Stan Freberg Pens a Memoir About His Strange Career Move—from Comedy to Commercials
Forty-five years after the fact, Stan Freberg can still remember every line from his first network acting job, in a radio production of Toby Tyler at the Circus. Of course, he didn't exactly have a speaking part. "I played a chattering marmoset," he says. And then, right there in his Beverly Hills home, he launches into a fiendish yammer that beautifully mimics an agitated simian. "It's like riding a bike," he explains when it's over. "Once you learn, you never fall off."
Monkey business has always come naturally to Freberg. In the 1950s he was one of the nation's leading satirists, with dozens of best-selling humor records and popular radio comedy spots that showed off his talents for mimicry and lampooned everything from popular songs and TV shows to the commercialization of Christmas. In the late '50s, as radio's influence waned, he turned his hand to advertising, where he displayed the same comic flair. (Who can forget his Sunsweet Prunes slogan: "Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles"?) He remained in advertising for the next three decades, but says Freberg, now 62, it is pure comedy, not commercials, that has remained closest to his heart.
This spring a whole new generation will get the chance to experience his co-medic skills. Following the February publication of the first volume of Freberg's memoirs, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, Capitol records is releasing this month a compact disc treatment of his most famous album, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America. A loopy revision of American history, the album, first released in 1961, offers such tidbits as George Washington complaining to Betsy Ross about the new flag. ("Stars with stripes? How's that work together, design-wise?")
Freberg began his comedy training at a tender age. The only son of Victor Freberg, a Baptist minister, and his wife, Evelyn, a housewife, Stan was a lonely kid who spent long hours listening to Fred Allen and Jack Benny on the radio in his family's South Pasadena, Calif., home. "I lay on the floor with my ear against the grill cloth, transported," he recalls.
Then one day an uncle who worked at CBS began bringing Stan radio scripts he had found in the trash. Thrilled, Freberg performed them for his pet rabbits. When he finally staged a comedy show for his delighted high school peers, he knew he had found his calling. Shortly after graduation in 1944, he strode into a Hollywood talent agency and within days was working for Warner Bros., supplying voices for Looney Tunes cartoons.
His brashness paid off. He landed a contract with Capitol, and in 1953 his version of St. George and the Dragon, told as if it were an episode of Dragnet, sold a million copies in three weeks. His brand of satire, though tame by today's standards, made some record company executives fearful of lawsuits. (They insisted, for example, that he get Jack Webb's permission before spoofing Dragnet.) But they had to love the sales figures. "My records weren't released," Freberg writes in his memoirs, "they escaped." He made some 30 singles and half a dozen albums in all.
The sweet smell of showbiz success began to fade, however, after his radio program, The Stan Freberg Show, was canceled following a 15-week run in 1957. The market for comedy singles was drying up with the advent of rock and roll, and though Freberg made several forays into television, the executives he encountered there proved especially wary of his irreverence. But Freberg was already making a name for himself elsewhere. In 1956 a little-known tomato paste company had requested that he write radio commercials to compete against Hunt's. His ads—one of which discussed plans to replace the top of the Empire State Building with a can of tomato paste—were typical Freberg: They did not take themselves seriously. Barely mentioning the client's name, Contadina, they also broke all the hard-sell rules then standard in advertising. Contadina's sales increased dramatically.
"I proved that advertising didn't have to be dull or irritating to sell a product," Freberg says. In the years that followed he made several more albums and appeared on TV occasionally. But the steady money, along with plenty of acclaim, was in commercials, and Freberg insists he came to love his second career almost as much as his first. "I felt I was really blazing a trail," he says. He has written hundreds of ads (his latest, for Encyclopedia Britannica, can be seen on networks nationwide) and has won 21 Clio awards, the advertising industry's equivalent of the Oscars.
Today, Freberg lives in a villa in Beverly Hills with his wife and business manager, Donna Andresen. (Their son, Dona-van, 18, is a college student; daughter Donna Jean, 32, is a TV producer.) He writes ads for whatever products strike his fancy, speaks often at corporations and is already well into volume two of his memoirs. He is excited about the imminent release of the U.S.A. album, and he has other irons in the fire: He is talking to the Smithsonian about taping a series of radio shows "so people will know what radio was all about." He hopes to turn U.S.A. into a Broadway musical. There is even a chance, though he won't give details for fear of jinxing it, that he may soon be unleashed on network TV.
Bet on Stan Freberg to accomplish all that, and more. After all, as he said years ago when asked if he knew what "chutzpah" meant: "Madam, I am the Southern California distributor."
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