Before Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central launched the careers of dozens of contemporary comedians, comics used to ply their trade in front of live audiences. If they were very popular, they would play showrooms in Las Vegas, as many still do. Those with less juice would summer in the Catskills or work Vegas’s small rooms or coffeehouses and night clubs in New York City and elsewhere. Some would make it to variety shows on television.
In the 1960s another form of comedy, now virtually extinct, was in its heyday. Recorded on long play albums, the skits and standup routines of Red Foxx, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and others were enjoyed by millions in their own homes, without lighting up a cathode ray tube. These comedy albums made some comedians and sustained others. By the end of the decade emerging comics such as George Carlin, Cheech & Chong and Fireside Theatre were adding their disks to record shelves around the world.
One comedian stayed away from the showrooms, preferring to work in the electronic media. The son of a Baptist minister but also the nephew of a magician, Stan Freberg had the fire of an entertainer in his belly and quickly found work in puppetry and cartoon voice-over. Though he frequently appeared on radio and TV, Freberg’s sharp wit and lively satire peaked on vinyl. His classic John and Marsha soap opera spoof and musical parodies established him as a first-rate satirist and hi-fi comedy pioneer. With Freberg comedy is not so much jokes as it is pageantry. Working out of the famous Capitol Records Tower recording studios in Hollywood designed by Les Paul, Freberg set his fertile mind to lampooning current events of the last 500 years. Stan understood the power of marketing and the cultural impact of advertising in the 60s and introduced comedy in television ads, beginning an enormously successful tradition.
He produced albums and even singles at a prodigious clip; Stan Freberg With the Original Cast, A Child’s Garden of Freberg, St. George and the Dragonet. But his crowning achievement was Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America, Vol. 1 The Early Years. The concept album contains skits and musical numbers. Stan assembled a fine team of recording artists, many whom he collaborated with regularly: Jesse White (The Maytag Repairman), June Foray (The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show), Paul Frees (voice of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion) and other talents, including Freberg himself. Innovative big band composer Billy May arranged and conducted the music which Stan wrote or adapted from period tunes.
It would be virtual sacrilege to give away the skits out of context, but certainly few of America’s early heroes escaped Freberg’s parody. Columbus, Washington, Betsy Ross and Norman Rockwell get into the action in the album’s twelve cuts. In honor of the Fourth of July, one can fast forward (or needle drop) to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson arguing over the content of the Declaration of Independence.
Of course Freberg wasn’t the only one to exploit the comic value of historical figures. In 1962 Vaughn Meader turned out The First Family based on the Kennedy clan taking over the White House. John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 sucked the humor out of the presidency and Vaughn never really recovered from that blow. Bob Newhart and his signature phone calls included conversations with personalities who preceded Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. Newhart’s “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue” and Abner Doubleday pitching the idea of baseball on LP are hilarious, especially to those who know the real stories.
Fans of Freberg, including myself, waited patiently for years anticipating the release of Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America, Vol. 2 The Middle Years. It was supposed to premiere during the American Bicentennial in 1976, but Freberg was busy producing commercials and the record companies were by then questioning the viability of recorded comedy. Finally, eclectic label Rhino Records released Stan Freberg Presents: The United States of America Vols. 1 & 2 on CD in 1996 and indicated the possibility of a trilogy. If Stan is aware how many still hunger for his presentation of history, he’ll go for the original idea of four volumes which he predicted would be “the most significant contribution to American history since Grant took Custer.” In the meantime Stan-fans and anyone seeking some great laughs can hear clips at his page on the Radio Hall of Fame website.