Stanley Victor Freberg (b. August 7, 1926, Los Angeles, California) is an American author, recording artist, animation voice actor, comedian, radio personality, puppeteer and advertising creative director.
The son of a Baptist minister, Stan Freberg grew up in Pasadena, California. His traditional upbringing is reflected both in the gentle sensitivity which underpins his work, despite his liberal use of biting satire and parody, and in his refusal to accept alcohol and tobacco manufacturers as sponsors (an impediment to his radio career when he took over for Jack Benny on CBS radio), as Freberg explained to Rusty Pipes:
- After I replaced Jack Benny in 1957, they were unable to sell me with spot announcements in the show. That would mean that every three minutes I'd have to drop a commercial in. So I said, 'Forget it, I want to be sponsored by one person like Benny was, by American Tobacco or State Farm Insurance,' except that I wouldn't let them sell me to American Tobacco. I refused to let them sell me to any cigarette company.
Stan Freberg's first wife, Donna, died in 2000, and he married Betty Hunter in 2001, an act that caused him to become estranged from his son, Donavan Freberg.
Freberg was employed as a voice actor in animation shortly after graduating from high school. He began at Warner Brothers in 1944 by taking the advice of his uncle, stage magician Raymond Freberg (Conray the Magician), who advised him to take a bus into Los Angeles and have the driver let him off "in central Los Angeles," whereupon Freberg was to walk into the first building he saw and ask for an audition. He did this, got off the bus when he saw a sign that said "talent agency," walked in and immediately found work at Warner Brothers, as he described in his autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh
(Times Books, 1988).
His first cartoon voice work was in Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears (1944) as Junyer Bear, followed by Roughly Speaking (1946) as Bertie, and in 1947, he was heard in It's a Grand Old Nag (Charlie Horse), The Goofy Gophers (Tosh), and One Meat Brawl (Grover Groundhog and Walter Winchell). He often found himself paired off with Mel Blanc while at Warner Brothers, where the two men performed such pairs as the Goofy Gophers, Hubie and Bertie, and Spike the Bulldog and Chester the Terrier. He was also the voice of Junyer Bear in Chuck Jones' Looney Tunes cartoon What's Brewin', Bruin? (1948), featuring Jones' version of The Three Bears. Another was the voice of Pete Puma in the 1952 cartoon Rabbit's Kin, in which he did an impression of Frank Fontaine's "Crazy Guggenheim" voice.
Freberg's first credit as a voice actor in a Looney Tunes cartoon was in Three Little Bops (1957). His work as a voice actor for Walt Disney Productions included the role of Beaver in Lady and the Tramp (1955). He succeeded Kent Rogers as the voice of Beaky Buzzard during production of The Bashful Buzzard after Rogers was killed in World War II. Freberg also provided the voice of Sam, the orange cat paired with Sylvester in the Oscar-winning Mouse And Garden (1960). He voiced Cage E. Coyote, the father of Wile E. Coyote, in the 2000 short Little Go Beep.
Freberg made his movie debut as an on-screen actor in the comedy Callaway Went Thataway
(1951), a satirical spoof on the marketing of Western stars (apparently inspired by the TV success of Hopalong Cassidy
). When Freberg co-starred with Mala Powers
(1953) as sobbing singer Billy Weber, the character enabled him to do his satire on vocalist Johnnie Ray
. In 1963, Freberg appeared as the Deputy Sheriff in the mega-comedy It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
. His on-screen television roles included The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.
(1967) and The Monkees
(1966). In 1996, he portrayed the continuing character of Mr. Parkin on Roseanne
Freberg began making satirical recordings for Capitol Records
, beginning with "John and Marsha" and "Ragtime Dan," recorded on February 10
. He scored a huge success with "John and Marsha," released in both 45-rpm and 78-rpm formats, a soap opera parody
that consisted of the title characters (both played by Freberg) repeating each other's names. In a 1954 follow-up, he used pedal steel guitarist Speedy West
to parody the 1953 Ferlin Husky
country hit, "A Dear John Letter," as "A Dear John and Marsha Letter" (Capitol 2677).
With Daws Butler and June Foray, he produced his 1951 Dragnet parody, "St. George and the Dragonet." The latter recording was a #1 hit for four weeks in late 1953; on the record's B-side "Little Blue Riding Hood," the title character is arrested for smuggling goodies. After "I've Got You Under My Skin" (1952), he followed with more popular musical satires, including "Sh-Boom" (1954), "The Yellow Rose of Texas" (1955), and "The Great Pretender" (1956). He spoofed Elvis Presley in 1956 with his own version of Elvis' first gold record, "Heartbreak Hotel", in which the echo chamber goes out of control. (In his spoof, Freberg's Elvis rips his jeans during his performance, a problem the real Elvis had with jumpsuits when performing in the early 1970s.)
Another hit to get the Freberg treatment was Johnnie Ray's weepy "Cry", which Freberg rendered as "Try" ("You too can be unhappy... if you try!"), exaggerating Ray's histrionic vocal style. Ray was furious, until he realized the success of Freberg's 1952 parody was helping sales and airplay of his own record.
Freberg's "Banana Boat (Day-O)" satirized Harry Belafonte's popular recording of "Banana Boat Song". In Freberg's version, the lead singer is forced to run down the hall and close the door after him to muffle the sound of his "Day-O!" because the beatnik-styled bongo drummer complains, "It's too piercing, man". When he gets to the lyric about "A beautiful bunch a'ripe banana/Hide the deadly black tarantula" the drummer protests, "I don't dig spiders, man."
He also used the beatnik-musician theme in a parody of "The Great Pretender," the hit by The Platters, who, like Belafonte and Welk, were not pleased. This musician was a pianist, an Erroll Garner devotee who rebels against playing a single-chord accompaniment. He retorts, "I'm not playing that 'pling-pling-pling jazz'!" But Freberg is adamant about the pianist sticking to The Platters' style: "You play 'that pling-pling-pling jazz'--or you don't get paid tonight!" The pianist relents--sort of.
Freberg's musical parodies were a byproduct of his collaborations with Billy May and his Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson. With his 1957 spoof of TV "champagne music" master Lawrence Welk, "Wun'erful! Wun'erful!", Freberg had a true parody partner with May, a veteran big band musician and jazz arranger. To replicate Welk's syrupy sound, May and some of Hollywood's finest studio musicians and vocalists worked to clone Welk's musical mediocrity, right down to bad notes and timing mistakes. Billy Liebert, a first-rate accordionist, copied Welk's accordion playing. Welk denied he had ever said, "Wunnerful, Wunnerful!", yet it became the title of Welk's autobiography (Prentice Hall, 1971). In his parody record, the orchestra is overwhelmed by the bubble machine and eventually floats out to sea.
Freberg also tackled political issues of the day. On his radio show, an extended sketch paralleled the Cold War brinkmanship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union by portraying an ever-escalating public relations battle between the El Sodom and the Rancho Gomorrah, two casinos in the city of Los Varoces (Spanish for "The Greedy Ones" -- a thinly-disguised Las Vegas). The sketch ends with the ultimate tourist attraction, the Hydrogen Bomb, which turns Los Varoces into a barren, vast wasteland. Network pressure forced Freberg to remove the reference to the hydrogen bomb and destroy the two cities with an earthquake instead. The version of "Incident at Los Varoces" released later on Capitol Records contains the original ending.
On two occasions, Capitol balked at releasing Freberg's creations. "That's Right, Arthur" was a barbed parody of controversial 1950s radio-TV personality Arthur Godfrey, who expected his stable of performers, known as "Little Godfreys," to endlessly toady to him. The dialogue included Freberg's "Godfrey" monologue, punctuated by Daws Butler, imitating Godfrey announcer Tony Marvin, repeatedly interjecting, "That's right, Arthur," between Godfrey's comments. Capitol feared Godfrey might take legal action. Capitol also rejected the equally acerbic "Most of the Town," a spoof on Ed Sullivan. Both eventually surfaced on a box-set Freberg retrospective issued by Rhino Records.
Freberg continued to skewer the advertising industry after the demise of his show, producing and recording "Green Chri$tma$" in 1958 (again with Butler), a scathing indictment of the overcommercialization of the holiday. Freberg, the son of a church minister and religious himself, made sure to soberly point out "whose birthday we're celebrating" on that record. Released originally on 45-rpm discs, the satire ended abruptly with a rendition of "Jingle Bells" punctuated by cash register sounds when reissued by Capitol on LP and CD. Freberg also revisited the Dragnet theme, with "Christmas Dragnet", in which the straight-laced detective convinces a character named "Grudge" that Santa Claus really exists. Daws Butler does several voices on that record.
Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years (1961) combined dialogue and song in a musical theater format. The original album musical, released on Capitol, parodies the history of the United States from 1492 until the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783.
Freberg parodied both large and small aspects of history. For instance, in the Colonial era, it was common to use the long s, which resembles a lowercase f, in the middle of words; thus, as Ben Franklin is reading the Declaration of Independence, he questions the passage, "Life, liberty, and the purfuit of happineff???" He also takes the time to skewer McCarthyism, as his Franklin talks about "signing a few harmless documents, forgetting all about it, and years later finding oneself in front of a committee."
The album also featured the following exchange, where Freberg's Christopher Columbus is "discovered on beach here" by a Native American played by Marvin Miller. Skeptical of the Natives' diet of corn and "other organically grown vegetables," Columbus wants to open "America's first Italian restaurant" and needs to cash a check to get started:
- Native: "You out of luck today. Banks closed."
- Columbus: "Oh? Why?"
- Native: "Columbus Day!"
- Columbus: "Oh, yeah." [pregnant pause] "We going out on that joke?"
- Native: "No, we do reprise of song. That help, but. .."
- Columbus and Native together: "...not much, no!"
Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America, Volume Two was planned for a release during America's Bicentennial in 1976 but did not emerge until 1996.
Freberg's early parodies revealed his obvious love of jazz. His portrayals of jazz musicians were usually stereotypical "beatnik" types, but jazz was always portrayed as preferable to pop, calypso, and particularly the then-new form of music, rock and roll. He whopped doo-wop in his version of "Sh-Boom" and lampooned Elvis Presley with an echo/reverb rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel".
The popularity of Freberg's recordings landed him his own program, the situation comedy That's Rich
. Freberg portrayed the bumbling but cynical Richard E. Wilk, a resident of Hope Springs, where he worked for B. B. Hackett's Consolidated Paper Products Company. Freberg suggested the addition of dream sequences, which made it possible for him to perform his more popular Capitol Records satires before a live studio audience. The CBS
series aired from January 8
to September 23
The Stan Freberg Show
was a 1957 replacement for Jack Benny on CBS radio. The satirical show, which featured elaborate production, included most of the team he used on his Capitol recordings, including June Foray, Peter Leeds, and Daws Butler. Billy May conducted and arranged the orchestra. The Jud Conlon Singers, who also appeared on Freberg recordings, were also regulars, as was singer Peggy Taylor, who had participated in his "Wun'erful, Wun'erful!" record.
The show failed to attract a sponsor after Freberg decided he did not want to be associated with the tobacco companies who had sponsored Benny. In lieu of actual commercials, Freberg mocked advertising by touting such products as "Puffed Grass" ("It's good for Bossie, it's good for me and you!"), "Food" ("Put some food in your tummy-tum-tum!"), and himself ("Stan Freberg — the foaming comedian! Bobba bobba bom bom bom" — a parody of the well-known Ajax cleanser
The lack of sponsorship was not the only issue. Freberg frequently complained of radio network
interference. Another sketch from the CBS show, "Elderly Man River," anticipated the Political Correctness
movement by decades. Daws Butler plays "Mr. Tweedly," a representative of a fictional citizens' radio review board, who constantly interrupts Freberg with a loud buzzer as Freberg attempts to sing "Old Man River
." Tweedly objects first to the word "old," "which some of our more elderly citizens find distasteful." As a result, the song's lyrics are progressively and painfully distorted, as Freberg struggles to turn the classic song into a form which Tweedly will find acceptable "to the tiny tots" listening at home: "He don't, er, doesn't
plant 'taters, er, potatoes
... he doesn't pick cotton, er, cotting
... and them-these-those that plants them are soon forgotting," a lyric of which Freberg is particularly proud. Even when the censor finds Freberg's machinations acceptable, the constant interruption ultimately brings the song to a grinding halt (just before Freberg would have had to edit the line "You gets a little drunk and you lands in jail"), furnishing the moral and the punchline of the sketch at once. The performance skewered political correctness about thirty years before the term even existed. But all of these factors forced the cancellation of the show after a run of only fifteen episodes.
In 1966, he recorded an album, Freberg Underground
, in a format similar to his radio show, using the same cast and orchestra. He called it "pay radio," in a parallel to the phrase pay TV
at the time for subscription-based cable and broadcast television) "because you have to go into the record store and buy it." This album is notable for giving Dr. Edward Teller
the Father of the Year
award for being "father of the hydrogen bomb
("Use it in good health!"), for a combined satire of the Batman
television series and the 1966 California Governor's race between Edmund G. "Pat" Brown
, and Ronald Reagan
, and probably most famous for a bit in which, through the magic of sound effects
, Freberg drained Lake Michigan
and refilled it with hot chocolate
and a mountain of whipped cream
, while a giant Maraschino cherry
was dropped like a bomb by the Royal Canadian Air Force
to the cheers of ten thousand extras viewing from the shoreline. Freberg concluded with, "Let's see them do that on television!" That bit became a commercial for advertising on radio.
From 1949 to 1954, he and frequent collaborator Daws Butler
provided voices and were the puppeteers
for Bob Clampett
series, Time for Beany
, a triple Emmy Award
winner (1950, 1951, 1953).
Freberg made television guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show
and other TV variety shows, usually with Orville, his puppet from outer space
. He reached through the bottom of Orville's flying saucer
to control the puppet's movements and turned away from the camera
when he delivered Orville's lines. Freberg garnered big laughs when he made occasional talk show appearances, but his big splash on television was his own ABC
special: Stan Freberg Presents: The Chun King Chow Mein Hour: Salute to the Chinese New Year
When Freberg introduced satire to the field of advertising, he revolutionized the industry, influencing staid ad agencies to imitate Freberg by injecting humor into their previously dead-serious commercials. Freberg's long list of successful ad campaigns includes:
- Contadina tomato paste: "Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?"
- Jeno's pizza rolls: A parody of a contemporary commercial for Lark cigarettes that used the William Tell Overture, here ending with a confrontation between a cigarette smoker (supposedly representing the Lark commercial's announcer) and Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger over the use of the music. Jay Silverheels also appears as Tonto, filling his saddle bag with Pizza Rolls.
- Jeno's pizza, in a parody of Scope mouthwash commercials.
- Sunsweet pitted prunes: Depicted as "the food of the future" in a futuristic setting, until science fiction icon Ray Bradbury, a friend of Freberg's, shown on a wall-to-wall television screen reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451 butts in: "I never mentioned prunes in any of my stories." "You didn't?" "No, never. I'm sorry to be so candid." "No, they're not candied" (rim shot). Bradbury reportedly refused to consider doing a commercial until Freberg told him, "I'm calling it Brave New Prune," prompting Bradbury to ask, "When do we start?"
- Another Sunsweet commercial features Ronald Long as a picky eater: "They're still rather badly wrinkled, you know," and ends with the famous line, "Today, the pits; tomorrow, the wrinkles! Sunsweet marches on!"
- Heinz Great American Soups: Ann Miller is a housewife who turns her kitchen into a gigantic production number, singing such lyrics as "Let's face the chicken gumbo and dance!" After watching his wife's flashy tap dancing, her husband, played by veteran character actor Dave Willock asks, "Why do you always have to make such a big production out of everything?" At the time (1970), this was the most expensive commercial ever made — so expensive, in fact, that there was little money left over to buy air time for it.
- Jacobsen Mowers: Sheep slowly munch on a front lawn. On camera reporter/announcer: "Jacobsen mowers. Faster...than sheep!"
- Encyclopædia Britannica: The boy in these commercials is Freberg's son Donavan. Freberg talks to him from offscreen.
- Chun King Chinese Food: Magazine ad, featuring a line-up of nine smiling Chinese men and one frowning Caucasian man, all dressed in scrub suits and white lab coats, with the caption, "Nine out of 10 doctors recommend Chun King Chow Mein!"
Today, these advertisements are considered classics by many critics, and though Bob & Ray had pioneered intentionally comic advertisements (stemming from a hugely successful campaign for Piels beer), Stan Freberg is usually credited as being the first person to introduce humor into television advertising with memorable campaigns. Freberg felt a truly funny commercial would cause consumers to request a product, as was the case with his elaborate ad campaign which prompted stores to stock Salada Tea. The owner of Jeno's Pizza Rolls had to pay off a bet over the success of a Freberg ad campaign by pulling Freberg in a rickshaw on Hollywood's La Cienega Boulevard. Freberg won 21 Clio awards for his commercials. Many of those spots were included in the Freberg four-CD box set, Tip of the Freberg.
Following his success in comedy records and television, Freberg has often been invited to appear as a featured guest at various events. Each time has been memorable, such as his skit at the 1979 Science Fiction Awards, again playing straight man to Orville in his UFO
. He innocently asks why there is a hole in the end of the spacecraft, only to be told, "That's where the swamp gas comes out."
In his autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, Freberg recounts much of his life and early career, including his encounters with such show business legends as Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra and Ed Sullivan, and the struggles he endured to get his material on the air.
Freberg was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1995. From 1995 until October 6, 2006, Freberg hosted When Radio Was, a syndicated anthology of vintage radio shows. The release of the 1996 Rhino CD The United States of America Volume 1 (the Early Years) and Volume 2 (the Middle Years) suggests a possible third volume. This set includes some parts written but cut because they would not fit on a record album.
Freberg appeared on "Weird Al" Yankovic's The Weird Al Show, playing both the J.B. Toppersmith character and the voice of the puppet Papa Boolie. His son, Donavan Freberg, played the voice of the puppet Baby Boolie. Yankovic has many times acknowledged Freberg as his greatest influence. Freberg is among the commentators in the special features on the multiple-volume DVD sets of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection and narrates the documentary "Irreverent Imagination" on Volume 1.
Legacy in popular culture
- In 2007, comedian the great Luke Ski recorded a ten-minute homage called MC Freberg, a parody illustrating what a Freberg-type satire of rap music would have sounded like. Originally recorded for The FuMP, the track also appears on Ski's album BACONspiracy.
- In the episode "Duke's Oil" from the short-lived animated series The Critic, millionaire Duke Phillips pays a Dr. Kevorkian-like suicide specialist to help him euthanize himself after dying of an illness. When given the choice of his last rites, the nurse tells him he "can listen to Stan Freberg on the headphones," to which Duke replies, "The perfect end to a perfect life."
- Was the announcer for the boat race in the movie version of Stuart Little.