Freberg died Tuesday in Santa Monica, Calif., at age 88. Though his name is no longer as instantly recognizable as it once was, his distinctive voice and sweeping influence are still ubiquitous.
“He’s an American institution,” film historian Leonard Maltin said in 2003, “… a satirist who has caught lightning in a bottle time after time.”
Lightning-catcher, “national treasure,” “the Stradivarius” of comic voices — Freberg evokes near-mythological reverence in the humor world. On various occasions he’s been cited as the father of funny advertising, the originator of musical satire and the inspiration for nearly every comedian who came after him — most of whom said as much in online tributes to him Tuesday.
Born in Los Angeles to a Baptist minister and a young housewife, Freberg turned down scholarships to Stanford and the University of Redlands to chase a career in radio. After graduating from high school, he took a bus to Hollywood, marched straight to a talent agency and soon got a job in the Warner Bros. cartoon department. He became the voice of the chubby-cheeked, mild-mannered gopher Tosh and bumbling Junyer Bear, among dozens of others.
Freberg would continue his voice work for much of his career, but by the 1950s he had added comedy albums to his repertoire. These ranged from gently goofy — such as his 1951 record “John and Marsha,” in which a pair of lovers repeat each another’s names in varying tones of passion and distress — to sharply satirical, notably the 1958 single “Green Chri$tma$,” which indicted the commercialization of the holiday.
Most famous of all was “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America,” a two-part series started in 1961 and not finished until 1996. “Volume One,” a 50-minute musical caricature of American history, famously skewered issues across the political spectrum. Ben Franklin hesitates to sign the Declaration of Independence because, “You … sign a harmless petition, and forget all about it. Ten years later, you get hauled up before a committee” — a not-so-subtle jab at McCarthyism. And the first Thanksgiving is transformed into a Pilgrim politician’s ploy for Native American votes dubbed, “Take an Indian to Lunch.”
“Show him we’re as liberal as can be, let him know he’s almost as good as we,” the song goes — a swipe at the hypocrisy of the left.
In 1957, Freberg did a 15-week stint as host of a CBS radio show — his time there cut short because the comedian refused to take advertising money from tobacco companies. The end of the show made him “the last radio-network comedian in America,” he liked to say.
Freberg was a huge proponent of radio, which he said “stretched the imagination” better than television. In a well-known bit, he convinces an advertiser of radio’s superiority by inventing an elaborate operation involving filling Lake Michigan with hot chocolate, a 100-foot mountain of whipped cream and a 10-ton maraschino cherry, complete with sound effects of liquid splashing, planes soaring and the cheers of 25,000 imaginary onlookers.
“Now, you wanna try that on television?” he challenges. “Radio’s a very special medium.”
But soon after the end of his CBS show, Freberg became a television institution, producing snarky and yet oddly effective advertisements that flew in the face of Madison Avenue convention. An ad for Jeno’s Pizza Rolls parodied a contemporary cigarette commercial set to the “William Tell Overture.” When a smoker challenges the pizza rolls salesman on his use of the music, Clayton Moore (the actor who played the Lone Ranger) appears, saying, “That’s funny. I’ve been meaning to speak to you people about the same thing.”
Perhaps his most bizarrely successful campaign was a nine-minute radio musical titled “Omaha!” that didn’t mention the name of the product it was selling — Butternut Coffee — until the final minute.
His idiosyncratic genius won Freberg 21 Clio Awards, a top advertising industry honor, according to the Associated Press. But he never quite won the approval of the advertising industry — despite his influence, he is not in the Advertising Hall of Fame.
In a 1999 interview with the Onion’s A.V. Club, Freberg was cynical about the state of modern advertising.
“I’m kinda sorry that I allowed [humor in commercials] to be unleashed, because there are so many crappy, bad attempts at humor,” he said. Freberg told the publication that he’d once recommended a one-year moratorium on advertising in a speech to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Needless to say, the suggestion was not well-received.
Despite his talent for satire and snark, much of Freberg’s humor was just good-naturedly wacky. It earned him an earnest and devoted following. In a remembrance posted on his blog Tuesday, comic book and TV writer Mark Evanier, who writes for the series “Garfield and Friends” recalled a dinner he had with Freberg years ago.
“When I asked for the check, our waiter said, ‘It’s been taken care of.’ I thought Matteo’s was comping us but no,” Evanier wrote.
A minute later, the waiter returned carrying a cloth napkin bearing a message from a fellow diner: “Mr. Freberg … you don’t know me but your work has meant so much to me over the years. It’s an honor to pay you back in even a tiny way by paying for your dinner tonight.”
“Stan sat quietly when he read it and he cried a tiny bit,” Evanier wrote. “… He often got reactions and praise like that and it wasn’t just ‘You’re very funny,’ though there was that. More often, it was heartfelt acknowledgement that the work was special.”
Freberg is survived by his wife; his son, Donovan; and his daughter, Donna Jean.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of film historian Leonard Maltin.