Stan Freberg—a multitalented satirist whose reach extended to advertising, radio skits, TV puppet shows, musical parody records, and classic cartoons—has died at the age of 88. Freberg’s death was announced today on Facebook by his son Donovan and later confirmed by The Hollywood Reporter, who notes that Freberg died of natural causes.
For much of the 1950s and ’60s, Freberg was one of the nation’s most popular comic voices, thanks to a gentle irreverence that—though he occasionally aimed it at politicians, and thought of himself as a “guerrilla satirist”—mostly trafficked in a sort of loving goofiness. He first got into the act as an actual cartoon, voicing numerous characters for Warner Bros. from the time he was right out of high school.
Freberg could be heard alongside Mel Blanc in numerous Looney Tunes, as when the two paired up to play the mice Hubie and Bertie, or Sylvester’s canine would-be tormentors, Spike and Chester. He got tormented himself by Bugs Bunny, playing both a “dumb dog” and Pete Puma, and later took on the roles of Junyer Bear and Beaky Buzzard. But his only on-screen Looney Tunes credit was for the jazz parody The Three Little Bops, where he voiced hipster versions of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf.
Freberg found true fame on record, where his musical parodies of Elvis Presley, Lawrence Welk, Harry Belafonte, and the like most often featured fourth-wall breaking interruptions or something going awry in the studio, with one of Freberg’s typical “beatnik” musicians squabbling about this or that.
His style proved to be a huge influence on “Weird Al” Yankovic, who would regularly pay tribute to Freberg as “one of my all-time heroes,” and even cast him on his short-lived Saturday morning TV show. Yankovic shared those same sentiments today on Twitter:
Like Yankovic, Freberg also had original hits, like the holiday classic “Nuttin’ For Christmas.” He also became one of the rare artists to top the Billboard charts with a comedy single, with the release of “St. George And The Dragonet,” a medieval fantasy spoof of the popular series Dragnet. The short spent four straight weeks at No. 1, and became a lasting part of the pop lexicon thanks to its flipside, “Little Blue Riding Hood,” on which Freberg utters a variation of the phrase that would be repeatedly misattributed to Jack Webb—and associated with him ever after—“Just the facts, ma’am.”
He also recorded the classic “Green Chri$tma$,” a skit that ruthlessly mocked the over-commercialization of the holiday—all the way back in 1958.
But perhaps no Freberg recording had a more lasting cultural impact than his first for Capitol, the 1951 soap opera parody “John And Marsha.” Featuring a male and a female (both voiced by Freberg) acting out a melodrama by saying nothing but their own names, the record became a cult hit—and Freberg’s calling card. Many of the Looney Tunes he appeared in featured characters named “John and Marsha,” while the fictitious couple also turned up everywhere from The Benny Hill Show to The Parent Trap. Decades later, a new generation was introduced to “John And Marsha” when Mad Men’s Peggy and Joey acted it out in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Like most things on the show, Mad Men’s nod to Freberg was hardly coincidental: Freberg was an advertising pioneer who’d introduced a sense of self-awareness and satire to the field, changing the way companies try to win your affections ever after. His ad agency, Freberg Ltd., took that openness and self-deprecation to heart with its own slogan, “Ars Gratia Pecuniae” (Art For The Sake Of Money), and in the course of a 21 Clio-winning career, it and Freberg were responsible for some of the most widely regarded—and copied—commercials ever made. Among his most famous were an ad for Jeno’s pizza rolls with the stars of The Lone Ranger; a Sunsweet pitted prunes spot that featured Ray Bradbury; and a series for the Encyclopedia Brittanica, in which Freberg’s off-screen narrator spars with a squeaky-voiced teenage smart-aleck, played by his own son, Donovan.
Before he got into the business himself, Freberg’s tenuous relationship with old-fashioned advertising had led to problems on his CBS radio program. In the wake of the Freberg-starring situation comedy That’s Rich, the network ordered The Stan Freberg Show in 1957 as a replacement for Jack Benny, only to have Freberg refuse to be sponsored by the same tobacco companies. That refusal led to Freberg not having a sponsor at all, a situation he would poke fun at by filling the designated ad time with mock-spots for products like “Puffed Grass” and “Food.” (“Put it in your stomach!”) CBS canceled The Stan Freberg Show after only 15 episodes.
He found greater creative freedom in the album format, where he released both the faux-radio show Freberg Underground and the historical parody Stan Freberg Presents: The United States Of America Volume One: The Early Years, a musical theater tribute to the nation’s formative days, intercut with thoroughly modern meta humor and nods to McCarthyism. A second volume was planned for 1976, but never materialized. Instead, he released Volume Two in 1996, using material left over from the original.
Freberg was also a familiar presence in movies, voicing Beaver in Disney’s Lady And The Tramp and turning up in non-animated roles in films like Callaway Went Thataway, Geraldine, and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. (In a bit of movie trivia, Freberg had a near brush with voicing C-3PO in Star Wars, but suggested George Lucas go with Anthony Daniels instead.) He was also a mainstay of television nearly from its inception, providing the voices and handling the puppets for Bob Clampett’s 1949 children’s show Time For Beany, famed for being a favorite of Albert Einstein. He could also be seen regularly on The Ed Sullivan Show and other chatfests—often with his puppet Orville The Moon Man in tow—guest starred on The Monkees, and, in his later years, had a recurring role on Roseanne.
Freberg’s incredible career—which seemed to encompass every single means of mass communication, all injected with Freberg’s sense of subversion and whimsy—continued well into his later years with the release of an autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, and a new album released in 2010, Songs In The Key Of Freberg. His easily recognizable voice lives on wherever you find the staid and familiar upended by a sudden invasion of silliness.