If you're over the age of 30, you probably have at least a few songs from Free to Be You and Me engraved in your memory. Conceived by '60s-era TV actress Marlo Thomas and produced as a project of the Ms. Foundation for Women, the 1972 album jumped on the progressive feminism wave via catchy tunes for kids. Songs like “William's Doll” and “It's Alright to Cry” challenged male/female stereotypes and encouraged the expansion of gender roles. Big deal stars of the era including Harry Belafonte, Alan Alda, Carol Channing, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross contributed to the recording.
In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the album, a bunch of funny people including comedians Fred Stoller and Eddie Pepitone, actress Lizzy Caplan, Fred Willard, Daily Show correspondents Samantha Bee and Wyatt Cenac, and Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Go's recorded a parody album called It's Okay to Do Stuff, which is subtitled: “Songs that Didn't Make it On Free to Be You and Me.”
The album presents familiar-sounding ditties with messages that are just slightly…off. For example, former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page offers “Be Yourself…Unless,” while Collin Hanks and Kimmy Gatewood explain how “Divorce Makes a Family Twice as Big.”
It's Okay to Do Stuff was conceived and written by Rob Kutner, a former writer at The Daily Show and current writer for Conan O'Brien, along with Joel and Stephen Levinson. Kutner talked to us about the album.
How did this thing come together?
I saw this year was Free to Be's 40th anniversary and suddenly had visions of a bizarro-world version where the songs were equally upbeat but somehow “not quite right.” I pitched the idea to my frequent collaborators, Joel and Stephen Levinson — these insanely talented brothers, like the Wachowskis but with more testosterone — who banged it out with me over about three weeks of frenzied glee.
Did you listen to Free to Be You and Me as kids?
All three of just about wore out our parents' .78 record of it. It got into our nervous systems practically. Our own spin on it was the only cure.
What were its lasting impressions?
I still think of it when tempted to cry, which is about 67 times a day.
What are the underlying themes on the new album that speak to societal/cultural shifts that have happened since the release of the original?
I don't see this as an “updating,” more like an exploration of some of the sticky corners of human interaction that Free to Be didn't and shouldn't have covered. I think it's more about the difficulties of maintaining FTB's idealism and optimism in a world of relentless cynicism and jadedness.
Are tracks like “Everyone's Equally” — on which Megan Amram sings “everyone on Earth is equal, equally dumb” — meant to imply that current culture is too PC?
Mostly, it spoke to the fact that it's way too much fun thinking of a hand-tailored insult for every race, gender, creed, and orientation. Who could resist that?
Has the new album been performed live like the original?
No, though we've been approached about doing so. Unsurprisingly, anyone crazy enough to have done this also has a crazy schedule. It's going to be awkward kidnapping all of them for the world tour.
Has Marlo Thomas heard it?
We have no idea. We didn't approach her. We're expecting to wake up one morning with a bloody head from William's doll lying next to us in bed.
It's Okay to Do Stuff was released late last month and is available at rooftopcomedy.com for a minimum donation of five dollars and also on iTunes for $4. Proceeds from the album go to Marlo Thomas' favorite charity, the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.