are comedians who make us laugh out loud with their jokes and
hilarious impersonations. There are humorists who make us smile
with their insights into the silliness and oddities of the human
condition. And then there is Stan Freberg.
Stan Freberg has been making me laugh for over five decades.
But, most of the time, I don’t know he’s there. That’s because
Freberg took his comic genius and did something really useful
with it. He went into advertising. Of Stan Freberg, it can accurately
be said, “We laughed all the way to his bank.”
In 1949, at the age of 23, with several years of radio experience
behind him, as well as a four-year stint with Warner Brothers,
doing cartoon voices alongside the legendary Mel Blanc — his
first full-time job, which he got by walking off the bus and
in a second floor Hollywood talent agent’s door, literally —
Freberg joined a cast of puppeteers on a local TV station, KTLA.
show, “Time for Beany,” became an instant success. It was broadcast
live in Los Angeles and southern California, and was soon broadcast
across the nation, beginning in 1950. The technology that made
this possible was called Kinescope [KINNess-scope], and it is
why we can still watch videotapes of “The Honeymooners.”
The show won three Emmy’s during its six-year run. During its
heyday in the early 1950’s, it sometimes had 60% of a local
city’s viewing audience in its 6:30—6:45 evening time slot,
five nights a week. The show was the creation of puppeteer Bob
Clampett, who had created the Tweetie Bird character during
his years at Warner Brothers.
It was the only kids’ show in my era that was watched faithfully
by our parents. The whole family watched. Albert Einstein was
a big fan, as were Jimmy Stewart and Groucho Marx. It featured
Beany Boy, Captain Huffenpuff, Dishonest John, and Cecil, the
Seasick Sea Serpent. Freberg did the voices for the latter two.
The characters all sailed the seven seas on the Leakin’ Lena.
It was through “Time for Beany” that I first learned the crucial
distinction between “funny, ha ha” and “funny, peculiar.”
Freberg in his 1988 autobiography, It
Only Hurts When I Laugh, says that in the show’s early
months, they rehearsed the next evening’s show in a parked car.
Not the same car — any car with unlocked doors. They later
moved their offices to “This Building Condemned.” The phrase
“low budget” comes to mind.
In 1950, Freberg created a genre which only he ever fully mastered:
the “take-off” record. It was a spoof, usually of other popular
records or TV shows.
The initial breakthrough was “John and Marsha.” It was a spoof
of radio soap operas. Freberg did two voices, a man and a woman.
John said only “Marsha,” and Marsha said only “John.” The voices
ran the full gamut of soap opera emotion. The record was very
funny, a big hit, and cured me forever of soap operas.
Over the next decade, he followed with two dozen more take-offs,
including one of Lawrence Welk, “Wunnerful, Wunnerful,” a 2-side
record: side uh-one and side uh-two. Word got out that Welk
didn’t understand why the record was so funny. This, I can believe.
He was about as funny as Ed Sullivan, whose lawyers kept Freberg’s
take-off on Sullivan from ever being released. Freberg’s biggest
hit was a spoof of the “Dragnet” TV series, titled “St. George
and the Dragonet.”
in 1961, came his masterpiece, “Stan
Freberg Presents the United States of America, Part 1.”
I was majoring in history, and I found it brilliant. I still
think so. It was a 40-minute musical comedy of the years from
Christopher Columbus to the end of the American Revolution.
In my view, it remains the most creative comedy skit ever recorded.
It included some lively, memorable songs, such as “Take an Indian
to Lunch” (Thanksgiving) and “(Put on Your) Top Hat, White Feather,
and Tails” (the purchase of New York City).
Then there is Ben Franklin’s forgotten meeting with Tom Jefferson,
who presents Franklin with a copy of his newly written “Declaration
of Independence” for Franklin to sign. As we all know, Franklin’s
name does not appear on the document. Freberg offered this explanation.
Jefferson desperately wants Franklin to sign. Franklin goes
over it verbally. “When in the course of human events . . .
da, da, da . . . da, da, da . . . Life, liberty and the Purfuit
of Happineff.” He asks aloud: “Purfuit of happineff?” Tom assures
him that the f’s are “in, very in.” But Franklin still hesitates.
“Then he breaks into a chorus of “A Man Can’t Be Too Careful
What He Signs These Days.” This includes the line, “It looks
a little pink-o to me.”
records were a big hit in Australia, even “St. George.” This
was before “Dragnet” was on Australian TV. He was invited to
run the final leg of the torch in the 1956 Olympic Games. An
enormous honor! At the end of the run into the stadium, he staged
it so that he was met by a man with an unlit cigar. The man
leaned over for a light. Sure enough, Freberg used the sacred
torch to light the guy’s cigar. The fans might have been outraged,
but instead they clapped and stomped their feet — and not
on him. As David Gordon might say, Freberg experienced the thrill
of victory, not the agony of the feet.
In 1956, he took the first step toward a new career: advertising.
He was asked to do an ad for a tiny, struggling company with
a limited-demand product: tomato paste. Hunts Foods dominated
this market. His job was to build market share for Contadina.
So, he came up with a jingle: “Who Puts Eight Great Tomatoes
in That Little Bitty Can?” There was nothing about free recipes
or how thick the paste was. Just the jingle. He sang it himself,
with the Buddy Cole jazz trio backing him up. The company’s
flacks hated it. The ad brokers hated it. Only the president
of the company liked it. He thought it was funny. He paid to
run it. It was a smash hit. Disk jockeys kept commenting on
it after it ran. Market share skyrocketed. Hunts had to cut
prices for its tomato paste.
had violated the crucial law of all direct-response advertising:
“Clever doesn’t sell. Benefits sell.” Humor is part of clever
— in fact, the most dangerous form of clever. For the next
47 years (so far), Freberg violated the rule. Yet he says he
has never produced a market-losing campaign.
I make my money writing ads. Even my Lew Rockwell.com articles
are ads. (See the subscription sign-up links
below.) I can speak with the authority of a man who has
put his own money on the line: clever doesn’t sell. Usually.
But occasionally it does. For example, Volkswagen’s magazine
ads of the early 1960’s, “Think Small” (a tiny photo of a VW
in a full-page ad) and VW’s all-time rule-breaker, “Relieves
gas pains.” Doyle Dane Bernbach got famous with those ads. (What
is rarely mentioned is that those ads featured photographs —
a no-no in automobile advertising before then. The ad industry
learned late that carefully crafted photos — the illusion of
realism — almost always out-pull drawings.)
Clara Peller’s “Where’s the beef?” rocketed Wendy’s sales in
1983. But the all-time winner was Wendy’s owner, Dave Thomas,
whose TV ads sold billions of dollars of food, and ceased only
with his death. He was so nice, and he always offered the viewer
a benefit for coming to eat at his restaurants. Dave was not
In my humble opinion, the funniest TV ad of all time was Alka-Seltzer’s
1973 “Momma, Mia, that’s a spicy meatball.” I would watch it
over and over and still laugh. That was Roy Grace’s work, the
DDB adman who had also worked on the “Think Small” campaign.
But the ad lost market share for Alka-Seltzer. Surveys taken
later indicated that the public remembered it as an ad for spaghetti
sauce. Similarly, Isuzu’s “Joe Isuzu” ads — “he’s lying”
— made comedian David Leisure’s face famous, but the ads
did not raise the sales of Isuzu.
simply refuses to acknowledge that clever doesn’t sell. He created
ads for a canned Chinese food company owned by an Italian. He
made the owner even more of a multimillionaire. Here is an example:
a full-page magazine ad with this announcement, “Nine out of
ten doctors recommend Chung King chou mein.” This appears beneath
a photo of ten men in white smocks, each wearing a stethoscope.
Up front is one middle-aged white guy. The rest are Chinese.
I laugh just thinking about that ad. It ran forty years ago.
Then there was the Great American Soups TV ad for Heinz. It
ran in the mid-1970’s. It featured the woman with the greatest
legs in Hollywood, Ann Miller, who had danced her way through
MGM musicals in the 1940’s. She still looked terrific. She danced
on top of a giant soup can in a Busby-Berkeley re-creation.
And the ad for Sunsweet de-pitted prunes:
THE PITS… TOMORROW THE WRINKLES.
We direct-response ad people insist on copy. Lots of copy. Well,
Freberg can write tantalizing copy with the best of them. Us.
what do you do with a prune pit once it’s in your mouth? Disgusting.
There’s no way you can get rid of a prune pit, gracefully.
That’s why Sunsweet has developed The Pitted Prune.
How do we do that? We do it. Let’s lay our prunes on the table;
until now, most people didn’t like prunes very much. As a
matter of fact there were people who wouldn’t touch one with
a twenty-foot pole. Apparently they didn’t find anything all
that appealing about a piece of wrinkled fruit that could
knock out a $75.00 inlay. But that’s all behind us now. Shake
hands with the Pitted Prune; sweet, moist, although still
rather badly wrinkled. One thing at a time, please. Today,
the pits . . . tomorrow the wrinkles. SUNSWEET MARCHES ON!!!
Are there benefits in this copy? Yes. Do people worry about
crunching down on a prune pit? Yes. Is there a graceful way
to get rid of one in polite company? No. All true. So, how do
you get the message of deliverance across to readers without
being laughed at? You don’t. So, if you are Sunsweet’s owner,
you bear the laughter all the way to your bank. A spoonful of
laughter makes the pitted prunes go down.
For us ad writers who enjoy a good laugh, but who don’t have
the wherewithal to risk being clever — the fear of wherewithout
— Stan Freberg is our shining star. For it was he, standing
tall, who adopted as his company’s slogan the inspiring words:
Translation: “Art for money’s sake.”
Rhino Records has put together a
set of 4 CD’s of Freberg’s humor, and one of them is entirely
devoted to his radio commercials. You also get a videotape of
his TV commercials. For anyone thinking of going into the advertising
business, these commercials are a must. Listen to them. Watch
them. Master them. Then avoid trying to imitate them. You will
lose your shirt if you try.
Clever doesn’t sell.
DAY WITH STAN
If you could win some reality TV award, and the prize was spending
one day with any celebrity, which celebrity would you choose?
What would you spend a day talking about with a celebrity? “I
really like your movies.” “Thanks.” “You’ve got a nice place
here.” “Thanks.” Then what?
I would ask if his son Donovan were anywhere around. Donovan
was the Encyclopedia Britannica kid, back when the EB
cost $1,300 instead of $50 on a CD-ROM. He might be around.
Anyway, someone could phone him. He might come over. I’d ask
him to show me his father’s ad clipping books. We would go through
them, page by page. He would tell me about each one.
Then we’d watch an hour of Kinescopes of “Time for Beany.”
It would be my best day in the last thirty years . . . or the