FIREZINE INTERVIEWS STAN FREBERG
|FIREZINE: Are you
familiar with the Firesign Theatre at all?
STAN FREBERG: Oh yes, yes. Somewhere I have the cover of the LP that was done in claymation (Give Us A Break Proctor & Bergman) which they dedicated it to me, along with I think 3 or 4 other people. Was that just Proctor & Bergman? I have a couple of Firesign Theatre but they could send me their new one. It wouldn't hurt. David Ossman came to my home when I was on Beverly Drive and interviewed me for some NPR show. I can't remember the name of it. He interviewed me for a long time.
FZ: Your USA album really inspired their first record. Somewhere between you and Norman Corwin.
SF: That's great company for me to be in. Norman was not only an idol of mine growing up. Think of this, I heard him live off the CBS radio network when I was 12 years old and he was doing stuff on a show called "Columbia Presents Corwin". It was the first time I realized the great effects you could get in radio with a chorus of singers and orchestra and actors and a narrator interspersing, you know. At that point it hadn't dawned on me that at some day I might do that. But I knew I loved it, the technique. And then as years went on other idols of mine like Fred Allen, you know and Jack Benny. But Norman Corwin was the dramatic influence on me. Anyhow, I was going to say, not only was he a great influence but he's a friend of mine today, which I never thought I'd meet him, let alone become his friend. Ray Bradbury and I go to see him occasionally.
FZ: The guys have worked with Norman Corwin a lot over the years. A couple of them worked on Corwin's "The Secretariat" last year with William Shatner.
SF: Was that the one where I had one lousy line in it, with Bradbury? Yeah, I remember I said, "Thanks a lot Norman for this really great part you've given me." He always says, "Well, maybe the next time, Stan."
FZ: What's interesting about Firesign is that they recorded their first couple of albums in the same CBS studios that you did your radio show from and carried on that radio style comedy onto the albums.
SF: Yeah, right. Absolutely! I finished the Stan Freberg show in the Jack Benny time slot in 1957, which made me that last network radio comedian in America.
FZ: I think its great that you and Firesign record for the same company. You have a new 4 CD collection out on Rhino called "Tip Of The Freberg".
SF: Rhino is made very nervous about the idea of new recordings. I was the first one to record new material for Rhino. They said, "Are you going to start Vol. 2 of USA pretty soon. I said , "Yeah, we got the studio booked for next week, have the band coming in." The guy says, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You mean you're actually going to have musicians, live musicians, come into the studio?" "Yeah," I said, "That's the way it's done! And actors, not only that, and actors, and I'll create sound effects and singers." "Oh my god!" I said, "You people are too used to putting out "The Best of Frank Zappa" and "The Best Of Mel Torme", you know and people that aren't even here, "The Best Of The Monkees". This is called the recording business. This is how we record, you see? This is how the records are actually made! Somebody's got to go into a studio and …" They said, "I know but gee, it seems so foreign to us."
So I invited them to come down to the studio and they never once came down. Foos or Bronson or any of the people. Ha, ha. "No, that's all right, we get the idea." Ha, ha. So, anyhow, when I get around to Vol 3, it'll be pretty much the same story. I think. But when I left off, Foos called me and said. "Hold everything, we want to put out a box set." I was just up to General McCarther in World War 2, you know, when he was leaving Corregidor. He said, "Hold up on that. We'll get around to that later. We've got to put out this boxed set." It took me like a year to pull this stuff together. But that Rhino understands. Going into the archives and digging out of vaults, old stuff, you know. And I was about 2 weeks in the Capital Tower there, finally transferring everything from the analog version to digital.
It's some of my favorite work and most of my best work, but not everything. I have to save something for the next box. Anyhow, I was with a wonderful digital engineer named Bob Norberg and he's the guy that transferred the first volume of The United States Of America, from analog to digital. I did that with him there too. That was in 89, I think. So I said, "I've got to have the same guy. He's a brilliant, patient man." So there was man from Rhino who went into the vaults along with me and would not give up and he finally found the original analog tapes in pretty good condition.
Anyhow, I spent weeks and months before that, finally narrowing stuff down to a DAT, that I had. Then I took the DAT into to Norberg. We then used a wonderful system of transfer called Sonic Solutions, that cleans up clicks and scratches and stuff that might have been there. But that didn't happen with tape but I did have a couple of acetate discs that I got the from the vaults of Daws Butler in his garage. His son was nice enough to find it for me. That was the Ed Sullivan.
FZ: I wanted to ask you about that Ed Sullivan parody, "The Worst Of The Town". Why wasn't that released?
SF: The lawyers were on a kick at one point where they were terrified of being sued for libel. They didn't understand the premise of satire, you know. And so they decided to actually send the script to the target of the satire. And that's what happened then. Ed Sullivan, "Are you kidding? No, I not going to go for this man putting on my show." And Arthur Godfrey, they did the same thing. So they said no. So then they said, "Well go ahead and record it and maybe they'll like it better when they hear it." They wouldn't even let me put to a master recording. I just sent an acetate dub, you know, that's mainly what they used in those days, audio cassettes having not been invented in the mid 50s.
And so the work came back, "Of course not. No, we can't approve this. Do not attempt to put this out or we'll sue you for libel.", or whatever. Capital lawyers said, "That settles that. Sorry, go move on to the next thing." So they put that stuff in the vaults where it's resided for 35 years or whatever. That's when I went to Alan Livingston, who was the president of Capital then, and I said, "I want out of my contract." And he said, "Why?" I said, "Not only is this moving in on my 1st Amendment rights, Freedom Of Speech but I can't make a living. I put all that work in the studio with Daws Butler and now it's for nothing because you're not going to release the record. He said, "I'm really pissed off. We can't let the legal department run Capital records. So from now on you won't have to have it cleared by legal."
So the next thing up was "St. George and The Dragonet". And I decided I wanted the music. I couldn't do it without the music. So of course I had to go to Jack Webb myself. Fortunately Jack Webb was a great fan and he said, "I was wondering when you were going to get around to me." I was on a set. They were shooting Dragnet. In those days he rented space from Disney, Mark 7 productions. So I said, "Well, the reason I had to come to you mainly is we need the music. He said, "Of course you need the music. How could you do a thing up on Dragnet unless you use the authentic music?" I said, "Good, thank you. I'm glad you feel that way." He said, "While you're at it, why don't you just take Walter Schumann to conduct the orchestra and use the whole orchestra that plays the show every week?" I said, "OK with me!" So Al Livingston is like nudging me with his arm, "Let's get out of here, you know, while the getting is good." And so we left and later on we just called Schumann and told him when the date was. And then I met with Walter Schumann and went over the script and he marked the little places to put bridges and tags in and so forth and that's why it sounds so absolutely authentic and in "Little Blue Riding Hood". And also the subsequent one we did for Christmas, the "Christmas Dragnet" with Walter Schuman and the orchestra.
FZ: Webb was actually pleased that you were doing it?
SF: Oh yeah, he loved it. The main Freberg target who appreciated me the most, I would say, was Jack Webb. When I finally sent him a tape, he stopped production and called everybody around and they played "St. George And The Dragonet" over the system. They were the first people to hear it before it was released. And they all cheered and laughed and applauded. Webb later, called me and told me, "Stan I wanted to tell you the reaction of people. I played it for the crew and everything." So that was great.
Other people that I lampooned were not so ah, benevolent, I would say. Lawrence Welk hated my take off on him. He said, "Freberg ah! I heard your record on me ah. Why do you think that I say ah wun'erful, wun'erful ah? I don't believe that I say that, ah very much." I said, "Lawrence, I beg to differ but I think I've heard you say that a number of times." "Aahum, ridiculous." So later on when he did his own autobiography, what did he call it? "Ah Wun'erful, Wun'erful" the exact spelling of my title.
Anyhow, there was another thing that Welk objected to. Welk said, "Why did you leave me floating on the high seas?" I said, "Well, I don't know, it just seemed like it was kind of funny and we sort of ran out of time, to tell you the truth, Lawrence." He said, "No, you can shorten down, shorten down. Take my accordion solo out. That will give you time for the Coast Guard to come and rescue me." I said, "Well the record is sort of out now, Lawrence." He said, "No, Capital can call them all back! And re-record the ending so the Coast Guard can save me at the end." I said, "Let me check into that." "You check into that. I think you can do that.", you know? People absolutely living in Never Never Land. I mean, the man was absolutely sincere.
FZ: Disc 4 seems like it's going to be the most interesting for the hard core fans because of all the commercials. I was curious about the "Winding the War Down" pieces. I never heard about those before. What's the story behind that?
SF: Well, Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon called me and wanted to me to help him. He heard one of my termite commercials on radio while driving through the Oregon forests. There's something strangely correct about that, driving through a forest of trees and hearing a termite commercial. Anyhow, he said that he and George McGovern had this bill coming up for vote in the Senate called the Amendment to End The War. It would have cut-off all money to Southeast Asia. No money, no war. They can't fight a war without money so... In the end it came within 3 votes of passing and would have become law and Nixon would have had to get out of Vietnam a year before he did.
These commercials were meant to sway the senators who were on the fence, you know. For example, they didn't want to run it in Arizona where Barry Goldwater was a terrific hawk, you know. He wouldn't have voted for it at any rate but some other senators were vacillating. And so they thought Freberg could reach the people in the states, of those senators, to send a telegram to the senators to vote for the McGovern Hatfield Amendment to end the war. And the spots were made to kind of alarm people in a way and re-sensitize them, really.
FZ: They were funny though, right?
SF: Of course they were funny but in an ironic way. And the end on both of them was not funny. I mean, I did the announcer at the end and Lynn Murray did this wonderful music under there, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again". It was very moving in the end. Anyhow, and so many, many telegrams floated in and it came within 3 votes of passing. And I got a nice letter from the senator saying, "Thanks for a great try. We came very close to getting out of Vietnam."
FZ: I thought it was kind of ironic because during the Second World War you had people like Spike Jones trying to help win the war with humor and you were trying to help stop one with humor. Firesign Theatre were trying to do the same thing. And a lot of other comedians were trying to stop the Vietnam War too. I thought that was an interesting sort of contrast of patriotism.
SF: That's right. But Spike Jones and The Firesign Theatre were actually entertainers and comedians commenting through records on the whole war. Whereas, these were actual commercials bought in mainstream media on networks and radio stations across America by senators who were trying to legislate the end of the war. And so that's why I became involved. It's the only activist thing I did at all through that war.
FZ: I think that's great that you realized that power of comedy over the radio and commercials like that, can really work.
SF: Absolutely, absolutely. If they had a little more money to push it a little harder and start a little sooner, it might have worked. I don't want to tell you any more about that because I'm trying to finish up my second book and… ha, ha, ha, you can read all about that in there.
FZ: Yeah, we've been waiting for that second book there, you know.
SF: I know, I know, I got side tracked into this. First of all, I got side tracked into Vol. 2 of USA. People waited for, I forget, 30 years, something like that. I said to somebody at the time, "I look at as though I'd gone out for an unusually long lunch." From 1960 to 1996.
Anyhow now there's the box set. Shirley McClain said to me one time, "I'd like to crawl inside of your brain and see what makes you tick." I was at a cocktail party and I was with another girl and boy I thought, "Oh boy, if only I'd been here as a bachelor, at the moment, you know, without a date, would I have moved in on Shirley McClain. That was in the late 50s. Anyhow, so I thought it would be nice if somebody could actually, you know, get into my brain, so to speak. First, (when you open the box set) there's the cartoon brain, and you keep pulling that out and there is an actual x-ray of Freberg's brain wearing his glasses by Dr. Lawrence Siegler, that's my doctor. I went to him and I said, "I want you to shoot a shot of my brains." He said, "No, no, no. You don't need to have a brain x-ray, there's nothing wrong with your brain." I said, "I know, I want, I need an x-ray of my head, my skull and my brain." So he said, "Are you serious?" I said, "Yeah." So I said, "Well, we'll give you liner credit in the album notes." He said, "Really? Well, OK, now it's getting interesting." So he took me in there and when he started to shoot me, he said, "Take off your glasses." I said, "No, no. I want to leave them on." He said, "No, no, you don't leave your glasses on in an x-ray like this." I said, "How will people know it's my brain, if they don't see my glasses?" He said, "OK, OK, OK." The first one he shot was too dark. He said, "We've got to do it over, that's much too dark." And I said, "Wait a minute! You're not supposed to have too many brain x-rays, you know. It's bad for your brain." He said, "I know but we've got to shoot it over." And the next one he comes out, "No, now that's too light. Now we've got to go back the other way." I said, "Listen, this is not a poloroid, you know. This is my brain you're scanning there!" He finally got one that's right. I said, "I'll probably have brain cancer from this joke." He said, "Stop whining!" Then after it was all over, he gave me the x-ray in a big brown envelope so I could take it to the art director at Rhino, who was waiting breathlessly for it. And I said to the doctor, "Has anybody ever had their brain x-rayed wearing their glasses?" He said, "Just you. Just you!" "You know, I like that. I like the sound of that."
So anyhow, there you have it. And the video of course was a bonus that Richard Foos and Bronson talked me in to. I said, "No, we'll put out a special box sometime with all my advertising stuff. Ads that fold out." "No, no, we've got to have some video in there." So this is, I must say, a lot for somebody's money. I'm the guy who cut it down from one hundred dollars. He was gonna charge a hundred bucks. Foos said, "We'll price it rather high." I said, "No, no, that's too expensive, come on." He said, "Not to a real Freberg fan it isn't." I said, "I know, but I want everybody to be able find this attractive, including the price. So it finally got down to $59.
FZ: There's a fantastic booklet in the set with lots of rare photos and great liner notes written by you and Dr. Demento.
SF: Dr. Demento kept me alive in the record business for years when I wasn't recording, when I was side-tracked into advertising. He kept on playing my records syndicated around America. He's a great guy and he wrote the liner notes with my help, Barry Hansen. There's another set of liner notes by Jeff Goodby. He's the guy who created the "Got Milk?" campaign and the Budweiser frogs. He's looked upon as the fair haired young guy in advertising now and has been for about 10 years. I met him a couple times and I asked him to write some liner notes and so he said that he'd be honored to do it. And so he wrote liner notes that started out with the headline, "Yeah, And He Wrote Better Ads Than Everybody Else Too."
FZ: There's also a new Freberg recording on the box set, "The Conspiraski Theory". That's the most recent thing you've recorded right?
SF: Yeah, that's right. It was like pulling teeth to get Rhino to pay for me to go in and record that. Even though they loved the idea and they all laughed at the lyrics, the idea of once again recording new material, kind of puts them into a panic attack. They're just not… they started from the back of their car, you know, with old Rock and Roll 45s that people were unable to find. And they're used to peddling old material. But new material is something they've never really thought much about. I was the first guy to record new material for them.
FZ: Well, then you helped open the door for Firesign Theatre doing new recordings at Rhino.
SF: Yes, yes, I know, I know, I hope the guys are appreciative.
FZ: Oh yeah, they are, believe me.
SF: OK. So it occurred to me one day that Monika Lewinski rhymed with Carol Lapinski, and they both rhymed with Theodore Kazinski. I said, "What's going on? Is there a conspiraski here?" So I said, "There's more here than meets the ear." So, I wrote the lyrics. First of all I wrote them in a restaurant. I was having dinner with a friend of mine, Andy Creane, at the Villa Nova, a wonderful Italian restaurant in Newport Beach. So I wrote the first 8 bars, 16 bars. He said, "What are you writing there?" I'm writing something called "The Conspiraski Theory". That got a big laugh. When I got back to LA and finished it, I called Richard Foos and I said, "Have you got a minute?" and I sang it to him. And he said, "Hold on a minute. We'll call you right back." Now I get him, I hear he's on a squawk box, you know. He said, "I'm in a meeting now with Rhino executives here. Would you mind singing that again?" So I sang it all the way through and I could hear them laughing and applauding. But then they decided when they started to release it last year and they said, "No, lets wait and put it out in a collection." My original intention was they would put it out as a single record. But then they pointed out to me that they weren't in the single record business. Not only that, they didn't know how to deal with recording new material, they didn't know how to market a single recording. Ha, ha, ha. So they said, "Let's just hold up on this until we figure out what to do with it." "You can put it in an album.", they said, at the time. So then the minute they thought of this box set as an inducement to help put it together, Foos said to me, "We'll put in "The Conspiraski Theory". Finally, you'll get that out." So I said, "Fine."
FZ: Now, tell me about how this…
SF: Now look, I've given you enough here to fill 3 magazines. OK, you wanted to ask me another question and then I have to go.
FZ: OK, I wanted to ask you about how it is selling yourself as opposed to some other product?
SF: Oh it's hardly any difference. I mean, I look upon myself as a 3rd entity or a 2nd entity. Yeah, I've done that before. I did a commercial for Random House, when my book came out in '89 that was pretty funny. I trashed myself, more or less, you know, in just the same way I do clients occasionally. And anyhow if I could think of the jokes I'd give them to you now but I can't. I can't quite remember. Me with total recall but I can't remember. It's been shoved out of me. There's only so much space in my brain, you know. I moved on to helping sell this box set but I mean, actually this is no different from promoting all the records over the years. When I did "John And Marsha" I had to sit down with Jim Murray, the great Pulitzer prize winning sports writer, at that time he was just a Time Magazine reporter on the West Coast, so… I did an interview with him, just like I'm doing with you. Like ah, so what else is new, you know, hawking my box set as opposed to a single record. But I see what you mean. I'd like to do a television commercial for myself sometime, you know. That's an interesting thought, I'll think about that.
FZ: All right. Thanks a lot for talking with us.