The Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper I managed decided one semester the front page of the first issue should be devoted to an essay dubbed “Embracing the Doom: A First-Year Unhandbook”. Its thesis was that we are all basically, deeply doomed, and while it was easy to deny this or despair from this, we were all better off embracing that doom and carrying on proudly. At the time I thought it the stupidest thing we could have printed and almost ridiculously playing to our paper’s stereotype as made by people just educated enough to be idiots about everything. I was wrong. I’ve come to realize there’s wisdom in accept that even if we are in the long run doomed, that doesn’t mean we can’t be satisfied and see a lot of sunny days while we get there.
This brings me to Stan Freberg, the humorist and satirist and voice-actor and advertising-creator whose death was reported yesterday. His style was almost definitive of a kind of humor that I associate with a particular circa-1960 smart set: literate, absurdist, cynical but not dismissive, dropping out of a wry detachment when there’s a belly laugh just about set up. It’s the voice of people who noticed they might just be the smartest person in the room, but are worried that they’re not all that bright themselves. I might try to call it cartoon existentialism, since many of the most accessible examples of it were cartoons made with that Rocky and Bullwinkle spirit, and for that matter of the better Hanna-Barbera cartoons from when the writing had some edge: characters who know they’re in adventures and who know the stories don’t really make sense, but who embrace it because someday the cartoon will end and you can either be entertaining while you get there or not, and the entertaining side has a better time of it. In short, there’s doom to be embraced.
After a lot of voice-acting work and comic records — incidentally crystallizing the Dragnet quote “just the facts, ma’am” in a spoof of that program — and supporting parts in other shows Stan Freberg finally got the dream job of producing a half-hour radio comedy for a major network, CBS, though as the gods of irony demanded he got the chance in 1957, when the major networks had decided to shut down original scripted programming on radio in favor of television. Freberg’s show would probably always had a hard time on commercial radio, as its style of humor fits in the Fred Allen/Henry Morgan/George Carlin vein that makes advertisers wary and network vice-presidents worried about what he’s going to say on their program; the program ended up being a “sustaining program” — no advertising, no sponsors. That’s normally a mark of a program being broadcast as a public service, or as an experiment developing the state of the art. Freberg didn’t want the show to have a single sponsor, and didn’t want tobacco advertising either, and four months after the show debuted, it was ended.
Archive.org has a set of all fifteen episodes of this show, and I recommend it as a way to sample Freberg’s work, and to taste this particular era of comedy: it’s knowing, sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes silly, offended by the madness of the world but unable to disengage from it, the sort of thing that will merge the folly of Las Vegas casinos with the threat of atomic war. (The show also makes use of many of Freberg’s comedy records from the 1950s, sometimes in revised form, so you also get a taste of how he got to be someone noteworthy enough to have a half-hour comedy program.) We might all be characters in a mad, doomed story, but it can be fun along the way.