Remembering Stan Freberg: “Are we going to go out on that?”
Jul 06 2015
The United States’ recent celebration of Independence Day was exciting as usual, but also a reminder of the passing of Stan Freberg last April 7, at age 88. Among Freberg’s many contributions to popular culture was a hilarious, Broadway-worthy LP entitled “The History of the United States of America, Volume 1 (the Early Years).” It’s a classic, but hardly his whole legacy. A self-described “guerrilla satirist,” Freberg was influential in the voice acting and advertising communities, in so many ways. He voiced cartoon characters. He lampooned popular culture and political issues on hit 45’s and radio. He was an original practitioner (some say the inventor) of the humorous, even satirical TV commercial, bulldozing ground broken by Bob and Ray. And his humor, timing and voice-acting style influenced the likes of Jim Henson, Harry Shearer, Weird Al Yankovic, Penn Jillette, and George Carlin (and countless personality DJs).
Stan Freberg began his comedic development doing cartoon character voices for Warner Brothers, working with Mel Blanc and other greats. Some readers may recall a largely improvisational hand-puppet program in the very early days of TV, called Time for Beanie. (Not to be confused with the later animated version.) It featured a seasick sea serpent named Cecil. Freberg co-created the show and voiced Cecil and other characters. That’s already impressive for a guy barely out of high school, but had his career ended there, you probably wouldn’t be reading this.
Next stop: Hit comedy records.
Throughout the Fifties, he wrote and voiced a large number of hit comedy records, among them a send-up of Dragnet (produced with Daws Butler and June Foray) that sold 2 million copies. He lampooned soap operas (using only two words: “John! … Marsha!”), The Lawrence Welk Show (“Turn off the bubble machine!” part 1 part 2), Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song ” (“Too piercing!”), and many other popular figures, programs and songs, including satires of Arthur Godfrey and Ed Sullivan that Capitol Records deemed too legally sensitive to release at the time.
When Jack Benny’s radio show ended in 1957, Freberg got the slot. But his refusal to accept alcohol and tobacco sponsors, along with sometimes controversial humorous jabs and “commercials” for fake products, made it difficult to find a sponsor or sell spots. Thus, after just three months, was ended the last comedy program series on a United States commercial radio network.
Memorable humor made for memorable advertising
He turned to putting his irreverent mind to creating TV commercials for actual products, and here, too, he broke new ground. In days when the vast majority of TV spots were as straight, hackneyed and me-too-ish as you can imagine (which in many cases is more imagination than the spots themselves showed), Freberg tore through the envelope. He had the Lone Ranger (yes, THE Lone Ranger and Tonto) selling pizza rolls in a parody of a cigarette campaign that had featured the William Tell Overture (known better to many as the Long Ranger theme). He featured Ann Miller in a Busby Berkley-style production number to sell … soup. He came up with great lines like (for Contadina tomato paste) “Who put 8 great tomatoes in that itty bitty can?” and (for Sunsweet pitted prunes) “Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles!” At least we think it was he who came up with the lines. In any case, his efforts reportedly increased prune sales 400%.
But not all his advertising ideas were winners. Freberg promoted his respect for truth in advertising. There was the campaign for Pacific Air Lines, on which Freberg was at least a consultant, acknowledging that people fear crashing in an aircraft. It aimed to sell tickets by stating, “so does the pilot.” In this case, truthful or not, it’s the campaign that died and the airline itself (which had already been in trouble) that was sold.
In the course of all this, Freberg – a man of various voices but no Voice of G*d himself – may have been the first to regularly mock the classic stentorian narrator, such that even Paul Frees sounds like an imitation of himself.
In 1961, Stan Freberg did some promotional spots for the Radio Advertising Bureau, demonstrating audio’s power of imagination. One of the scripts depicted Lake Michigan (one of the U.S. Great Lakes) filled with hot chocolate, being topped with a mountain of whipped cream, onto which the Royal Canadian Air Force drops a 10-ton maraschino cherry, to the cheering of 25,000 extras. It comes alive through the magic of sound effects, and a great musical tag sung by Sarah Vaughan.
The funniest comedy record of all time?
At about the same time, Freberg released the LP that brings him to mind at this time of year – The History of the United States of America.
In musical comedy style, it takes the story from Columbus through Yorktown. Freberg’s production features great voices of the day (Freberg’s day, that is), including Jesse White, June Foray, Peter Leeds, Marvin Miller and Paul Frees. The script, cast, orchestration and production standards are all worthy of a Broadway review. (Freberg tried to get it on the boards, but was unsuccessful.)
Because much of the humor was topical, some of its humor is probably lost on new listeners today. For example, to get the full impact of Ben Franklin’s reference to the “Un-British Activities Committee,” you’d have to know that the real House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was, at the time, a still powerful remnant of the McCarthy era.
And here’s a great pun that slips right past anyone without an even older knowledge of American culture:
Isabella (reciting): “… with purple mountain majesties above the two cents plain.”
Columbus and Ferdinand: “Fruited.”
The reference explained — Most people will recognize the reference to “the fruited plain” from the lyrics of the song “America the Beautiful.” But most don’t know this: In soda fountains of yore, straight seltzer cost a couple of pennies. If you wanted fruit flavor, that cost a penny extra. So you could get your seltzer either “two cents plain,” or fruited. Get it?
No worries. If you miss a Freberg line at first, you’ll catch on later. And it will be quickly chased by several more, just as good.
- Betsy Ross complaining, “You’re tracking snow all over my Early American rug!”
- George Washington at the Delaware deliberating at length as to renting the boat that says “Popeye” vs. the “Donald Duck” one with the striped awning.
- The hip fife player complaining about drummer Yankee Doodle’s staid beat. (Doodle wins a battle, but the piper wins the war.)
- Characters’ self-deprecation. For example, a really bad joke, followed by “Are we going out on that joke?” To which was replied, “No, we do reprise of song, that help … but not much.”
It was all accompanied by Billy May arrangements.
Stan Freberg, the later years
In 1969, Freberg named his advertising agency (which later handled media for George McGovern’s 1972 Presidential bid) “Thyme, Inc. – A Division of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Osborne.” (Time, Inc. took it in good humor.) From the ’70s, he worked in advertising behind the scenes, and lent his voice, wit and timing to radio commercials and such. He continued to write and appear in various productions into recent years. He has many fans, and appeared at Comic-Con 2012 and a Hollywood retrospective last year. But in recent work, he was usually just one of many among the credits, no longer the influence that he had been in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some say his follow-up history LP (“The Middle Years”, its release delayed until 1996) largely falls flat, as jocular disrespect of our forebears and government was by then no longer edgy. And some of it was, reportedly, material that didn’t make it into the original record. To adapt one of Freberg’s own lines, “that says it.” Even his autobiography (It Only Hurts When I Laugh), which was published in 1988 but ends in 1963 and was billed as a first volume, Freberg didn’t follow up.
But by then, Freberg’s influence had long been widespread. In Kermit The Frog, you can hear Freberg’s voice. In George Carlin’s humor, you’ll note Frebergian ridicule. (When Carlin was a disk jockey, he once played Freberg’s “Green Chri$tma$,” record non-stop.) And every humorous commercial owes him some sort of moral royalty.
So, if till now you didn’t even know about Freberg and have not been influenced by him, no matter – you’ve surely been influenced by someone who was.
Stan Freberg’s stuff is all over the Internet, and what’s not for free is probably for sale; after all, Freberg’s own corporate motto was “Ars Gratia Pecuniae” (Art for the Sake of Money). In addition to the links in our article, here’s another fun place to start.
(Note: The following collection is crowd-sourced, and has some errors; cuts #1, 94 and 95, and all or most of #42, are NOT by Freberg.):
UPDATE: The above link has been taken offline. But you’ll find a wide range of Freberg recordings at YouTube: