Everybody loves spoofs. I suppose they satisfy our desire for transgressive mockery without demanding the self-cutting introspection of satire. That makes me sound snobby about spoofs and it shouldn’t. A great spoof is a celebration of the good and bad of something. And we need sometimes entertainment that doesn’t ask how we justify our thinking.
Stan Freberg among many things produced fantastic spoofs. His Dragnet spoof made his name and solidified “Just the facts, ma’am” as the phrase the original show would be known by. In his one-season radio show he’d do a lot of spoofs, many of them really great.
A great spoof needs to capture something essential about the original. It might be the original’s rhythm, it might be its attitude, it might be just the way it sounds. To some extent a spoof needs to be precise. It needs to follow a template that could plausibly be the original’s. If it doesn’t then it becomes something like an Elvis or a William Shatner impersonation, something that at one time had something to do with the original but now is an entity unto itself. That’s not to say they’re necessarily bad, but to say that they’re their own thing, no longer based on the original.
But there’s a danger in capturing the sound of the original too precisely. That problem it’ll eventually be sixty years later and nobody is going to know what your spoof was going on about. There’s a bit of this in the Stan Freberg Show I want to share here. It aired originally the 22nd of September, 1957.
So. There’s two big spoofs there, one of a sports-radio announcer/interviewer, another of a western. If you’re not a fan of old-time radio then I’m going to guess the sports-radio thing made better sense. There are still sports announcers and interviewers kind of like this and you can imagine an interview coming close to but not quite that. The other spoof is of a western and that probably sounds all the more bizarre.
Freberg was taking seriously his responsibility to get his spoof right, to make it just this close to the thing he was spoofing. The sports-radio guy he’s spoofing was Bill Stern, pioneer of radio sports reporting. A fair number of his recordings survive. He had this bombastic and, must be said, addictive style, delivered in a breathless rush and sprinkled with amazing human-interest stories that might even be true.
The western, now, that probably reads stranger. We just don’t have so many westerns. And the image of the old-time radio western is, well, what people think The Lone Ranger was. Big, broad, cartoonish melodrama with dramatic declarations and gunfights and claim-grabbers and salted gold mines and big, broad dumb gags. That was one thread of western, yes. But there was another line, which for want of a better term I’ll call “adult westerns”. These varied, of course, but they would try for a more sedate, more grown-up tone. They’d be more meticulously paced and there’d be more of the sound effects of men walking in full, noisy garb than of gunshots. They’d try to address more grown-up topics, like drought, economic failure, and racial tension. Gunsmoke, the show Freberg was most specifically targeting, could be wretchedly depressing. It was the sort of show where the silver lining is that at least the floods will put out the range fire before washing away the railroad bridge the ranch-hands would use to get into town to riot.
So if this seems like a bizarre segment to listen to that’s just the problem that Freberg captured the sound of Gunsmoke and its ilk too well. I think you can infer what he’s mocking from this, but it is easier to understand, and funnier, if you’ve heard more of the adult westerns that 1950s radio offered. (Many are easy to find.)
The “sponsor” is an easier spoof to understand. That’s mocking Quaker Puffed Wheat and Quaker Puffed Rice. These breakfast cereals were shot from guns on every 15-minute program radio aired between 1939 and 1958, if my sampling is representative. That maybe communicates easier since we’re still spoofing commercials, and there’s an inherent goofiness that doesn’t need much setup.
Well, I hope you enjoy the show however much sense it makes.