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Q & A : STAN FREBERG: Advertising's Funny Bone

April 08, 1990|Sharon Bernstein

Everywhere he goes, Stan Freberg discovers new fans. At a blue-suit business dinner in Sacramento last month, a middle-aged man dragged an orange crate full of records, books and old copies of Mad magazine up to the wildly white-haired comedian for autographs-on all of the items.

And Freberg, being Freberg, obliged. He's the man credited with inventing the humorous TV commercial, who wrote for Mad magazine as well as commercial television networks, whose musical-comedy version of U.. history is actually taught in high schools.

Last year, he published an autobiography, titled, "It Only Hurts When I Laugh," and he's recently begun daily, 90-second commentaries for KNX 1070 AM, which run at 11:42 a.m. and 4:42 p.m.

Never one to shrink from frank discussion, Freberg talked with Sharon Bernstein about advertising, TV today and his long-awaited return to social and political satire.

How are your radio commentaries coming?

I feel like the sorcerer's apprentice. I produce five at a crack.

I like being able to comment on anything that strikes my fancy. I've covered everything from the hole in the ozone to Yasser Arafat's beard to what the Democrats need to do to get reelected.

Green is the new buzzword, so I've talked about greening of America. Not everybody who is packaged as green is an environmentalist, you know.

And I talk about language a lot, awkward verbs like deplane. I don't recall my wife ever saying, "If you're going to be decouching during the commercial, get me a can of soda."

Aren't you also writing another book?

I'm working on it. It's in my computer back home. It's coming along. I keep getting sidetracked, having to produce five radio commentaries a week.

And writing advertising?

The client that takes the most work at the moment is a computer company, Northgate Computer Systems. Up to now I've done mostly print for them, but we're shooting a television spot and doing radio commercials. In the current issue of Byte and PC magazines, there is a giant fold-out thing that I produced. It's actually five pages of stuff.

See, they have a very small desktop PC, full powered but it's short. So I put it next to can of Diet Coke, because they're the same height, with the headline, "Northgate Slims Down." We still make the regular, but now you can get regular or diet. They've been selling half a million dollars worth of computers a day just based on this ad.

I always wanted to take on a computer client because it all seemed so boring and dull to me.

Speaking of boring and dull, how did a satirist wind up doing commercials in the first place?

I went into advertising as an outraged consumer. I was always throwing a shoe or something at the television set. I thought, "My God, there must be a way to create advertising to reach me." And I vowed that if anybody ever approached me to do advertising, I would do it in a way that would reach (someone like) me.

I did my first commercial in 1956 for Contadina Tomato Paste. I gave them a line: "Who put eight great tomatoes in that tiny little can. I had guys standing up on top of the Empire State Building talking about how they were going to take the tower down and put up a giant can of Contadina Tomato Paste.

Do you feel that by spending so many years doing commercials that you've gotten away from looking at the world as a satirist?

I think about that a lot, so that's why I'm doing less of them. That's why I'm trying to get back to my roots and do more entertainment. I take on advertising when I want to take it on. If something really interesting, like the computer advertisement, comes on, that's a challenge to me, and God knows it pays well doing advertising, but I really have tried to do less and less of that.

Have you ever turned down an advertising account because you disagreed with the product?

Absolutely. Because I don't agree with the product, or I just think that's enough of that. I've turned down Forest Lawn a few times. I turned down a bra company because I didn't think I could be humorous and tasteful at the same time. I was turning down cigarette companies before it became fashionable to turn them down. I've had a lot of chances to do stuff for booze and turned it down, because I think there's been enough drinking in the country.

Do you have any current television projects going?

I do commentaries for the Cable News Network occasionally. My funniest line on that thing was when killer bees had people panicked. I suggested we feed tainted Jalisco cheese to the killer bees, thereby solving two health problems in one.

And NBC has done an animated pilot to run in the spring called the Jackie Bison show. It's a buffalo, and I'm the voice of Jackie Bison. The other people on it are Pat Paulsen and Rose Marie. We know they're going to run the pilot, but whether they run the other 13 episodes is up to (NBC head Brandon) Tartikoff.

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