gasped and then went wild."

Their name has prompted a couple of cases of mistaken identity. Once the band was booked into a hotel in Australia, and when Locorriere and Sawyer arrived and asked for reservations for Dr. Hook, the management quickly switched their room keys, giving them rooms better suited to important medical men.

And in Austria, a staff writer for a local magazine spent an entire press conference with a quizzical look on his face, wondering about the team of Swedish gynecologists he was supposed to be interviewing.

Dr. Hook's greatest success has been abroad, where they have toured extensively, collecting vast numbers of fans. Their success has been more sporadic here -- ironic, since their appeal in Eutope and Australia, according to one French journalist, is that they "epitomize the American personality, its spirit and humor."

Dr. Hook hopes to get the home fires burning again. They've pushed back to next fall any plans to return to Europe. "We're concentrating on the U.S. for now, and hope the time is right for that spirit to reignite here."