Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Young(ish) Person's Guide to Stan Freberg

Stan Freberg  1926-2015
So, Stan Freberg died a couple of months ago, and I was really sad about that. I had been a fan of his since I was 17 and was introduced to his playfully satirical brand of comedy via his classic 1961 album, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1: The Early Years. Though I was aware that he was not very popular with many people my age (to say nothing of the younger generation), I still thought that his death would be bigger news. Even though he hasn't been a household name for probably a few decades now, I thought that there would be a bigger recognition of his works and cultural contributions and a greater outpouring of appreciation from people who had loved his work and who had been influenced by him. Indeed, there were some wonderful tributes to him, including a wonderful piece in the New York Times, but generally when I would mentioned his passing in conversation, people would usually look at me quizzically. Generally, people older than I would remark that they thought he had died long ago, while people my age had no idea who he was.

Stan (right), with Daws Butler and June Foray
Over the years I had managed to turn a handful of my friends onto his work by way of a few recordings that I had accumulated in the mid-90s including a collection of the early episodes of his eponymous (and short-lived) radio show. They were not easy to find then in the days before Amazon and eBay, when you actually had to look for stuff in stores or catalogs. Upon hearing of Stan's death, I decided to try to find the second (and final) set of episodes of The Stan Freberg Show (it only lasted 15 episodes, largely because, in spite of the fact that they had long sponsored Jack Benny when he was in that time slot, he would not allow the tobacco companies to be sponsors; He was as principled as he was funny). It was hardly any easier than it had been 20 years ago.

What I discovered in looking for the collection confirmed my beliefs about Stan Freberg's popularity in the present age: While generally warmly, but vaguely, remembered by many a boomer, he really is largely a cult figure. Beloved by people who avidly listen to Dr. Demento's radio show and still collect old novelty records, his fans today are hugely enthusiastic and relatively few. He is seemingly not popular enough to ensure that his recordings are kept in print, but beloved enough that old copies become collector's items and fetch handsome prices. That can make the search a bit of a pain in the ass, and expensive, to boot.

(As a side note, I ended up buying it on eBay on cassette from someone in Nevada [we'll call her"Dotty"] whose eBay listings looked less like a vintage record shop than a small town garage sale. Upon receiving it, after ripping through the layers of plastic, cardboard and bubble-tape and finally getting to the package itself, I found that, peculiarly, it was nicely gift-wrapped in tasteful floral paper. This was definitely a first for my eBay purchases. So either Dotty was re-gifting, or she really just believes in spreading a little sunshine.)

Again, I totally understand why most people my age don't know Stan Freberg's work. As one of the last great radio artists and among the early pioneers of television (particularly in advertising), his influence is still considerable, even if not recognized by the next generation. Many younger people are simply unaware that Stan was one of giants on whose shoulders everyone would stand thereafter. I think that he would get more props from my generation (I'm actually not that young, as technically I fit in with Gen X and, well, as for the millennials, they're a lost cause) if they knew just how much he had done, and how much his work influenced some of our childhood and contemporary favorites. Thus, below I have tried to come up with a few examples of the many things that Stan was a part of, as well as things that illustrate the ripple effect that he had in his decades of unrelenting creativity.

Time for Beany

Stan and Cecil
While created by legendary animator (and co-creator of Bugs Bunny) Bob Clampett, It was Stan's voice and puppeteering (alongside the man who would become a long-time collaborator, voice-artist legend, Daws Butler, well known for creating the voices of Yogi Bear and Elroy Jetson among many others) on that low-budget kid's TV show that so brilliantly balanced whimsy and sly adult humor so as to become popular with children and twisted grown-ups alike. So enthusiastic was its fan-base that it was reported that, in order not to miss a single episode, Albert Einstein abruptly left a meeting of Nobel Prize winners declaring: "Excuse me gentlemen, it's time for Beany." ("I hope that's true," Frank Zappa said in an interview in which he stated that his affinity for Einstein was based on his hair and their mutual love of the show.) As a side note, when revived as the animated cartoon Beany and Cecil in the 60s, one young fan named Angus Young (later, of course, to become the driving force behind the band AC/DC) was inspired by the business card of the character Dishonest John, which read: "Dirty deeds done dirt cheap. Special rates for Sundays and holidays." A rock classic was born.

Looney Tunes

"A whooooole lotta lumps!"
If you didn't know that Stan Freberg provided a number of voices for Looney Tunes, there's a good reason for that. While the genius of Mel Blanc cannot be overstated, contrary to what is commonly accepted, he was not the only voice artist to work on Warner Brothers cartoons. For years, several performers provided voices for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons and were uncredited. (Does the name Arthur Q Bryant ring a bell? Well, he was the voice of Elmer Fudd.) In fact, for years, even Mel's name was absent from the opening title cards until one day he asked for a raise and received screen credit instead. While Freberg did voices for a number of characters including Pete Puma and Chester the Terrier, he only received a credit on the stand-alone short "Three Little Bops," a jazz retelling of the Three Little Pigs (the soundtrack of which featured west coast jazz legends Shorty Rogers and Barney Kessel). Incidentally, another talented voice actor who frequently did uncredited work on Warner Brothers cartoons was the great June Foray, notably as Granny (Tweety's owner) and Witch Hazel, and would later create the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel. She would also collaborate with Stan Freberg on his radio show and numerous albums and commercials spanning several decades.

"John!... Marsha!"

It was one of those things that I kept hearing throughout the years, knowing it was a reference to something, but never knew where it originated. I first heard that passionate call and response in a Looney Tunes cartoon when I was a kid (it was one featuring Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil). Obviously, at that time, I did not get that it was a reference to  Stan's popular novelty record of 1951. "John and Marsha" parodied soap operas of the day by having the titular characters acting out a strange, semi-erotic, mood-swinging  psycho-drama while saying nothing except each other's names. It definitely is a product of its time, and it would probably be corny if it wasn't so bizarre (I think that can be said for much of Freberg's humor). Television viewers a generation later would be similarly confounded by the reference when the scene was reenacted on Mad Men by Elizabeth Moss and her co-worker. As Freberg would ultimately become a pioneer of television advertising, being the first to truly inject satire and absurdism into commercials, the tribute was quite appropriate.

Which leads us to..

Encyclopedia Britannica

Remember that irritating little geek in those Encyclopedia Britannica commercials? The one who had a report due on space? Well, that was Donavan Freberg, Stan's young son helping his dad out on one of his commercials. Given Freberg's genius in crafting bizarre commercials laced with satire, irony, and absurd humor, I wouldn't be surprised if that annoying little pipsqueak was actually intentionally grating. Probably not, though. While those commercials did play with and poke fun at many standard advertising hallmarks ("And I supposed you're going to throw one of those 800 numbers up on the screen") it was hardly Freberg's most memorable work, coming towards the tail end of a career in which he created  television spots that would make the product memorable in the eyes of the viewers, even as it sometimes denigrated the clients  themselves ("Zagnut by any other name... would probably be a good thing."). In the era when TV commercials were still common for record albums, the ad for Herb Alperts' Fandango, complete with a giant exploding taco, is self-referential, psychedelic Madison Avenue at its best and worst, and demands to be seen. I wish I had been in the room when the pitched that one to the famous trumpeter.

The Weird Al Show

I think more people my age like "Weird Al" Yankovic than would probably admit it. As for myself, I can only say that his early videos for "Eat It" and "I Lost on Jeopardy" came out not too long after I had made the transition from Sesame Street to MTV  and had an indelible impact on me, just as Freberg had had an indelible impact on him (his first exposure to his work was when someone in his middle school played "John and Marsha" over the P.A. system in the middle of the day). He would later cast Stan in his short-lived (even shorter-lived than Stan's show, in fact) The Weird Al Show. Of the experience, Yankovic would later write in Variety Magazine: "As long as I live, I’ll never forget what an enormous thrill it was for me to wake up every morning knowing that I’d be working alongside my hero, the great Mr. Freberg."

The Simpsons

Okay, this is more an example of the ripple effect, because, no, as far as I know, Stan Freberg was never on the Simpsons. However, the brand of humor and the voice stylings of the show would not be the same without him. Matt Groening acknowledged him as an early influence via records in his father's collection (probably including albums compiled from skits on his radio show), leading the young future cartoonist to record his own "Matt Groening Shows" on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. In addition, multi-character voice artist Harry Shearer, who recently announced his resignation from the show (Say it ain't so, Harry!), was an admirer and collaborator, performing on Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 2: The Middle Years, and hosted a tribute to the man and his work only a few months ago. And though it's a bit of a stretch, it also can be noted that Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson and others, was mentored by Stan's longtime collaborator, Daws Butler.

Star Wars

Okay, now I'm really stretching it... No, Stan was not in Star Wars either, but his absence did end up making quite a difference. Originally, George Lucas' idea of the C-3PO character was that he would be sort of callow and slimy, and intended him to have a voice like a slick car salesman. It was reported that when Stan Freberg auditioned to be the voice of C-3PO and heard the raw, on-set vocals of actor Anthony Daniels that he was intended to dub over, he suggested to Lucas that Daniel’s own voice was decent and better fit the character. Thus, he deprived himself of a lucrative gig, and also became  indirectly responsible for the C-3PO character as we all know and love, and are sometimes irritated by.

Basically, I hope that I have illustrated that, even if you never heard of him, almost everybody who creates the things that you love, loved and admired Stan Freberg. As a huge fan myself, I feel like I am good company.

That's about all I have to say. For the newly initiated who are interesting in checking out more stuff, I would recommend starting with the album that started it all for me, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1: The Early Years. I was introduced to this album during a summer theatre program between my junior and senior year in high school. I got to study comedic acting with the highly versatile David Ogden Stiers. A somewhat eccentric, but very generous man (at least during the brief time I knew him), outside of class, he invited groups of us to a couple of sessions to sit and listen to what he considered to be quintessential radio and album comedy. We sat and listened to that album start to finish. Turning American history on its head, it largely pre-figured "Mr. Peabody's Improbable History" from Rocky and Bullwinkle (in fact, many of voice actors from the album went on to form the cast of that cartoon show). The humor was irreverent, as full of bizarre aural trickery and humor as the more pointed, but, playful satire. Though, like the best  old radio shows, it used the lack of visuals as a way to create even more bizarre spectacles in the imagination, it was structured more like a Broadway musical, with the tightly constructed skits linking together simple, but hummable tunes with some of the wittiest (and sometimes most questionable) lyrics on this side of Tom Lehrer. In short, I was hooked. A couple of years later, when the long awaited Vol. 2: The Middle Years came out (a mere 35 years after the original), I was pleased to find David Ogden Stiers in the cast. Sadly, the projected Volume 3, was never made.



Donavan Freberg said...
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Donavan Freberg said...

Of course I was intentionally grating!!! My father said, "Just be your normal, precocious self...but for the character, border on being obnoxious". My mother said, "Why border? Floor it!" Action was called and Encyclopedia Britannica's sales went from 0-$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ in months.

Thank you for this article, it's fantastic!