Stan Freberg, a mutifaceted humorist who was widely known in the 1950s and 1960s for his comedy albums, satirical songs and groundbreaking commercials, and who influenced generations of subversive, irreverent comedians, died April 7 at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 88.
His family confirmed his death to news organizations. He had pneumonia and other ailments.
Mr. Freberg was a protean force in humor for decades and was sometimes known as the “father of recorded comedy” for the way he used music, mockery and multiple voices to lampoon politics and popular culture.
“Back in the 1950s,” Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley wrote in 1988, “the funniest man in America was either Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl or Stan Freberg.”
Mr. Freberg predated the others, beginning in the 1940s as a voice-over artist for Warner Bros. cartoons. In 1951, he released a best-selling comedy record, “John and Marsha,” a soap-opera spoof consisting only of the names “John” and “Marsha,” spoken in every possible emotional state for more than two minutes.
The recording was considered scandalous by some bluenoses, who believed Mr. Freberg had hidden a microphone in a honeymoon suite. In reality, he voiced both parts himself, adding sobs, soaring music and increasing ardor with each “John” and “Marsha.”
(The routine was portrayed during a 2010 episode of “Mad Men.”)
Mr. Freberg was viewed as a major influence by such diverse figures as filmmaker Steven Spielberg, “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau, the Smothers Brothers musical comedy duo, writers Stephen King and David Mamet, musical satirist Weird Al Yankovic and magicians Penn & Teller.
His understated sense of ridicule can be seen in the films of Christopher Guest, the comedy of George Carlin and in virtually every skit on “Saturday Night Live.”
“There has been nothing comparable to Freberg’s ability to seize on a pop fad and, while it was still hot, capitalize on it,” author and critic Gerald Nachman wrote in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.”
Mr. Freberg’s landmark 1961 album, “The United States of America,” recreated the nation’s history in exaggerated comic and musical form, beginning with Columbus’s arrival on these shores. The explorer hoped to take out a loan to open an Italian restaurant, only to find the banks closed because it was Columbus Day.
His comedy records routinely hit the Top 40, and his 1953 spoof of the radio and TV drama “Dragnet” sold 2 million copies. Set in medieval times, “St. George and the Dragonet” captured the just-the-facts-ma’am style of “Dragnet”:
“This is the countryside. My name is St. George. I’m a knight. Saturday, July 10th, 8:05 p.m. I was working out at the castle on the night watch when a call came in from the chief: A dragon had been devouring maidens. Homicide. My job: Slay ’em.”
Mr. Freberg routinely spoofed popular music trends of the 1950s, from Elvis Presley to calypso music, doo-wop and the accordion-playing TV host Lawrence Welk. The meaning of Mr. Freberg’s 1958 recording, “Green Chri$tma$,” was clear from the beginning: “Deck the halls with advertising, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.”
In addition to being a popular comedy performer, Mr. Freberg had a surprising second career, beginning in the 1950s, as a revolutionary force in advertising. He was often credited with creating the first funny commercials, using humor and irony to sell everything from prunes to automobiles.
“I really went into advertising as a totally outraged consumer,” Mr. Freberg told the New York Times in 1983. “Day after day, I sat watching the tube and listening to the radio, and I was stunned by the ineptness. So I started creating the sort of advertising I knew could reach me.”
He won more than 20 Clio awards for advertising, but his iconoclastic approach was not universally popular, especially at first. He advertised an airline by playing off the fear of flying, suggesting that even the pilots were afraid to go up in the air. The flight attendants handed out security blankets and good-luck charms to passengers.
He sold Sunsweet prunes by emphasizing that they had no pits.
“How do they do it?”
“They do it.”
The commercial ended with the announcer solemnly intoning, “Today, the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles.”
Stanley Victor Freberg was born Aug. 7, 1926, in Los Angeles. He was the son and grandson of Baptist ministers.
He began performing in high school, then passed up college scholarships to take a job in the cartoon division of the Warner Bros. studio, where he was often paired with Mel Blanc, known as Hollywood’s greatest cartoon voice actor.
Mr. Freberg spent two years in the Army and, by 1949, was doing voices for an early children’s television show in Los Angeles. He sang in a band and began doing comedy routines before creating a niche as a satirist of modern life.
In 1957, Mr. Freberg briefly had a radio show on CBS, which he later described as the last comedy program on a commercial radio network.
He remained a popular comedy performer into the 1960s, then focused on his advertising career until the 1980s. He published an autobiography, “It Only Hurts When I Laugh,” in 1988, before returning to radio in the 1990s with a program and commentaries on NPR.
In 1996, Mr. Freberg released a follow-up album to “The United States of America,” continuing his strange, comic journey through American history. In later years, he often appeared on discussion panels at comic conferences on popular culture.
“Satire serves the same purpose as that little steam valve in a pressure cooker,” Mr. Freberg told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “It allows some of that steam to dissolve; otherwise we’re likely to blow up.”
His first wife, Donna Andresen Freberg, died in 2000 after more than 40 years of marriage. Survivors include his wife of 13 years, the former Betty Hunter, known as Hunter Freberg; two children from his first marriage; and a granddaughter.
Mr. Freberg won a Grammy Award and several Emmy Awards and was elected to the Radio Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame and Animation Hall of Fame.
There seemed to be no limit to Mr. Freberg’s satirical range. In the 1950s, at the same time he was spoofing the garbled lyrics of pop songs — “Stick some old rags in your mouth and take it again from the top, okay?” — he was writing one of the more subtle attacks on the excesses of the McCarthy era, with “Little Blue Riding Hood.”
“Only the color has been changed,” he said, “to prevent an investigation.”