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Friday, February 14th, 2014

Stan Freberg's Long Career, in Short

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.)

You may not know the name Stan Freberg, but you've definitely felt his influence. His career has lasted decades, first breaking into show business as a voice actor in 1944 before marching to the beat of his own snare drum. Let's first introduce the milestones in his career that you may already be familiar with: in the classic Looney Tunes cartoons he voiced many characters including Pete Puma, Chester the Terrier, and took over the rules of Junyer Bear and Beaky Buzzard. His first record released under his own name, a parody of soap operas which is comprised solely of the couple saying "John" and "Marsha" with different intonations, sold a quarter million copies and reached #21 on the Billboard charts. You may know it from the premiere episode of Mad Men's fourth season when Peggy and Joey act it out to one another in the break room. In addition to that, Freburg managed to make his mark on records, radio, and eventually the entire world of advertising. You may not know it, but that modern biting, satirical comedy you enjoy may not be so modern as you thought.

Records
At his initial meeting with Capitol Records, after playing them the demo for "John and Marsha," Freberg told the executives that he wanted to satirize whatever was on the pop charts at the time and release it immediately. Capitol was game, and thus began a long string of these unique satires. He takes down all of rhythm and blues with his version of The Coasters' "Sh Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)" in which the lead singer commands the rest of his singers to sing more unintelligibly. His parody of "Banana Boat (Day-O)" is less a song and more of a sketch in which the bongo player forces the singer to stop shouting Day-O in his ear, eventually getting him to go outside the recording booth. His parody of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" goes a different route from what you might expect from a skewering of Elvis. After playing it on his podcast, Scott Aukerman described the song aptly: "[it made] fun of a very specific aspect of Elvis' career: how much echo he used. On one song."

Not content to just stay with pop music, Freberg also had great success parodying popular TV of the day. His most popular, a parody of Dragnet, set in medieval times called (obviously) "Dragonet" that some credit with the spread of the catchphrase "just the facts, ma'am." Other shows that got this treatment include Lawrence Welk, Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person, The Honeymooners, and The Lone Ranger.

After a slew of 45 records, in 1961 Freberg released what many consider the pinnacle of his career: Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years. The full LP is basically a fully orchestrated comedy musical covering the history of America from it's discovery in 1492 to the end of the Revolutionary War. Both sides of the record feature catchy, original songs ("Columbus' "It's a Round, Round World" gets stuck in my head frequently) and his anarchic sense of humor throughout. Freberg often breaks the third wall, and on this record more than anywhere else, uses anachronistic humor. For example, Columbus wants to start America's first Italian restaurant, but learns he can't go to the bank to get started because all of the banks are closed for Columbus Day. Or, when Ben Franklin has trouble reading the Declaration of Independence because all the long Colonial "s"s look like "f's." As the "Volume One" might imply, it was originally planned to be a four record set. A second volume was released in 1996, but it doesn't seem as though we're going to be getting the conclusion any time soon.

Radio
No doubt due to the popularity of his various records, in 1957 CBS came calling to Freberg to give him his own radio show. For many years Jack Benny had been the number one hit on radio, but he had moved up to the big leagues (television) and a replacement was needed. The Stan Freberg Show lasted for 14 weeks, and was the last live network comedy show to be broadcast, a noble distinction. However, it was partly Freberg's own morals that blocked the show's success. As you are no doubt familiar, television and radio shows would have sponsors, rather than having blocks of commercials from any variety of products. Jack Benny had many, but his longest running sponsor was Lucky Strike tobacco. Freberg refused to have any tobacco company sponsor his program. So instead, Freberg sponsored himself, offering many fake commercials, such as one for Puffed Grass ("It has chlorophyl!"). Though it only lasted fourteen weeks, its first episode would go on to win the Writer's Guild Award for "Best Written Script of 1957" and the best-of record would win a Grammy that year.

Lucky for you, they're all available to hear, right now for free, over at the always amazing resource, Archive.org, who paid me nothing for that plug. Of all the old timey radio shows I've directed you to in the past, I can unequivocally say that this show has aged the best and is definitely worth your time.

Commercials
Part of the reason that Freberg was able to parody Madison Avenue so expertly on his radio show was because he had recently become a part of the machine. In 1956, Contadina Tomato Paste hired Freberg to produce commercials for them. Before long, Freberg became the go-to guy for brands that wanted to get people's attention with a little edge. Jeno's Pizza, Sunsweet prunes, Chun King Chinese food, even the Baptist Church all got the Freberg treatment. Butternut Coffee paid for a six-minute musical parody of Okalahoma! called Omaha! Freberg would eventually become enough of a household name to begin appearing in his own commercials. In a commercial for the TV show Hogan's Heroes, a sit-com about a prisoner of war camp in Nazi Germany, Freberg "interviewed" the show's star, Bob Crane.
Freberg: …Hogan's Heroes, Friday nights on CBS. Shall we say, "If you liked World War II, you'll love Hogan's Heroes?
Crane: No, let's not say that, no.

Freberg is still alive and kicking at the age of 87, though his output has slowed considerably, mostly working solely as a voice actor. However, it is fortunate that he has lived long enough to see such programing as The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, Kroll Show and hundreds others be inspired by his sensibility and move forward to inspire the next generation of comedy. As long as there are musicians putting distinctive effects on their vocal tracks, thanks to Stan Freberg, someone will be there to make fun of it. (Oh man, just imagine the fun Freberg could have with autotuning!)

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries, "Ramsey Has a Time Machine" just premiered a new episode featuring Ben Rameaka and Morgan Evans.

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