Hip and irreverent, Stan Freberg was the last network radio comic, a trailblazing satirist whose work greatly expanded the vocabulary of the comedy form.
While most postwar comedians used radio and records merely as a springboard for more lucrative film and television gigs, Freberg pushed the envelope in both mediums, creating high-concept musical comedies and sound collages that revolutionized the audio format while setting the stage for the hallucinatory sonic visions of the Firesign Theatre and the National Lampoon troupes.
Born in Pasadena, California, in 1926, Freberg broke into performing with work in children's puppet shows; while still in his teens, he hopped a bus to Los Angeles and won an audition at the famed Warner Bros. cartoon studios. In short time he was working (albeit uncredited) alongside voice-over genius Mel Blanc on characters like the Goofy Gophers and Pete Puma. Additionally, he contributed to Bob Clampett's puppet series Time for Beany, the precursor to the animated favorite Beany and Cecil.
By the age of 16, Freberg graduated to regular work as a radio announcer, a path he continued for the remainder of the decade. In 1951 he signed to Capitol and released his first novelty single, "John and Marsha," a scathing satire of romantic treacle. After a handful of other releases, he issued "St. George and the Dragonet" in 1953, a painstakingly accurate and lavishly produced parody of the Jack Webb series Dragnet far more advanced than any other record to date; "St. George" became the era's fastest-selling single, eventually topping the charts.
In 1957, Freberg was tapped to take over Jack Benny's CBS radio program while Benny took the summer months off. Although radio comedy was in its death throes, Freberg made every conceivable attempt to resuscitate the form; his show was visionary, taking full advantage of the broadcast medium's capabilities to create elaborate comic pastiches that pushed the boundaries of vocal and sound effects use. The series, which ran for 13 weeks, won critical raves and immediate legendary status; due to the ascendancy of television, it was also the final original network radio comedy show ever broadcast.
After the 1958 single "Green Chri$tma$," a highly controversial swipe at holiday commercialization, Freberg moved to the LP format for 1961's Presents the United States of America, a full-length vaudeville-style musical comedy written especially for the recorded medium. A wildly ambitious satiric history of American life, the album won widespread acclaim, and remains a pivotal landmark in the evolution of recorded comedy. However, after releasing the follow-up, 1966's Freberg Underground Show #1 (an album of sketch comedy Freberg described as "pay radio"), Freberg flirted with Broadway before shifting the majority of his energies to the lucrative advertising industry, a longtime sideline that became his primary focus as the '60s wore on. Largely credited with introducing the concept of the "funny" commercial, full of pop culture allusions and often poking fun at the nature of advertising, Freberg continued working in advertising for several decades, and won 20 Clio Awards, the ad industry's highest honor.
In 1988, Freberg published his autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh. Two years later, he returned to broadcasting with Freberg Here, a long-running series of two-minute daily commentaries produced for National Public Radio. On Thanksgiving 1991, NPR aired The New Stan Freberg Show, a one-hour special that marked his first return to long-form comedy in decades; finally, in 1996, he released Presents the United States of America, Vol. 2: The Middle Years, the long-awaited sequel to his most popular work. Freberg briefly returned to television in 1997 as a regular on The Weird Al Show, a children's program starring Weird Al Yankovic, the song parodist who often cited Freberg as a key influence. A four-disc box set, Tip of the Freberg: Collection 1951-1998, was released in 1999. While Freberg continued to do voice work into the new millennium and recorded an album with his second wife Hunter Freberg in 2010, Songs in the Key of Frebeg, his health began to fail him. Freberg died on April 7, 2015; his family cited the cause of death as pneumonia and age-related illnesses. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi