Television: Life, Liberty, Singing, and Dancing


Stan Freberg wrote it, directed it, acts in it, and even sings in it. It is "The Federal Budget Revue, or the Six Hundred Billion Dollar Misunderstanding," slated for television this fall. At press time its producer, Robert Chitester, who also brought us Milton Friedman's Free to Choose series, expected a half-hour version of the show to air on PBS on October 30 and on November 1, with the full hour-long version showing later. So be sure to watch your TV listings. Almost any effort is worth the reward of seeing the production. No musical comedy like this one has ever before hit national television. It not only has good ideas; it's also good—the music, the lyrics, the sets, the animation, even the dancing, is satisfying.

You may remember Freberg's successful albums from the '60s or perhaps his advertising agency's prune commercials: "Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles." His skill at satire is well known. His mastery of music is not so well known and quite surprising. The songs in "Federal Budget Revue" are clever, upbeat, and reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim ("A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum") in his lighter moods. The comparison is reinforced by the presence of Millicent Martin, the acclaimed star of the play "Side by Side by Sondheim." Her singing and theatrical expertise have been augmented by the Miriam Nelson dancers and Nelson's choreography. "Federal Budget Revue" feels like Broadway, though the message is aimed at Washington. Over a million dollars' worth of professionalism may soften the immediate impact of the show's message, but it is profoundly and unswervingly radical.

The theme of the show is simple: an expose of this year's federal budget. Freberg's consistent libertarian line is the surprise. C. Northcote Parkinson, famous for Parkinson's law—"Work expands to fill out the time allotted for its completion"—takes a hard line when he tells Freberg on the show: "Bureaucracy is itself an evil. Public servants…are taking upon themselves powers they were never intended to have. Instead of serving us, they are ruling us. So the first thing to do with bureaucracy is to abolish it."

Freberg's advisors included free-market economists Walter Williams and Roger Leroy Miller. According to Chitester, Freberg underwent a personal change in the course of writing the show. It may be because of the freshness of his "conversion" that the show is so vital, straightforward and, once again, radical.

The show opens with the clock in the Washington, D.C., Chamber of Commerce building that counts the money spent by the federal government. Freberg and his Gracie Allen-style sidekick are speculating on the immensity of $600 billion a year. She protests that she cannot conceive of such a figure, so they try $2 billion a day. Still too much, so they concentrate on the sweep hand making $10,000 sweeps. Together they strain to keep up. " Ten thousand, ten thousand, ten thousand," they chant as fast as they can, and in cadence, the music joins to form the theme song, "The Federal Budget."

The lyrics are priceless. "If the government hasn't the money, what on earth will the government do? Well now is the part that gets funny, they come take it from me and you. The budget you see is the budget you got. It may seem like an Alice in Wonderland plot, but the sooner you understand that it is not, the better off you'll be." I've been whistling the tune ever since I watched the advance tape.

Freberg is subtle enough to leave some thinking to the viewer, but his plea is clear if you listen. When a marching band enters to announce the federal budget and marches into a fountain, Freberg asks, "Whatever happened to halt? Huh? Remember halt? Halt? Remember that?" Freberg looks at the band and talks directly to the audience. Also, in a sketch in which a wolf portrays "planned recession," you have to be alert to hear the wolf say, "Would you mind closing the door? There's a little draft forming."

One production number, "Three Cheers for the Great Bureaucracy" seems to be aimed at Carter's foreign policy though it certainly applies to others'. Freberg sings, "One day a hawk, next day a dove, both birds together working hand-in-glove. And when you've got that kind of an image, folks just got to love—what's known as the great bureaucracy." Dressed as clowns, bureaucrats pantomime the functions of government during the number. A dancer with telephone shoes does a tap dance, and, in case it isn't clear, a caption says, "wire-tapping."

The IRS is given no quarter. Actor David Ogden Stiers, the vitriolic Bostonian doctor on M*A*S"H, plays an IRS auditor dressed as an officer of the gestapo with dollar signs and "IRS" on his armband. He slaps his riding crop and demands answers in a heavy German accent. Is this really going to be on television? The House and Senate are assailed by Millicent Martin in a vampy torch song based on Everett Dirksen's famous comment: "A billion here, a billion there. Before you know it, you're talking about real money." And don't miss the Department of Health, Education and Welfare Tabernacle Choir doing its tribute to its own budget, which is outstripped only by the total budget of the United States and the USSR.

My favorite piece was inspired by a comment to Freberg by Walter Williams: "It's really very simple—most of the welfare money gets ripped off along the way by poverty pimps." In the routine, Jane Doe is kept from collecting her check by social workers singing in barbershop quartet style. Suddenly, their collegiate clothes are replaced by pink suits and wide-brimmed hats. While the chorus sings, "We got the system. We got the system," the poverty pimps instruct: "You got to go through me. I got to go through him. He's got to go through Leroy. He's got to go through Jim." The dancing is wonderful. The piece ends with the social workers singing a most revealing punch line.

The revue includes a Miss Federal Budget contest with a Burt Parks-like host. A commercial featuring Lee Cocamocca of Chrysler Tanks is brilliant. He hawks used tanks, on sale because of a new Chrysler tank contract. "You buy this tank right here and we'll give you another tank for a penny…original tread, air conditioning, power turret—it's loaded…and if we can ever guarantee a massive loan to you—hey, just give us a ring at Chrysler Tanks."

A critic should criticize, and I do have one complaint. Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury laughs while reading the federal budget and tells Freberg that it is some of the best science fiction he's ever read. The comment is injurious and insulting to science fiction writers and readers everywhere.

There is much more. Don't miss is. Get your friends and relatives to watch. If it is true that the best way to slay a sacred cow is to make it too ridiculous to worship, the show is a killer. It is truly radical in the American revolutionary sense. It's not just about waste in government; it's also about individuals and their liberties. And it's damn fine entertainment.

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer and REASON's Spotlight columnist.