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Stan Freberg: 50 Years of Skewering Satire 12-30-1999

The bespectacled Stan Freberg always seemed to see our society more  
clearly than anyone else. A sultan of satire and prince of parody, 
Freberg's withering wit skewered, altered and enhanced the worlds of 
radio, television and advertising. The newly released "Tip of the 
Freberg" (Rhino Records), a boxed set containing four CDs and a 
video, spans his work from 1951 to 1998. Included are his comedy hit 
singles, such as "John and Marsha" and "St. George and the 
Dragonet," as well as tracks from the sparkling albums "Stan Freberg 
Presents the United States of America, Vols. 1 & 2," classic ads and 
snappy snippets from his CBS, NPR and BBC radio shows. 

When Freberg took a year's hiatus from his "Stan Freberg Here"  
daily 60-second radio commentaries to assemble this package, he left a 
void. For nine years, the show was heard regularly on hundreds of 
stations, as well as the Armed Forces radio network. 

"Someone from the Pentagon called to tell me how much he missed  
the show," Freberg chuckles. "This he says to a supposedly 
anti-establishment guy like Freberg." 

Fans have missed his biting commentaries, but will cherish the  
"Tip of the Freberg" package that resulted from the satirist, his 
wife Donna and friend Barry Hansen (aka Dr. Demento) digging through 
the vaults. "I feel like I had a baby," Freberg says. "My wife says 
she has postpartum blues." 

As you pull open the box, you'll see a the tip of a cartoon brain  
and, below that, an x-ray of the rest of Freberg's head. "The doctor 
said, `Take your glasses off.' I said, `I have to leave them on.' He 
said, `Why?' I said, `How will people know it's my brain?' " 

That celebrated cerebrum began its earthly journey in 1926. Growing  
up in Southern California, Freberg had an offbeat sensibility from the 
start. "My father was a fairly normal guy. He was a Baptist minister. 
My mother was a fairly normal person. My sister Gwennie was always 
saying to me, `Why can't you be like everybody else? Why do you always 
have to do things differently?' "

The brilliant Freberg was not a model student. "I remember the  
teachers were always telling my mother, `Stanley spends all his time 
dreaming out the window.' My friend Ray Bradbury, the science-fiction 
writer, later told me, `Gee, that's what they always said to my 
mother!' " 

Freberg, despite his wandering attention, earned a scholarship to  
Stanford University, but put that aside to perform voices for Warner 
Brothers cartoons. After a World War II stint in Special Services, 
entertaining wounded soldiers, he found ample work in radio. Having 
idolized Fred Allen, Freberg knew how to make that medium's audiences 

In 1949, teaming with famed cartoon director Bob Clampett, and  
voice actor Daws Butler, Freberg segued to the new medium of 
television, helping to create the highly rated children's puppet show, 
"Beany & Cecil." 

His soap opera spoof, "John & Marsha," became a hit single for  
Capitol Records in 1951. Other smash comedy records followed, 
utilizing Freberg's penetrating perspective and musical savvy, 
breathing fresh air into the repressive '50s. Zeroing in on society's 
foibles, fearless Freberg popped a wide range of targets, including 
Sen. Joe McCarthy, the blacklisting bully. But the satirist most often 
lampooned pop culture. Freberg's gibes rained on rock 'n' roll. 

Freberg's prey was not always flattered by the attention. He  
mimicked teary vocalist Johnnie Ray's "Cry." "Johnnie's fans hated 
me and sent terrible letters. Decades later, I ran into him on a talk 
show. He hugged me and said, `I always wanted to thank you for keeping 
my career alive. Every time a disc jockey would play your record, he'd 
have to play mine first, to show what you were satirizing.' " 

On "C'est Si Bon," Freberg poked fun at Eartha Kitt's exaggerated  
accent. "She said to me, `I don't know whether to scratch you or kiss 
you.' I said, `I'll take the kiss.' So she kissed me. 

"Harry Belafonte was not thrilled with my recording of `The Banana  
Boat' song, in which I was kidding his shouting. Lawrence Welk was not 
amused by my record of `Wun'erful, Wun'erful.' " 

The boxed set includes hilarious, previously unissued takeoffs on  
Arthur Godfrey and Ed Sullivan, television's superpowers of the era. 
After the tracks were originally completed, Capitol lawyers, fearing 
lawsuits, insisted that Freberg seek the stars' permission. Both TV 
hosts ungraciously declined. 

Freberg recalls, "After that experience, all that work writing and  
recording for nothing, I went to the president of Capitol and said, 
`You've got to let me out of my contract. I can't make a living. Also, 
this interferes with my First Amendment rights. Whatever happened to 
free speech, especially for a satirist?' 

"He said, `You're right. From now on, you don't have to clear  
anything. Just do whatever you want to do.' The next thing I wanted to 
do was `Dragnet.' " 

Ironically, that meant Freberg would again have to solicit a star's  
approval, because he wanted to use the instantly recognizable 
"Dragnet" theme music. "It turned out that Jack Webb was a Freberg 
fan, loved my stuff. He said, `Freberg, I wondered when you were going 
to get around to me.' I said, `Right attitude!' " Less than a month 
after its release, "St. George and the Dragonet" shot to number one 
on the pop charts. 

The only current artist Freberg sees echoing his '50s Capitol work  
is Weird Al Yankovic. "I don't mind if somebody rips me off, if they 
write and perform it with some thought, and Weird Al is very good. He 
claims to be my biggest fan. He grew up listening to my stuff played 
by Dr. Demento. He told me one time, if there had never been any Stan 
Freberg, there wouldn't have been a Weird Al Yankovic." 

Freberg's recording success led to a 1956 offer to create  
commercials. "I said, `I hate most advertising.' This guy said, 
`Good. Just the man I want.' " 

The innovative Freberg touch introduced humor, where there had only  
been hard sell. His irreverent ads were so entertaining, the public 
dashed out to purchase such products as Chun King Chow Mein (noodles 
optional); Jeno's pizza rolls (hyped by the Lone Ranger and Tonto); 
Sunsweet prunes ("Today the pits; tomorrow the wrinkles!") and 
Heinz's "Great American Soup" (saluted in a lavish musical 
production number starring Ann Miller). 

In 1957, Jack Benny moved to TV, and Freberg took his Sunday-night  
radio slot, thus becoming the last network radio comedian. Freberg 
proved himself a visionary with such bits as "Incident at Los 
Voraces," a searing sketch about Las Vegas. "It had the El Sodom and 
the Rancho Gomorrah trying to outdo each other. How different is that 
from what's been going on the last few years?" 

Freberg, who courted controversy and refused to allow tobacco  
companies to sponsor his show, was canceled after 15 weeks, receiving 
a Writers Guild award for his trouble. 

"There's nobody creating the kind of stuff I was creating,"  
Freberg says. "This country needs one good satirist in the media. I 
don't hear any of that on the radio. It's a crime. Television is very 
inhospitable, too, other than `Saturday Night Live,' which is not the 
same thing at all." 

Freberg continued to find niches for himself on radio. He made  
occasional acting appearances and recorded more albums. His flow of 
ingenious commercials never ebbed. After winning 21 Clios, 18 
International Broadcasting Awards, a Grammy and three Emmys, as well 
as being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Freberg 
isn't ready to rest on his laurels. "My mind is still going 100 miles 
an hour," he declares. 

Freberg hosts the syndicated show "When Radio Was," heard on more  
than 350 stations. In the planning stages are a new book and Volume 3 
of "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America." Not bad for 
someone who flunked high school history. 

His creative genes have been passed along to daughter Donna Freberg  
Ebsen, who is writing a novel, and son Donavan, an aspiring filmmaker. 
Freberg, at 73, has plenty of imagination and witticisms yet to share 
with us. But he pauses to explain how he would like to be remembered: 
"The things that I've done were timely, in fact, more than timely. 
They were really ahead of their time. I've brought a lot of laughter 
to people. That's the main thing. We all have to laugh at ourselves 
and at the world. If you don't laugh, you might cry. 

"My father was a little disappointed I didn't become a missionary.  
But later he said, `You're doing God's work in a different way, 
ministering to people through humor.' " 

The "Tip of the Freberg" box set is now available at retail  
outlets and through RhinoDirect at www.rhino.com. 

(c) 1999, Paul Freeman  

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