Stan Freberg: Curmudgeon of Consequence
by John McDonough

As Stan Freberg made his way past cheering admirers at Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications to accept his place in its Hall of Fame, he looked grouchy and petulant, as if something was annoying him.

Something was. Something always has been. We should be glad something still is, whatever it is, because Mr. Freberg is a satirist who views sacred social cows with a presumption of guilt and a fearless willingness to offend. He has made discontent his living and our amusement (well, some of us at least) for nearly 50 years.

He's still pretty much the outsider, a fate he says he sensed early. "By 10 or 11 I began to notice I was always the last kid picked for the baseball team. That's always a clue that you're a little different. I wouldn't say I was an intellectual kid. But other 11-year olds weren't listening to Norman Corwin and Fred Allen on the radio."

In the 1950s he reached a mass audience on Capitol records while maintaining the subversive edge that kept the intelligentsia interested. His breakthrough was "John and Marsha," a droll caricature of soap opera histrionics. Then came "St. George and the Dragonet," done in the deadpan style of "Dragnet," a TV cop show.

But these were not satires by Mr. Freberg's reckoning. "A true satire uses parody to comment on larger social issues," he says. "These were just parodies." Still they risked the offense of the famous, and that made the suits at Capitol sweat. As he found himself up against the corporate blue pencil, censorship itself became the consuming theme of his best work.

For many, his magnum opus was "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America," a quirky look at early American history released by Capitol Records in 1961 and almost a Broadway musical. Even today fans eager to affirm cult membership greet him with quotes from its sketches. Such passwords of recognition make his day. For the past 35 years the world has waited patiently for Volume Two.

Now patience has been rewarded with "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume 2: The Middle Years" (Rhino). Most of the original cast (Billy May, Peter Leeds, Jessie White and June Foray) is back, along with a few newcomers (Tyne Daly and John Goodman), to send up U.S. history from 1789 (George Washington must sell America to raise European capital and hires an ad agency) to 1918. A two-CD edition will also contain the original.

Satire is an outlaw art that loves to live dangerously. It is sustained by skepticism, impertinence and a sense of its own elitism. But it feeds on unseen absurdities, especially in times of conformity and reverence. It is not by chance that Mr. Freberg came of age in the 1950s, as did Nichols & May, Bob & Ray, Steve Allen, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Second City. All made their reputations in a culture shaped by the oppressions of McCarthyism and the ordinariness of the Organization Man, perfect breeding grounds for America's golden age of satire.

The more permissive social atmosphere that came afterward may have made for a wilder party. But its collapse into excess ultimately pre-empted satire and substituted the shock-rock humor of latter-day "Saturday Night Live" and its descendants. What can a satirist do today with TV talk shows, Smashing Pumpkins, Dennis Rodman and political correctness? In its desperate leap to escape the ordinary, our culture stumbled into a deeper pit. Absurdity came out of hiding, marched into the open, and went legit. When the absurd becomes the norm, the power of satire atrophies.

This is why the best of Mr. Freberg's vintage sketches have an unsettling sense of prophecy about them. Never mind that many were written in 1957 for a CBS summer radio series that won many awards but no sponsor. Today they sound maddeningly topical. You can hear it for yourself. The first seven programs have just been issued under the banner of the Smithsonian Institutuion Press, "The Stan Freberg Show" (Radio Spirits, 1-800-723-4648). The remaining eight will be out this fall. It is an instructive body of work.

Consider his sketch on what we might call interplanetary multiculturalism, a word not yet coined in 1957. When the Miss Universe pageant rejects the unexpected application of Miss Jupiter, a two-foot tall extraterrestrial on wheels with measurements of 39-39-39, she promptly charges Earth with discrimination against other planets' beauties.

Miss Jupiter: "The contest is called Miss Universe, right? So how come they wouldn't let me in?"
Freberg: "You've got a point there."
Miss Jupiter: "That's my antenna."

Then there was the one about Mr. Tweedlie, the self-appointed "censor from the Citizens Radio Committee," who ambushes Mr. Freberg at the first word of "Old Man River." The word "old," he decrees, has a connotation some elderly people may find offensive. So Mr. Freberg clears his throat and plunges into the new, offense-free "Elderly Man River." After half a chorus of further political course corrections, the song comes to the famous words at the climax of the bridge, "get a little drunk..."

"Take your finger off the button," Mr. Freberg tells Tweedlie, "we know when we're licked."

Is satire really licked today? Mr. Freberg isn't encouraged. "There's a book called 'The Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage,'" he says, "in which a feminist author [Rosalie Maggio] claims the word 'seminal,' meaning original, should be banned from the language because it contains the word 'semen.' How can satire enlighten when reality keeps outrunning it? Let's throw out 'seminar' while we're at it. 'It's so nice, ladies and gentlemen, to be here at this Burlington Industries ovular.'"

Yet Mr. Freberg presses on. He still finds enough nonsense in the world to fuel a series of daily radio commentaries scattered across 250 mostly talk stations. They should be a regular network feature on National Public Radio. Like any curmudgeon of consequence, Mr. Freberg has moved through life with a fine disregard for self-interest, biting all hands as they come, including those that might feed him. It is the knotty dilemma of satire that one's juiciest targets are often one's most fertile patrons.

In Mr. Freberg's case, few target/patrons loom larger than over-commercialization and advertising agencies. His 1959 record, "Green Chri$tma$" ("Deck the halls with advertising..."), was denounced as sacreligious, mostly by ad men.

But who holds grudges on Madison Avenue? Since 1956 clients and agencies have invited him, without irony, to sell their products with a chuckle. Others had made funny commercials, but none before Mr. Freberg had used them as a vehicle of social comment. The underlying comment in his commercials was that, usually, commercials are really pretty dumb. "Look, it's their money," he says. It was nevertheless one of the more audacious acts of enemy infiltration since the Greeks hit Troy in a big hollow horse.

"True," says Mr. Freberg. "But sales did go up. And you can't say that for the Trojans."

©1996, The Wall Street Journal.