Stan Freberg, a Sage for the Masses, Returns to Public Eye
On Liberty Weekend, Cable News Network presented a woolly-haired screen sage who chided corporate America for co-opting the event. He expressed gratitude that companies had stopped just short of rewriting the most-honored words of the moment into a sales pitch.
And then, being Stan Freberg, the sage showed how easy that would be: “Give me your tires, your Porsche, your huddled nasal passages yearning to breathe free.”
It was satire for the masses. It was old hat for Freberg.
Some viewers know him as a multifaceted model of show-business longevity or perhaps remember him as the host of the last live radio comedy show of the 1950s. Or maybe some recognized him from children’s television, or from his hit comedy records.
Maybe some spotted him as that guy who turned ads into entertainment, including a famous one for prunes: “Today the pits; tomorrow the wrinkles. Sunsweet Marches On!!!”
At 60, Freberg keeps marching on, still a one-man band. His repertoire these days includes talks on marketing like the one set for tonight at the Red Lion Inn in Costa Mesa. Lately, he has stressed the more anonymous creativity of advertising, but says he now hopes to increase his visibility as a public personality.
On Tuesday, he sent Random House the last chapters of his autobiography, tentatively titled “It Only Hurts When I Laugh.” He says he is talking to one of the networks about regularly giving the kinds of social commentaries he has done for CNN. He is also creating a new children’s program for the Disney Channel.
He is writing a special called “The Art of Satire” for the Public Broadcasting System. “Al Capp, the cartoonist, once said that an important freedom in America is the freedom to laugh at ourselves,” Freberg said in a recent interview. “I think of myself primarily as a satirist.”
Bob Claster, host of a comedy program for public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica, and a student of Freberg’s humor, called him “the father of the modern comedy record” and an “eccentric comic genius.”
Freberg was subdued on a recent evening. His 89-year-old father, a Baptist minister, lay in a coma at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, the city where Freberg was born and raised.
On Freberg’s desk in his sprawling Spanish-style home in Beverly Hills last Friday rested the half-finished last chapter of his book. It was the part about his father.
“My father said that God wanted us to get as much laughter as we could out of this world,” Freberg said. “He always believed that laughter was a very healing thing. One of the earliest memories I have is watching from the audience of the church, watching my father up on the pulpit.
“The influence of my father was there in a lot of my work. It was there in the satire I did in 1958 on the over-commercialization of Christmas. He loved that record.”
The record was “Green Chri$tma$.” It rang with sardonic parodies of Christmas carols, and Freberg softly sang a few for a visitor. “Deck the Halls with advertising, fa la la la la la la la la la. ‘Tis the time for merchandising, fa la la la la la la la la. Profit never needs a reason. . . . Get the money, it’s the season.”
“The first year it was out, hardly anybody would play it on the air,” Freberg recalled. “In Los Angeles, sponsors were calling up and refusing to pay for it if their commercial came within 10 minutes of the playing of my piece.”
Freberg is a tall, broad-shouldered man, whose pale face and mass of grayish-blond hair suggest a weary polar bear. The unusually large circles of his glasses add a certain dotty sophistication to the smart, amiable, pug-nosed face of a whiz kid past middle age.
The class cutup and debating champion at Alhambra High School, Freberg stuffed rabbits and doves into the costumes of his Uncle Conray, a vaudeville actor who lived with the Frebergs and performed as “Conray, the Magician.”
Just after graduating from high school, Freberg auditioned for country-Western producer Cliffie Stone, who helped him get the first in a long series of radio jobs that led, in 1949, to his role on the nationally televised children’s program “Time for Beany.”
The show had really begun in the garage of animator Bob Clampett, but Freberg helped write scripts and played several parts, including Cecil, the Seasick Sea Serpent and Mother Knock Knock Hawk. The show won three Emmy Awards.
From 1950 through the ‘60s, Freberg was one of America’s busiest comedians. He put out a record satirizing the wildly popular TV show “Dragnet,” recorded a piece about an abominable snowman who buys sneakers at Abercrombie & Fitch and created a variety of skits on such topics as censorship.
“I’ve always had problems with censorship,” Freberg said. “There have been network censors, lawyers, record companies and clients who have given me a hard time about doing what I want to do.”
Over the past 20 years, Freberg has built a career as an anti-advertising ad man, castigating the industry that made him rich. He says he was a consumer pained by the dullness of the ads he saw.
He made his debut as an independent creative consultant in 1956 with a radio spot for Contadina, a small San Jose-based tomato paste maker whose niche was being challenged by the giant Hunt’s.
Contadina’s agency hired Freberg to devise a David-vs.-Goliath strategy. The resulting jingle was, “Who puts eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?” Dismay at dopey Madison Avenue comparison tests led Freberg to create an ad for a lawn mower company that pitted its equipment against a sheep. (The sheep was thorough, but too slow.)
“What I’ve tried to do over the years is to prove that there’s a less offensive way to sell products to people. I refer to most advertising as audio-visual wallpaper. . . . I tell companies not to take themselves so seriously. I mean, we’re not selling pieces of the Holy Grail here. It’s just a prune or a pizza roll.”
That was last Friday night. On Sunday, he finished his book. In the evening, a doctor called to say his father had died.
“It helps that I’m a Christian, that I’m a practicing Christian,” he said Tuesday of the two difficult days just passed.
“I may be the only practicing Christian I know who writes satire. Many satirists are largely cynical people who are atheists, who really don’t see any hope for the world. When I satirize something, it is criticism but always in the hope of making something or someone better.”
Freberg, clearly exhausted, sighed. “My father loved my work. He encouraged me all the way. He loved the things I did in advertising, but he kept saying, ‘When are we going to see you on the tube again?’ That’s what he liked--straight entertainment.
“He thought I should be more visible, and now that’s what I’m going to try to do.”