Land of the Freberg
The State of Radio Comedy
By Ken Lieck
DECEMBER 13, 1999: At the grand old age of 78 years, most folks are enjoying their retirement, sitting back in a comfortable chair watching TV, maybe taking the occasional holiday cruise or trip to see the grandkids. Satirist Stan Freberg is not most folks. Currently at work on a new album, a book, two syndicated radio shows -- Stan Freberg Here and When Radio Was, both of which he took on in the early Nineties -- he's also featured as narrator in the new children's film Stuart Little. To top it off, a 4-CD box set encompassing his long career, Tip of the Freberg: The Stan Freberg Collection 1951-1998, has just hit store racks. It's hard to believe Freberg could've been any busier a half-century ago. At that point, the young Californian had already done voice work for Warner Bros. cartoons and animator Bob Clampett's Time for Beany -- a live-action puppet-show precursor to the animated Beany & Cecil -- as well as put out his first single for Capitol Records, "John and Marsha." A simple schtick he had developed after being drafted into the Army's Special Services branch, the 1951 song was a soap-opera parody consisting of the title phrase being repeated over and over.
Soon, however, Freberg was proving himself the country's finest parodist as the rapidly changing styles of popular music battled for radio airplay in the Fifties. Crooners, jazzmen, calypso belters, and of course, those upstart rock & rollers were naught but targets for Freberg's musical and verbal arrows, which more often than not struck dead on the bull's-eye. The audio equivalent of Mad magazine (to which he contributed occasionally in its formative years), Freberg parodies became a badge of honor to those who'd been targeted, a sign that they had "made it."
"The great thing about making records in the Fifties and into the Sixties," recalls Freberg, his nasal voice still sharp as ever, "[was] if something annoyed me, like if I thought Harry Belafonte was yelling a little more than absolutely necessary on the "Banana Boat Song,' I could write that in two days and within the week be in Capitol Records recording it and they'd have it out to radio stations within two weeks -- while Harry Belafonte was still up on the charts!"
Such was the golden age of novelty records. Today, it's nearly impossible to imagine radio listeners, comfortably sitting at home and listening to what at first seems to be one of the hits of the day, like, for instance, the Platters' "The Great Pretender," when all of a sudden, in the middle of the song, the pianist starts to complain. He's a jazzman, he says, sick and tired of playing the same "plink-plink-plink" over and over again, and soon chaos ensues.
In Freberg's take on the Crew Cuts' "Sh-Boom," there's further trouble in the studio. The warning comes down that, "You gotta be careful, guys -- this is a rhythm & blues number, and people are liable to understand what you're singing about," while in "Heartbreak Hotel," Freberg's Elvis finds himself at war with an overactive echo pedal. The trick was to keep the humor incisive -- you know Presley fans didn't take kindly to having the King mocked in any way -- and more importantly, to grab hold of something popular and tweak it while it was still in the public eye (and ear).
"That's how I sold a million copies in the first three weeks of "St. George and the Dragonet,'" says Freberg about the first in his series of Dragnet parodies, which played off the popular television police drama -- especially star Jack Webb's bone-dry voice. "I went on to sell two and a half million [copies] of that one, which was a remarkable thing. And it got to No.1 on the Top 40 hit parade. That's because Dragnet was so hot at the time."
Freberg is being modest here. His humor in nonmusical singles such as "St. George and the Dragonet," in which the TV show is seemingly boiled down into a two-minute comedy sketch, was instantly endearing and repeatable. For those too young to remember, the style was adopted almost completely intact in the "Fractured Fairy Tales" segments of Jay Ward's Bullwinkle and Rocky series. Freberg adds that the success of "St. George" was reciprocal.
"Jack Webb told me, "Thanks for pushing us into the No.1 spot,' because I Love Lucy was at No.1 and Dragnet was No.2," explains Freberg with a chuckle. "After my record came out, within about two or three weeks, he was shoved into the No.1 spot."
Webb, in his gratitude, even gave Freberg permission to use the Dragnet theme, as well as his orchestra to play it on further installments of the series of parodies: "Little Blue Riding Hood" and the Christmas-themed "Yulenet" among them. Webb's generosity was especially surprising given that the catch phrase, "Just the facts, Ma'am," was in fact only rarely used on the show before Freberg's single hit the charts, and Webb found himself forced to stick it in just about every episode afterward.
While his singles typically stuck to one of a few formulas, Freberg was hardly a one-note performer. In 1957, he became the last network radio star in America, replacing The Jack Benny Show with an ill-fated CBS series called, naturally, The Stan Freberg Show. The show reprised several of his most popular song parodies, along with new tunes and comedy sketches which constantly ran into trouble with the censors before getting canceled after 17 weeks.
By this point, Freberg had gone into advertising as well, and in the ensuing years, he helped create some of the most memorable television and radio commercials of all time. Those of the right age remember many of his spots as well today as the day they first aired. His "Who Puts Eight Great Tomatoes in That Little Bitty Can" jingle for Contadina Tomato Paste was capable of sticking in one's head for decades, while his Gilbert & Sullivan takeoff (Meadowgold Dairies) and mini-musical "Omaha!" (Butternut Coffee) received the unheard-of compliment of actually being requested by radio-station listeners. They also made lots of money for the companies who hired him and made Freberg a legend in the field, dominating advertising with a style that remained king for decades.
He was also a very conscientious adman, working on many public-service announcements, such as those for Morristown, New Jersey's Seeing Eye kennel. Freberg began working with Seeing Eye after his brother-in-law became blind late in life and attended Austin's School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Despite the fact that in the Eighties, MTV's style of fast cuts, flash, and fashion have largely supplanted the Freberg model of advertising, to this day every locally produced radio commercial you hear is a poor attempt at the irreverent comedy Freberg pioneered.
Sadly, the comedian's most ambitious project in the entertainment field was also his last hurrah. Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years from 1961 was exactly what it sounds like: the first installment of a vast musical comedy detailing the entire history of this country, from Columbus' arrival on the continent ("It's a Round, Round World") on through the Declaration of Independence ("A Man Can't Be Too Careful What He Signs These Days"). It was not unsuccessful at the time, and over the years has achieved legendary status, but the project seemed doomed never to get past its premiere installment, due largely to the numerous abortive attempts at staging the production that kept Freberg from continuing with the second volume.
The commercials continued to appear, including a memorable ad for Prince (spaghetti) in concert (with Prince spaghetti sauce), which infuriated a particular diminutive Minnesotan, but Stan Freberg the entertainer seemed to have all but disappeared -- at least until the Nineties rolled around. As the millennium comes to an end, it seems as though comedy is making a comeback; Sixties metahumor kings the Firesign Theatre have reunited, and the comedy section of record stores, which seemed to all but vanish in the transition from LP to CD, is growing daily, with everyone from Groucho Marx and Ernie Kovacs to Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, and Lenny Bruce represented on the shop racks.
Better still, 1996 saw Freberg finally release The United States of America Volume Two: The Middle Years! The sequel covered American history up through the early 1900s and featured star vocalists including Tyne Daly, whom he met when she slipped up behind Freberg at an Emmy Awards presentation muttering, "Rumble, Rumble, Rumble! Mutiny, Mutiny Mutiny!" -- a catchphrase from USA Vol. 1. For his efforts, the then-75-year-old Freberg received a Grammy nomination and an increased workload.
"I played it for the top brass at Rhino," he recalls, "at their rhinoceros-horn-shaped conference table in the boardroom, and they all stood up and cheered and so forth. Richard Foos, the president, said, "Where's Volume 3?' and I said, "Geez! Give a guy a break! My gosh!'"
Given the 35-year gap between Vols. 1 & 2, it would seem that the third installment isn't due until 2031, a notion that makes Freberg shudder.
"Nonononono!" he insists. "I'm not taking enough vitamin pills to go too far into the next century! There will be a Volume 3. I'm about halfway through World War II. I'm trying to figure out how to get laughs out of Adolf Hitler without offending too many factions. I figure if Mel Brooks can do it, I should be able to."
Freberg notes that when he announced a hiatus from Stan Freberg Here to work on other projects, he got a call from the Joint Chiefs of Staff office in the Pentagon asking him to say it wasn't so.
"There must be something wrong," he laughs, "when a satirist has fans in the Pentagon. I didn't treat them too kindly over the years."
Like its predecessor, Volume 3 is already finding itself taking a back seat to other projects. Almost as soon as he began work on it, Freberg says, Rhino boss Foos phoned up to say, "Stop that. We want you to work on something else -- we want to put out the ultimate Freberg box set." Despite Freberg's contention that it was too soon to do so, Rhino released the box set this year.
"He was right," admits Freberg now. "The guy had this instinct, I guess -- at least based on the reception it's received. So I had to put Vol. 3 aside because it took my wife Donna, who's my producer, and I about 11 months -- first to dredge through hundreds of commercials I've done and decide on 40 or whatever it is."
As for his old Capitol masters, luckily they were all kept in pristine condition; the only problem was finding them.
"The stuff was in various vaults all over town," says Freberg, "because Capitol became paranoid after the Northridge earthquake, so they moved all their masters from one common place. So Peggy Lee is five miles from Frank Sinatra, and Frank is five or 10 miles from Stan Freberg."
So now Tip of the Freberg: The Stan Freberg Collection 1951-1998 is available at the corner CD store, one of many multi-album comedy sets out recently from Rhino alone [see sidebar], with The Best of the National Lampoon Radio Hour, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's The Complete 2000 Year Old Man, and the all-purpose sampler, The American Comedy Box 1915-1994. But why have all these treasures surfaced in just the last few years? Could it be that, as the Firesigns have implied in interviews, that the Eighties simply weren't funny?
"The Eighties were not all that funny," agrees Freberg. "And neither were the Seventies -- to me, at least. The Sixties were pretty funny, but the decade in which I really thrived was in the Eisenhower years, because everybody was so button-down and square that they were all sitting ducks."
Taking aim all these decades later is harder, says Freberg, for one simple reason: the death of the 45 as a commercially viable product.
"It's a shame that I'm not making single records now," Freberg sighs. "Single records have more or less passed from the face of the earth."
Not that he hasn't tried.
"Now, I wanted to do something on Monica Lewinsky," he says, "just a single, so I wrote "The Conspiraski Theory' -- "Monica Lewinsky rhymes with Tara Lipinski, and they both rhyme with [Unabomber] Theodore Kaczynski!' I could never get Rhino to put it out as a single in 1998, and get behind it or whatever. It was just an insipid rhyming thing, you know, but I actually had conspiracy buffs ask me if I really saw a connection!
"I made a video to support the single," he says, "and even with the video, I couldn't get Richard Foos to really get behind it, and that's when he went into the box set and said, "We'll put it into the box set, how about that?' Jeez, he threw me a bone, but I mean the time has sorta passed for Monica Lewinsky. I wrote that a year ago, at least!"
There is slight hope for the future of the novelty song, says Freberg, though it may not appear in the form of a physical single, as he points to the success of one young gentleman who still plies the trade of song parodist and makes a good living at it.
"Weird Al" Yankovic, Freberg says, "is the only guy doing my kind of stuff, but he hasn't figured it out. Let's take, "The Great Pretender.' He would just take the song from beginning to end with different lyrics. I have a comedy sketch, if you will, going on that interrupts the music. I had all these combative situations. I went off from the melody of the song to create this comedy sketch that was happening as this guy was trying his best to record. I've never seen Al do that yet."
He pauses and offers some free advice:
"Now, if Al reads The Austin Chronicle, since this is the first time I've revealed this to anybody, he'll say, "Hmmm! Freberg is right! That's what I need to do!'"
So how has being immortalized with a box set changed the life of Stan Freberg, master of the novelty hit single -- the Radio Star that Video Killed, the man who got science-fiction god Ray Bradbury to star in an advertisement for Sunsweet Prunes?
"A guy came up to me in the mall here in Century City and said to me, "Mr. Freberg, I just want to thank you for simplifying my life.' So I said, "How so?' And he said, "Well, when I used to get invited to parties, people would say bring all your Freberg stuff -- so I would come lugging LPs that would fall out of their sleeves, 45s, CDs, and all these various formats, dropping them on the floor. Now you've reduced everything to a shoebox.'
"I said, "Jeez, I never thought about that -- my life can be reduced to a shoebox,' which of course it could be if I was cremated, but let's not think about that. That's long after Volume 3, and the book, and the next box set. Meanwhile, I have to be very careful stepping off the curb!"
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