Satirist and comedian Stan Freberg's career has spanned more than 50 years. During that time, he's changed the face of radio and television advertising, perfecting the art of the humorous soft sell and saving and/or sustaining many of his clients' businesses. The 73-year-old is also widely credited with the creation of pop-music satire: Spike Jones wrote song parodies before him, but Freberg satirized music's style and performers, influencing countless comedians and songwriters and selling millions of copies of everything from songs to miniature audio dramas. He holds the distinction of being the last network-radio comedian, replacing Jack Benny with 1957's short-lived but fondly remembered The Stan Freberg Show. And he's made best-selling comedy albums, the most famous of which is 1961's classic Stan Freberg Presents The United States Of America, Vol. 1: The Early Years. (A long-delayed sequel came out in 1996.) A broad sample of his recorded output—from such early favorites as "John & Marsha" to some recent radio monologues and a new song—can be found on Tip Of The Freberg, a four-disc box set released on Rhino in August. Freberg recently spoke to The Onion about radio, advertising, satire, music, and an assortment of famous people.
The Onion: You've done many spots promoting radio and taught classes about the medium's power. How do you feel about radio today?
Stan Freberg: I don't feel very good about it, frankly. At a local level, disc jockeys are doing a pretty good job trying to keep the medium alive, and there's a lot of interplay between listeners and hosts of call-in shows that we never had a couple decades ago, at least to the degree we have now. But the time is apparently past when we can do great drama on radio, except every once in a while on NPR. You'll have to excuse me: I just came back from Hawaii, so my brain is kind of fried. I was part of the faculty of an organization called Young Presidents Organization, YPO, and I taught two different classes. One was called "Using Humor To Communicate," and the other was "Political Correctness: Just Another Form Of Censorship?" That received cheers from part of the audience and embittered silence from other people in the audience. I mean, that's good: I can still piss people off a little bit and make 'em cheer. I don't want to think I've lost my touch, you know. Among the things I played in this course was a thing I did 35 years before the term "political correctness" was ever invented…
O: "Elderly Man River"?
SF: Yes, "Elderly Man River." Very good. Gee, you are a fan. The wonder of that song is that the censor at CBS Radio didn't even realize I was putting him on. [In "Elderly Man River," Freberg sings "Old Man River," but is interrupted by a CBS censor who instructs him to clean up the language. —ed.] He was only concerned that Jerome Kern's family didn't sue us for screwing around with the lyrics of "Old Man River," changing it to "Elderly Man River. "He doesn't plant cotting / and those that plant them are soon forgotting." That's my favorite line. A guy at CBS Radio was always saying things like, "That family of acrobats you have on the show, the Zazalophs… What is that, Polish or something?" I said, "Probably, I don't know. We don't get into their ethnic background. The idea of having acrobats on radio is stupid enough." And he said, "Change their names to Jones or Smith. We don't want to offend any particular groups. So when I asked the man, Zazaloph, "What nationality is that, Czechoslovakian? Polish?" He said, "No, Swiss. This way we don't offend anyone." That's how we dealt with political correctness in 1957.
O: And, of course, you found ways to criticize Joseph McCarthy.
SF: Yeah, in Tip Of The Freberg is "Point Of Order," where I put a couple lines back in that the lawyers wouldn't let me say at the time. I said, "I hold in my hand a list of 21 known black sheep in the Senate." And they said, "No, we don't want anything about holding a list in your hand." Because McCarthy was always saying, "I hold in my hand a list of blah blah blah." So I put those lines back in. It's true that the "Point Of Order" cut on my new collection has been tampered with. I broke and entered the original master and put those lines back in.
O: A lot of today's commercials employ a sarcastic, self-aware tone that seems to be building on your work.
SF: That's absolutely correct.
O: How do you feel about what you've started, and are they getting it right?
SF: Most of the time, they don't get it right. At one point, I said, "Okay, now, hear this: I want all the creative people to go back in the closet." I wasn't referring to their sexual preferences; I was referring to the fact that I let all those people out of the closet by proving that humor could move products and redo the image of a company so that people feel different about that company than they felt before. The people now who do most creative work in advertising don't get it. I mean, first of all, they're not really trying to sell anything and, second, they don't care about the company. All they want to do is see how much they can get away with. A guy came up to me one time after a speech and said, "As I see it, the whole idea is to get away with as much as you can get away with." I said, "No, that's not exactly it, fella." If that had been the case, I would have been in and out of advertising in about three days. You have to prove [the success of your method] to the client and the people spending the money, because in the end, it is their money. You have to prove that the Freberg way will sell their product better than if they just did straight advertising. Whenever I give a lecture or seminar, that's what I try to get across to people. I hear very few radio commercials that sound like I could have written them, or that they got the idea. The only really great creative work that I'm aware of is from my friend Jeff Goodby up in San Francisco. He did "Got Milk?," and I think the Budweiser frogs are his, and he wrote the liner notes for the box set. Obviously, if you read those, the man gets it. Plus, my son is just getting into that work now—Donavan Freberg, who was in the Encyclopaedia Britannica commercials. But I'm kinda sorry that I allowed [humor in commercials] to be unleashed, because there are so many crappy, bad attempts at humor in advertising, to the point that I hardly listen to radio. I dial over to the classical station. But then I'm trapped in my car seat, and even there, there's crappy stuff. I wish somebody would prove me wrong, but you have to admit that there's very little.
O: In television commercials, there's a pervasive sort of smug self-awareness.
SF: Yeah, yeah, I know. A lot of television stuff is mean-spirited, and I think that's how political advertising got so mean-spirited, to where people are throwing things at the television set every time we have an electionThe same people who produce commercials in radio and television are creating commercials for all the political candidates; they took their cue from advertising. I once suggested that we need a moratorium on advertising for one year, and when I suggested that, I was talking to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. People got up in droves and left the room when I said that. I said, "Suppose Procter & Gamble stopped advertising soap for a year. Do you think anybody'd be any dirtier? No, sooner or later, if they needed soap or detergent, they'd stumble into the market and find by elimination the one that got them cleaner, got their clothes the whitest, and so forth, and they'd finally pick out the brand that they liked best, not influenced by any commercials." One woman yelled, "I don't like what he's saying, and I'm leaving," and she stomped up the aisle.
O: I was actually going to ask if you think commercials matter. I mean, does anyone not know about the existence of Pepsi?
SF: No. Or Coca-Cola. You're absolutely right. People presume that all the thousands of babies being born every day will need to be indoctrinated as to what to drink by the PepsiCo company. But it'll be a few years before those kids are able to make a decision like that, when they're standing at that machine where the ice comes down in the middle and you push the buttons—Coke, Pepsi, whatever. Of course, if you go to Taco Bell and those places, you get Pepsi. If you don't like Pepsi, lunch is over. You know, PepsiCo owns half the world. One of the commentaries in the new box set… I could read it for you now, but then, you could just play it. Have you heard my commentaries in there at all?
SF: You heard the Taco Bell thing?
O: Yeah, where they misinterpreted…
SF: Yeah, where they misinterpreted various things in China. PepsiCo at one point… Wait a minute, I have it right here. Now you get Freberg actually reading this live. I said, "Sometimes Madison Avenue just doesn't understand how ad campaigns from America may not translate well in other countries, like China. Kentucky Fried Chicken's 'Finger-Lickin' Good' came out, 'Makes Your Fingers Fall Off.' Swell. A while back, Pepsi, trying to capture the China market, ran a campaign that had been very successful in America: billboards and TV ads that said, 'Pepsi—makes you come alive.' When the Chinese translated, it now read, 'Pepsi—makes your ancestors come back from the dead.' The campaign bombed. Now, I hear PepsiCo, who owns Taco Bell, is thinking of running their Chihuahua campaign in China. Bad move. Over there, when they say, "It's what's for dinner," they don't mean beef; they mean Benji. If Taco Bell runs those TV spots starring the little dog, the Chinese may say, 'Mmm, Chihuahua tacos. They look delicious.' Stan Freberg here."
O: Not the world's most politically correct bit.
SF: No, no. [Laughs.] And as I read that, there were several Asian people in the audience who were laughing their heads off. Those [translations] are true; I didn't make those things up. Those are from my research over the years.
O: Do you regret helping any companies? Are there any companies you saved that you might have regretted helping?
SF: I have to think about that for a minute. There was a guy at Forest Lawn Cemeteries out here; Forest Lawn is the cemetery king in California. He was determined that he would hire Freberg to do some decent commercials for Forest Lawn that had a little element of humor, and I said, "No, thanks very much, but I don't see how… There's nothing funny about death, and I don't see how you can do that." But he persisted off and on for five years. Now, I hear Forest Lawn commercials that are attempting to do that, and I'm yelling at the car radio, "No, no, no, jeez!" So now I kinda wish I had done it, if only to save people from hearing those other ones. I don't know. I was turning down cigarette campaigns before it became fashionable. I wouldn't let CBS Radio sell The Stan Freberg Show to R.J. Reynolds and American Tobacco, which had sponsored Jack Benny, the man I replaced. The vice-president of sales was yelling at me, "Freberg, are you crazy? I got these cigarette companies lined up!" For one show, I sponsored myself, because I was sustaining for 15 weeks with no sponsors. I was holding out for one sponsor to sponsor the whole show the way American Tobacco had sponsored Jack Benny, and the way State Farm Insurance later bought the whole Jack Benny Show. But those were the last days of the golden age of radio, I guess, and when that show went off, there were no more comedy shows emanating from New York or Hollywood. That's what makes me the last network-radio comedian in America. Big deal. That was one of the things that didn't help—that I wouldn't let them split the show up, and I wouldn't let them sell me to cigarettes. But I managed, and in the last show I sponsored myself. [Sings.] "Stan Freberg, the foaming comedian / floats the jokes right down the drain." That was parodying Ajax the foaming cleanser, and I did LSMFT ["Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco"] as SFMFT, or whatever. I kidded the tobacco commercials that were on there, including the tobacco auctioneer they had on the Benny show, which made the network censor very, very nervous at the time.
O: You've talked about milestones, being the last network comedian. You're also considered one of the first to satirize songs rather than simply parodying them.
SF: Yes, that's exactly right. Spike Jones was the only comedian who preceded me on records doing songs, but he did true parodies of the song and didn't have anybody saying, [adopts drunken voice] "Come on, you guys, stick some old rags in your mouth and let's sing it again from the top." In other words, I was the first guy to not only satirize pop music, but to make editorial comments about it as I was doing it. Sinatra was a friend of mine—I did two tours with him in Australia, and he did a walk-on part in a show I did called The Chun King Chow Mein Hour—and he loved that song ["Sh-Boom"], because he loved the lyrics of Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and all the great lyricists over the years. He hated it that rock 'n' roll singers didn't have any enunciation. So when I did "Sh-Boom," he really loved that. In Australia, I preceded him, and he would always try to get there in time to hear me do "Sh-Boom" for the audiences. He'd stand in the wings and laugh.
O: Why do you think comedy records don't sell as well as they used to?
SF: I don't know. My friend "Weird Al" [Yankovic], a man who says that if it hadn't been for Stan Freberg there wouldn't be any Weird Al, was totally influenced by me, but he does his own thing. He's a wonderful kid. He does his things in a unique way that's really not like what I did, and he has the advantage of doing videos, which didn't exist when I was kidding pop music. But he's done pretty well over the years. Still, you're right that comedy records do not sell all that much, although a Time story a few years ago, when I did The United States Of America, Vol. 2, had the headline, "Comedy Records Are Back." Al's new album is called Running With Scissors. [Laughs.] I love that title. Everybody can relate to that, because their mother always told them, "Don't run with scissors in your hand." There's a picture of him on the cover running around a track, a miler, with scissors in the air. [Laughs.] The first time I met him, he dropped to his knees and kissed the hem of my sport coat. I said, "Yankovic, get up, get up. People are staring." "You're my idol," he looked up at me. I was on his short-lived Saturday-morning show on CBS [The Weird Al Show]. I played, of all people, the network censor. [Laughs.] It was a part I was born to play, and my son and I did the puppets on that show. Those strange little puppets, Papa Boolie and Baby Boolie, were my son and I. I trained my son to be a puppeteer since he was a little boy.
O: Well, you had done Beany & Cecil.
SF: Yeah, because I did Beany & Cecil. Off the subject, I saw my friend Buzz Aldrin being interviewed several times yesterday, because yesterday [July 20, 1999] was the 30th anniversary of the day we touched down on the moon. My wife and I flashed back to… Was it 30 years? We were at North American Rockwell, where CBS had asked us to come, because they had a whole crew there. Orville, the little space man from the moon, was a character I used to do. A producer at CBS had called me and said, "Do you still have that little space puppet?" And I said, "Yes, Orville comes out of a spaceship." He said, "NASA is gonna land on the moon, hopefully, and when they land the astronauts, by orders of the NASA doctor, they have to take a nap for four hours. We don't want to stare at Walter Cronkite for four hours, and we thought you could do something. Orson Welles is narrating a thing on space and your friend Ray Bradbury has done something, and we want you to do some little pieces of varying length." And I said, "Oh, great, great. So my wife and I went out to North American Rockwell. And I stand there with Orville, and the guy's there with cue cards, and I'm changing the jokes up to the last minute, and we taped all this stuff, which they recorded in the CBS truck. While the astronauts were approaching the moon, we had just finished. So my wife and I hurry to the television set there, and they're deciding which one to put on first, and they said, "Why don't you go back to your hotel?" So we're at the hotel, and we've been up for, like, 30 hours, propping our eyelids open, and we hear Cronkite say, [imitates Cronkite] "Well, the astronauts are supposed to take a nap for four hours, so we'll be bringing you several things: a piece narrated by Orson Welles, some little satiric moments by Stan Freberg, and a… What's that? What's that? One moment… We hear that the astronauts want to forgo their nap and go right out on the moon." I yelled, "Oh, no, no! Take a nap, take a nap!"
O: And Buzz Aldrin is still your friend?
SF: Yeah, yeah, 30 years later, you know, what's the difference? I told him this story, and he thinks it's hilarious. So now Cronkite is saying, "So, the astronauts all say they feel just fine, and the doctor says that if it's okay with them, it's okay with him. So we'll be staying live with the transmission from the moon." So for two hours, they stayed live on the moon, and all that stuff I did went on the floor. A week later, I was on The Tonight Show, and before I went to The Tonight Show to do that, the producer said, "Have you still got that little space man?" "Do I?!" He said, "Do you think you could do something on the moon landing?" I said, "I think I might be able to whip something up." So I compiled several little pieces and did this fairly long thing on The Tonight Show, which got screams of laughter, Carson beating the desk, and all that. Now, that is what is known as "The Freberg Lost Footage," because some brilliant executive at NBC, after Carson was off and Jay Leno was on, needed space, so he said, "Well, what are all these tapes here?" So everybody says, "Oh, these are 10 years of The Tonight Show." And he said, "Do we really need those?" "Nah, let's degauss the tape." So they degaussed all those shows, including the ones I was on. So my only hope is that somewhere, after you print this, somebody on the Internet will say, "Gee, I made a recording of that." Nobody has ever printed that story yet.
O: We'll get it in there.
SF: I visualize people scrolling on this Freberg story till their eyeballs fall out.
O: June Foray is still alive, and you're obviously still alive…
SF: Yes, let me check my pulse.
O: But a lot of your team has died. As you continue to work, have you been rebuilding a team?
SF: Well, it's been difficult. Fortunately, I was able to get my dear friend Peter Leeds on The United States Of America, Vol. 2, and Jesse White had had a stroke recently, but I still insisted on putting him in somewhere, so he was the one who didn't buy the jingle that Francis Scott Key had written that later became "The Star Spangled Banner." So Jesse was on that, just a few lines, but he's gone now, too, and… No, June and I are the only survivors of the Stan Freberg company of actors, though I've tried to use the actor who is the voice of Garfield.
O: Lorenzo Music.
SF: Yeah, Lorenzo Music, one of the more interesting names I've heard. Apparently it's his real name. He sounded a little bit to me like Byron Kane, who was a wonderful radio actor. All these people had some nerve to die on me. Gosh, it's amazing. So I thought that Lorenzo sounded a lot like Byron. And my son is coming along as a character actor; he's a wonderful actor, and he inherited my sense of humor and satiric outlook. He really is very good. I keep trying to rebuild that, and June, of course, is still here, and another woman named Naomi Lewis is a wonderful actress, and she's a dear friend of mine. She was married to Dick Mack. He wrote [the 1939 film] You Can't Cheat An Honest Man and produced a couple of W.C. Fields things. In radio, he produced The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show, and he produced The Rudy Vallee Show. Rudy Vallee, whom I met a few times, was one of the great cheap men of our time. He told me one time, "Never buy anything anywhere but Montgomery Ward and Sears." I said, "Well, that's fine. They have very good products." He said, "Oh, yeah, but they're cheap." And I thought to myself, "So are you." Because I had just seen him at a restaurant laying down a tip that was a ballpoint pen that read, "My Time Is Your Time, Rudy Vallee" on the side. It was one of his hit songs. Another one read, "Forever Yours, Rudy Vallee." I think he told me a waiter threw one at him one time. He said, "My God, that pen cost me 39 cents!" I remember why I started telling this: because Naomi Lewis' late husband, Dick Mack, produced Rudy Vallee's radio show. He always would show me this giant record player and radio and television set in the living room, because Rudy Vallee said to him one time, "What do you want for Christmas, Dick? You produced my show and wrote it," and so forth. "Well, I don't want one of those ballpoint pens, I'll tell you that." So Vallee says, "Well, no, I mean an actual gift I would give you." So he said, "All right, I want this monster home radio, television, and record unit. It stood about five feet high and was about five feet wide. Right in the front was this brass plate that was six inches high and ten inches long. It said, "This was given to Dick Mack by Rudy Vallee as a Christmas present." Imagine a guy getting credit for his Christmas present. That truly was a cheap man.
O: You've certainly worked with some influential people.
SF: Well, another one of my connections is that my wife, before she married me, worked for Peter Lawford. He was one of the Rat Pack, and she was his assistant when he did The Thin Man series at MGM. Later on, in New York, Peter Lawford came up and kissed her and hugged her and so forth. She introduced me as her new husband, Stan Freberg, and he said, "Oh, Stan Freberg, I was hoping I'd run into you so I could tell you this story." He said, "We were all at Hyannis Port, and all of a sudden Jack Kennedy came running in to where we were and said, 'Come quick, quick, this is that commercial I was telling you about.' And they all ran in, and it was my Chun King commercial with the Chinese people in the elevator. That's also in this box set. Imagine Jack Kennedy thinking that was so hilarious that everybody had to come into the den and watch it. Please don't forget to credit my dear wife, Donna Freberg. She married me right after she quit working for Peter Lawford in order to come to work for me, because The Thin Man series went off the air. That left her with a job in Santa Monica at Peter Lawford's house categorizing all of Peter and Pat Lawford's wedding gifts, and she decided, "I'm trained to do more than this." Then she heard I was looking for somebody who had production background, so she came to work for me. About eight months later, she married me, and we've been married now for 40 years. She's been my producer all these years. She's been my producer longer than she says she would have thought her patience would have endured. I drive her crazy.