Radio was once the primary source of entertainment in the average American household, from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s. And although dozens of programs — dramatic and comedic — were popular, you can link radio’s season of dominance directly to “The Jack Benny Program,” which ran from 1932 to 1955 before switching to television.
So by the time “The Stan Freberg Show” began to air in 1957, Benny had been off of radio (except for reruns) for two years, and that newfangled entertainment box with the 13-inch black-and-white screen had already displaced radio as America’s primary source of at-home entertainment.
Freberg’s show — which ran a brief 15 weeks on the CBS radio network — provided the last gasp of original comedy entertainment on radio.
I remember listening to it at age 9 with my parents each Sunday as our TV sat silent in a corner for that half-hour. We were all Freberg fans, having enjoyed his comedy records for several years, and we laughed out loud at many of the skits on his show.
My favorite bit was — and still is — when Freberg tries to sing “Old Man River” and is repeatedly interrupted by a CBS censor (Freberg regular Daws Butler) who objects to Freberg’s use of the word “old.” So the song becomes “Elderly Man River,” with subsequent changes being made every time the censor sounds his annoying buzzer. It’s hilarious, but it’s also prescient, anticipating the ridiculous political correctness of the 21st century.
Freberg was a genuine comic genius. Yes, I know the word is used too often and its meaning has probably been diluted. But Freberg was funny and innovative like no other. So I was genuinely surprised last week when he died at age 88 and the news of his passing seemed sorely lacking.
Considering the kinds of stories that garner headlines these days, especially entertainment-related stories, it’s a bit of a shock to find that so many news agencies overlooked his death completely, and when it was noted, it was a lone paragraph, barely a blip on the Kardashian-O-Meter.
But Freberg’s influence on comedy — from parody to satire on radio and television, in cartoons and especially in the world of advertising — cannot be overstated.
Freberg began his career in Hollywood as a teenager, providing voices for a variety of theatrical cartoons in the mid-1940s (often at a microphone opposite the king of cartoon voice work, Mel Blanc).
In 1949, he became a puppeteer on “Time For Beany,” voicing puppets Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent and Dishonest John, among others, on the award-winning 15-minute daily TV show that was aimed at children but often included wry comments for their parents.
During this time, he also began writing comedy bits and novelty songs for other comedians and singers, then recorded some himself, which led to his becoming the “Weird Al” Yankovic of the 1950s.
Freberg’s hilarious spoofs of popular songs climbed the charts, including lampoons of the Platters’ “The Great Pretender” (with a pianist who breaks into jazz because he hates playing one repetitive chord), Johnny Ray’s “Cry” (which becomes a blubbery “Try”), Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” (with an out-of-control echo and jeans that rip), and what is arguably his most famous, Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat (Day-O)” (with the bongo player complaining that he’s too loud).
His popularity led to the short-lived radio show in 1957, during which he was frequently at odds with network executives. (He relates some very funny, head-scratching stories about this period in his autobiography, “It Only Hurts When I Laugh.”)
But the show’s cancellation was due to its inability to attract a sponsor, largely because Freberg made fun of commercial advertising. And he refused two interested cigarette sponsors because he didn’t want to promote smoking.
After the radio show, Freberg continued to churn out recordings, including an album of skits from the show. The album included the “Elderly Man River” routine, and I wore out the vinyl playing it over and over.
In 1961, he had great success with an album that spoofed American history from 1492 through the Revolutionary War in 1783, “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years,” which played like a lavishly produced radio program on a vinyl record.
But his greatest lasting influence is in the world of television advertising. In the 1950s, commercials were quite staid and serious and often downright obnoxious. So Freberg got the idea of injecting comedy into commercials while also being truthful — two notions that appalled Madison Avenue at the time.
But Freberg had so much success that it forever changed the landscape of commercial advertising, and nowadays many advertisers go directly for the joke.
Among his most memorable is his campaign for Sunsweet prunes, especially the ad that has a finicky eater complaining that he doesn’t like prunes because they’re wrinkled and have pits. When he is given a pitted prune, he agrees that it’s tasty and pitless, but adds, “They’re still rather badly wrinkled, you know.” This ends with Freberg’s voice saying, “Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles. Sunsweet marches on.”
But I think my favorite is the Heinz soup ad with singer-dancer Ann Miller as a typical housewife in the kitchen cooking soup when her husband asks what kind it is. Suddenly she’s in the middle of a lavish Busby Berkeley-style dance number with a huge chorus line, after which her husband asks, “Why do you always have to make such a big production out of everything?”
There are many others, as well. Look up “Stan Freberg commercials” on YouTube and you’ll find quite a few priceless examples of his work.
And you’ll perhaps begin to understand why fans say his name with smiles on their faces as they recall their favorite comedy bits.