The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
We live in a time of transition when it comes to the comedy we watch. TV and movies are finding that they now have a new medium to compete with and are slowly adapting to find their footing in this digital world. Ultimately, long-standing broadcast empires will change shape, merge, and find new forms as they transition from one medium to the next.
But this is not the first time this has happened. In Tim Wu’s book The Master Switch, he details the transition from radio to television as one that happens relatively quickly, but with it came many changes to the industry that had to happen very quickly. Just as with any other transition, as television surpassed radio in popularity, there were a few personalities that would be left behind. Today we examine the very last original comedy program produced for radio: 1957’s The Stan Freberg Show.
Previously in this column we looked back at Freberg’s career as a whole. Stan would find audiences in many different ways over the years, whether it was as a voice actor in Looney Tunes, or Time for Beany, or through the many subversive advertisements he created as a bit of a second career, but it was his work on The Stan Freberg Show would prove to be enduring and wide-reaching. The program lasted just 15 episodes that reached over six million radio listeners, but was doomed when it failed to attract a sponsor. During this time, there weren’t really blocks of commercials as there are now: you would have one sponsor who would present the entire program. That’s all well and good if you’re super-popular like Jack Benny, but Freberg prided himself on being sardonic and mischievous. In other words, dangerous to attach your brand to.
Take, for example, his first episode. It starts innocently enough with a bunch of Stan Freberg’s characters from his various records introducing themselves as Stan, and then a swinging big-band theme song plays for the live studio audience. There’s a strange but ultimately harmless sketch about a shepherd who plays his sheep as a musical instrument through the bells on their collars by bonking them on the head. Then the last two-thirds of the episode is devoted to a sweeping satirical piece called “Incident at Las Varoces.” This truly brilliant sketch tells the tale of two Nevada hotels, The El Sodom and The Rancho Gomorrah. As you can probably guess from that information, it was a retelling of the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but in addition to that, it attacked the overbearing glitz of Las Vegas, as well as the threat of nuclear arms, and the Cold War. According to Joe Bevilacqua’s article on the show, when the CBS executives heard the episode that had been taped that Friday, they nearly cancelled it before it had aired its first episode, and demanded that Freberg change it. Stan and his producer stayed up all night rewriting it, re-recorded it in front of a new audience on Saturday, and it made the air.
And that was how the show began its short life on radio.
There’s a ton of great material in between, but today we skip over to take a close look at the thirteenth episode. The show’s theme song opens the program, which closes with a line that perfectly encapsulates the sort of second-class stature radio had been demoted to, “You may not find us on your TV, because in case you didn’t know, we’re being brought to you on R-A-D-I-O!” The show’s conductor leads us through a rendition of the standard “Cocktails for Two,” resolving the song after the first verse. Stan asks why he wasn’t performing the chorus, to which Billy replies, “Aw, everybody knows the chorus of this turkey.” From there, Stan launches into a faux “man-on-the-street” bit, which is meant to be about the circus, but becomes meta very quickly. He speaks first to an older woman, voiced by June Foray (best known as Granny in the Looney Tunes shorts, or Rocky on Rocky and Bullwinkle) who refuses to answer any questions because she demands some sort of prize and once she finally gets one, finds it unsatisfactory. Next he speaks with a gent voiced by Daws Butler (who you know as the original voice of Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw and tons of other classic characters) who keeps referring to Stan as “Steve Allen,” who popularized the man-on-the-street bit on his Tonight Show.
The majority of the episode is comprised of what Freberg introduces as a “cinema composite” in which he combines two then-recent films: the b-level horror flick, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and the dramatic look at corporate America, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Together they become “Gray Flannel Hat Full of Teenage Werewolves.” In this sketch, we hear the story of a teen werewolf who lives beneath a bridge in Westchester County, New York. Rebelling against his werewolf parents, he arrives home at 4:30, when, according to his dad, he should be out until 5:30, werewolfing around. Each morning, a terrible transformation occurs as he begins snarling, and spitting out such clichés as “let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes,” or “that’s the way the cookie crumbles.” Almost in a trance, he hops on the train to Manhattan, and joins a pack of his compatriots where he becomes… Mr. Bryson, an ad man, working on Madison Avenue!
Our werewolf/ad man has it all. Bryson has worked his way up the corporate ladder, partly by continuing to spout out a consistent stream of clichés, and he’s dating his sexy secretary Ms. Willway. But one of the fellow execs, Fogerty (Daws Butler again), has his eyes on the corner office. Bryson shows off his latest, horrible advertisement for the big Food account (“Put food in your tummy tum tum tum tummy tum tum tum tummy tum tum. / If you haven’t any teeth / But you’re about to eat meat / you can gum it with your gummy gum gums.”), but it’s torpedoed by Fogerty. His career prospects slipping away before his eyes, he goes out that afternoon with Ms. Willway, but panics when dusk becomes evening and he begins to transform into a werewolf. He needn’t have worried, however, because as it turns out, his date is also a werewolf. The pair of lovesick werewolves find Fogerty who eyes them nervously, thinking they’re in some sort of costume, and Bryson’s back on easy street when his competition has been eaten.
There are a lot of great jokes in this piece, and some fantastic performances as well. In an interview with Freberg, Stan specifically cites Butler’s acting in this sketch as the sign of a talented voice artist, because he’s able to get a laugh without any joke in the script. The moment occurs when his character encounters the two werewolves, which he assumes are just costumes, “and he does this hilarious nervous laugh… and this got a tremendous reaction from the audience. Now imagine that the laughter coming from the audience was caused not by a joke at all but from Daws’s terrific performance as an actor.”
Just as “Incident at Las Varoces” took on Vegas and nuclear weapons, “Teenage Werewolves” doesn’t pull any punches as it satirizes the banal schlock pumped out by the advertising firms of that time. It’s probably no coincidence that this episode that tears down the world of advertising is the same episode in which Stan announces, with some difficulty in his voice, that his show will be ending in two weeks. This is certainly due to the fact that his show was unable to attract a sponsor, so why not take all of Madison Avenue down with the ship? The following week’s episode did have a sponsor, however, when they performed a segment: Stan Freberg Sponsors Freberg. For the show’s final episode a week later, they performed a best of, and then rode off into the sunset, closing the door on original comedy series on the radio.
The Stan Freberg Show was a product of its times and satirized the world that it existed in, but somehow, in my opinion, it has aged so much better than most of the comedy of its time. My guess is it was just so far ahead of 1957 that it doesn’t feel quite that old. I am pleased to inform you that you are able to listen to all 15 episodes right now over at Archive.org and are well worth a listen. It serves as a nice reminder that even when everybody moves to the next new format, it’s still possible to do something amazing on the old one.