So my big idea what to do next was The Stan Freberg Show. This ran from the 14th of July through the 20th of October, 1957. It was a half-hour sketch-comedy show. And it ran after The Jack Benny Show, Sunday nights at 7:30 Eastern. Or, at least, it ran after reruns of the The Jack Benny Show. By 1957 the United States broadcast networks were shutting down scripted fiction radio. They wanted people to be watching television, with better advertising revenues, instead. By 1962 the last entertainment shows of this kind were off the air. There’ve been attempts to bring scripted fiction radio back. But it’s never lasted.
The Stan Freberg Show‘s interesting for being one of the last major original new programs. It’s built around Freberg, a writer and performer of wit and musical talent and a sort of gentle anger that everybody’s a fool. He’d become a voice actor on arriving in Hollywood. You might know him from the classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies as the male voice actor who isn’t Mel Blanc. (Or the guy who did Elmer Fudd.) In the early 50s he started recording comedy albums, many of them spoofs of popular music. My generation may know him best through a long-running commercial featuring him and his son, who had a report due on space, then he got the new Encyclopedia Brittanica, something that he thinks he made … abundantly clear.
So let me take a quick look over these shows. Here’s the first, originally aired the 14th of July, 1957.
Running down the sketches:
- 00:00. Cold Open. Short bits from several of Freberg’s musical comedy albums, which start talking to one another and back to the “real” Stan Freberg. Good reminder to an audience that might know they remember this voice from somewhere, but not where.
- 01:31. Opening Theme. We’ll come back to the lyrics.
- 02:15. Opening Remarks. When Stan Freberg says “Goodnight, folks” and they start playing Hooray for Hollywood, it’s riffing on Jack Benny’s closing theme.
- 03:00. Musical Sheep. A surprisingly Muppet Show-ready sketch, based on whalloping sheep to play a tune. It’s got me idly curious just how far back the “hitting animals to make music” bit goes. I suppose at least as far back as bones were used for percussion instruments. It’s also got me a bit surprised that Freberg — a puppeteer on top of everything else — didn’t ever guest-host the Muppet Show.
- 07:15. Freberg’s Fable: Incident At Los Voraces. So, back in like 1995, The Dana Carvey Show opened its brief run as a prime-time sketch-comedy show with a bit where Carvey, as President Bill Clinton, breast-feeds live kittens. Long after the show’s cancellation one of the writers, I think Dino Stamatopoulos, described to Conan O’Brien how they had ratings reports, broken down by six-second intervals, and could just watch the size of the audience plummeting before they even got to the opening credits. Prime-time sketch-comedy was always a long shot. But it’s easy to imagine the show might have had a better chance had they opened with This Week With David Brinkley On A Roller Coaster.
So, this sketch. I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s kind of wild. It builds off something already crazy, Texas Oil Millionaires. In the 40s and 50s, when not funding insane right-wing paranoia, they’d also build ludicrously oversized hotels, often in Las Vegas. To turn that into a parable about atomic war, though — that’s getting crazy.
It’s earnest, certainly. It shows a desire to say something important about the most important thing there was to talk about. Along the way it has a bunch of great exaggerated jokes. The woman hoping to swim across the hotel pool, accompanied by naval escort, fits the American tall-tale comedy tradition. (It also reminds me, at least, of a commercial Freberg did for his own ability to make radio commercials. As a stunt for it, he would drain the Great Lakes, fill them with hot chocolate, and have a fleet of fighter jets cover them with whipped cream a mile deep, in under eight seconds, and try getting a spectacle like that on television.) The suggestion of airlifting a chunk of the Israel-Egypt border, and hosting a war for entertainment, is audacious. I’m still not sure if it’s in good enough taste for the laugh it earns. Still, it’s working at being crazy big. And there’s a lot of bits along the way that are wonderfully weird, like the Inaugurieties of 1960. Or that Rock-and-Roll-Romeo bit.
But it’s also a twenty minute sketch about a pair of Las Vegas hotels that blow each other up. It’s well-made satire. But it’s grim stuff. I think the best you can say at the end of the sketch is, well, I’m not such a short-sighted fool as to use a neutron bomb for a firework. I’m more intelligent than the idiots of this world. It’s cold comfort, even if you’re completely sure of yourself.
I can’t say this sketch killed the show at its start. I don’t know anything about how it was received at the time. I can say my reaction to this. I’ve listened to this episode a couple times. And my reaction was, oh gads, I already feel bad enough. This might be environmental. I don’t remember the sketch feeling quite as forlorn when I listened to it a couple years ago, before the current hyperfire started. Still, credit to the show for wanting to say something.
Did you notice the mention of Lawrence Welk?