Stan Freberg: Tip Of The Freberg: The Freberg Collection 1951-1998, Rhino, 1999
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S.Lewis cited two quotes on how humor can be used to battle evil:
“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” – Luther
“The devil..the prowde spirite..cannot endure to be mocked.” – Thomas More
More recently, the Trinity Foundation, a watchdog group that monitors crooked TV evangelists took on Preacher W.V.Grant. Their investigation resulted in Grant doing time in federal prison for tax fraud. Even after such a public pronouncement of guilt he seemed unfazed, but when the Door Magazine (also published by Trinity) published a full-length photo of Grant posing in the nude, they finally hit a nerve. Such guerilla tactics may go farther than some would prefer, but the basic premise stands. Laughter may be the best medicine, but it’s also a potent weapon.
Stan Freberg, the son of a Baptist Minister, used entertainment, primarily parody and satire, to deliver his own sermons. A frequent visitor to America’s homes via radio, television and print, Freberg’s he managed to point out the foibles of modern life and keep the nation laughing at the same time. In his autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh (Times Books/Random House 1988) Stan’s father, the Reverend Victor Freberg, is credited as “a lasting moral influence.” As a youth Stan was an avid listener of the popular radio comedies, and notes his father “believed that God intended us to find humor where we could in this over serious world and laughed along with me.”
Raised in Pasadena, Southern California, upon completing High School in 1944 Stan’s mother packed him a sandwich and he boarded a bus to Hollywood. With no specific destination, he got off at the corner of Cherokee and Hollywood Boulevard, spotted a building with a sign reading ‘Stars Of Tomorrow, Talent Agents’ and entered. Inside he met a man and woman. “After telling them my name and how I wanted to be an actor,” Freberg recounts “I launched into a cavalcade of voices and impersonations. The next thing I knew, the woman was saying, “Let’s all hold hands and pray for this talented young man. Lord, help Stan…what was your last name again? “Freberg,” I said, clearing it up for the Lord. “…Freberg to become a true star of tomorrow,” she prayed, clutching my hand and raising her closed eyes heavenward. “Direct him into the right job, oh Lord, in Jesus’ name. Amen!”
One phone call later, an audition was scheduled with Warner Brothers Cartoon, and Freberg was hired the next day. Just 17, he had hit the big time, and soon added work for MGM, Disney, Paramount to his resume. 1n 1949 he helped create, voice, and operate the puppets in the 3 time Emmy award winner Time For Beany aka Beany and Cecil.
By ’51 he was also a popular recording artist. All the hits are here, including his first release, “John And Marsha,” “The Yellow Rose Of Texas,” “St. George and the Dragonet” (at the time the fastest selling record in the history of the recording industry), parodies of “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Banana Boat Song” and many more.
To work effectively, parody must sound authentic. Freberg went the distance, and the tracks stand as perfect soundscapes. The bulk of material was recorded at the legendary Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood, and the results rival anything from the era. His Dragnet parodies used the very same orchestra Jack Webb had employed on the television show. Recorded live, the biggest setback was the orchestra members cracking up during takes. Overdubbing was in it’s infancy, but when he did take on that particular technique, parodying the Les Paul/Mary Ford multi-layered guitar hits, he matched the master, but replaced the guitars with banjos.
The commercialization of Christmas was a particular sore spot, and inspired some of Freberg’s most memorable work. We get two classics “Green Christmas” and “Christmas Dragnet (Yulenet).”
“Point Of Order” from ‘54 makes clear the absurdity of the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunts. Like the hearings themselves, the track is less than subtle. As Baa Baa Black Sheep is investigated for, among other things, wearing red underwear, a circus calliope begins to play, enhancing an already bizarre scenario.
Four skits from his 1957 CBS radio program – the last network comedy show to be carried by the original networks – allow Freberg to stretch out with longer works. “Incident at Los Alamos (The Greedy Ones),“ clocks in at 21 minutes. Taken from the first episode, the skit almost had the show cancelled before it had gone on air. Freberg had already upset network brass by refusing sponsorship from tobacco companies, and this skit only served to worsen an already tense situation. Freberg’s distaste for gambling, the nuclear arms race, and the Cold War inspired a potent scenario in which two Las Vegas nightclubs, the El Sodom and The Rancho Gomorrah attempt to outdo each other with increasingly extravagant floorshows, until the ultimate event- one night only- a hydrogen bomb blast. Network censors forced a last minute rewrite, removing all references to the Gaza Strip and replacing the bomb with an earthquake. The original version is included here.
A later episode featured “Elderly Man River,” during which a performance of the song is cut short by interruptions from a representative of the ‘Citizen’s Radio Committee.’ His repeated justification for changing potentially offensive lyrics- ‘keep in mind the tiny tots’ – is echoed today on the Simpsons (“Will somebody please think of the children”).
Despite critical raves and high ratings, the show only lasted 15 episodes.
Throughout his early career Freberg made no secret of the fact he loathed the Advertising industry, and the questionable methods used to sell product. In a bizarre twist worthy of one of his skits, he would soon bring life to the staid medium, producing radio, television and print campaigns for 100s of companies, in the process winning 21 Clio awards and single-handedly changing the face and rules of the business. The New York Times has called him “the Che Guevara of advertising.”
It all started in ’56 when he was approached to write a commercial for Contadina Tomato Paste. With full creative control (and no formal training) he quickly turned the company’s fortunes around, and was hailed as a genius, winning Advertising Age magazine’s award for one of the two most successful add campaigns of the year. Freberg has described his favorite ploy as bringing “more honesty than the client had in mind.”
The lengthy assortment of adds includes “Golf Date.” Produced for the United Presbyterian Church, who honored Freberg for changing “the course of Religious Broadcasting,” the add poked fun at excuses made for lack of church attendance, and without sounding heavy-handed, managed to imply divine ramifications. The add was also run by “the National Council of Churches, various Catholic dioceses and some rabbis.” Freberg went on to produce a number of adds for various ecumenical groups.
A campaign in support of the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment to End The War, which would have brought US troops home from Vietnam years before they finally pulled out, used dark humor to get it’s point across.
“Elton John Could Write A Song For You,” from Stan Freberg Here… a daily syndicated radio commentary now in it’s 9th year, confirms Freberg to be as sharp as ever. More in common with Chuck Colson than Weird Al, the show offers 60 second glimpses of Freberg’s take on life in the 90s. There’s much more, including excerpts from his most daunting concept, Stan Freberg Presents the United States Of America – Vol 1 (’61) and Vol 2 (’96). Parts 3 and 4 are still promised.
Freberg’s influence is pervasive. Monty Python, SCTV, National Lampoon, The Door, Saturday Night Live, Firesign Theatre, Garrison Keillor and the Simpsons, to name the most obvious, owe a debt to his pioneering efforts. Simply put, comedy as we know it today would not be the same without his pioneering efforts.
In addition to almost 5 hours of songs, skits and commentary, a video cassette collects 17 of his TV commercials. A 62 page booklet includes essays, track by track notation, hilarious photos and more. This package is a Freberg collector’s dream.
© John Cody 2000