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Influential Satirist, Ad Maverick Stan Freberg Dies at 88

Stan Freberg, the comedic genius behind some of the most popular and subversive ad campaigns of the 20th century, died Monday at 88, his family said.
American Cinematheque Hosts The Genius Of Stan Freberg: 70 Years Of Creative Entertainment
Stan Freberg during a ceremony honoring his career at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood in 2014.Michael Kovac / WireImage
/ Source: NBC News

Stan Freberg, the comedic genius behind some of the most popular and subversive ad campaigns and pop-culture send-ups of the 20th century, died Monday at 88 in Santa Monica, California, his family said.

His son, Donavan, announced his death on Facebook. Freberg's wife, Betty Hunter-Freberg, told The Associated Press that he died at UCLA Medical Center. No cause of death was reported.

Freberg took droll delight in puncturing pomposity wherever he found it — in celebrities, in language and, especially, in the hard sell of advertising.

Comedians as diverse as "Weird Al" Yankovic, Penn Jillette, George Carlin and leading writers for "National Lampoon," "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV" all cited him as a major influence. Carlin liked to relate how he barely avoided being fired as a disc jockey early in his career because he insisted on playing Freberg's "Green Chri$tma$," his parody of holiday commercialism, nonstop.

"He changed the world. He changed me. I'll miss him so much," Jillette — the talking half of Penn & Teller — wrote on Twitter.

Freberg grew up near Hollywood in Pasadena, California, and everything he did was suffused with a knowing skepticism — thin-skinned radio and TV executives would say "cynicism" — about show business and American culture.

"St. George and the Dragonet" skewered the flat monotone of Jack Webb's Sgt. Joe Friday by recasting him as a knight tasked with capturing a dragon. It stayed at No. 1 on the record charts for four weeks in 1953.

"Elderly Man River" poked fun at snobs who howled at the alleged misuse of proper English on TV and radio by having Mr. Tweedly, a censor from the fictitious Citizen's Radio Committee, "correct" the Southern vernacular of "Ol' Man River" — by sounding a loud horn at every "mistake."

And the album "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years" — voted by listeners of Dr. Demento more than once as the greatest comedy record of all time — adapted the founding of the U.S. to comment on political issues of the 1950s and 1960s.

In "Pilgrim's Progress," listeners were urged to "take an Indian to lunch!" while "Declaration of Independence" was a not-at-all-veiled take on the Communist Red scare led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy: Freberg has Benjamin Franklin saying, "You sign a harmless petition and forget all about it. Ten years later, you get hauled up before a committee."

Freberg was the star of what's believed to have been the last sketch comedy show on network radio, 1957's "The Stan Freberg Show." One of the most cutting sketches of his entire career appeared on the show: a bombastic radio ad for "the Hydrogen Bomb!" With no advertiser willing to sponsor the show, and with Freberg perpetually battling CBS' censors, the series lasted only three months. Freberg won a Grammy for "The Best of the Stan Freberg Shows," a compilation of its best material.

Always in demand as a voice artist, Freberg also gave life to scores of animated cartoon characters, many of them alongside Mel Blanc in the Looney Tunes universe — he played all three pigs, the Big Bad Wolf and the singing narrator in the Looney Tunes jazz musical "Three Little Bops," he occasionally deputized as Porky Pig and he created the role of Cage E. Coyote, Wile E. Coyote's father. (He also never caught the Road Runner.)

But he arguably left his biggest impact during the 1960s and 1970s in a series of advertising campaigns that zagged into droll satire and silliness while the rest of the industry zigged into the in-you-face hard sell. His agency, Freberg Ltd., boasted the slogan "More Honesty Than the Client Had in Mind."

IMAGE: Ann Miller in Heinz soup ad
Broadway star Ann Miller in a Busby Berkeley-inspired song-and-dance number for Heinz's Great American Soup. At the end, her TV husband grouses, 'Why do you always have to make such a big production out of everything?'Freberg Ltd.

Older readers will vividly remember catch phrases like "Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?" (for Contadina tomato paste); "Today, the pits; tomorrow, the wrinkles. Sunsweet marches on!" (for Sunsweet prunes, starring science fiction author Ray Bradbury); "Why do you always have to make such a big production out of everything?" (the punch line after a lavish song-and-dance number by Broadway star Ann Miller for Heinz Great American Soups); and "Nine out of 10 doctors recommend Chun King Chow Mein!"

Cheerios, in Freberg's hands, became "the terribly adult cereal."

"Few, if any, advertising humorists of the 1950s and 1960s broke more rules than Stan Freberg — the self-styled 'guerrilla satirist' of modern advertising," University of Oklahoma journalism Professor Fred K. Beard wrote in "Humor in the Advertising Business: Theory, Practice, and Wit," a widely printed marketing textbook.

If you'd like to catch up on Freberg's iconoclastic career, a trove of his recorded work is available at the nonprofit Internet Archive.