Art is a muscular, flexible athlete of a subject that can take a lot of pounding; the notion of what does and does not constitute art has fueled many an intellectual debate from the Athenian symposium to Gertrude’s salon to the hipsters at Starbucks. For my money, art is anything that enlightens through a prism of creativity and genuine point of view. If you do not believe what you are talking about, if you don’t stand behind the work you have created, then you may be a provocateur, a card, a tease, a wit—perhaps a thousand different positive things, but you are not an artist.
Stan Freberg is an artist.
His comedy routines are innovative and cutting edge. His sense of decency and morality is enough to make most of us redden with embarrassment. He never accepted sponsorships from tobacco or alcohol companies; he would have been a much, much richer man if he had. His work is extraordinary and covers the serious and sedate all the way through madcap hyper-surrealism. If you have never listened to the magic of the Stan Freberg collection called Tip of the Freberg from Rhino Records, then you don’t like yourself nearly enough and you should talk to somebody about it.
Here is his slogan for Meadowgold Milk from the sixties: So good it’s almost too much to endure.
That is hitting hard wood from home plate, baby.
Chun King foods was a tiny little company no one had ever heard of when it went to Freberg to try and save its business. He composed a campaign so successful the company simply couldn’t make its food fast enough. The original radio commercial, one in which Freberg corrects a corporate spokesman who claims 95% of Americans prefer Chun King (95% of Americans have never heard of Chun King!) led to a near immediate market dominance and their subsequent acquisition by R.J. Reynolds. His campaigns for Sunsweet Prunes and Jeno’s Pizza Rolls (In which he spoofs a completely unrelated product, Lark Cigarettes, who ran a “Show us your Lark” campaign to the same William Tell Overture) are equally legendary. In the Jeno’s ad they are interrupted by a smoker who wants to “…talk to them about the music you’re using,” followed by—well, watch it yourself. Sales for Sunsweet Prunes, meanwhile, already the best selling prune in America, went up 400% in the first year of his campaign. Let me repeat: 400%.
Stan Freberg is an artist.
In a radio comedy sketch about a homeless man (played by the immortal Daws Butler) we learn the concept of an “alarm rat” who can bite you awake so you never miss any vital social engagements.
He was the father of so much more than just a few funny commercials and some old fashioned radio skits. His influence is apparent in the achievements of everyone from Nichols and May to SNL to Weird Al Yankovic. He is a genuine original who managed, while turning out one of the largest bodies of work in his field, to also provide more free support to causes and movements than any of us will ever know because he did so much of it quietly. He also managed to stand up to censorship and the witch hunters like Joe McCarthy while other people in entertainment wet their pants at the mere mention of the name. No one would mistake Freberg for a humble man. None but an idot could enjoy such prodigious gifts and be unaware of them. But history shows he was generous and principled and brave even when it didn’t pay to be that way. We used to call that kind of person a class act. We don’t get to use that expression much these days, not without a lot of argument anyway. Not many people would argue that Freberg is anything but a class act. These commercials from YouTube really are only the tip of the Freberg.
Stan Freberg is an artist. Seek him out.