A Conversation
with Stan Freberg

by Joe K. Bevilacqua

 



 

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In my neverending quest to uncover the secrets of great voice acting, I’ve thought a lot about the relationship between animation and verbal comedy. As far back as the early days of radio comedy, there has always been a link between the two worlds. Characters that started on radio were often successfully translated to cartoon form. Kenny Delmar’s Senator Claghorn on Fred Allen’s radio program, "Allen’s Alley", more than inspired Mel Blanc’s Foghorn Leghorn in Bob McKimson’s Warner Brother cartoons. Bill Thomson used the same voice and character for both Wally Wimple on radio’s "Fibber McGee & Molly" as Tex Avery’s Droopy Dog for MGM. The list of similar connections is very long.

When network radio comedy all but died, many of radio’s best comic actors made the transition into animation. Daws Butler, Alan Reed, Paul Frees, June Foray, and many others found ample work, especially in television where the animation was limited thus heightening the importance of dialogue and voice to convey the story. Listen (without watching the picture) to any Hanna-Barbera cartoon from 1957 to 1965 (what I consider the "classic" period) and you will discover that they play like radio comedies where everything is explained through the dialogue. The same is true of all of Jay Ward’s work. These were radio comedies with moving illustrations attached to them. I mean that in the best sense. Not only is the writing funny, the voices are funny too.

Stan Freberg’s career path has crossed back-and-forth between radio, animated cartoons, television, and comedy records too. As early as age 18, Freberg voiced characters such as Pete Puma alongside Mel Blanc at Warner Brothers. His hilarious comedy recordings with Daws Butler, legendary 1957 CBS radio program, and original advertising campaigns have earned him a devoted cult following (which he himself has affectionately dubbed "Frebies").

Over the years he has been the recipient of many awards including a Grammy, three Emmys for "Time for Beany", twenty-one Clio awards (the Oscar of the advertising business), eighteen International Broadcasting Awards, medals at the Cannes and Venice Film Festival, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Animation Academy ASIFA's Lifetime Achievement Award for his life in animation, the 1994 "Winsor McCay".

And now... 1996 is a banner year for Stan once again.

In June, the Smithsonian Institution put out a four CD set featuring the first seven of his 1957 CBS radio shows, remastered and released in their glorious entirety for the first time since their original broadcast. In July, Rhino Records released "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Part Two: The Middle Years," the long-awaited second installment (30 years!) of his classic 1961 hysterical-historical recording. The new album features many of the original cast members, plus some great performances by such stars as John Goodman, Tyne Daly, Sherman Hemsley, Harry Shearer, and David Ogden Stiers.

Stan Freberg’s albums and radio shows represent the pinnacle in the art of verbal comedy. Freberg’s humor is a wild mix of sketch comedy, social satire, and music, supported by an ensemble of crazy character voices most often supplied by the talents of Daws Butler, June Foray, Peter Leeds, and Freberg himself.

His humor builds upon some very sound radio comedy traditions -- a solid ensemble cast like that of Jack Benny, satirical sketches with a social perspective like the best of Fred Allen, inventive use of sound effects that would make Fibber McGee and Molly proud, with a little of "Your Hit Parade" thrown in for good measure -- which bends it all into his own unique style.

I recently talked with Stan about his new "Stan Freberg Present the United State of America, Volume Two: The Middle Years" recording, his work in animation and radio, and his views on the art of voice acting:

Joe: You have this new recording out and it’s one of the few examples today of using only the voice for humor.

Stan: Yeah. Voice acting on recordings is very much like radio in that you just have "the theater of the mind" going for yourself. I think that was my original phrase, by the way. They used it on "The CBS Radio Workshop" in the late 50s. Originally it was called "The Columbia Workshop" that Norman Corwin wrote for a lot.

Joe: I think I’ve heard it, the show you wrote and starred in for that series. "An Analysis of Satire".

Stan: That’s right.

Joe: Yeah, that’s a great show.

Stan: Thanks.

Joe: The amazing thing about this new recording is that it sounds so much like the original, and Corey Burton’s Paul Frees/Orson Welles-style narrator is incredible. It’s dead-on.

Stan: Yeah. You're right. Corey was "great". Even Paul Frees would have approved. Last year as I was leaving Buzzy’s Studio in Hollywood having just done a voice for "Garfield", Mark Evanier who writes and directs the show, ran after me in the parking lot with a young actor. It was Corey Burton. Mark said, "Hold It! Have you found a narrator for Volume Two? " I said "Not yet." He said "OK, go ahead Corey." I closed my eyes there in the parking lot. Corey said "Stan Freberg modestly presents..." A chill went down my spine. I said, "That's great!" He gave me his phone number. Then a couple of months later on my way in to do the voice of Moron for a Warner Brothers Saturday morning kids show "Steven Spielberg Presents Freakazoid", I ran into Corey again. He had just worked on a different episode. I was always running into him in parking lots. I said "Let me hear that narrator voice again." And he did it and I said, "OK you're hired. But I have to hear you on mike." So he came in later to Wilder Brothers and read the actually narration I had written on mike. And he was great. So he's on the album. It shows you can even get hired in a parking lot.

Joe: Did you find any differences working on this new album versus the work you did in the 1950s and 60s?

Stan: There’s no difference at all. I’ll tell you that right off. Absolutely no difference between the stuff I did with Mel Blanc and the stuff I did on "Time for Beany" with Daws and my radio show on CBS, the hundreds of radio commercials I've produced, and my records, Capitol Records and now Rhino. There’s absolutely no difference.

Joe: You didn’t change the way you work based on the new technology available to you?

Stan: No, no. When I recorded it at Wilder Brothers studios, I chose to not do it digitally. I did it to a 24-track. But I must say some things were recorded digitally to a DAT. If it got to be too many tracks were temporarily used up then we went to the DAT, and later flew the DAT back to the 24-track.

Joe: For sound quality reasons so that you didn’t lose another generation.

Stan: Right. That’s right. Of course we mastered the CD digitally.

Joe: But back to the studio, you are still getting that live quality of having actors together in one room, feeding off of each other.

Stan: Yeah. Well as much as I could. There’s only one ensemble piece really, which was the takeoff on advertising, "Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, and Osbourne." We were all there. But everything else on the album like David Ogden Stiers playing Lincoln’s psychiatrist and myself or Sherman Hemsley and myself working, and Tyne Daly working live with me. And so it’s really better if you can have a live exchange between two people. In the first album, for example Betsy Ross and George Washington talking about the flag. That seems to be enough for people to absorb, two people talking back and forth. Sometimes there was three or whatever. And there was seven or eight actors in the ensemble piece on Volume Two. Then of course we had three different band sessions and John Goodman came in and sang with me. So did Tyne Daly. That was live singing. I didn’t put my track down like Frank Sinatra did on his recent CD and then--

Joe: And then have someone phone their track in--

Stan: --Yeah, phone theirs in from Philadelphia or something. No. We laid the song tracks down first of all and then we recorded the songs to those tracks and then the last thing Billy did was the overture and the underscoring of the narration by Corey which he’d already voiced.

Joe: And just like on Volume One, you again wrote all the music and lyrics of the songs.

Stan: Yes, I did.

Joe: Do you find that there are things now that you can leave in because of the time restraint of an LP is not there with a CD?

Stan: Yeah, well, with a digital CD you have up to an hour twelve or an hour fifteen. This album comes in at sixty-nine minutes so as it turns out we had room for another couple of things but in the interest of pacing and so forth, my wife said "No, no!" You know she was the producer. She's been producing and editing my stuff for years. Even before we were married. She was the associate producer on Volume One the of "U.S.A."

Joe: That’s always one of the hardest things is to figure out what are you going to leave out.

Stan: Yeah.

Joe: There are things you like that don't make it in for a lot of reasons?

Stan: Well, at the last minute I'd realized I left out Henry Ford. I quickly sat down at the computer and wrote the scene that I did with Harry Shearer. There’s some nice remarks about predicting the Japanese coming into the automobile market. And then there's the song that I wrote that I established in the Edison scene, called "Perseverance"; Harry and I sing it as a reprise. Because Henry Ford did have perseverance, just like Edison.

Joe: How did you choose who would be on your CD?

Stan: Well, I hear it all in my head, you know. When I cast I didn’t have anybody come in, uh, I don’t believe in people trying out... Except for Corey Burton; that’s the only guy I read in advance, auditioned. The others I knew how they sounded. You don’t audition Tyne Daly, for example. Or John Goodman. You just know how they sound. The way Goodman got involved with it was that when I was on the "Roseanne" show, he said to me I understand that you're finally doing volume two of the "U.S.A." I said "Yeah. We re almost done." He said, "I know every word of 'Volume One'. Haven't you got a little part for me?" And I said, "You sing, right?" He said, "Do I sing?! Geeze, I was in two Broadway musicals." So I said, "Great! You can play one of the two Tin Pan Alley songwriters." So he said "OK. Just tell me where to show up." So he came down about two days later and we recorded it. I was thrilled. He's a marvelous performer."

Joe: He’s a talented guy. You may not know that he used to be in an ensemble radio comedy troupe called "Citizen Kafka" on WBAI in New York. The show aired right after mine. This was in the early 1980s. So he has a radio background.

Stan: I didn’t know that. Well, there, you see... He knew instantly how to work the mike and when to back off when he was loud. All the little tricks that we know.

Joe: Some of the voice actors I hear today sound like they have no radio training at all.

Stan: Yeah, but you couldn’t say that about Sherman Hemsley or Tyne Daly or John Goodman or David Ogden Stiers. They’re on the new album not only because they're marvelous performers but because they're fans of my work. And all the others that are on it are people I’ve worked with before, many times in the past. I tried to stay with my stock company of people that I've used over the years--Jesse White, Peter Leeds, June Foray. And I used a guy that I’ve never used before but I’ve worked with him many times on "Garfield"--Lorenzo Music.

Joe: And of course Harry Shearer.

Stan: And Harry... Harry’s worked for me before. Harry did the NPR-BBC show that I did about three years ago.

Joe: I notice he reprised the same character from that in this one, Stephen Foster’s publisher.

Stan: Yes, that’s right. Harry has an extensive radio and recording background on his own.

Joe: I notice both of your children are on this new album.

Stan: Yes, I've taught both of them radio technique since they were small children. On an album called "Freberg Underground" (which is the only album I recorded live in front of studio audience) my daughter, Donna Jean, who was 9 years old at the time played the little girl in the sketch "Anybody Here Remember Radio?" She worked with myself and June Foray. So now I had her play two or three parts on Volume Two included the stewardess at Kitty Hawk in the Wright Brothers section. And my son Donavan plays three or four characters on this album including the kid Myron with Thomas Edison and an older man urging Samuel Morse to come up a message for the first telegram. He has his own cult following because of appearing for several years as the young blonde teenager with glasses in the Encyclopaedia Britannica TV commercials.

Joe: That's great. You've trained a new generation in the art of voice acting. Which brings me back to what I said before, that voice acting is a special art--to caress the mike, to get subtleties out of that device that someone who only works in stage or film or TV is not going to be sensitive to.

Stan: No, they're not. The engineer at Wilder Brothers, Terry, tells me all the time about people that come in to supposedly do radio spots or read books on tape and they don't know what they’re doing. They walk away from the mike in the middle of a reading. And when he’d have to tell the guy to stay on the mike, the guy would say, "Well, can’t ya follow me?" "Follow you?! It’s a stationary mike!" "Oh, well," the actor’d say, "I’m used to film where they follow me with a boom." Well, I didn’t have any of that kind of trouble with the actors I worked with. There's nobody on there that didn’t know how to use mikes. The thing is that some of the people on there were in radio before they ever did television and movies. Peter Leeds started out in radio. He was with Bob Hope for years. I met him in radio when I was a 19 year old radio actor. And stayed friends with him all these years and I've used him on many Capitol Records, like the "Banana Boat Song". I mean, you know this, Joe... There's a trick... When you re going to get loud you have to back off of the mike and if you are going to hit P or T loudly you have to do it across mike. Even if they have a wind screen on it; it doesn’t help sometimes.

Joe; You don't know how many people I've had to show that to over the years. Stand there and hold their shoulders and point them at the mike.

Stan: Yeah. When you were studying with Daws, he showed you all of that. That’s because he came out of radio. The first time I worked with him on "Time for Beany" we’d both been in radio and we were very used to the techniques in radio... I even took radio production in high school, where I learned some of it.

Joe: So you think some of the voice actors today are at a disadvantage because they don’t have radio as that kind of a training ground?

Stan: Yeah, but what can they do? They weren’t alive when there was the Golden Age of Radio and so they didn’t come out of radio like June Foray, Peter Leeds, Jesse White, Harry Shearer and myself. I don't know... unless they study with a guy like you who is taking up where Daws left off. Somebody that can show them radio technique. Well, but here’s the problem: there's a lot of yuppie age and younger, Generation-X types, working in advertising agencies, producing, and they cast with no radio background at all. And since they don’t have the background in radio or audio, they don t know the difference. They can only be the excuse for the stuff my wife and I hear all the time in professional commercials by big agencies on television and we say, "Geeze, what did the guy say? What did he say?" The punchline! they come up to the punchline and they don't know not to swallow the last syllable of the word! It drives me nuts! But again you didn’t have any trouble with the people on my new album. David Ogden Stiers was fairly new to radio up until the time he did that NPR show with me. I wouldn’t say I taught David Ogden Stiers but I showed him a few tricks to stay on the mike. You know, he comes from Actor's Studio background before he was even on M*A*S*H and he went to Julliard where they mainly taught drama for the stage and television. He’s a marvelous, marvelous actor, as you can hear.

Joe: He does use his voice very well on the CD.

Stan: Right.

Joe: And he’s playing a character who has a different voice than his normal voice.

Stan: That’s right. He played about four parts for me. He was in the first ensemble piece; he played Thomas Jefferson. And then he played Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln's analyst, and the general in the Edison section.

Joe: And he sounds very different in all of them. He sounds VERY different as Grant.

Stan: Yes, that’s right. [LAUGHS] For example, he knew that Grant smoked stogies, you know, so, uh... here’s a guy that hates cigarette smoking and yet he had us go out to a store down the street and buy him some cheap cigars, so he could hold a cigar in his mouth without lighting it. He performed the whole Ulysses S. Grant scene, including the singing, with a cigar that he would take in or out of his mouth. A couple of times I had to say, "David, David, it’s a good idea but not if it garbles the lyrics! Please when you get to this complicated part, ‘As Long as You re Up, Get Me a Blast and a Sober Life s a Hard Life’ (which we sing in counterpoint), you gotta take the cigar out!" And there’s one point where he spits, you know [DEMONSTRATES]... see that’s [LAUGHS] that’s the thing that only a guy that wants the motivation like Stiers, theater or stage or movie actor, would think of. I never would have thought of it, frankly.

Joe: Yet it worked. It shows that voice acting is REAL acting, not just doing funny voices.

Stan: Sure. It’s like Mel used to actually chew on a carrot, which he hated. He HATED carrots. He would go "Chomp-chomp-chomp, eh, What s up, Doc? Chomp-chomp-chomp." And the sound guy, a guy named Treg Brown would say, "OK that’s good. Kill it." And Mel would go, "SPIT-BLAH" and spit into a Dixie Cup all these little fragments of carrots out of his mouth and he’d say, "Aw, I hate carrots!" [LAUGHS] I was 18 years old standing next to Mel Blanc.

Joe: So you just voiced Pete Puma again in a new Warner Brothers cartoon.

Stan: Yeah, that’s right.

Joe: How did that come about?

Stan: Well, you know I wrote for Chuck Jones, for about a year, about two years ago. He has a film production company, on the Warner’s lot called Chuck Jones Film Productions, to make theatrical cartoons for Warners. My cards that they had printed up for me say "Stan Freberg, Writer At Large." Linda Jones, who is Chuck’s daughter and runs the company, would call me in and actually for a while I was going in twice a week, working on the new "Froggy" picture.

Joe: "Another Froggy Evening"?

Stan: Yes, I wrote for that. I have a screen credit as a writer. I don’t know if that’s out yet. "Another Froggy Evening". It'll be out eventually. I also did writing on the first new Road Runner/Coyote cartoon in thirty years. I wrote on it but was uncredited because the titles were already done at the time I was hired to write. I put spot gags in it though, and one of my gags is the coyote comes to a cactus, it says "Practice Cactus" on it, and he shoots a rocket at the practice cactus first, before he aims it at the Road Runner.

Joe: I saw it. "Chariots of Fur".

Stan: Yeah, that’s it. And so, then I said, "Why don’t you do another Pete Puma? You know, it’s been a long time since that one." Bob McKimson directed me in that originally, and Mel and I did that one together. He did both Bugs Bunny and Bug’s nephew, which was the same voice, but it was just sped up. That was always intriguing how Mel would ask "What’s the degree of speed on this?" so he knew if it was really going to be sped fast then he had to talk very slow, so that when it was sped it wouldn’t be too garbled. I got a real education at the age of eighteen and on, working on the Warner's lot. I did Pete Puma in 1952. But a few years later the theatrical animated cartoon business started dying off. Nobody envisioned Saturday morning yet, you know. People over the years have talked about another Pete Puma. I think I planted the seed in Linda's head originally to do another Pete Puma. And then another thing happened. I was at the Hollywood Bowl for a performance of "Bugs Bunny on Broadway" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing while the cartoons played up on a giant screen. Chuck brought me and June Foray out on stage after the intermission, as the only two remaining original Warner Brothers voice actors. I said to the audience, "Among other things I did for Warner Brothers Cartoons, I was the voice of Pete Puma." And the whole audience went nuts! Then I said in Pete's voice, "Oh, you better give me a whole lot a lumps!" And seventeen thousand people rose to their feet and cheered. All this was not lost on Chuck Jones who put a Pete Puma cartoon into production immediately. So Chuck and Linda combined him with Foghorn Leghorn and got Frank Gorshin to do the voice of Leghorn.

Joe: I find that interesting.

Stan: Yeah , Chuck Jones liked the way he did Leghorn, so he and I worked together. I helped him out with some Vocal Zones, my secret little voice lozenge made in London, because that is a very rough voice on the throat.

Joe: Mel had some strong vocal cords.

Stan: Oh, my gosh yeah, but Frank was wonderful. He did a marvelous job. Then they flew him in again, and I had to go back for pick-ups. We had some slight rewriting of the script. So that’s being animated as we speak.

Joe: That’s great news!

Stan: Rhino also wants to put out a collection of my radio and television commercials at some point. In the meantime we are concentrating on volume two of the "U.S.A." It’s available by itself as the CD but also as a two volume set, in a box set with Volume One, but you don’t get the thirty-six page book with liner notes by Ray Bradury, Dr. Demento, and myself if you only buy Volume Two by itself. It’s also available as audio cassettes but I prefer the CD because you can select what you want to hear.

Joe: And the sound is better too.

Stan: Yeah, the sound is better. Say, do you know the name of the new Pete Puma cartoon? It’s a wonderful name. I would have given anything if I had written it. I love puns, you know. It’s called "Pullet Surprise".

Joe: [LAUGHS] It’s so good, you’d think it had already been used.

Stan: Yeah, you'd think somebody at Warner Brothers Cartoons would have used it before. It’s "Pullet Surprise". I screamed with laughter when heard that one!

click on Stan or Daws to read about the 1957 Stan Freberg Show

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