Thursday, April 9, 2015

RIP: Stan Freberg

This week one of the greatest comedians of the 20th century - Stan Freberg - passed away at the age of 88. Many will recall him for his great radio and television commercials; here's one of my favourites:

He was also one of the vocal talents behind Looney Tunes, including the characters Pete Puma and Tosh (of Mack 'N Tosh). He even claims a connection to the realm of comic books, having written two articles for Mad Magazine (they gave him an obituary here; in other news, apparently Mad has a website!). However, if Freberg will be remembered at all, it will be for his comedy recordings - both for his albums of sketches (such as "St. George and the Dragon Net") and his briefly-lived old-time radio series the Stan Freberg Show which aired only 15 episodes from 1957-58 (they're all here at the Internet Archive).

I first became aware of Freberg through my interest in old-time radio; the first episode I heard was the 13th, which featured his horror parody "Grey Flannel Hat Full of Teenage Werewolves." Strangely for me, that sketch wasn't what I really remembered about the show - what I found funniest was this dialogue of Freberg's from the closing:

"Those of you who several weeks ago sent those many card and letter - to say nothing of countless phone call - congratulating us on our take-off of a certain well-known accordian-playing bandleader may be interested to know that it is now a Capitol record which came out this week under the title "Wunnerful, Wunnerful." I hope you find it in your pocketbook to buy it, if only to skim it across Lake Michigan."

(That said, these days I have been known to quote "Leading specialists agree that food is the number one cure for hunger!" from the same episode.)

My OTR hobby began in the 1990s and really blossomed when I found Yesterday USA through my family's backyard satellite dish. There, I frequently heard Freberg as the host of programming run by Radio Spirits. Although I mostly broke from the habit of listening to Freberg's show when I got on the internet (where OTR is much more easily obtained), I was fortunate enough to hear about his retirement from Radio Spirits and caught his final show for them.

While visiting San Diego Comic Con in my first (re: only) trip in 2009, I took note Freberg would be there. Heading past his table, I saw copies of his autobiography It Only Hurts When I Laugh, which I'd been unable to purchase elsewhere. Happily, I stepped up to pay for a copy - and only then realized Freberg himself was there at the table (I assumed he had other places to be) and signing copies! I came away with an autographed copy of his book and that book is, as it turns out, a very funny and interesting biography.

Part of what I appreciate about Freberg's humour is that although in his prime he satirized popular culture, he didn't get laughs by simply holding something up and mocking it. His sketch "Bang Gunley US Marshall Fields" (heard on his 11th episode) pokes fun at the western genre, with the sparse dialogue scenes serving as a fun riff on Gunsmoke, while the Swiss sidekick in the climax obviously references the Cisco Kid, but Freberg is subtle with the humour; I think the funniest way to make a pop culture reference is to avoid making it obvious you're making a pop culture reference. The humour comes from the dialogue in the sketch and I think the sketch would be funny regardless of whether the listener has heard Gunsmoke before. Freberg's satire fiddled with subjects his audiences were broadly aware of, hence he could trust them to understand the inspiration for the joke and simply concentrate on landing the joke.

Freberg's program took the place of Jack Benny's on radio. Appropriately, to me he's the best comedian in history - after Benny himself.

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