Humorist who reigned supreme in the field of comedy records
Thursday 9 April 2015
In the 1950s, radio was not only the main outlet for pop music: a lot of airtime was allocated to comedy records, and in that field the name of Stan Freberg reigned supreme. The US humorist, who has died aged 88, parodied pop hits of the day, folk tales and television cop series.
His most famous musical number came in 1957, with a take on Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song in which an unfortunate vocalist is dispatched to sing the “Day-O” chorus farther and farther from the microphone until he is outside the studio. Other comedians and impersonators had for years presented their off-centre versions of popular entertainment and its stars, but none did it quite as well as Freberg.
His first solo record, John and Marsha (1951), became a hit in Britain after it was played on Jack Jackson’s Saturday night radio programme Record Round-up. John and Marsha was the title, and indeed the sum of all the words on the disc: a man called John and a woman called Marsha just recited each other’s name, at first simply, then excitedly and finally in a frenzy that led to the BBC banning the record. For years, young couples would devote hours to reinterpreting the routine.
St George and the Dragonet (1953) became better known than the TV detective series Dragnet, on which it was based: “My name is St George. I’m a knight. Saturday July 10, 8.05 pm. I was working out of the castle on the night watch when a call came in from the chief. A dragon had been devouring maidens. Homicide. My job – slay ’em.” In Britain as in America, people took up Freberg’s catchphrase, “Just the facts, ma’am. All I want is the facts.” The storylines of St George and its successors were straight out of Hollywood’s film noir tradition. Freberg took things a stage further and managed to combine various routines from other TV detective series.
For the B side to St George, Freberg took the Little Red Riding Hood story. In Dragnet, the cop who insists on the facts is Joe Friday; in Freberg’s Little Blue Riding Hood, the cop introduces himself with: “This is the woods. My name is Wednesday. I work outta homicide.”
Freberg also had a werewolf story – with a werewolf who, when the moon is full, turns into the most horrific person Freberg could think of: an advertising man. It chimed with his Green Christmas (1958) – in which Scrooge was recast as the head of an advertising agency and Cratchit as an executive who refuses to exploit Christmas in his copy. Nonetheless, he also made a considerable mark of his own in advertising as the pioneer of the funny commercial.
Freberg was born in Los Angeles and brought up in South Pasadena, California, where his father was a Baptist preacher. He would say that radio was so much a part of his life that his family told him he was born “between a Rinso commercial and the NBC chimes”. As a teenager, he went to Hollywood and got jobs voicing cartoon characters at Warner Bros. Among his voices were those of the Goofy Gophers, Chester the dog, the Abominable Snowman, Pete Puma and Junyer Bear. After second world war service in the US army, he worked on radio programmes, including one starring his idol, Jack Benny.
In 1949, Freberg was one of the first entertainers to work regularly in television, before being signed by Capitol Records. “My records weren’t released by Capitol,” he once said. “They escaped.”
Along with the hilarity, there could be a biting touch to his work. In 1958 he turned the old hit The Old Piano Roll Blues into The Old Payola Blues, a commentary on the music industry scandal of producers taking money for playing tunes on the radio. In 1957 he had his own weekly show on CBS Radio, replacing Benny, who had moved on to TV. The following year he received his first Grammy award, for the “Best of” compilation from the radio shows.
All the time, he was continuing to make comedy records. His most successful album was Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America (1961), which made the US top 40. His place in the comedy record market was gradually being taken by people such as Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart – although in 1966 he did make Freberg Underground, and a second volume of Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America eventually appeared in 1996, providing more spoof history.
As well as devising comedy commercials, Freberg made a series of radio appearances parodying cigarette advertising, as part of a campaign to stop the practice. He returned to comedy radio in the early 1990s with a daily syndicated satirical commentary on national affairs that lasted just two and a half minutes. Stan Freberg Here was aired on more than 100 US stations and on the American Armed Forces Radio network.
When asked, at the age of 72, if he intended to retire, he said: “No. I intend to speed up so I don’t get run over by a bread truck.” He continued with cartoon voiceover work until 2011, and that year released a new comedy recording, Songs in the Key of Freberg. In recent years he appeared as a panellist at the Comic Con pop culture convention.
His first wife, Donna, died in 2000. He is survived by his second wife, Hunter, and his son, Donavan, and daughter, Donna Jean, from his first marriage.
• Stanley Victor Freberg, humorist, born 7 August 1926; died 7 April 2015