Posted on Wed, Aug. 13, 2003
Stan Freberg Still Hasn't Tired of SatireJOHN ROGERS
LOS ANGELES - Stan Freberg was speaking to a group of seminary students when the father of the funny commercial, inventor of the modern comedy album and co-creator of the beloved 1950s kids show "Time for Beany and Cecil" had his audience doubled over in laughter.
He had shouted out the motto of his production company: "Ars Gratia Pecuniae," Latin words meaning "Art for money's sake." To his surprise, this audience of straight-laced Latin scholars actually got the joke without waiting for the translation.
It was a vintage Freberg moment, of which there have been many over the years. Like the chance meeting with Tom Hanks, who belted out the following greeting: "Gray flannel hat full of teenage werewolves."
It was a line from an old Freberg comedy routine that Hanks (and millions of other baby boomers) had heard as a child about a young werewolf who, when the moon is full, turns into something far worse: "An advertising man."
"I've often said I wish I had a Geiger counter that just beeped when it was a Freberg fan ... because I have no way of knowing," Freberg laments.
Still, those fans keep popping up in the strangest places: airports, restaurants, the set of Entertainment Tonight. The latter location produced an encounter with film historian and critic Leonard Maltin.
"He's an American institution," says Maltin, who has since become a close friend. "His name has become embedded in our culture, like Mark Twain's. ... He's a satirist who has caught lightning in a bottle time after time."
Indeed, Freberg's hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, has called him a national treasure, and The New York Times once declared, "In the symphony of famous comic voices, Stan Freberg's is a Stradivarius."
High praise for a 77-year-old man who, in this era of instant celebrity, sits largely unrecognized during a long, languid afternoon of sipping Cokes with his wife and career partner, Hunter Freberg, in the bar of Century City's tony St. Regis Hotel.
But when he talks, the man with the chubby, round face framed by wire-rimmed glasses and long, white curly hair is more likely to draw attention. There's something about that ageless voice, nasal yet stentorian, that is eerily familiar.
Freberg has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a plaque in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, another in the Radio Hall of Fame and still another in the Animation Hall of Fame. He's won three Emmys, a Grammy and an astounding 21 Clio Awards (advertising's equivalent of the Oscar) for his humorous TV and radio spots, leading Advertising Age magazine to declare Freberg the father of the funny commercial.
And his voice has been the backbone of it all. It put him on the road to success when, having just graduated from high school, he took a bus from his home in Pasadena to Hollywood one summer day to try to "break into show business."
Within a day he had landed a job doing cartoon voices for Warner Bros., finding himself working alongside such industry legends as Mel Blanc, who was the voice of Bugs Bunny; artist Chuck Jones, who created the "rascally rabbit;" and Fritz Freling, the great cartoon director.
When Freling inquired as to why he hadn't heard of the talented 17-year-old before, Freberg recalls acting so offended that the legendary director quickly apologized.
"I didn't mean that the way it sounded," Freling told him. "I mean I'm sure you didn't just get off the bus."
It may have been the only time Freberg showed such petulance, say those who know him.
"Stan's not like most of the geniuses I've worked with. He doesn't seem to have an ego," says Linda Jones, who with her late father, Chuck, worked with Freberg for decades.
He does have an insatiable desire to find humor in almost all aspects of everyday life, however.
In the '50s, he took just two words, "John" and "Marsha," and created a national catch phrase by repeating them over and over, with various vocal cadences.
He also brought the censors down on him when it was decided that at one point John and Marsha sounded a little too romantic; never mind that Freberg was the voice of both.
It was the beginning of a long battle with censors that continued almost a half-century later when he pretended to be run off the property of a Los Angeles Federal Building in 1999 while filming a video for a song he'd written noting the names of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, ice-skating champion Tara Lapinski and presidential paramour Monica Lewinsky all rhyme.
He also has frequently bitten the hands of the advertisers who fed him, most notably when he recorded "Green Chri$stma$," a send-up of the holiday's commercialization that airs regularly on radio stations every December.
A modern-day variation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," it has Ebeneezer Scrooge running an advertising agency hired to promote holiday shopping. Bob Cratchet, who owns a little spice factory in East Orange, N.J., longs for a simpler time when businesses simply handed out cards with pictures of the three wise men heading to Bethlehem.
"Oh, I get it," Scrooge bellows. "And they're bearing your spices."
Now in his seventh decade of skewering convention, Freberg says he has no plans to slow down.
"I feel vital, you know," he says, finishing his soft drink. "Why I don't feel a day over 75."
And so he is working on Volume 3 of "Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America," his magnum opus. Called the forerunner of the modern comedy album, it began with the 1961 release of Grammy-winning "Volume I," followed in 1996 by Grammy-nominated "Volume II."
He also is preparing for a series of shows called "An Evening With Stan Freberg," and co-starring his wife, that he hopes to bring to theaters and performing arts centers.
All that, he hopes, will result in something else he has long dreamed of - the mounting of a Broadway musical production of "The United States of America."
He came close to seeing it happen several years ago before creative differences ended a partnership with the late Broadway producer David Merrick.
"He said, 'Take Lincoln out of the Civil War, he doesn't work,'" Freberg fumes.
Such a suggestion was anathema to a humorist who takes pride in the fact the album is considered so historically accurate that high school history teachers have played it in their classes for generations.
After the falling out, he got busy with other projects, including 1999's "The Tip of the Freberg," an elaborate boxed set of four CDs and a videotape containing more than 100 selections from a half-century of songs, comedy sketches and commercials.
The box, with a picture of Freberg's face on the cover, opens up to show a cartoon drawing of his brain. Most people, he says, find that pretty funny.
But Freberg wanted more, and so he slides back yet another layer of the box to reveal an X-ray of a real brain, one framed by his trademark glasses.
"Of course it's my brain," he says. "You wouldn't think I'd use somebody else's brain, would you?"