Of the variety of motives for writing autobiography, revenge has to rank high among them. “It Only Hurts When I Laugh” is comedy/song/commercial writer Stan Freberg’s look back at a career that has been a strange mix of spectacular achievement and peculiar unacknowledgment. Or dis-acknowledgement.
Part of that may have to do with his uncategorizable, protean talents. The son of a Pasadena Baptist minister, Freberg began his career in the late ‘40s doing voices for Warner Brothers cartoons and went on to write and perform radio and television comedy, with some zany stops between (he mentions joining a band called Red Fox and His Musical Hounds, where his inability to play an instrument went undetected--it was the kind of band where the trumpet player wore a King Kong head).
Freberg has had an uncanny knack for striking America’s funnybone in a way it hasn’t been struck before (his bedroom spoof “John and Marsha” was a ‘50s radio sensation). But it was as a creator of commercials that he showed memorable flair. Along with Bob & Ray, Freberg was one of the first artists to use comedy and satire in ads (“Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?” is one of his infectious phrases), and although such devices are common now, they weren’t when he was starting out.
There’s the rub. Aptly titled, “It Only Hurts When I laugh,” is a display of Freberg’s battle scars from fighting “paranoid” corporate lawyers, grim ad account executives and their minions, and finally, the redoubtable Broadway producer, David Merrick. All, in one way or another, appear twisted or pusillanimous--or both--and his dealings with them form the pattern of the book, which could be sub-titled “Rocky Goes to Madison Avenue.” That is, Freberg reports his ideas, how they’re met with resistance, and how they always ultimately triumph where it counts in American life--the bottom line.
Years of this kind of fighting and of having to prove himself each time out have taken their toll on Freberg’s sangfroid. His book has a small touch of the megalomania that afflicts anyone who has had that kind of struggle. It’s written in a breezy, congenial, show-bizzy style (it can’t just be “Paul T. Smith, the jazz pianist,” it has to be “Paul T. Smith, the brilliant jazz pianist”) and isn’t especially notable for the things that make autobiographies great, namely, introspection, revelation or a pungent re-enactment of time and place.
His indignation over the self-importance of advertisers, and their megalomanical assault on the culture, undermines his affable demeanor. As someone who’s grown up in a religious household, it clearly rankles him to see that, as far as American advertising is concerned, nothing is sacred.