To a particular subset of junior comedy nerds, of which I was an unapologetic member, 1976 was a watershed year, for a reason only tangentially connected to the official Bicentennial celebration that faced Americans down at every turn.
At a time when the vinyl record remained the primary means of owning recorded music (cassettes were coming into vogue, as were, briefly eight-tracks), the comedy sections of record stores were relatively low on product. Without access to a really good used record store, it was particularly hard to find vintage comedy recordings, and by vintage at age 14, that meant anything older than 10 years. Cosby and Carlin filled the racks, but beyond them it was luck of the draw. Believe me, I looked.
So when the essential Barry Hansen, aka Dr. Demento, began “serializing” Stan Freberg’s 1961 album “Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America Volume One: The Early Years,” it was nothing less than a revelation. Conceived as the cast recording of a Broadway musical that never was, with Freberg writing, composing and performing many of the vocal chores, “America” was, to my mind a masterpiece, and I was thrilled when, in the wake of its showcase on Dr. Demento’s show, it was rereleased by Capitol Records, so I could listen to it again and again (which I did, and still do).
As Freberg’s witty, wise-guy approach to everything from the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Battle of Yorktown proved subtler than Mad Magazine, not as raw as the National Lampoon, and as tuneful any classic cast album, I was hooked. I even went so far as to write down to the lyrics to every song (some in two and three part counterpoint), which involved constantly lifting the needle and dropping it back again, so that I could truly commit the songs to memory, where they remain.
Freberg’s voice, as it happened, was plenty familiar, as he had been a cartoon voice artist for years, but as I grew older, I learned more about his work.
- That he was part one of television’s earliest children’s shows, Time For Beany, whose most popular character, performed by Freberg, was Cecil, seasick sea serpent (initially a live puppet show, it was much later made into an animated cartoon).
- That he had been a charting recording artist, who broke out with a record called “John and Marsha,” which consisted of nothing but some romantic string music and a male and female voices saying “John” and “Marsha” in a way that charted a relationship.
- That he obviously found the Jack Webb TV procedural Dragnet an endless source of amusement, as he parodied it often (with Webb’s support).
- That he had one of the last network radio comedy shows, having filled the gap left when Jack Benny shifted to television (a favorite target of Freberg’s). And, most startlingly, that by the time I discovered him, he had largely left the comedy business in order to bring humor into advertising.
- That he wrote the longest radio commercial ever, which became so popular that it was recorded and released commercially.
I raise all of this because today would have been Stan Freberg’s 90th birthday. Unfortunately he passed away at the age of 88 early last year. I regret never having sent him a fan letter, never having made an attempt to meet him on one of my irregular forays to Los Angeles.
Listening to 50+ year old comedy can be a mixed bag, but when I came to Freberg’s work, it was only 15 to 20 years old, so the majority of the comedic references were sufficiently current for me. Today, his parodies of Mitch Miller and Arthur Godfrey don’t resonate as they would have in Freberg’s heyday; his cutting satires of everything from the commercialization of Christmas to the McCarthy hearings can be appreciated for their virtuosity, but they don’t necessarily elicit laughs. That said, Freberg’s riff on censorship and “political correctness” from 1957 holds up very well.
And because his humor was – like that of my other comedic heroes from the same era, Tom Lehrer, Allan Sherman and Bob and Ray – entirely aural, there aren’t copious videos to show Freberg at work. YouTube reveals page after page of Freberg routines, but the images are often of static record labels, of montages of photos.
Because he was more prolific than Lehrer and, even truncated, his comedy career was longer than Sherman’s, I have more Stan Freberg discs on my shelves than those two artists put together – included the complete boxed set of his radio shows (well, it was canceled after only four moths of weekly airings). But just as I play Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park” every year on the first day of spring, and play Bob and Ray’s “Komodo Dragon Expert” every time I want to demonstrate what truly inept interviewing and moderating skills sound like, Freberg gets a spin at least once a year, on the Fourth of July, when his masterwork “The United States of America” underlines and undermines every patriotic expression of the day.
Happy birthday, Stan Freberg. I knew you, but oh, how I wish I’d known you.