Stan Freberg: Virtuoso of Voice-Over

It’s taken me a good little while to get a proper bead on Stan Freberg (1926-2015) and I wanted to be pretty familiar with his work before presuming to write about it. I knew of his legend for years but had experienced little of it directly, at least not consciously. Freberg’s heyday was both before and after my time (I grew up in the 1970s and have largely specialized in writing about pre-1940s entertainment. Whereas Freberg’s heyday was the 1950s) And it is hard to wrap your arms around such a multi-faceted legacy. If I had to encapsulate his career for someone who knew nothing, I might describe him primarily as an “audio comedian”, someone who specialized in radio, comedy records, and voices for animated characters and puppets, though he also appeared on camera in film and television, and was well respected in the advertising field (he won 21 Cleo Awards). Freberg was also closely identified with the jazz of the beatnik era, much like contemporaries of his generation like Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs.

Freber’s sense of humor seems to owe much to Fred Allen, to whose show he listened as a boy in Pasadena, He gained his professional experience at age 17 on the country music radio show of Cliffie Stone out of Stockton, California. Within a year (1944) he was getting voice-over jobs in cartoons for Warner Brothers, where he worked alongside Mel Blanc. For nearly 60 years he never stopped doing cartoon voice-over work — his last credits were in 2013. Daws Butler was among his many voice-over colleagues.

In 1949 the pair were hired to do puppetry and voices for Bob Clampett’s Time for Beany children’s tv show, which they did through 1951. That year, he released the first of his many comedy records, the soap opera parody “John and Marsha”. I was delighted to hear this referenced on Mad Men a few years ago! Also that year he had an on-camera role in the film Callaway Went Thataway, with Fred MacMurray, Dorothy McGuire, and Howard Keel.

In 1953, his spot-on Dragnet parody “St. George and the Dragonet” came out on 45, featuring himself, Butler and June Foray (best remembered as Rocky the Flying Squirrel from Rocky and Bullwinkle). This best-selling comedy record remains one of Freberg’s most cherished legacies. He had similar success with most of his comedy singles, which came out steadily through the early ’60s. In 1955 he played the voice of the Beaver in Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp.

In 1957 he got a huge opportunity when he was given outgoing comedian Jack Benny’s old time slot on CBS radio (Benny had switched over completely to TV). The chance proved to be short-lived however. Freberg refused to accept tobacco sponsors for the show, so it lasted only 15 weeks.  In 1961, another classic comedy record, Stan Freberg Presents The United States Of America Vol. 1: The Early Years. In 1963 he was one of the all-star cast of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (although his two roles were bifurcated. He had a non-speaking roles as a sheriff’s deputy. And a voice-over role on the squawk box as a police dispatcher).

Freberg’s work in advertising began in the late 1950s. Along with Bob and Ray, he is considered “The Father of the Funny Ad”, and in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s his attentions were largely focused in this lucrative area. His surreal imagination helped sell products as Sunsweet prunes, Chun King Chinese foods, and Prince Spaghetti, and as we said, won numerous awards.

Freberg was working as an actor almost until the very end of his life. Some notable later credits include guest shots on Roseanne (1996) and voice-overs in the films Stuart Little (1999) and The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). His last credits were on on The Garfield Show  (2013).