Arriving for lunch, Stan Freberg paused to greet an old friend, a woman from CBS who remembered "The Matter of the Harp." It was a long time ago, in the '50s, when his radio show was a summer replacement for Jack Benny's.
He was planning a sketch called "Gray Flannel Hat Full of Teen-Age Werewolves." It satirized some current movies, but the big bang was that the otherwise normal werewolf turned into an advertising man when the sun rose. His work, the werewolf explained, "that nameless terror of which I dare not speak."
Freberg wanted a harp to underscore the werewolf-to-adman transition. No harp, CBS said; it was over-budget. The battle raged for some time. Freberg finally said he would pay for it out of his own pocket. The network finally gave in.
"You win a few," Freberg said at lunch.
Freberg has won quite a few over the years. Almost single-handedly he invented the throw-away, soft-sell commercial that brought new prosperity to everything from aluminum foil to prunes ("Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles"), tomato paste ("Who puts eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?") and Chinese food. "Nine out of 10 doctors prefer Chun King chow mein," said the voice-over and a photograph showed 10 white-coated and solemn men, nine Asians and one Caucasian.
Currently Freberg has orchestrated a plan to take the stuffiness out of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sales are up, he says.
Next Monday, the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles is presenting an evening of Freberg's work, "A Freberg Mixed-Media Festival." In early April, Capitol Records is releasing a compact-disc version of "Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America," his musical history whose smash single was "Take an Indian to Lunch Today." Teachers still use the LP version, Freberg says, to ease the initial pain of studying history for their reluctant students.
Freberg has also recently published the first volume of his autobiography. Called "It Only Hurts When I Laugh" (Times Books), it carries his life through 1963 and his disastrous association with producer David Merrick. Merrick wanted to do Freberg's history as a Broadway musical. They fell out when, among other things, Merrick wanted to move Barbara Fritchie from the Civil War to the Revolutionary War because the latter lacked strong women, and insisted on taking Abraham Lincoln out of the Civil War entirely "because he doesn't work" (which Freberg says was Merrick's exact quote).
The son and grandson of ministers, raised in Pasadena, Freberg seemed oddly cast as an irreverent satirist. But he grew up on Fred Allen and the other great radio voices, started clowning in high school, entertained while he was in the Army (after a stint as a reporter on a post newspaper edited by Sgt. Forrest J. Ackerman who later became the foremost collector of sci-fi and monster memorabilia).
Freberg got a tentative start in radio doing animals, rushing off to the Los Angeles Zoo to check out what a marmoset sounded like. His first wide attention came on the long-running puppet show "Time for Beanie," which he did with the late Daws Butler for Bob Clampett, creator of the characters.
The commercials came a bit later and his approach, Freberg says, "was that I always tried to write ads for myself. E. B. White said the true writer always plays to an audience of one." Freberg was weary of the hard sell, and fond of making virtues out of weakness.
Kaiser aluminum foil had almost no distribution. Freberg came up with a cartoon salesman bonging grocers with a mallet to win them over. Henry J. Kaiser, living in Hawaii, was appalled at the impudence, Freberg says, but the campaign produced more than 40,000 new retail outlets for the foil.
His conversation, and his book, record the resistance to irreverence he has encountered at ad agencies, radio and television networks and even at Capitol Records, where his broadside against the commercialization of Christmas, "Green Chri$tma$," made everyone very, very nervous until it became a hit.
CBS forced him to re-do the major skit on his first network radio show within hours of show time. It documented a rivalry between the El Sodom and the Rancho Gomorrah hotels in a not-quite mythical city he called Las Voraces (the greedy). The competition ended when one hotel hydrogen-bombed its rival, and indeed all of Las Voraces, into infinity. The network made Freberg settle for an earthquake.
"Sometimes you lose," Freberg has said.
What has become clear is that Freberg has honored his ministerial origins. He has a true satirist's contempt for the shabby, exploitative and meretricious but the contempt has been expressed as humor.
These days he is a creative consultant, working from offices in his home in Beverly Hills and doing a good deal of teaching and lecturing. He still uses the award-winning logo Saul Bass designed a few years ago for his Stan Freberg, Ltd. (But Not Very).
The company seal shows a seal, wearing dark glasses (this is California) and a medal with a fish on it. "A bass," Bass explained at the time.
Freberg's motto, "Ars Gratia Pecuniae" means "Art for the Sake of Money." "I usually have to translate the joke," he says, "but I was talking at a Catholic college in Minnesota and they laughed at the Latin."
Recently Freberg devised a show for the Disney Channel called "Light Bulb," about inventors and inventions, aimed at children but watchable by the whole family. "You can do it. 'Time for Beanie' was like that," says Freberg; "Albert Einstein watched it while he was staying at Caltech." But the channel rejected the show, to Freberg's considerable disappointment.
Prospects look better for a radio show he is discussing with the Smithsonian Institution, a 13-week series that would become the centerpiece of an audio exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington.
Contemplating the trend to funny commercials that he launched, Freberg says, "I let all the creative people out of the closet. Now I think we got to get 'em back in the closet and start again."
Among other things, Freberg is doing commercials about learning disabilities, and it is clear that what you sell funny is as important to him as how you sell funny.