Stan Freberg: 1926 – 2015

IMG_20150407_215524~2~2On the wall of my TV room, next to a cover of a Harpo Marx album, hangs another album cover from the ’50s: “The Best of the Stan Freberg Shows.”

Freberg is pretty much forgotten today but in the ’50s he was Jon Stewart, Hank Azaria and Don Draper all rolled into one. Freberg died Tuesday in Santa Monica at 88.

Check out his description on Wikipedia: American author, recording artist, animation voice actor, comedian, radio personality, puppeteer and advertising creative director.

He was an ad man who deconstructed advertising as a comedian. Then he deconstructed advertising as an ad man.

He was SCTV 20 years earlier, on the radio, skewering television shows such as Dragnet and Lawrence Welk in a way that nailed those shows but at the same time made them iconic. Just as a generation or two has grown up with The Simpsons as their main frame of reference on issues and personalities, Freberg ripped through the ’50s and played it all for laughs, spinning hits and headlines into satire.

I’ve always been curious about what I just missed out on having been born in 1957. Elvis, Martin & Lewis, Milton Berle, Cinerama–they all had come and gone and peaked before they could become part of my pop culture vocabulary.

Freberg’s glory years as a performer were also off my radar. He was a star on radio and on records, daring to lampoon taboos such as McCarthyism while also taking easy pot shots at rock ‘n’ roll.

Even as a kid, however, I knew his voice even if I didn’t know the man. Freberg was a voice artist at the Warner Bros. cartoon factory, appearing on dozens of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, almost always unbilled. He followed Warners’ maverick Bob Clampett over to TV for the ’50s Beany & Cecil puppet series. Cartoon voice greats Daws Butler and June Foray were regulars on his radio and record skits.

The sharpness of his satire sometimes scared off advertisers–forcing Freberg into advertising! In the ultimate can’t beat ’em, join ’em move, Freberg was hired to mount campaigns for companies looking to reach “hip” audiences with his edge. Old enough to remember the “Momma mia, that’sa spicy meata ball” Alkaseltzer spot? That was Freberg.

His ads for Jeno pizza rolls brought back the original Lone Ranger and Tonto: Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. Those current spots where Marsha from the Brady Bunch isn’t herself until she eats a Snickers bar? That creative team had to have a Freberg fan in there somewhere.

Weird Al Yankovic and Harry Shearer are on record as big fans. I’m guessing David Letterman had a few of the old LPs and so, probably, did members of the Air Farce. He preceded, and had to have influenced, Second City.

Freberg kept working, appearing on Roseanne in the ’90s and supplying voices for such TV ‘toons as Ren & Stimpy and Garfield and Friends.

I met him once, at a TCA press tour. Might have been 15 years ago. It was in the hallway at what was then the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena. I couldn’t miss the familiar mop of grey curls and the owlish glasses. He was gracious and friendly, less aloof than I expected from his appearances in the ’70s on shows such as Dick Cavett.

Was he there for one of those PBS “Pioneers of Television” press sessions? That would make sense. Freberg was on the air in LA as early as 1949. In any event, he stood completely unattended, one of the great satiric minds of the 20th century. I walked up, introduced myself, told him I was a fan and shook his hand. We talked ‘toons and more and if I recorded it, I wish to hell I could find the tape. If I do I’ll add more here.

Check him out on YouTube, and if you laugh at and admire satire on TV today, be it on John Oliver or The Daily Show, give some thanks to Freberg who started it all.

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