Stan Freberg: Guerrilla Satirist

Dan Pasternack is a comedy producer and programmer as well as a scribbler and superfan who loves alliterative couplets almost as much as he loves comedy. His passion and his professional life have brought him into contact with comedy legends and lore of the past and present. For each installment of The Comedy Curator, Dan will explore the little told, untold, and misplaced stories from all corners of comedy’s rich history.

For comedy fans, it is always hard to lose our irreplaceable giants. We post tributes and revisit their work to herald all they gave us. But in addition to honoring the loss of Don Rickles, practitioners of satire should also light a candle in remembrance of the anniversary of the passing Stan Freberg, who left us two years ago today. Freberg was a legendary figure in the worlds of animation, radio, television, advertising, and the recording industry, but when pressed to cite his occupation, Freberg ultimately landed on “guerrilla satirist” as his preferred descriptor in his 1988 autobiography It Only Hurts When I Laugh. In his prime, Freberg methodically infiltrated American culture, brandishing the sharpest satirical saber and cutting the powerful and the popular to shreds. But he reached his zenith with the 1961 landmark comedy album, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume 1: The Early Years. The Los Angeles Times would later dub it “The Sgt. Pepper of comedy albums” and Time magazine called it “arguably the best comedy album ever made.” But like so many truly great satirists, Freberg’s deeply sensitive and idealistic soul rendered him all too vulnerable, weathering the indignities of his industry with a decreasing degree of deference. Perhaps it was the combination of Freberg’s notorious perfectionism, his singular vision, his inability to suffer fools gladly, and a seemingly never-ending parade of fools that delayed the long-anticipated sequel to the USA album for three and a half decades.

Born in 1926, Freberg was the son of a Baptist minister and grew up in South Pasadena, just outside of Los Angeles. As a child, he was a radio fan, cultivating nerd levels of devotion to the sophisticated, biting comedy of Fred Allen. Freberg wrote expansively in his memoir about his idol Fred Allen’s “acid-tongued wit,” heralding him as the man who “first opened my mind to the possibilities of satire in the medium of radio, and who first taught me respect for The Word: the precisely correct statement in a sentence of humor.”

After graduating high school, Freberg quickly found employment as a cartoon voice artist, working for many of the giants of animation: Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett. He memorably portrayed Pete Puma in the classic Warner Bros. short Rabbit’s Kin. Clampett then brought Freberg into early live television as a writer, voice actor, and puppeteer for the children’s series Time for Beany. The program’s scores of fans were distinguished and diverse, including Albert Einstein, who legendarily excused himself from a meeting after checking his watch, declaring, “It’s time for Beany.”

Animation, television, and nightclubs provided steady work, but it was on records where Freberg became a household name. In 1951, his first single, the odd soap opera parody “John and Marsha,” began a string of smash hits. Many of his subsequent records skewered the popular music of the day. He eviscerated songs such as “Sh-boom,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Rock Island Line,” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” His send-up of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O,” entitled “Banana Boat,” features a precise symphony of sound effects to create the sonic illusion of Freberg’s shouting calypso singer running in and out of the studio to accommodate the sensitive ears of his protesting hipster bongo player, portrayed by the great Peter Leeds. In 1953, Freberg released “St. George and the Dragonet,” a medieval parody of Jack Webb’s popular police series Dragnet. The single sold a million copies in three weeks, becoming the first-ever comedy gold record.

Despite all his success, it was not entirely smooth sailing for the bold young recording star. Capitol Records’ legal department blocked the release of a pair of his records savaging the programs of Arthur Godfrey and Ed Sullivan after both stars declined to grant their blessing. (Both tracks eventually appeared on his 1999 Rhino box set, Tip of the Freberg.) Freberg also began to inject his moral and political outrage regarding Senator Joseph McCarthy’s paranoia-driven campaign against suspected communists in the media on his records “Little Blue Riding Hood” (“the color has been changed to prevent an investigation”) and “Point of Order.” The label put up a mighty resistance to Freberg’s determined poking of the Red Scare-bear for fear he would be blacklisted as a result. Furthermore, Capitol also threatened to scrap his record “Green Chri$tma$” for daring to shine his satirical spotlight on advertisers’ over-commercialization of the holiday. It was only after another label made a competing offer that Capitol reluctantly backed down. Years later, George Carlin told Freberg that, as a young man, he almost got fired from his DJ job in Shreveport, Louisiana for playing “Green Chri$tma$” over and over. Carlin recalled defiantly insisting to his station manager that it was “the most moral record ever made.” In his memoir, Freberg wrote of his struggles, “My records are not released… they escape.”

During this prolific period, Freberg’s childhood radio dreams were finally about to come true. Or so it seemed. In 1957, network radio had been dealt a heavy blow by television, seeing much of its biggest talent make the jump to the exciting new medium. Eager to find a young star to take over Jack Benny’s long-held Sunday evening time slot, CBS offered Freberg his own show. But from the jump, there was friction between the audio auteur and the network brass. The first episode of his new series featured a sketch called “Incident at Los Voraces.” It’s a cautionary fable about a Las Vegas-esque desert doppelganger where rival hotels, the El Sodom and the Rancho Gomorrah, become embroiled in an ever-heightening competition to book the biggest attraction. The battle culminates with the Rancho Gomorrah’s one-night-only presentation of the hydrogen bomb. A panicked CBS forced Freberg’s hand, making him change the material at the last minute before the premiere. Here’s the original version that CBS refused to air:

By his sixth week on the air, Freberg’s contempt for the network was baked into his material. He performed a sketch called “Elderly Man River,” wherein a network censor character uses an obnoxiously loud buzzer to interrupt Freberg singing “Old Man River,” insisting he revise any and all lyrics he deemed objectionable. Freberg later reflected on the piece, “I did this thirty years before anyone invented political correctness!” After 15 weeks, the network, tired of the endless conflict, canceled the show, thus condemning Stan Freberg with the dubious distinction of being the last comedian ever to launch a network radio series. It is noteworthy to mention that in 1958, Capitol issued a two-LP set of The Best Of The Stan Freberg Radio Shows… and it won a Grammy. As Freberg later mused in his autobiography, “Satirists have the last word. Sometimes.”

Freberg’s first LPs were just collections of his hit singles and excerpts from his CBS radio series. But by 1961, possibly fueled by defiant determination following his failure on radio, Freberg took a big swing. He gathered a cast of his favorite comic actors including Jesse White, Peter Leeds, June Foray and Byron Kane, engaged his radio bandleader Billy May, and assembled a nineteen-piece orchestra to produce Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America Volume 1: The Early Years. The barbed Broadway revue style LP told the story of America in Freberg-Vision, beginning with Christopher Columbus and ending at the Revolutionary War. It would be comedy’s first concept album and Freberg’s masterpiece.

The USA album was the culmination of everything Freberg had explored so successfully in all of his previous work. The songs were as meticulous and musical as the best of his singles, and the sketches were as pointed as his attacks on McCarthy as well as his criticisms of our sick society in “Green Chri$tma$” and “Incident at Los Voraces.” He paints Christopher Columbus as a scheming opportunist, George Washington as insensitive to the needs of his enlisted men, and Ben Franklin as a narcissistic media whore. He also evidences a remarkable sympathy toward the Native Americans, a sentiment not yet in popular acceptance, in the rousing song “Take An Indian To Lunch This Week.”

Freberg’s ongoing disdain for creative interlopers is cleverly deployed in a scene between George Washington and Betsy Ross, in which Freberg plays Washington as the meddlesome patron challenging Ross’s artistic vision of the first flag. (Washington impotently suggests polka dots instead of stars.) This leads into the song “Everybody Wants to Be an Art Director,” after which Washington ultimately relents, culminating with his pointed, hilariously literal delivery of the tired ad-man axiom, “I’ll run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.”

The Washington-Ross sketch would prove tragically prophetic. Famed Broadway producer David Merrick tied up the rights to the album as the basis for a musical he commissioned Freberg to adapt for the stage. Their battles played out over many years, ultimately breaking down after Merrick supposedly told Freberg to “take Lincoln out of the Civil War. He doesn’t work.”

Beyond demoralized, Freberg walked away and couldn’t bring himself to revisit the material. For a long, long time. Thereafter, Freberg largely retreated into the lucrative world of advertising, writing and producing hundreds of funny commercials. An entire disk of Tip of the Freberg contains a sampling of his work as an ad man, all bearing his trademark irreverence. His work in that field garnered him 21 Clios and 18 International Broadcasting Awards. But as the saying goes, time heals all wounds, and in 1996, Freberg decided he was sufficiently healed.

Volume 2: The Middle Years brought Freberg back together with Foray, Leeds, White, and May and included some new players who grew up as fans of the classic LP. John Goodman, Lorenzo Music, David Ogden Stiers, Tyne Daly, and Harry Shearer all take part in Freberg’s continuing journey through American history up to the Great Depression. Shearer, a fellow master practitioner of the art of radio comedy, offered this tribute:

Stan moved with ease and grace from simple, but hilariously effective pop-song parodies through radio sketch comedy and on to musical satire of the highest order. In each phase, his unique style and his perfectionism shone through. There was not a sloppy moment in a Stan Freberg production, and there was intelligence and comic brilliance galore. I always regretted, though I’m sure he and his children didn’t, that he then took those gifts to brighten the world of advertising. But he inspired me deeply and I actually got to work on the long-delayed Volume 2 which, though not equal in satirical pungency to the first, was still a chance to be part of a very charmed circle.

In the liner notes for Volume 2, Freberg declared his intentions to follow through on his original mission to tell the rest of the story of America, up to the present, in Volumes 3 and 4.  Sadly those never came to be, the hopes of their eventual creation forever dashed when Freberg passed away on April 7, 2015 at the age of 88.  

This generation’s premiere musical parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, who lauds Freberg as one of his “all-time heroes” said, “Even among the many sublime pieces of work he created during his lifetime, Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America Volume 1 clearly stands out. It is a timeless piece of comedy that will be enjoyed until the end of civilization – which, let’s face it, will probably be any minute now.”

Stan Freberg: Guerrilla Satirist