Picks and Pans Review: It Only Hurts When I Laugh

updated 02/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Stan Freberg

So, you kids are asking, who is this guy? For one thing, he was among the irreverent talents who made the world safe for Weird Al Yankovic. However justifiably maligned they might be otherwise, the '50s were a bonanza for American satire. The decade introduced such enduring pop cultural phenomena as MAD magazine, Sid Caesar's TV program Your Show of Shows (his writers included Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Neil Simon), Lenny Bruce and (stretching the period a bit) the Smothers Brothers. Freberg, a Baptist minister's son born in 1926, turned out record parodies that were often as popular as their targets. There was St. George and the Dragonet (sending up Jack Webb's TV show Dragnet), for instance, or Freberg's lampoon of Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel. Freberg later was an innovator in use of humor (and disarming honesty) in ads and commercials, and his 1961 album of spoof history, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, is a satirical landmark. So there's lots of praise to be heaped on him. It's too bad he had to do so much of the heaping himself. This autobiographical volume brims with crowing tales of triumph and self-righteously indignant denunciations of record company, TV and ad executives who didn't recognize his genius. The book, unlike Freberg's precise satires, is also sloppy; actor Nicol Williamson's name is spelled accurately and as "Williams" on the same page. Freberg's own name appears as "Freeberg." It's a tribute to his talent that the book is as enjoyable as it is, especially in Freberg's accounts of his enterprises. His "Who Put Eight Great Tomatoes in That Little Bitty Can?" ad campaign for Contadina tomato paste is fun to read about, as are lyrics from Take an Indian to Lunch This Week, part of a skit from his U.S.A. album that parodies political opportunism, racism, advertising and basic pomposity in one hilarious swoop. Freberg's saga of his adventures with Broadway producer David Merrick is a case of wit triumphing, if barely, over bitterness, since, Freberg says, Merrick strung him along for years promising to turn the album into a play. Freberg quotes dancer-choreographer Marge Champion as saying of Merrick, "The man has no conscience," and portrays the producer as vacillating between wholehearted endorsement of their project and disinterest. Freberg finally backed out himself; the play was never produced, and his planned series of American history albums never got past the Revolution. Typically, he doesn't discuss in any serious way how he felt about wasting so much time. This book takes Freberg almost up to 1963, and he promises to discuss the rest of his life, including his advertising career, in another volume. Well, okay, Stan, if you insist, but would you please go back first and at least get us up to Millard Fillmore's Administration, satire-wise? (Times, $19.95)

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