Stan Freberg, the man who made TV commercials funny and American history hilarious, passed away this morning. His son, Donovan Freberg, posted an announcement on his Facebook page today. Details are not yet known. He was 88.
Like most people in my demographic, I first encountered Freberg through the voices he did for many animated cartoons, including Pete Puma for Warner Brothers and the Beaver in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, though I didn’t know it was him. To some, he was Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent and Dishonest John on Bob Clampett’s Time for Beany puppet show and later the Beany & Cecil cartoons, while to others he was the last great radio comedian, the genius behind comedy records such as “St. George and the Dragonet,” while other remember him as the inventor of the comedic television commercial, but his greatest claim to fame has to be his inspired musical extravaganza, “Stan Freberg Modestly Presents The United States of America.”
Stan Freberg is one of the architects of my sense of humor, along with MAD, the Muppets and Goofy. I listened to his comedy albums as a child at the Torrance library. In high school, all of my friends had committed his “America” to memory, and we could launch into spontaneous performances of the dialog and songs at the slightest provocation. (“What was that?” “French horns.”) He was genuinely funny and hugely influential in the fields of comedy, animation and advertising. But that’s what he did, not who he was.
A few years ago, my daughter Ashley was working at her school newspaper and was assigned to write biographies of some noteworthy alumni, and somebody told her that one of them was Mr. Freberg. I was able to scare up a business address for him, and she sent a letter inquiring about the possibility of an interview. About a week later, the phone rang. It was Stan Freberg. It seems there was a mix-up in somebody’s information; he had never attended the college in question. He then proceeded to do about 20 minutes of comedy schtick on the phone, reducing her to helpless giggles.
The next year, Mark Evanier called and asked if Ashley might be able to come to the San Diego Comic-Con and assist Mr. Freberg, who was attending for the first time. She naturally agreed. Of course I found countless reasons to “drop by and see how she was doing” (code for geeking out all over the place) at least once an hour; I had brought my tattered collection of LPs and a copy of his autobiography, all of which he graciously signed. I gave him a cartoon I drew, illustrating a bit of dialog from his St. George recording, and enjoyed some time chatting with him and his wife Hunter.
The following year, Mark asked me if I would take charge of getting Stan to a surprise appearance at the Cartoon Voices panel. I pushed his wheelchair and helped him climb the steps to the stage, then stood behind the curtains and filmed with my iPhone (a recording now sadly lost) before getting him back to his table. He told funny stories the whole way there and back. It’s wonderful when you meet someone whose talent you admire, and they turn out to be exactly as you hoped they would be.
He was fearless and bold, and I’m told he could be stubborn and a shameless self-promoter, but he was also thoughtful and kind and respectful to his fans. Rest in peace, sir.