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SOCAL POV / PATT MORRISON

A Duty to Be Outrageous and Offend

June 21, 1998|PATT MORRISON

By now, some biologist must have worked out a comedic taxonomy for the varied species of rictus Americanus:

The comic: Punch line Muzak for the change-of-feathers at Minsky's. Rim-shot warmups for the early-bird lounge show, inaudible over the ice in the highball glasses. Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing.

The comedian: Performance-driven, marquee-billed. This guy is the show. Think Richard Pryor. Think Steve Martin before he started writing and got promoted to . . . .

The humorist: Makes it look naturally, organically amusing. Will Rogers. Woody Allen, before therapy.

The wit: Mordant social commentary rendered deadpan as the audience (if it knows what's what) smiles through tears. Endures beyond the Zeitgeist, even beyond the writer. Think Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain.

Then there's an odd limb on the family tree, growing in directions defying gravity and most certainly gravitas: the satirist and his sidekick, the parodist. Tom Lehrer (they've retired his number), Mort Sahl, Ernie Kovacs--and the enduring Stan Freberg.

Freberg first sold Madison Avenue's wares with a smile, and mocked them, too, nearly 40 years ago with his song "Green Chri$tma$." "Deck the halls with advertising" shocked the admen far more than their own crass excesses.

He counts among his fans Ray Bradbury and Gov. Pete Wilson. The original "Time for Beany" puppet show--later "Beany and Cecil"--was his Emmy-winning co-creation; Albert Einstein tried never to miss it.

He hasn't sold as many albums as McDonald's has burgers, but they don't give gold records for hawking ground beef. His "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America," a home-grown styling of the English history parody "1066 and All That," is updated 35 years later with Volume II, a CD set bringing America up to 1918.

Not even Freberg can hide from Freberg. His business card motto mocks himself and MGM: "Ars Gratia Pecuniae," art for money's sake.

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The Freberg voice I already knew. The man himself I met at a dinner honoring the superb Norman Corwin, the writer and broadcaster who, from Hoover (Herbert) to McCarthy (Joe), was the nation's radio poet and the conscience of the air.

Corwin is one of the two men in all the world who can make me wish I were 20 years older. He is also one of the rare figures for whom the cork-poppingly carbonated Freberg turns down his bubbles and listens. Freberg is not a self-effacing man, but he knows the difference between Corwin's magisterial style and his own, the jester-ial.

Yet Freberg's hefty contributions as a multimedia polymath have raised high the bar for popular culture, and when that's the only culture extant, it matters. If you hung around his neck all his bronzes and brasses and honors--Emmys, Clios, Golden Mikes, medals from Cannes to Capitol Hill--even in the L.A. River he'd drown.

He precursed--new verb--political correctness by some 40 years, giving voice to a character who assailed as offensive to the aged the song "Old Man River." So Freberg launched into the acceptable "Elderly Man River."

Recently, when his radio spots were cut from 90 seconds to 60, he whined until his wife and editor, Donna, brought him to his senses with, "You, who changed the face of advertising with humorous 60-second radio commercials--you can't be funny in 60 seconds?"

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A comic can get away with using old material. Those Roman Neil Simons, Plautus and Terence, stole from the Etruscans. But satirists must dangle perilously from the political moment.

Satire works in the terrain between what is supposed to be and what is--the space between standards extolled and standards flouted. H. L. Mencken was quoted on an old Watergate comedy album of mine: "It is the duty of the satirist to be outrageous and offend. It is the duty of the government to be responsible."

Freberg is careful nowadays to "make sure the audience has a frame of reference for a satirical line." That people may learn politics by monologue is "a frightening thought."

"Possibly," says Freberg, veteran of then and survivor of now, "people have lost their appetites for politics itself . . . . That's maybe why [the film] 'Primary Colors' hasn't done better. People said, 'Enough, already.' "

A satirist has to offend constructively, which just isn't happening as it used to. Those things Freberg says about the Pentagon? Thirty years ago, they would have opened an FBI file on him. Nowadays, he gets a call from someone with the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying: "We're really enjoying you here in the Pentagon, keep up the good work."

And what he said about Bosnia: "Don't send more troops, just send in disgruntled postal workers. They all seem to have their own weapons, their own ammo. That's cost-effective right there." It crushes him that he hasn't heard Word One from the postal workers.

Now here's a sobering notion: People used to take their politics seriously and laugh at their comedy. Now, oh dear, maybe it's the other way around.

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