LOS ANGELES - Stan Freberg, an influential master of the lampoon who channeled his off-the-wall sensibility into groundbreaking radio shows, comedy albums and hundreds of humorous television commercials for products such as chow mein and prunes, died of natural causes Tuesday at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by his family, who said he had a number of age-related ailments, including pneumonia.
Freberg’s talents were used by Northland entrepreneur Jeno Paulucci, who hired the comedian to create humorous TV commercials for his Chun King and Jeno’s Pizza Rolls brands.
Freberg’s path to the nation’s funny bone was unconventional: Unlike stand-up comics who recorded comedy albums of their nightclub acts in front of live audiences, Freberg went straight into the studio at Capitol Records in Hollywood and, bolstered by actors, musicians and sound effects, created what he called “audio moments.”
With totems of popular culture as his preferred targets, he created his own satirical hit parade from sendups of chart-toppers such as Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and venerated TV series such as “Gunsmoke,” “The Honeymooners” and Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person.”
His 1953 spoof of Jack Webb’s “Dragnet,” called “St. George and the Dragonet,” captured the cop show’s famously staccato, monotone delivery and was widely considered his finest work as a mimic and parodist. Freberg’s irreverent take on the series produced the fastest-selling single in history - more than 1 million copies in three weeks, according to Variety - and earned its mastermind a gold record.
“There has been nothing comparable to Freberg’s ability to seize on a pop fad and, while it was still hot, capitalize on it,” Gerald Nachman wrote in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.”
Freberg’s satiric vision made him an idol to fans as diverse as the Beatles, Anthony Hopkins, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.
The son of a Baptist minister, Freberg was born in Pasadena, Calif., on Aug. 7, 1926. Gangly and introverted, he spent hours lying on the floor with his ear next to his family’s console radio.
Freberg’s own offbeat sense of humor began to blossom at Alhambra High School in the Los Angeles area. During his senior year, he ran for student office on the promise that he would install an 80-foot picture window in the girls’ locker room and turn the principal’s office into an automatic carwash.
“I was elected in a landslide but found it hard to deliver on my campaign promises,” he recalled in “It Only Hurts When I Laugh,” his 1988 autobiography.
In 1957, after scoring a hit with his spoof of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” record, Freberg landed his own comedy show on the CBS Radio Network, replacing the departing Jack Benny. Critics loved it, but he had run-ins with CBS executives over his refusal to be sponsored by tobacco companies and other “undesirables.” CBS canceled “The Stan Freberg Show” after about 15 weeks.
Freberg later said the cancellation led him to concentrate on advertising work. He formed his own company, Freberg Ltd. (but not very), whose motto was Ars gratia pecuniae (Art for money’s sake.)
Among his clients: Paulucci, who hired Freberg to help his Chun King and Jeno’s Pizza Roll brands gain recognition and sales.
For Chun King, “the premise was the same for every one of Stan's commercials,” Paulucci told the News Tribune in 2003. “We were trying to make hay out of our major disadvantage: Only a minority of Americans ever ate Chinese foods. One of the ads began: ‘Nine out of 10 doctors recommend you eat chow mein for dinner.’ The camera then panned slowly over our smiling medical corps. Nine of the doctors were Chinese.”
Paulucci also recalled how Freberg once guaranteed that his ads would cause sales to go up 25 percent - and if they didn’t, Freberg would pull Paulucci in a rickshaw down Los Angeles’ La Cienega Boulevard. The ad man was right - and so it was Paulucci who pulled Freberg down the streets of L.A.
Later dubbed “the father of the funny commercial” by Advertising Age, Freberg won more than 20 Clio Awards for his television and radio spots. He summed up his advertising philosophy simply: “Hey, folks, this is pizza we’re selling, not the Holy Grail.”
His wife, Donna, whom he married in 1959 and who served as his editor and producer, died in 2000. He is survived by his wife Hunter Freberg, whom he married in 2001; a son, Donavan; a daughter, Donna; and a granddaughter.
The News Tribune contributed to this report.