If Stan Freberg were doing what he was doing 60 years ago, many people would be cheering him on as he skewers Justin Bieber and the network people who produce and buy reality TV shows.
Yes, endless numbers of people do that today. But not with the panache and creativeness of Freberg.
Wicked satire is just one specialty of Stanley Victor Freberg, who turns 87 today. Cartoon voice actor. Puppeteer. Advertising media mogul. Children’s recording artist. He’s all those, but he’s best known for lancing stupidity and banality.
Freberg’s name became known in January 1951 when Capitol released “John and Marsha,” a record making fun of trite dialogue in radio soap operas (it consisted of Freberg as both John and Marsha, each calling the other by name as they get progressively older). It was a huge hit—an Associated Press story of February 1951 estimated Freberg’s royalties of 4½ cents a record would earn him $50,000—so, naturally, Capitol, released more of his parody records.
Like Fred Allen and Henry Morgan before him, Freberg ran into censorship and complaints from people who didn’t appreciate what he was doing. Here’s a United Press story from 1952. If you can imagine Freberg’s take on Bieber and how those little Beliebers would react, you’ll get the idea behind this story.
'Cry' Fans Stan For 'Try'
By ALINE MOSBY
HOLLYWOOD, Apr. 3 (UP)—Singer Stan Freberg wailed today that Johnny Ray fans "just don't have a sense of humor" when they get screaming mad over Freberg's satire of the weeping crooner.
Ray, at devotees of the arts know by now, is the new swoon boy who sobs such sad songs as "Cry."
Freberg decided "so many sad songs come out of radios now they'll find the sets have been corroded by tears." So he and composer Rudy Raskin dashed off a murderous satire, "Try." Stan's record of it swept the country.
• • •
ON THE PLATTER he cries and gurgles, "don't you know . . . nobody laughs it up no more . . . Wipe off that smile and weep awhile . . . It's real George to cry . . . Don't be a snob . . . Sit down and sob . . Come in and Taa-ry!"
Freberg innocently shrugged that he doesn't see why Ray fans bombarded him with letters labelling him "a dirty louse."
"I got one card with flowers on it and I thought, boy, this one will congratulate me. But inside it said, 'drop dead'," sighed the 25-year-old composer-singer.
"I was just having a little fun. I didn't do this maliciously, but in a good-natured way. But when people start taking you seriously and can't laugh at themselves . . .
• • •
"RAY FANS want to shoot me. Others, though," he beamed, "think my record is the greatest thing since the invention of the wheel."
Ray himself, Freberg added with a sob, was "honored that he was imitated."
Freberg has waded in hot water for his satire before. He plays Cecil the Seasick Serpent on "Time for Beany," the children's television puppet show. But he also records satirical tunes, such as his famous "John and Marsha."
This take-off on soap operas consisted of Freberg saying only "John . . . Marsha." The radio networks sniffed innuendo and banned the tune.
"ALL I DID was say two words," said Freberg. "I'm a nice boy who lives with his father who's a minister in a nice home in Pasadena.
"My father said why did they ban the song, son? I had to tell him a lot of people have dirty minds. It's banned in the whole city of Boston. They can't even sell the record. That shows you what kind of minds they have in Boston."
Freberg's next record "Abe Snake for President."
"With each record you get a campaign button, 'I'll take a snake'."
Freberg went on to huge success in novelty music, and an even bigger career in novelty advertising (novelty because it used comedy); he resurrected John and Marsha for a Snowdrift shortening ad that was voted the best animated commercial of 1956 in the New York Art Directors Club annual show. His radio career may be best described as one that garnered a cult following, while he didn’t score success hosting TV shows (the Chevy Show in 1958 and a few specials) or in feature films (“Geraldine,” a movie about a crying pop singer, is long forgotten). He tried TV puppeteering after walking away from “Beany and Cecil” in 1954, only to be sued for $2,000,000 two years later by Bob Clampett, who won a court injunction to stop Freberg from using a snake-like character named Grover on TV because it looked too much like Cecil (Freberg later came up with an alien puppet called Orville you see to the right).
But probably the most unusual part of his career dealt with faith advertising. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise. Freberg’s father, the Rev. Victor Friberg, was born in Ferndale, Washington and later became a minister in California. Freberg’s rip at Christmas commercialism in his single “Green Chri$tma$” seems to have been sparked by religious indignation as much as anything else. Freberg won an award for his work on religious ads and it was written up in the popular press. The St. Petersburg Times of April 24, 1976 picked up this story.
Stan Freberg wins award for church ads
By BONITA SPARROW
FORT WORTH—“I got into advertising because, as a consumer, I wondered why I had to be subjected to assaults on my intelligence.
“I have wanted out since about 20 minutes after I got into it.”
The words are Stan Freberg’s, the creative genius whose satirical records—“St. George And The Dragonet” (which would never have seen the light of day, he says, “if Jack Webb hadn’t had a sense of humor”) and “Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America”—are classics and sold in the millions in the ‘50s. The records are now collectors’ items, selling for as much as $40 in specialty shops.
Freberg’s advertising agency has made a fortune producing commercials that kid around with the product to offer viewers and listeners a change from the pompous, irritating hard-sell that dominated TV advertising for so long.
Freberg was in Fort Worth from California to accept the Christian Service Award from the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission for a series of religious commercials he did for the Presbyterian Church. The Commission has previously honored Dale Evans Rogers and Astronaut James B. Irwin with a Christian Service Award.
The Agency cities Freberg “for pioneering in the use of humor and wit to breathe life into religious radio and TV spot announcements,” and for using his talents “to advance the cause of Christianity in America.”
“Actually, I didn’t do those Christian spots for the Presbyterians, or the Baptists, or any other organized religious group,” Freberg told “Master-Control” and “Country Crossroads” interviewers.
“I did them for the Lord. The attempt to do them at all was one of the great challenges of my life, not just as a writer, or producer, by as a Christian.”
The son of a retired Baptist minister (the Rev. Victor R. Freberg of Pasadena, Calif.), Freberg said the spots were aimed at people who were told that God is dead.
“I wanted to get the message across that God will help us if he let Him. I felt non-Christians would not listen to anything religious and I wanted to do something that would reach them. I thought it would be nice to have people talk as they usually talk, as opposed to what I call ‘advertisingese.’”
When the spots were aired, Time magazine described them as “a disarming natural conversational approach leading into a song that’s like a pop tune—sort of an espionage approach.”
In one commercial, a secular-type says he can’t make it to church because “this Sunday I’m playing golf,” and next Sunday “I promised to take the kids to the beach.” A voice (Freberg’s) asks, “Well, how about two weeks from Sunday?” “Oh, I never plan that far ahead. Two weeks. Why, the world could blow up by then.” There’s a meaningful pase and Freberg comes back softly with, “That’s right.”
A chorus then swings into a jingle that concludes, “It’s a great life, but it could be greater. Why try and go it alone? The blessings you lose may be your own.”
That spot, and others like it, enjoyed immense success. “Industry demographics show that in New York, for instance, you need at least 200-300 spots a week to reach all economic levels,” Freberg said. “Well, in Detroit the church got something like 500 spots a week for that commercial.”
Another well-received commercial—Freberg prefers to call them messages—featured a hippie-type character reading aloud from an art-deco poster the words of John 3:16 and saying, “That’s really heavy, man.” Freberg’s voice says, “Yes, it’s from an ancient book that’s been around more than 2,000 years. It’s called the Bible.”
“That particular message got the attention of a lot of young people,” Freberg said. “I guess I received more comments about that one from kids than any I did. They said it really gave them something to think about.”
Freberg’s background as a “P.K.” (preacher’s kid) made him into a “theoretical Christian” until his late teens when he “accepted Christ” for himself. From that point on, “everything changed.”
“It’s tough, in this fact-paced world, to sit back and let Jesus help you do things,” he said, “but if you can get the message across that you do not have to fight it alone, it helps.”
“The church can do a great work,” he said, “and the church is not as dumb as some people would have you believe. The church today is aware that it has trouble communicating with people outside its influence. If the church only had to worry about talking to the people who come all the time that’s great.
“But what about the people who are not sitting in church, and who may never get there? You have to talk to people in everyday language, not that of a pulpiteer. And you have to be relevant.
The reason he hasn’t done any church spots recently?
“Nobody’s asked me,” he said.
Freberg ended up doing more within a few years, making fun of TM with a character called Maharishi Cosgrove (“This is the single most important message of 1979” said Paul Stevens of the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission).
People may remember Freberg for Pete Puma at Warner Bros., or parodying “Dragnet” with “St. George and the Dragonet” (the opening two lines, by the way, were read by Bob Hope’s former announcer, Hy Averback). But I like to think of him taking shots at deserving targets, even when he was threatened with censorship or outright bans. Freberg once did an ad for the animal preservation film “Bless the Beasts and Children,” opening with an actor representing the phoney ‘American Gun Association’ condemning the movie because it was a vicious attack on American hunters. Another actor says “I wouldn’t let my kids see ‘Bless the Beasts and Children’ .. not unless I wanted ‘em to grow up hating guns.”
Stan Freberg’s satire still speaks volumes today.