Photo by Sara Ross-Samko
Here’s an interview I conducted with Donavan Freberg, a true pop culture icon, for Geek Monthly circa 2009. Without a doubt the funniest, friendliest, and most interesting interview subject I’ve ever heard imitate a chicken.
Dutiful late ‘80s couch potatoes no doubt remember him: the wise-cracking teen with the blond mullet who had a report due on space, a report he simply couldn’t have finished without his trusty reference book set. For years, he was simply the Encyclopedia Britannica Kid, that back-sassing commercial nerd who became a pop culture footnote once the Internet obliterated the need for home libraries. Little did anyone know that was Donavan Freberg, son of parody legend Stan Freberg. Donavan’s no one-trick pony: as a kid, he lent his voice to a few “Peanuts” characters, and post-Britannica he worked as a puppeteer for “Weird Al” Yankovic. Interesting side note: Donavan didn’t have a name until the age of five. We’ll let him tell you about that in the following interview.
JG2: How did that whole not-having-a-name thing work? Were your parents just like, “Hey, kid!”? What did they call you?
DONAVAN FREBERG: I was named Baby until I was five. See, I was kind of an accident. My mother didn’t think she could get pregnant again. Then when it happened, my parents thought I was gonna be a girl—this was before ultra sound, I guess—and they had the name April picked out. So when I came out, Dad was stumped. We also had a dog, a Yorkshire Terrier, named Baby…so when my Mother would call, “Baby!”, we’d both come running.
JG2: How did your family arrive upon Donavan?
DF: Both my mother and sister are named Donna, so it’s an extension of that. Actually, my sister was hanging around David Cassidy a lot around that time, and he heard about me and got really annoyed at the Baby thing. He said, “I’m going to call him Damien.” But then my folks chose Donavan. I had a very Royal Tenenbaums-meets-“The Munsters” type of upbringing. So now, Baby is more than a pet name for me. I hear people use it, like, “Hey, baby,” and it feels weird. It takes me back somewhere in my mind.
JG2: What was it like at the height of your Encyclopedia Britannica fame? Were people constantly coming up and giving you the business?
DF: It was definitely very weird. I was recognized constantly. People would call out, “Hey, you’re that nerd!” or “You’re that dork! Hey, dork!” It was mostly razzing. People tend to feel like they have an intimate connection to you if you’ve been on television. I remember visiting a shopping mall in Austin, Texas—I was out there to see some family—and I was just mobbed instantly. That was more awe, celebrity worship, towards Middle America. In L.A., they were mostly razzing me. But I laughed all the way to bank with the $37 I made off those ads. [Laughs]
JG2: What exactly was the time span those Britannica ads ran?
DF: 1988 to 1992, 1993. I could have gone longer. I think I had another five years in me.
JG2: How did you end up working as Baby Boolie on “The Weird Al Show?”
DF: My dad had been hired to do puppeteer work on that. “Weird Al” loves my dad. He’s always cited my dad as his biggest influence. They were looking for another puppeteer, and my dad mentioned me. It wasn’t pure nepotism, though. “Weird Al”—who, by the way, is the nicest and most intelligent celebrity I think I’ve ever met—said, “Come in, put this puppet on arm, and just improv. Make me laugh.” So he’s sitting there as I go off with this puppet, and he’s barely laughing at first. So I’m thinking, “Oh God, I’m blowing it.” But then he very quietly said, “You got the part.”
JG2: Do you ever get together with Jeremy Miller, Jeremy Shoenberg, or any of the other people who have voiced Linus from “Peanuts” over the years to shoot the breeze and share war stories?
DF: No, I’ve never met any of those guys. I only voiced Linus and Charlie Brown in commercials and public service announcements. So, stuff like Met Life, the public library, Zinger Zapper, Dolly Madison, etc. I did get to meet Charles Shultz before he died, though, and that was amazing.
JG2: Are you still voice acting these days?
DF: Yeah, I do a little voice acting here and there. I just did a pilot for the “Rugrats” guys about a reporter chicken, but it didn’t get picked up. It was like a chicken news anchor, you know, [adopts wacky chicken voice] “This is Jack Cluckman for PNN, the Poultry News Network!” I’m also pursuing photography, but I’d like to get back into advertising. I’d like to try to be the spokesperson for Wikipedia. That would be funny. Actually, I’m really thinking about creating an ad agency for natural elements. You know, like the Sun.
JG2: Does the Sun need more publicity?
DF: Sure! And rain. I want to get rain and all those other earthy names back from the hippies.
JG2: What would your tag line be for rain?
DF: “Rain—nothing would be green without it.”
JG2: Not bad. I feel compelled to tell you the reason this interview came about is because John Hodgman mentioned you in his recent fake fact book, More Information You Require. I’m pretty sure you’re name is the only honest piece of information in it. How does that feel?
DF: Oh, I didn’t know that! That’s fantastic! But the truth is, how do you know John Hodgman and I aren’t really the same person?
JG2: Are you?
DF: I’ll put it this way: you’ll probably never see us both in the same place.
For more on Donavan, be sure to visit his blog, http://babyfreberg.blogspot.com.
Last night on “The Daily Show,” the audience nearly turned on “resident expert” John Hodgman when he cracked a joke about FDR’s polio. Check it out at 2:50:
TheDailyShow.com wasn’t letting me embed the clip properly, so I had to caveman link it. Anyway, I think it’s pretty amazing polio—specifically Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s polio—is still a verboten humor topic with some people in this country. Granted, America wasn’t declared 100% polio-free until 1994, but come on. Salk dropped that vaccine back in ’52, and Roosevelt croaked almost ten years before that! I’ve encountered New York City firefighters with less reservations about 9/11 jokes.
BESIDES, Hodgman’s gag was really at the expense of Hoover. Did I miss a memo? Is Herbie H. the new savior of the Left or something? Maybe people are just over John Hodgman already. The whole smug fake fact thing wears thin pretty quickly with most folk (look at Sniglets; Rich Hall never talks about that shit anymore). Part of it has to be that suit. Hodge has been rockin’ the same drab brown retro mess ever since he came on the scene.
Johnny Baby, get some new threads! You’re starting to remind us of the hobos you make fun of.
Ironically, Justin Long, the Mac to Hodgman’s PC in those annoying Apple ads, is a direct descendant of FDR. His real name is Kermit Nelson Rooselvelt; he changed it and took up acting after he realized he’d never meet the height requirement to be a U.S. Senator.
I’m kidding, of course. See, I can make up funny untrue facts. Someone give me a book deal already.