Remembering Stan Freberg

Stan Freberg was one of my heroes; he died on Tuesday at the age of 88. If you don’t know his name, you should, and if you do a search online you may find yourself an instant fan. (example: this TV spot for Sunsweet Prunes) When I was a kid, committing his comedy records to memory and eagerly awaiting his latest commercials, I never dreamed that I would meet him, let alone call him a friend someday. I can’t overstate the influence he had on me during my adolescence; he helped shape my sense of humor and permanently planted his ideas, catchphrases, and voices into my consciousness. Say the name “Ben Franklin” and I think of that founding father uttering the words “life, liberty and the purfuit of happineff” from the album Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America. At odd moments his parody of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat (Day-O)” (“too piercing, man…”) or his bow to radio censorship, “Elderly Man River,” pop into my head. (“You’re welcome, I’m sure.”)

Stan Freberg holding Looney Tunes Pete Puma

Stan holding a figurine of his Looney Tunes character Pete Puma

It’s heartening to know that I’m not alone. When some friends of Stan’s mounted a tribute to him last November at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, notables ranging from Steven Spielberg to Weird Al Yankovic sang his praises. Everyone spoke from the heart and few could resist quoting their favorite Freberg lines.

I first met Stan when I got to interview him about his autobiography It Only Hurts When I Laugh, forEntertainment Tonight in 1988. When he told me he was about to embark on a book promotion tour, I asked if he’d ever done anything like that before. He said he hadn’t and I took the liberty of offering some advice, based on my experiences: always have something to eat with you for plane rides at inconvenient hours, take Vitamin C on a regular basis, etc. Two weeks later he called me from out of town to thank me and declared, “A book tour is the literary equivalent of the Bataan death march!”

Sometime later my wife Alice dubbed him an honorary Jew, which delighted him no end, as many people mistakenly thought he was part of our Tribe. In fact, he was the son of a Baptist minister. Our daughter Jessie soon became a Freberg fan as well, sputtering with laughter while listening to “Sh-boom” or “The Great Pretender.”

Imagine, then, what it felt like to have him as a guest in our home. Our friends were amazed—even overwhelmed—to meet him. One night our party turned into an impromptu musicale. I worked up my courage and asked if he’d be willing  to sing “Take an Indian to Lunch,” from his United States album. He said yes without hesitation but asked who might accompany him on the piano. I said I would, if he could perform in the key of C. He did, and needless to say, he brought down the house.

Stan Freberg Comedy Album

A comedy masterpiece

As a lifelong fan, I thought I knew all there was to know about Stan as a radio, television, and recording artist, but it turns out he had more to do with movies—especially animated cartoons—than I realized when I was young. Because Mel Blanc was the only performer to receive credit on Warner Bros. cartoons, I never knew that Stan contributed a number of voices to Looney Tunes over the years, including Bertie of Hubie and Bertie, one of the Goofy Gophers, Pete Puma, and that unforgettable lunkhead Junyer Bear in Chuck Jones’ Three Bears cartoons (What’s Brewin’, Bruin?, A Bear for Punishment, et al.). That alone would earn him a place in the pop culture hall of fame. He finally got the credit he deserved on Friz Freleng’s Three Little Bops in 1957. He also provided the voice of the beaver in Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp and George Pal’s Yawning Man in tom thumb. He was even featured on-camera in a 1953 Republic feature called Geraldine, singing some of his parodies including the Johnny Ray send-up “Try.” He not only appeared in It’s a Mad Mad Mad World but created the TV commercials for Stanley Kramer’s mega-comedy.

I’m not sure the generations that followed the Baby Boomers recognized Stan and his genius as we did. This may have wounded his ego in recent years, but his admirers never lost sight of who he was or what he meant to us. His humor has worn well and his voice work speaks for itself—pun intended. He was one of a kind.

His loss hits me hard, because he lives inside my head, and always has. I’ll never forget him, nor will I forget the kindness he showed me and my family. Freberg forever!

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024