Wednesday, May 6, 2015

This Freberg You Will Not Change: Stan Freberg (1926-2015)

(Photo Courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Stan Freberg, who died last month at the age of 88, was the first American show business figure I ever saw referred to as a “satirist,” by people who clearly meant to convey that his stuff was on a sharper, smarter level than the comedy of mere funnymen. When someone like Bob Hope did a sketch about Bonanza or Batman on one of his TV specials, the subject of the sketch didn’t really matter, and there was nothing that could be called a point of view: the dumb topical jokes about politicians and other celebrities could go just as well with any backdrop, and the targets of the spoofs were probably chosen on the basis of which funny costumes Hope and his guest stars preferred to wear.

Freberg’s musical parodies and takeoffs on TV and radio shows had precision: he would zero in on something about a performer that struck him as especially inane and go to town on it. And they had bite: unlike the comedians who want to make it clear that it’s all in good fun when they crack wise about one of their esteemed colleagues, Freberg, like some of the later performers who made their names on Saturday Night Live and other post-rock generation revues, was out to draw blood. He had the smart-adolescent’s deeply personal resentment of inanity and mediocrity, as if Johnny Ray  had made a million dollars singing like that just to piss him off. All in good fun, his ass; Freberg was out for revenge.

I first discovered Freberg when, as a kid in the late 1970s, I was given some of his vinyl albums for Christmas. These were collections of singles he’d released in the 1950s and early 1960s, as well as the 1961 musical extravaganza Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1: The Early Years. Freberg, who broke into show business doing voice work for radio and animated cartoons, was masterly at the comic use of sound, whether doing his own version of Elvis Presley singing “Heartbreak Hotel” – a sustained feat of funny-voice singing that includes the sound of the singer ripping his jeans and an echo chamber that goes rogue – or a full-scale, multi-cast production number like his parodies of Dragnet and The Lawrence Welk Show. Those last two, which are among the funniest records he ever made, could make you wonder if Freberg’s inner radar was just designed to zoom in on anyone in the culture who had a funny voice. But there were times, especially when the target was connected to rock and roll, when Freberg heard something funny in voices that didn’t strike anyone else as being all that ludicrous.

Freberg may have been a satirist, but more than anything else, he was a crank, especially with regard to rock music and TV, two defining pop culture forms of the mid-twentieth century that he seemed to regard with genuine dismay. (On the mock-calypso number “Tele-Vee-Shun,” he runs through a familiar litany of letter-to-the-editor complaints about the one-eyed god: it makes the children stupid and keeps them from playing outdoors, it distracts the housewives from getting their chores done, the family doesn’t eat at the dinner table anymore, and don’t get him started on the commercials.) He came by his crankiness honestly: the nature of his talent should have made him a radio star, but by the time he finally got his own show in 1958, TV had killed the mass audience for radio drama and comedy, and rock and roll had radically changed the nature of the popular music that would soon be all that was left of the medium. But it gives some of his classic work a strange, acrid taste now; at this late date, it’s odd to hear a man inveighing against a whole strain of pop culture that most people have not only made their peace with, but have come to revere.

On one record, “Sh-Boom,” a vocal group is put through their paces by a director who orders them to keep in mind that this is “a rhythm and blues number” and if they “want to sell a few records,” they’ll have to “stick some old rags in your mouth” and deliver the unintelligible gibberish that the kids want to hear. (Freberg, killing two birds with one stone, plays the director as Marlon Brando.) Freberg’s take on rock wasn’t appreciably different than that of a lot of angry old white guys of his generation; he just knew how to make it funny. (He was also too hip to think, like those guys in moldering ‘50s newsreels that have been passed down to us as relics of unintentional camp, that the music was part of a Communist plot intended to undermine America’s moral fiber and encourage miscegenation. Freberg, who teased the Army-McCarthy hearings on a record called “Point of Order,” viewed McCarthyism as ridiculous, just like rock and roll. The odd thing is that, if the tone of the records is anything to go on, he viewed rock and roll as more socially destructive.)

Both sides of Freberg – the funny man and the out-of-touch scold – can be boiled down to one two-sided single, “The Old Payola Roll Blues,” which he recorded in 1960. On the A side, Freberg plays an adenoidal-voiced teenager who’s lured into a studio by a producer (Jesse White) who has assembled all the elements he needs to record a rock and roll record except for the most interchangeable and easiest to find: the requisite teen idol. (“Hey kid, can you sing?” White asks. “No,” says Freberg. “Good, come with me,” says White.) On the flip side, the producer tries to peddle the record to an honest disc jockey – played by Freberg, using his own natural voice this time – who treats him with scorn and tells him that it’s only a matter of time before the shabby fraud he’s a part of goes the way of all fads, and good music, real music – swingin’ jazz – returns to take its rightful place on the nation’s airwaves. The first side, which perfectly encapsulates a reactionary’s idea of how the rock business works, is very, very funny; the second side isn’t even comic, least of all when the disc jockey, having had his say, drives the producer from his studio and the record goes out on a musical number, with cheery, ‘50s-style voices promising an end to rock and roll, “music parasites,” and “Tin Pan amateur night.”

Freberg’s cranky, naysayer’s sensibility is part of his work; in the end, it’s part of his enduring charm. It sets him apart from all the comedians who went with the flow, and it gives his most wrong-headed records greater integrity than, say, Frank Sinatra’s attempts to meet rock halfway in his half-hearted recordings of George Harrison’s “Something” and “MacArthur Park.” In 1999, Rhino Records released the definitive Freberg retrospective, Tip of the Iceberg: it includes three CDs worth of his recordings, plus one CD devoted to his radio commercials and later radio work, and a VHS tape of the best TV commercials he devised after going into advertising. The commercials are worth tracking down a working VCR to watch. It’s always struck me as peculiar that Mad Men never included a Freberg figure in their cast, or did much to suggest the level of wit that he brought to advertising in his famous campaigns for such products as canned soup and pitted prunes. Maybe the show’s writers were afraid that to so would be to expose what a clueless square Don Draper is at his core. Don tried to “revolutionize” advertising with a floor wax commercial that, he explains to a starry-eyed interviewer, is meant to look and feel “like a movie.” Freberg would have chortled at that. He didn’t see TV commercials as an art form waiting to happen, and unlike some of today’s more ambitious new commercial directors, he didn’t set out to deconstruct the form. He got into advertising because he really thought that commercials were inane, and he wanted to prove that if you made commercials that were funny in a fresh way, consumers would appreciate both the entertainment value and the mercy shown to their intelligence. Making TV commercials less insulting is not a mission that a satirical firebrand would be likely to embrace. But it’s not a bad way for a crank to branch out.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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