Tuesday, 21 October 2014

No Satire Wanted

Satire and the radio industry have never been a good match, as satirists have discovered. Satire has a point of view. People who disagree with that point of view get upset. And the last thing the radio industry wants is people upset with what it puts on the air because that could affect profits.

Fred Allen learned that lesson. So did Henry Morgan. And so did Stan Freberg. When television took over the living room from radio, Allen and Morgan became emasculated and spent their days as panelists for the Goodson-Todman empire. Freberg went into the advertising business he professed to hate and earned an extremely comfortable living—and still got some satiric licks in.

Freberg went from cartoon voice actor to puppeteer to recording star to radio to advertising, building his reputation along the way and leaving behind some truly brilliant work. Who can’t appreciate his stab at censorship (re-imagined by listeners today as an attack on political correctness) in his “Elderly Man River” sketch? Or his kick-in-the-you-know-whats at Lark Cigarettes for appropriating the William Tell Overture (complete with appearance by TV’s Lone Ranger and Tonto)?

Mr. Freberg’s creativity over six decades will be honoured at a function in Los Angeles on November 2nd. Read more about it HERE, especially those of you who can go. The rest of us will have to settle with munching on some Geno’s Pizza Rolls, or singing about Omaha, in tribute.

During the ‘50s, it appears some people didn’t appreciate Freberg’s talents. At least, when directed at them. Arthur Godfrey didn’t mind Bob and Ray making fun of him (even though some of it was a little nasty) and Ralph Edwards’ “This Is Your Life” got a screamingly funny makeover on Sid Caesar’s show. But when it came to Freberg, it looks like the subjects got a little unnerved.

Here’s a United Press story from 1956.

Satirist Is Stymied by Reluctant Performers
UP Hollywood Correspondent

HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 31 (UP)—Stan Freberg, last of the vanishing tribe of satirists, claims Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey and Ralph Edwards have cost him a small fortune by refusing to grant him permission to poke fun at them.
BEST KNOWN FOR his broad parodies on record, Freberg is a frustrated man. Unless he gets the green light from celebrities involved he can't cut recordings. "The only TV star ever to give me permission was Jack Webb," Stan said. "Jack has a sense of humor. And my record, 'St. George and the Dragonet,' sold a million and a half. I don't think it hurt his show one iota."
It turns out that Freberg, an owlish-looking individual with cropped hair and horn-rimmed glasses, is a dedicated man. Friday night he takes over CBS "Radio Workshop" to present a study of satire titled "It only hurts when I laugh."
"I BECAME a satirist about 1950 when a lot of absurdities in show business began to irritate me," he said, "I talked to Capitol records and they let me vent my feeling on wax.
“But a multi-million dollar company can't fight multi-million-dollar law suits every day. So I have to ask permission."
Stan, whose parodies of Eartha Kitt, Johnny Ray and other personalities are classics of satire, believes satire is a form of criticism. He considers himself a critic, beyond the reach of censorship.
"Satire started 2,000 years ago, to get around censorship by using humor. Through burlesque, lampooning and exaggeration the satirist used his wit as a weapon to point up flaws and shortcomings of the thing he criticized.
"But what critic sends his story to the person he's criticizing before it appears in print?" Stan asked. "I feel the same way about my recordings."
FREBERG SAYS he makes only three records a year "to retain the novelty of his work. His latest is a take-off on Elvis Presley's echo-chambered version of "Heartbreak Hotel."
"I didn't need Presley's go-ahead," he said. "Recording outfits figure record artists are fair game because they aren't public institutions like national TV figures.
"Sullivan has turned me down three times. And Edwards and Godfrey want no part of satire. I think if I'd just gone ahead and done them anyway they wouldn't have sued. But it's too late now, everyone's afraid they'd take me to court.
“It seems to me laughter is an escape valve for modern pressures,” Stan concluded. "But we're losing our sense of humor, and that could be dangerous."

A year later, Freberg waxed on about the same topic to the Associated Press. This was after his CBS radio show was pulled from the airwaves in what turned out to be a bit of a mess. Variety reported on September 26, 1957 that Freberg had been told the day before he would go off the air on October 20th, when Bing Crosby would take over his slot. But Crosby wasn’t ready. Seems he was lured by the sound of wedding bells. So Freberg’s show ran until the 27th and was replaced with Morgan’s game show “Sez Who!” (in its third time slot in less than four months). Freberg discussed a TV syndication deal with former NBC president Pat Weaver in October but it was not to be. There was talk a month after he was cancelled (and before he was off the air) that CBS wanted him to remain but Freberg rejected the idea (Variety, Oct. 31, 1957).


HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 30 (AP) – Is America losing its sense of humor?
Perhaps we can laugh just as easily as before, but we are getting less and less opportunity. The decline of comedy in TV, movies and radio has been cited by many observers. In Atlantic Monthly, Steve Allen attributes this to such causes as the force-feeding of comedy on a mass scale, lack of training grounds for new comics and unsettled conditions in the world.
George S. Kaufman has also complained that funnymen have fewer things to kid these days; there are too many sacred cows.
Stan Freberg, the brilliant young satirist, can attest to this in the radio and record field. Freberg is a curly-haired fellow with a devilish sense of humor though he has the face of a hick "I'm from Pasadena, and I wear it like a badge," he says defiantly. His take-off on Dragnet, "St. George and the Dragonet," sold over 1½ million records, an amazing number for a non-musical, comedy disc.
Since then he has satirized rock 'n roll singers, Johnny Ray, Texans, Harry Belafonte and other phenomena, his latest hit being a takeoff of Lawrence Welk called "Wunnerful, Wunnerful." Stan also lasted 15 weeks on network radio with a show that won critical acclaim but no sponsors. He shows scars from trying to be funny in both radio and records.
"The subjects you can satirize are getting narrower and narrower," he sighed. "I had records about Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey and Ralph Edwards ready to go, but I couldn't get approval for them.
"Capitol Records is too concerned that the subjects will sue unless we get permission from them. The lawyers argue that a single takeoff on TV might not bring action, but the repetition of a record might be cause for damages. I can't convince them otherwise.
"Sullivan said the record was very funny, but wouldn't give his go-ahead. I sent the record to Godfrey and it was rejected, though I don't know if Godfrey himself ever heard it. Edwards was very nice about it. He said he'd never be able to do ‘This is Your Life’ with a straight face if he allowed the record to come out.
Tired of such goings-on, Freberg sneaked the Welk record out without the bandleader’s approval or the Capitol legal department’s permission.
Freberg said his tangle with radio was even more difficult. On his opening show, he had a satire of Las Vegas. It featured two desert hotels called El Sodom and Rancho Gomorrah, which vied to get the greatest attractions. The climax had one importing the Gaza Strip, parcel by parcel, and staging “The Suez Follies” complete with gunfire.
The other hotel countered by book an H-bomb, which returned the entire resort to desert again.
The skittish network made Freberg change the acts to “An International Incident” and an earthquake. “All the punch was taken out of the whole skit,” the comedian complained. He added that he once had to remove an imitation of Walter Winchell because a top network official hated him.
Fortunately for those who appreciate laughter, Freberg is not giving up. He has formed Freberg, Limited ("but not very much") and is cooking up a TV show for one of the networks. He also is producing some spot commercials which are hilarious.
He is determined to continue, though he readily admits that being funny these days is serious work.

And continue he did. That’s why he’s being honoured on the 2nd. It’ll be a little like “This Is Your Life.” Without Ralph Edwards. Which, somehow, is very appropriate.

1 comment:

  1. One of the greats! Here's a personal favorite -