One of the true greats of comedy, Stan Freberg, has left us, leaving behind a unique legacy in cartoons, radio, records and television. Mark Evanier will surely have much to say about the passing of his lifelong idol and close friend. I have only one good Stan Freberg tale to tell, as told to Evanier over ten years ago, who passed it on to Freberg and the amazing June Foray who is, thankfully, still with us.
In February 1989, at the height of the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses”, I took a month-long business trip to Saudi Arabia. At right is a picture of my passport from that time, that you can click to enlarge. As you can see, the visa was valid for only that one month. Told here is but one of many stories from that brief, intense visit to The Kingdom. Although it is intended to be somewhat humorous, the events of September 11, 2001 remind me there was nothing amusing about it while it was happening. After a flight from Boston to Frankfurt, West Germany (the Berlin Wall’s collapse was months away), I caught a few hours of sleep at an airport hotel, then boarded a plane for Riyadh. During the flight, the passengers were reminded repeatedly by the flight attendants about the strict laws in Saudi Arabia. We were strongly urged to have absolutely nothing questionable, especially drugs, in our luggage or on our person when we went through Customs. We were assured that punishment would be swift and severe.
Packing for the trip, I had considered carefully what to take with me, especially reading material, as censorship is the norm in Saudi Arabia. For example, foreign magazines are available, but many pictures and passages are blacked-out. (They must go through a lot of indelible markers over there.) After a couple of weeks reading stories in an English-language Arab newspaper that made no mention of the death sentence issued from Iran against Salman Rushdie, I finally found an item in the European edition of Business Week the censors had missed. Anyway, after a lot of thought, the books I chose to take along on the trip were “Great Expectations”, by Charles Dickens, and “It Only Hurts When I Laugh”, the autobiography by the brilliant humorist-satirist-singer-songwriter-voice artist Stan Freberg. I took the Dickens book along because I’d put off reading it for a long time, while Freberg went to Arabia for precisely the opposite reason — I couldn’t wait to read him. (If you buy Stan’s must-have CD box set, “Tip of the Freberg”, you’ll know why I couldn’t wait.)
Today I feel lucky to have my copy of “It Only Hurts When I Laugh”, because there was a minute or two at the airport in Riyadh when it seemed likely it was going to be confiscated. Click the thumbnail picture on the right to enlarge it. See how the spine of the book is broken? I didn’t do that while scanning the picture. The damage was done during Customs Inspection. Much has been made about tough airport security in Israel, but I’d be surprised if it’s any tighter than in Saudi Arabia. They go through everything, quite thoroughly. Waiting my turn in line, eventually I was called by a Customs Agent to step forward with my luggage. After going through all of my personal effects, the Customs Agent picked up the Dickens book, which had no pictures, and he flipped through the pages. Finding nothing that interested him, he turned his attention to the cover of the Freberg book. He frowned. Perhaps he was just imitating the scowl on Stan’s face? The Customs Agent started going through the book carefully, concentrating on the two sections of photographs.
“Who is this?” he asked firmly, pointing to the picture of lovely, petite voice artist June Foray, wearing a dress that flattered her fabulous figure and showed most of her shoulders and arms. At least her ankles were covered with stockings. “Uh, that’s June Foray. She’s an actress,” I replied nervously, sounding I suppose like Jerry Mathers as the Beaver, trying to get out of a tight spot. The time didn’t seem right to explain the distinction between ‘actress’ and ‘voice artist.’ My wife may think I’m not very good at picking up on subtle social cues, but at that moment, surrounded by apparently humorless men armed with automatic weapons, I thought I was doing all right. Then it hit me — calling June an actress might have been a bad idea. Not knowing their attitude towards American actresses, I looked around the airport and saw that every woman was completely covered from head to toe. The official motioned to another security person to come over. Now I was getting worried. The second man took hold of the book, a brand-new 2nd-printing hardcover, and opened the pages so wide the spine went cra-a-ck. He’d have made a good chiropractor. They got excited. I didn’t know exactly what kind of excited, but they spoke to each other rapidly in Arabic while pointing at the picture. I figured they were either big June Foray fans, or it was the most risqué photo of a grown woman they had come across in years.
“This is your book?” the second man asked me. That seemed obvious, but answering obvious questions is routine when going through airport security. “Yes, it is,” I replied. “What is this book about?” he persisted. Wanting to avoid words such as satirist and humorist, I answered with something along the lines of, “It’s about this man,” pointing to Freberg in the picture, “who speaks on the radio.” The Customs Agent looked at me with Mike Wallace intensity and asked, “He reads the news on the radio?” Feeling like the emcee on the old game show “What’s My Line?,” I decided to take the hint, flip all the cards and declare him the winner. “Yes! Yes! He’s a radio newsman,” I agreed, with conviction in my voice (as a matter of fact, for a couple of years after college I made my living as a radio newsman). Those ‘Joe Friday’ hats Freberg and Daws Butler wore for the picture did make them look a little like Walter Winchell. This seemed to get me off the hook. He handed my Freberg book back to me and advised me sternly to, “Keep this book with you, do not give it to anyone and take it with you back to America.” I promised to do just that, and the proof is on this Web page. Although sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if I’d left Freberg in Arabia, so he could have found a new audience — an audience that might have benefited from his unique brand of intelligent, subversive humor.
I spent a very hectic month in Saudi Arabia, working my tail off. Taking a 13-hour non-stop flight to New York, then catching a shuttle home to Boston, it fell really, really good to be back in America, the Land of the Freberg, and the Home of the Brave.