Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Stan Freberg has died, darn the luck.

Stan "The Man" Freberg: Floats the jokes right down the drain! (And "pay radio" did come to pass!)

Somehow, I wasn't ready for the death today of Stan Freberg, even though the man was 88 and had been in failing health for years. All I know is that yesterday, there was a Stan Freberg, and today there isn't one. So today loses in a landslide. A comedian, satirist, radio star, voice actor, singer, songwriter, puppeteer, TV pioneer, and game-changing ad man, Stan was a wizard with words. But words are failing me now, as I try to describe what Mr. Freberg's work meant to me and why it was so important to the history of comedy.

I don't want to fall back on that label of "influential." Yes, it's very nice that he was influential on several generations of fans, some of whom grew up to create music and books and movies of their own. "Weird Al" Yankovic is probably Stan's most famous acolyte, and the two got to work together in the 1990s on CBS' short-lived Saturday morning offering, The "Weird Al" Show. Many more Stan fans probably went into advertising themselves and enjoyed the creative freedom he helped make possible with his innovative "soft sell" campaigns. His ads still work! In particular, a decades-old spot for the Milky Way candy bar created in me an irresistible craving for Milky Ways, even though it's not a product I normally purchase. Stan should've gotten a commission on that sale.

But, still, I say phooey to that "influential" jazz. That word makes it seem like Stan Freberg's whole purpose on this earth was to provide an example for others to follow later, like he was a means to an end. Stan was not a means to an end. He was the end!. His work provides plenty of pleasure on its own, well beyond its historical importance. I should know. I have several hours of his material on my iPod, and it is rare that a week goes by that I don't listen to some of it.

I hardly know where to begin in recommending his work to you. Maybe Three Little Bops, a jazzy little cartoon he voiced for Warner Bros in 1957? Something from Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, perhaps? (There, I'm partial to "A Man Can't Be Too Careful What He Signs These Days" with Stan as a curmudgeonly Ben Franklin with serious qualms about affixing his name to the Declaration of Independence.) I could point you in the direction of his brief-but-brilliant CBS radio series, The Stan Freberg Show or one of those masterful sides he cut for Capitol Records, like "St. George and the Dragonet" or "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)" or even "Widescreen Mama." (Sample lyrics: "Widescreen mama, don't you Cinerama me!")

All of these things are Stan, and yet none of them "are" Stan. He was a complicated guy: multi-faceted, multi-talented, and multi-media, though he loved radio best of all. Maybe I'll just play you the record that turned me from a Stan Freberg fan to a Stan Freberg fanatic. It's called "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise," and it's a parody of a then-current hit by Les Paul and Mary Ford. He leaves the lyrics of the original song intact, more or less, and instead chooses to spoof the fussed-over, studio-perfected sound of the record. Here, just listen:

"Look out!!! The equipment is smoking!!!!! Run for your life!!!!'

How could I help but love something like that? For more on Stan Freberg, please see my review (a love letter from start to finish) of A Child's Garden of Freberg.