The actor, writer, puppeteer, and comedian Stan Freberg died this week at age 88. Freberg was one of those hipster comics who came along in the 1950s and early '60s, earning fans and foes with irreverent gags about American culture and institutions. The New York Times' obit compares him to Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, though an even better comparison might be the early Mad magazine (which included Freberg among its contributors). Here's one of his better-known efforts, a 1958 record spoofing Christmas-themed advertisements. It's called "Green Chri$tma$":
Believe it or not, that was pretty controversial back in the day. "I was attacked on the editorial pages of Advertising Age and M.A.C. magazine (before it was called Adweek)," Freberg later wrote. "Even the Los Angeles Times, which subsists mostly on ads, blasted me in an editorial on Christmas Day. The editorial writer later sheepishly admitted he hadn't even heard my record, but he'd read about it." The author of the Times piece seems to have thought Freberg was objecting to Christmas gifts.
As comedy, the routine hasn't held up particularly well. On the plus side, its fake jingles are expertly crafted to sound like real ones. But the commercialization of Christmas is an easy target, and the satire is pretty heavy-handed—especially since there's a character whose basic role is to state the point of the sketch aloud, repeatedly, as though there were a risk anyone might miss it. (Well, there's always the Los Angeles Times.) What's interesting about the record is its relationship to Freberg's other career. The man behind "Green Chri$tma$" wasn't just a hip critic of advertising. He was a hip adman, writing and performing spots that foreshadowed the so-called "creative revolution" of the 1960s, when advertisers started to embrace self-deprecating humor and irony.
Freberg entered the ad business in 1956, two years before "Green Chri$tma$." First on radio and then on TV, he created spots that stood out by seeming to mock the very idea of advertising—like this pseudo-subliminal pitch for Butternut Instant Coffee, which both echoed and parodied the warnings of social critics like Vance Packard:
…or this self-burlesquing Sunsweet commercial starring the science-fiction scribe Ray Bradbury:
That approach to advertising isn't unusual now. But Freberg was one of the first people to do it, and he was awfully good at it too—unlike "Green Chri$tma$," those two spots do hold up as comedy today, in large part because they do a better job of spoofing the ad world.
That was America in the decades after World War II: Intellectuals would criticize institutions like Madison Avenue, and then those institutions would absorb and reflect the critiques. (That other great target of the postwar social scolds, the suburbs, underwent a parallel process, with liberal-minded developers attempting to add the critics' ideals to their designs.) I won't delve into the question of to what extent this was a victory for the critics and to what extent it was a victory for the institutions. I'll just note that in 1970, Freberg completed the Möbius loop. Having used his talents as a satirist to promote products, he now used his talents as an adman to advance a political cause.
Sens. George McGovern and Mark Hatfield were sponsoring a bill to cut off funding for the Vietnam War, and Hatfield turned to Freberg for assistance. Freberg had a history of turning down politicians who wanted his help getting elected—he once claimed to have rejected appeals from both Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace—but this was different. Working pro bono, Freberg developed a campaign for the McGovern-Hatfield amendment. Here's one of his radio spots:
When people told him the ads were in bad taste, he replied that it was the war that was in bad taste; he was just driving the point home.
Vietnam wasn't the only issue to attract Frebeg's attention. In 1980, concerned with runaway government spending, the comedian wrote, directed, produced, and hosted a PBS special called the Federal Budget Revue. According to Patrick Cox, reporting that year in Reason, the initial concept for the program came from Charles Koch and his colleague George Pearson; the libertarian economist Walter Williams was one of the show's consultants, and Freberg prepared for the project by watching the full run of Milton Friedman's Free to Choose. The special features a lot of singing and dancing, and a marching band, and clowns, and a live elephant, and a head-slapping statue of Abraham Lincoln, and a Nazi IRS agent played by David Ogden Stiers. I wish I could report that it's as good as that list makes it sound, but it's kind of a trainwreck. Still, curious readers can watch it on YouTube in three parts: here, here, and here. Ray Bradbury pops up again in segments two and three.
I'd hate to end this with one of the man's misfires, so let's wrap up instead with a skit from Freberg's short-lived radio show. Originally broadcast in 1957, the sketch co-stars Daws "Yogi Bear" Butler as a censor:
Decades later, listening to that routine again with the journalist Gerald Nachman, Freberg said: "I did this 30 years before anyone invented political correctness." You might quibble with that number, but the basic point is sound: With this, as with so many things, Freberg got there before almost everyone else.
(For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)