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“I once read on the album notes of another recording artist, famous for musical tin-pandemonium, that the successful satirist must love what he burlesques. Nothing could be further from the fact. From Voltaire to Swift to Al Capp, the most successful satire has been born of sheer outrage. Of course, outrage in its natural state is not too saleable. The hard part comes in covering the social message with a candy-coating of humor.”
– Stan Freberg, from the liner notes of his comedy LP “Stan Freberg With the Original Cast”

Stan Freberg, who passed away last Tuesday, was a national treasure. A prodigiously talented comic actor, writer, director, producer, lyricist, and composer, Freberg was the Orson Welles of Satire. Real, genuine, take no prisoners satire as described above, not the toothless, pointless, sophomoric “spoofs” that Saturday Night Live specializes in.

Like any accomplished satirist, Freberg used words like a scalpel to eviscerate the absurdities and obscenities peddled to the public by craven, conscienceless politicians, advertising flacks, network executives, and military hardliners. For example, Freberg wasn’t shy about expressing his contempt for the Vietnam War and the Nixon cronies determined to prolong the conflict. And he expressed that contempt the best way he knew how in a series of anti-Vietnam War radio ads, such as the one where he played a member of the Nixon administration telling an incredulous reporter that they were “winding down the war.” We then heard the volume of the battle sounds in the background being turned down… slightly. The reporter complained that he could still hear the war going on. The administration spokesman finally admitted that the war was just “winding down,” not stopping altogether.

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But when it came to political satire, Freberg was a bipartisan, equal-opportunity offender. In the late 1950s, there was a well-intentioned but clumsy and patronizing attempt at promoting the civil rights movement called—believe it or not—“Take a Negro to Lunch Day.” For Freberg, this was too good a target to pass up. On his 1961 comedy LP Stan Freberg presents the United States of America[1], he turned this into a song-and-dance number called “Pilgrim’s Progress (Take An Indian to Lunch),“ in which a pilgrim politician tries to pander to the Indian vote.

Take an Indian to lunch this week
Show him we’re a regular bunch this week
Show him we’re as liberal as can be
Let him know he’s almost as good as we

Sadly, there are entire generations who have never experienced real satire. Certainly not from the type of the unfunny travesties that pass for film comedies nowadays, usually produced by the likes of Judd Apatow, Seth MacFarland, or the Farrelly Brothers, with their emphasis on moronic penis, boobs, and potty jokes. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is political satire. Apatow’s The Interview (2014) is an adolescent’s idea of political satire. (And a not terribly bright adolescent at that.)

Born in 1926, Freberg grew up in Pasadena, California. He was an avid fan of the radio comedy shows of the 1930s and 40s. “My idols were Jack Benny and Fred Allen,” Freberg once said. Gifted with a flair for mimicry and a variety of funny voices and dialects, it was almost predestined that Freberg’s first major professional gig would be doing voice work for Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes, starting in 1946. The many cartoon characters he voiced there included Bertie, one of two scheming mice (opposite Mel Blanc’s wise-cracking Hubie); Tosh, one half of “the Goofy Gophers” (opposite Blanc’s Mac); and Junyer Bear, one third of the Bear Family (with Billy Bletcher as Papa Bear and Bea Benaderet as Mama Bear). Playing a mad scientist, Freberg did a letter-perfect imitation of Peter Lorre’s voice in the Daffy Duck cartoon Birth of a Notion (1947).

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The Looney Tunes character played by Freberg that has remained his most popular among fans is the incredibly dense Pete Puma in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit’s Kin (1952). In it, Bugs saves a young bunny from the puma’s clutches by constantly inventing excuses to invite Pete to tea. Bugs would gesture towards the sugar bowl and ask, “How many lumps do you want?” Falling for it every time, Pete would invariably answer, “Oh, three or four.” At which point, Bugs would produce a large mallet and deliver a dozen or so knocks to Pete’s nogin, producing said lumps. (Freberg also did the voice of the Beaver in Walt Disney’s 1955 animated feature Lady and the Tramp.)

Freberg eventually branched out to television, starting in 1949 with Time for Beany, a local Los Angeles kids show created by former Warners animator Bob Clampett. Freberg, along with his future cohort Daws Butler, doubled as voice actors and puppeteers. In 1950, the show started being broadcast nationwide until its conclusion in 1955. The show’s fans included none other than Albert Einstein. Around this time, Freberg frequently appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show with another puppet, a moon man named Orville. (While doing a guest shot with Orville on a 1958 episode of The Frank Sinatra Show, Freberg met his wife-to-be Donna, who would also double as his producer until her death  in 2000.) Freberg’s later television work included some one-shot specials, including Stan Freberg presents the Chun King Chow Mein Hour: Salute to the Chinese New Year (1962) for ABC and The Federal Budget Revue (1982) for PBS. He also made occasional guest appearances on TV series like The Monkees (1966) and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1967).

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Stan Freberg with Orville

In 1951, Freberg started making a series of satirical recordings for Capital Records (initially released in both 45-rpm and 78-rpm formats). The first one was “John and Marsha,” a parody of soap operas in which a couple appropriately named John and Marsha (both played by Freberg) ran the entire gamut of emotions simply by repeating each other’s names over and over again. The record that really put Freberg on the map, however, was the 1951 release “St. George and the Dragonet,” a retelling of the old legend in the form of a parody of Jack Webb’s seminal cop series Dragnet. Rather than trying to describe this sublime classic, I suggest you watch this rendition of it, accompanied by some superb stop-action animation. (No, I don’t know who did the animation.)

Not surprisingly, these recordings led Freberg to a brief career in network radio, which was then in its dying days. His first series was a sitcom for CBS called That’s Rich (1954), starring Freberg as Richard E. Wilk, who was employed by B.B. Hackett’s Consolidated Paper Products Co. Freberg’s scripts often allowed him to find ways of satirizing popular culture of the period. In one episode, Rich took his girlfriend to a drive-in picture. Unfortunately for them, the picture that night was the most pretentious, overrated, excruciatingly boring western in the history of the genre, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which Freberg gleefully raked over the coals. In Freberg’s audio version, we hear footsteps that seem to walk endlessly down a town boardwalk. The footsteps stop, followed by a knock on a door. The door opens and the irritated inhabitant asks, “Yeah?” The marshal (Freberg doing a dead-on impression of Gary Cooper) says, “The killers are comin’ to town. Will ya help me?” “No!” The door slams shut. More footsteps on the boardwalk. Another door is knocked on and opened by another irritated inhabitant. “Yeah?” “The killers are comin’ to town. Will ya help me?” “No!” Door slam, more footsteps—well, you get the idea. (Howard Hawks also hated High Noon and went on record as saying that his 1959 western Rio Bravo was a deliberate FU to Zinnemann’s film.)

CBS was impressed enough with Freberg to give him his own comedy sketch series The Stan Freberg Show, a 1957 summer replacement series in the coveted 7:30 pm Sunday time slot normally held by Freberg’s hero Jack Benny. Backed up by a cast of comic actors consisting of June Foray, Peter Leeds, and the aforementioned Daws Butler, and with musical accompaniment by Billy May and His Orchestra, vocalist Peggy Taylor, and the Jud Conlan Singers, Freberg continued his assaults on his usual targets: movies, television, advertising, and politics. (The pilot episode’s finale reimagined the Middle-Eastern Arab/Israeli conflict as a rivalry between Las Vegas casinos.)

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(left to right) Stan Freberg, Peggy Taylor, Peter Leeds, June Foray, and Daws Butler

One sketch was a parody of 1935 movie Mutiny on the Bounty, set in the Good Humor Corporation. In “Uninterrupted Melody,” Freberg’s Captain Bligh-like general manager sadistically dooms his ice cream truck drivers/salesmen to be subjected to continual daily repetitions of children’s nursery rhime jingles. (“Not ‘The Farmer in the Dell’!!!”) Finally, the manger pushes the men too far and they revolt, resulting in the manager being “dipped” and trussed up in an ice cream truck, driven mad by the incessant kids jingles. In another movie parody titled “Gray Flannel Hatful of Teenage Werewolves,”  Freberg played Lobo, an otherwise “normal werewolf” who, whenever there’s a full sun, transforms into a Madison Avenue advertising man, cursed to spout inanities like “Let’s roll it all up into one big ball of wax, gentlemen.”

Another of Freberg’s favorite targets was political correctness, decades before it even had a name.[2] One of the recurring bits on the show involved an acrobatic act called the Zazaloph Family. (The gag being, of course, what’s the point of an acrobat act on radio?) Whenever any cast member asked the question, “Zazaloph? What kind of name is that?”, Freberg’s standard answer was, “Swiss…That way we don’t offend no one.” In another classic bit, Freberg attempted to sing Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s iconic song “Old Man River,” only to be constantly interrupted by a censor (Butler), who complained that the lyrics were both offensive (“Old Man River” had to be changed to “Elderly Man River”) and ungrammatical (thus “He don’t plant taters/He don’t plant cottin’” became “He doesn’t plant potatoes/He doesn’t plant cotting”).

The series only lasted 15 weeks, thanks to numerous controversies, created by routines like the Middle-East conflict sketch described above, Freberg’s relentless satirizing of the commercial industry, and his frequent battles with the CBS censors, as well as the inability to find a permanent sponsor for the show. (It didn’t help that Freberg refused to allow commercials for tobacco companies.) In later years, Freberg would describe himself as “the last network radio comedian in America.”

Outside of his cartoon voice work, the one medium that Freberg was unable to conquer was motion pictures. Which is probably just as well. About the only way that Freberg could’ve translated his unique comic vision to the film medium would’ve been to make a series of short satirical movies, not unlike the one-reelers that humorist Robert Benchley made for MGM and Paramount in the 1930s and 40s. But, alas, like network radio shows, movie shorts were also a dying breed when Freberg’s career started to thrive.

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Andy Devine and Stan Freberg in
“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”

Freberg’s only appearance in a major motion picture was a brief “blink and you’ll miss him” cameo in Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In one shot, while a county sheriff (played by Andy Devine) carries on a phone conversation (with Spencer Tracy on the other end of the line) in the foreground, Freberg (as the deputy) sits silently in the background. A few minutes later, we hear Freberg’s voice on a police car radio. That’s it. Freberg also produced television ads for the film featuring members of the cast. (Some would say that the ads were a lot funnier than the movie itself, but we won’t go there. The ads are available among the extras on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo set of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.)

In what may well have been his most notable contribution to American culture, Freberg, following the old adage “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” started his own advertising agency called “Freberg, Ltd. (but not very)” in 1957. The agency’s motto was “Ars Gratia Pecuniae” (Latin for “Art for Money’s Sake”). Needless to say, Freberg had difficulty persuading perspective clients that making fun of their products would boost sales more than the traditional hardsell approach. But when his initial radio and television spots successfully yielded the promised results, Freberg had far less trouble lining up clients like Contadina Tomato Paste (“Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?”), Sunkist Pitted Prunes (“Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles! Sunkist marches on!”), and Chun King Chinese Food (a magazine ad with the slogan “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Chun King Chow Mein!” and a photo of nine Chinese doctors and one Caucasian doctor, played by Freberg).

Freberg’s television ads were virtually miniature cinematic masterpieces. Two, in particular, proved to be especially memorable. One, for Jeno Pizza Rolls, was a parody of the then current TV campaign for Lark Cigarettes, where a camera crew drove around the streets of LA baring a sign that said “Show us your Lark packs” with obvious actors holding up their Larks, all accompanied by Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (better known to the general public as the “Theme for the Lone Ranger”).

In an even more impressive 1970 TV spot for Heinz’s short-lived line of Great American Soups, Freberg created a one-minute tribute to the classic Hollywood musicals of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, starring Ann Miller, who had appeared in several of those classic movies. (It was the most expensive TV commercial ever made at that time.)

 

If, in later years, Freberg wasn’t in demand as much as he had been in the past, he could still take solace in the fact that he’d been an indispensable influence on younger generations of comic artists, including some counterculture performers he would later work with, such as The Firesign Theatre and “Weird Al” Yankovic. And his skewering of intelligence-insulting TV shows, commercials, and movies lived on in spirit on SCTV, the closest a television sketch series ever came to doing the type of sharp, merciless satire that Freberg excelled at. (Could anything be more Frebergian than SCTV’s “Indira,” their classic parody of the Broadway musical Evita?)

Farewell, Stan Freberg. In a day and age when the dreck posing as comedy is deliberately geared to the sensibilities of the most immature cretins in the audience, and genuine wit is virtually non-existent, you will be sorely missed.

 

[1] Often called Freberg’s masterpiece, United States was a satirical look at American history, from Columbus “discovering” America to the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.

[2] As Freberg revealed in a 1999 interview with Stephen Thompson (The Onion), he had recently taught a class at Young Presidents’ Organization called “Political Correctness: Just Another Form of Censorship?”

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