Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An Interview with Gary Owens


Gary Owens: Kliph, how are you?

Kliph Nesteroff: I am fine. I was worried because the clocks went back an hour on the weekend and I wasn't sure if...

Gary Owens: Oh, yes, right, well we set our clocks back, but we also set the years back. It's 2001.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Well, now I've got to revise all of my questions as they all dealt with things from between 2002 and 2005. When you and I spoke last week we talked briefly about [comedy writer] Jack Douglas and Henry Morgan. You mentioned that while at KCOP you had met Henry Morgan.

Gary Owens: Yes and I met Jack Douglas at NBC. He was writing for Laugh-In, but he was mailing it in from Connecticut for the most part. So he was seldom ever part of the show in person, but he was a writer for Laugh-In. Paul Keyes who was our producer hired him around 1971 or 1972.

Kliph Nesteroff: And presumably Paul knew him from his Jack Paar days.

Gary Owens: Oh sure, and not just The Jack Paar Show, but The Dean Martin Show. Paul was producer of that also. So you know, you work with so many people... part of the thing is, you probably know forty thousand different people over a period of fifty years. Everytime you do a national TV show there are so many hundreds connected.



Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I imagine it's interesting in that capacity - to work with someone in 1968 and know them, but not work with them again for forty years.

Gary Owens: That is very possible.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read, Gary, that prior to getting into radio you had designs on becoming a cartoonist.

Gary Owens: Well, I actually was a cartoonist. As a child, growing up in South Dakota, I used to send in cartoons to Saga Magazine, Open Road For Boys, all of those kinds of publications. I was a cartoonist and a selling cartoonist up until I was about seventeen years old. Then I basically continued radio and television at that time. But there's not that much difference between being a cartoonist and someone who does weird things with TV and radio.

Kliph Nesteroff: And did you win a contest that was judged by Charles Schulz?


Gary Owens: Yes, I did. I won the cartoon contest and won a scholarship to a cartoon company in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Charles at that time was one of the judges for the cartoon competition. I sent in pictures of pirates and turtles and mongooses...  mongeese (laughs) and won the contest. It was a two hundred and fifty dollar scholarship. It was a correspondence course. Then later on in San Francisco I became a friend of Charles because he was a member of the cartoon committee there. That was a big thrill for me too.

Kliph Nesteroff: How old were you when you won that contest?

Gary Owens: I believe I was twelve at that time.


Kliph Nesteroff: There are a few people that got involved in comedy that started out as cartoonists. I talked to Norm Crosby a few weeks ago and he had started as an illustrator in Massachusetts before he started doing stand-up.

Gary Owens: Yes, indeed. As a matter of fact I saw Norm last week. We had a big celebration on the anniversary of Hollywood and he and I were both honored there. I've known him for years. A wonderful talent. Well, the great thing is, cartoons are just basically what you would have as gags on radio, movies or television except you just draw pictures to go with them.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was George McGovern your history teacher?


Gary Owens: Yes, he was. And Joseph Robbie was my economics teacher. He bought the Miami Dolphins and had a stadium named after him in Miami. It was a great time to be in South Dakota ... My uncle owned a newspaper in Plankinton. Then my sister bought the newspaper from him and my other uncle in Portland was a big newspaper man back there. So we have newspaper people running through the family... perhaps, now, walking through the family.

Kliph Nesteroff: Potentially you could have used your connections to have a syndicated comic strip...

Gary Owens: I guess so. I was a syndicated newspaper columnist for the Hollywood Citizen News back in the early sixties. I think we were in forty-five or fifty newspapers at that time all over the country. It was basically an Earl Wilson kind of column where you would do jokes, but you would also do news about famous people.


Kliph Nesteroff: Did your weird bent show through or were you trying to keep it more like Earl Wilson - although Earl Wilson did include jokes, he wasn't...

Gary Owens: Well, yes, he always had jokes. In fact, Woody Allen was one of his gag writers for his column. Anybody who was starting in comedy would always send quips to Earl Wilson. Yes, mine was not unlike that. It would be news about various things. You could give a fact like "Gene Kelly's father was the road manager for Al Jolson" which he was. Things that you might not find out otherwise. It had a little bent to it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Speaking of newspaper columnists, you got to know Walter Winchell and have cited him as an influence.


Gary Owens: Very much so. I read Winchell's column everyday and then in the early sixties he moved from New York to California and we would sit at California Angels games together. He was following the Mamie Van Doren romance with one of the Angels players at that time. Winchell and I had started chatting in the booth. I would go up and do broadcasts from the Angels radio booth in Anaheim. My boss, Gene Autry, owned the California Angels. So it was quite easy to be there frequently. Walter was a big influence on me because of his "three dot journalism." It could be a thing like "Jon Voight has two brothers... Chip Taylor who wrote the song Wild Thing for The Troggs and his brother Barry who is a professor of Volcanology at Penn State University..."

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Winchell like at that point? His influence had waned somewhat and you hear stories about how he wasn't quite the same guy. Did you get a sense of that?


Gary Owens: Well, he was the same guy because he was always feisty. You know, Louie Lepke, one of the top murderers in the United States, surrendered not to J. Edgar Hoover, but to Walter Winchell. He had a giant column. At least one to two million readers everyday throughout the country. He was feisty and I always liked him. I've got a couple pictures of the two of us together in the booth at Anaheim stadium. He was following so many romances one way or the other and I loved his "three dot journalism" because he could say in one sentence what someone else would say in two paragraphs.

Kliph Nesteroff: Somebody else who you met early on in your career who, in my estimate, seems to be somewhat of an influence on your comedy is the very funny Al Kelly.



Gary Owens: Oh, Al Kelly was great. As a matter of fact at a Billboard [magazine] convention all the FCC commissioners were there. I introduced [Al Kelly] as the vice president of the FCC. Of course, Al had phony charts that meant nothing and his double talk was so great. "Well, you put the pettner over here and it shows a ninety percent increase over the past two years." And then I would applaud. And then the audience would applaud and they didn't know what they were applauding about.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Gary Owens: (laughs) But he was the greatest double talk artist in the world.


Kliph Nesteroff: Oh my God, he was so funny. A lot of people don't remember him today, unfortunately...

Gary Owens: Well, it is unfortunate because he was a brilliant little man who was just the size of Dustin Hoffman ... He was just brilliant at what he could do because if the audience perceived him as an official of some kind it made it even funnier because they didn't know they were being put on.

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard a hysterical bit on the old NBC radio show Monitor. They sent Al Kelly out onto the streets of New York to do public opinion polls...

Gary Owens: (laughs) Oh, I know. Well, Dave Garroway was a big part of Monitor at NBC at that time and they used to have Al Kelly on the weekends. There are things that people really don't know. I mean there are movie stars that... I've known Martin Landau for about forty-five years now. He was a top cartoonist for the New York Daily news. Most people didn't know that. Gary Cooper was a cartoonist for the Billings, Montana newspaper.



Kliph Nesteroff: I did not know that either. It is hard to picture Gary Cooper as a cartoonist.

Gary Owens: Well, yes. Although Cooper had a good sense of humor, it really wasn't a humorous comic strip. It would be about facts about people.

Kliph Nesteroff: Just before I move off of Al Kelly... how did you meet him?

Gary Owens: I met Al Kelly in New Orleans with the Vice President of the McClelland Corporation, Don Keyes. We had lunch one day and of course I knew it was a put-on, whatever he said. We would invite friends over and say, "This is Lyle Nerdleman. Lyle is president of fifty-two companies in the United States, but because they're industrial companies you probably don't know their names." Of course, he'd go along with the joke and double talk about anything.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was great.

Gary Owens: He really was. He was one of my heroes.


Kliph Nesteroff: And he was on The Jackie Gleason Show from time to time.

Gary Owens: Yes, he was. Gleason always had a good way of spotting people. Art Carney was so great in so many things.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I've watched Carney on The Morey Amsterdam Show before The Honeymooners and he was carrying the show...

Gary Owens: Morey was brilliant; a great one-liner comic. I guess people in later years knew him from The Dick Van Dyke Show. He had his own show many, many times and it was so great, so wonderful.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was a joke machine.

Gary Owens: He was. He could remember every joke ever written and that must have been a billion jokes at that point (laughs).


Kliph Nesteroff: At one point in your radio career you were doing some gimmicks and some stunts and you had created an adult coloring book.

Gary Owens: Oh yes, that was in the sixties when I did that. People could color along listening to my radio show.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Gary Owens: I would have characters like Clinton Feemish who would tap dance to the weather forecast every morning and Boo Boo Feeblecorn who would come out and be in charge of the "Vent Your Wrath Room." The "Vent Your Wrath Room" was just a place where you could pound on the walls and run away and slam the door. A door was made for me by two of the soundmen at NBC Television. They gave me a wonderful door as a gift that I could use on my daily radio show, nationally and in Los Angeles ... I would have one liners from people. For example, if Steve Allen would be by... "Let's see who's at the door." There's a knock. "Why! It's Steve Allen! Steve, how's your nose?" "Oh, fine Gary, just fine" or whatever. It involved not only me doing a show, but probably the voices of thirty or forty other people - all famous.


Kliph Nesteroff: I also read there was a Gary Owens jigsaw puzzle.

Gary Owens: Oh yes, and no matter how you put it together it was wrong. It looked like some strange thing that fell on the biology floor.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you own any of those?

Gary Owens: Oh, yes. I think I probably still have a couple of them around somewhere. I'll go to my office and find them and if I can I'll send them to you.

Kliph Nesteroff: I would love to see them.
Gary Owens: I used to do that all the time. I would show [things] on radio, "Take a good close look ladies and gentleman. If you would like to have one, send today to Gary Owens, Hollywood, California, 90028." I received over two thousand people all wanting one of these. All it was was a picture of me and it says, "As Gary Owens promised - here is one."

Kliph Nesteroff: Some of the other significant personalities in Los Angeles radio at that time included Bob Crane...

Gary Owens: Yes, he was a close friend of mine. He was very funny. He was a drummer. I have found that most people that are good at humor are also good drummers. Mel Brooks wanted to be a drummer...

Kliph Nesteroff: Johnny Carson.

Gary Owens: Oh yes, everyone. The rhythm of the drummer is the same as the rhythm in comedy. I think that's a common thing for a lot of funny people. My friend Chris Hayward, we wrote at Jay Ward productions. I was a writer for all of Jay's shows; Rocky and Bullwinkle and Fractured Flickers and these kinds of things. Chris was a drummer also and he had that great sense of timing. Also several of Woody Allen's writers were drummers.


Kliph Nesteroff: Even if they're not drummers, a lot of comics are musicians. Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar...

Gary Owens: Oh yes. I have lunch with Sid Caesar every week. A group of us get together including Matty Simmons who created the National Lampoon... and also created the first credit card - the Diner's Club card.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I read his book. He was a total business man in the day.

Gary Owens: Yes, but also with a great sense of humor. I chat with Matty every week and he's so brilliant in so many different ways. He got Alfred Bloomingdale to put two million dollars into the Diner's Club. That helped a lot.

Kliph Nesteroff: I read his book and was intrigued because you think of National Lampoon as being run by a bunch of fly-by-night college kids, but he...


Gary Owens: Well, a lot of the writers were (laughs). He was a publicist in New York City when he started there. Then he started the San Francisco Warriors basketball team. He bought the Philadelphia Warriors then moved them to San Francisco and then sold them there. He's just a genius. It's so great to just be surrounded by these marvelous people that I have lunch with. I have lunch and breakfast with five different groups of people every week. That's what conversation is about. Last week Jon Voight joined us for breakfast. Jon Voight was a roommate of Henry Gibson of Laugh-In. They were in New York City going to the Actor's Studio. They both didn't have any money at all. They were both poor as church mice. Maybe a couple of church mice had more money than they did, actually. They didn't have a lot of money so they had a one room apartment. In there, because Jon Voight is about six foot four and Henry is about five feet six, Jon would sleep on the couch and Henry would sleep in the bathtub (laughs). That's a wave of economy.



Kliph Nesteroff: I remember being intrigued when I saw within a small span of time the film Nashville, which Henry is in, and an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show that he is in. The poem that Henry Gibson recites to Rose Marie turned out to be the same as one of the songs that he would sing in Nashville. 

Gary Owens: Right! Exactly. Boy, you're very precocious. Well, Henry was one of our dearest friends for years. He had a hit album before he got on Laugh-In, and sold quite a few copies on Liberty Records. A wonderful monogolist. Monologist. Hello? Mongolian primate.


Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned Chris Hayward. That's somebody else who, when I was a kid, I thought was a great comedy writer without really knowing who he was. Two of my favorite shows, where I lived, came on consecutively in reruns. One was Get Smart and the other was Rocky and Bullwinkle. So, Chris Hayward's name was in both sets of credits. I thought, "Well, both of these shows are hilarious. This guy Chris Hayward must be something special."

Gary Owens: Chris Hayward has always been brilliant as a writer, there's no doubt about it. Also another famous Chris is Chris Bearde. He and I created The Gong Show and sold it to Chuck Barris.


Kliph Nesteroff: I spoke with Chris at length last month when I wrote that piece about Paul Keyes and Richard Nixon.

Gary Owens: Of course, well, that's how we got Richard Nixon on Laugh-In. I got us Hubert Humphrey who had been a friend of mine back in South Dakota. Unfortunately, Hubert Humphrey's advisers told him not to do this comedy show. Well, you have to remember we had sixty million people watching the show every Monday night. That wouldn't hurt any politician, but he had to refuse it because his people said, "No, you know, it's a goofy comedy show. It's not wise."



Kliph Nesteroff: And he regretted not doing it afterward.

Gary Owens: Oh, yes he did. He mentioned that many times.

Kliph Nesteroff: To make up for it he appeared on the Pat Paulsen show...

Gary Owens: (laughs) Yes, that's true. Pat was a dear friend of mine also for many years. Of course, you can't live in Hollywood for fifty years and not have a lot of pals who are either weird or wonderful or both.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, Pat Paulsen was hysterical.

Gary Owens: Yes, yes he was. His editorials that he would do were super. Just super.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Pat Paulsen LP is great.

Gary Owens: He did a number of LPs.


Kliph Nesteroff: Pat Paulsen For President is the one I have.

Gary Owens: Oh, yes. I was there when he ran for president. Unfortunately he didn't get that many votes, but I think a lot of people did vote for him in  Hollywood.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the other Los Angeles radio personalities in the early sixties, and had been a television personality for a long while, was Robert Q. Lewis.

Gary Owens: Yes, I knew Robert. Robert was very good. He started in New York as you know. When he came to Hollywood he did wonderful interviews with people because he was very knowledgeble. He had been in the business a long, long while and just a great guy. The radio station that he was on was not rock and roll at that time, so the ratings were not giant like Top Forty, but he did fine. He did a very, very good show each day. He had a marvelous sense of humor. You've got to wear your horn-rim glasses if you're going to be like Robert! All of us did in the nineteen sixties.


Kliph Nesteroff: I am right now.

Gary Owens: Well, that's good. Could I hear the horn please? [honk] Thank you. That's very good (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: I can't see without this horn. You became a guest performer on The Jack Benny Program in the early sixties.

Gary Owens: Yes, I did. I certainly did. I used to see Jack frequently at the networks. It was a big thrill for me to be on the Jack Benny show. I played Jack's secretary's boyfriend on the program. Jack was one of the kindest men of all time. George Burns was also a good friend of mine and he and Benny would break each other up all the time. In 1979 I went into the Hollywood Hall of Fame with Herb Alpert, George Burns and Monty Hall. It was a big thrill to be honored with those wonderful people. We were at the Hollywood Palladium and it was filled with thousands of people and it was a big, big affair all the way around.


Kliph Nesteroff: How did you get your part on The Jack Benny Program?

Gary Owens: I'm trying to think. I think it was one of Jack's wardrobe men. I was doing quite a few shows at that time - everything from McHale's Navy to you name it. He was also a wardrobe man for one of the other shows I had done. So he recommended... they wanted to have a famous radio/TV person on as a guest. He was the one who recommended me and Joel Rich who was the casting director at Universal not only put me on that show, but about a dozen other shows. You know, if someone likes what you do - he was a big radio fan of mine and television fan. I did a lot of TV shows at KCOP-TV that I would write and produce and perform in. I got to know a lot of people from Henry Morgan to you name it at that point, who were doing shows at that same period of time. I worked with George Carlin. I worked with just about everybody. You can't be in this city for that long without working for thirty-five thousand other people.


Kliph Nesteroff: When you appeared on The Jack Benny Program - was that your first encounter with Mel Blanc?

Gary Owens: No, actually, well, let me think. I owned a company with Mel Blanc for twenty years. Let's see. From 1968 to 1988 I owned a company with Mel Blanc and his son Noel Blanc. Noel Blanc in French means "White Christmas" by the way. That's why he named him that - as a joke. Mel, of course, did every voice for Warner Brothers and Mel and I did a lot of cartoons together. I've done, I don't know, maybe three thousand animated cartoon episodes over the years. Usually I either play the narrator or the superhero. Mel was one of the kindest, most talented men I have ever met in my life.


Kliph Nesteroff: I am a great fan of many showbiz related things, but two in particular. I love classic animation and I love old time radio. Part of the reason I became such a huge fan of old time radio was because when I was a child I was a great fan of cartoons - and I would hear the same voices on the old time radio shows; whether it was Mel Blanc or Arthur Q. Bryan or Bill Thompson or Alan Reed or Paul Frees.


Gary Owens: Capitol Records at that time, June Foray was under contract to them doing all of these cartoon voices for children's records. And Mel did so many of them also. I worked everyday for twenty years with Mel Blanc. We syndicated comedy shows during that period ... I'll tell ya, I spoke at Mel's funeral ... We had everyone there from Cornel Wilde to Kirk Douglas ... Joe Barbera spoke. It was just wonderful. Anyway, I played some outtakes from my radio show. Mel would always do the rubber band song; the sound of a rubber band twanging around. So, I played a track of that and then Mel said an expletive right afterward that was not for radio listeners, but for my benefit. So, I played the expletive. Kirk Douglas said afterward, "Well, Gary, I don't think that was in very good taste."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)


Gary Owens: (laughs) I said, "Well, ask Cornel Wilde. He fell of his chair laughing (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: That's great. Speaking of outtakes, over the years when I have done any radio around Christmastime, I always love to play an outtake of yours and I wonder if you remember it. You're reading ad copy around Christmastime for Preparation H.

Gary Owens: Oh, yes. That became part of an album for Dick Clark. Yes and sold very well. It was about bloopers. I'll tell you how that came about. I was recording a group of public service spots because it was the day before New Year's, I believe. So, I was recording the show, but we would never tamper with it. You just did what you did and they would put it in the box and play it back.


Anyway, I couldn't record it that particular year, so I did it live. I would come in and say, "Wonderful day in Los Angeles. Going to be about seventy-two degrees this afternoon. This portion of The Gary Owens Show is brought to you by Bricker-Lincoln Mercury" and I would say something wonderful about them and "Go see them first chance you have." Then I turned to the next thing and it says, "The US Treasury Department tells you to invest in the future of America." Then I'd give the weather forecast. Then I turned the page again and see that the sponsor is Preparation H and I start to laugh! I said, "This portion of the show is brought to you by the makers of (laughs) Preparation H" and I couldn't stop. For eighteen minutes I couldn't stop laughing and my engineer would make faces at me and everybody in the studio would do that. I just couldn't stop and it was probably the longest blooper of all time (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, it's great. Your laugther on that recording is infectious. It's just wonderful.

Gary Owens: (laughs) Well, thank you (laughs). As long as none of the listeners were infectious.


Kliph Nesteroff: Did you know Roger Christian?

Gary Owens: Oh yes, very well. Roger was our all night man at KFWB when I was the morning man there. So I would see Roger and The Beach Boys every morning when I would come into work, because they would write their songs at KFWB with Roger; Little Deuce Coupe and all these wonderful things. He also wrote for Jan and Dean.

Kliph Nesteroff: He's responsible for the whole surf craze, really.


Gary Owens: Sure. He also did several things for Phil Spector. You know Phil Spector and quite a few people, all went to Fairfax High School in Beverly Hills. Phil Spector was part of that whole group at that time too.

Kliph Nesteroff: What about Gary Usher?

Gary Owens: Gary Usher was not part of that high school, but Gary Usher was in Hollywood and created the Hollywood Argyles and did very, very well on many, many records. Oh yeah, I knew all those people. If they were around in the late fifties and sixties all the way up until today, I knew them and worked with all of them.


Kliph Nesteroff: I read that you were a fan of Boston Blackie.

Gary Owens: Oh, well, Boston Blackie was just one of many, many shows that I listened to as a kid. Mr. District Attorney. Mr. D.A. was great. A marvelous show. I always listened to Superman. When I first worked with Bud Collyer I said, "I don't know you as anyone except Superman... maybe Clark Kent on your day off. Do you ever get back to Krypton to visit Jor-El?"

Kliph Nesteroff: I can certainly hear the influence of those programs and some of the announcers on your work. Sometimes they sound like Gary Owens without a sense of humor.

Gary Owens: Many times that's true. If you don't listen to what I say, I sound like an announcer because I've also made many dollars from being an announcer. I was the voice of NBC, the voice of ABC and the voice of CBS Television. So for promos, usually I'd do comedy promos, but you'd do other things as well. That's part of my life. I guess I'm a hyphenate for almost every direction.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now you are credited with discovering, or at least publicizing the singer Mrs. Miller.


Gary Owens: Oh, I created Mrs. Miller.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did that come about?

Gary Owens: Well, a man named Fred Bock who was a musician; wonderful song writer; dealt mainly in religious music. He and Dick Friesen were friends of mine. The very first album I did was one called Song-Festoons. I had a character named Earl C. Festoon who was kind of a dottering guy. "Earl C. Festoon here. Hello, Gary. Which way am I facing?" "You're facing the microphone today, Earl." "Oh. Hello." Those kinds of things. Anyway, I did my first album and it was produced by Dick Friesen and Fred Bock. That's how this all came about. I don't know if you can find it in some rare record store.


Kliph Nesteroff: I see that is on "Fono-Graff Records."

Gary Owens: That was a phony record company, yes. That was my very first record album. I think that was, what, 1962 or something like that. I don't even remember what year it was. It was funny and it was a lot of the stuff from my radio show, which I did on there. I don't even remember the bits for the most part, but when I hear it again I'll remember.

Kliph Nesteroff: But it spun-off somehow... to Mrs. Miller.



Gary Owens: Oh, yes, of course. Well, Mrs. Miller sang on that album and she was not a good singer, as you know. But I helped get her a contract with Capitol Records and she sold millions of albums ... that's where that all came from. I discovered Mrs. Miller because she did my album and then she did three albums for Capitol that all did very well.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you convince Capitol Records to sign someone who could not sing?


Gary Owens: Well, Lex de Azevado had a good sense of humor. Never was it brought up that she wasn't a good singer. She just recorded songs that were popular ... her arrangement of it, her singing of it, was quite different than the other ones.

Kliph Nesteroff: When her first album came out, it was sort of marketed by Capitol as a tongue-in-cheek comedy record...

Gary Owens: No, it was just "The Famous Mrs. Miller discovered by Gary Owens." That's where it came from, but even in the liner notes it doesn't say that it was a put-on. Because she didn't know it was a put-on.


Kliph Nesteroff: Well, that's what I was curious about. When it became a great success, I'm sure people talked about how she couldn't sing in the public eye. So, how did that affect her? Did you ever catch wind of how she felt?

Gary Owens: She always just thanked me for doing it because she made a lot of money! No, she did wonderful things and you'd have her record a Beatles song for example, but with that contralto voice it was quite different and it did very, very well. But Lex de Azevado who produced the album along with Fred Bock and Dick Friesen as well, that's how it came about.

Kliph Nesteroff: A fascinating little capsule of pop culture.

Gary Owens: Well, I've always done [stuff like] that. I did a whole day of visiting people who were on the map of movie extras' homes because they would make a lot of money in Hollywood going to movie stars' homes. They would never let them in, just drive by. So, I rented a bus and got two hundred listeners of mine to visit the movie extras' homes. It would be like "Lyle Turgleman. Lyle was an extra in How's Your Sister." I would have them take a bow from the bus and people would applaud.



Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) I read that at KMPC you brought in Lon Chaney Jr as a guest a few times.

Gary Owens: Oh, he was usually my guest on Halloween. Of course, Lon was so brilliant. I would have him play the wolfman. He would usually sing, in his wolfman voice, "Peg in My Heart" instead of "Peg O' My Heart" and then do his growl.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, that's great. I know he was a troubled soul, it's great to hear of him having some fun.

Gary Owens: Well, he drank a little bit now and again, but who doesn't? He was a tremendous talent. Tremendous, tremendous actor all the way around and so was his father, of course. When you look at those old silent films, it's just phenomenal. That whole talented family.


Kliph Nesteroff: One of my favorites is The Unholy Three.

Gary Owens: Oh, yes. Great motion picture.

Kliph Nesteroff: And Harry Earles playing the baby.

Gary Owens: You know, I found out yesterday [that] back in 1916 Leon Trotsky appeared as a motion picture guy in a silent film called My Official Wife.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I have heard that. Bizarre. You appeared in a pilot called Summer Fun also known as McNab's Lab in 1966. What was that experience like?


Gary Owens: Yes, that was with Charlie Weaver. I think I owned a drug store [in the show] if I'm not mistaken. Cliff Arquette of course was Charlie Weaver. The Arquette family are all famous in film these days ... Wilcox ... great, great comedy actor ... not Harlow Wilcox... I've got a mental block right now. Used to do a show called From the Basement. Cliff Arquette and this gentleman did a comedy show together out of their basement in Hollywood. Cary Grant was their main guest. You can't imagine Cary Grant, this great sophisticated man, coming to a basement and doing a show with one camera. But he did it as a favor to them becaus he liked them.

Kliph Nesteroff: So Cliff Arquette and yourself were in McNab's Lab and Elisha Cook Jr, I read, was also involved in this project.

Gary Owens: Yes, he was. Oh, yes, I worked with Elisha on another show with Dinah Shore. I did a Dinah Shore special and he was also in that same special and so was Mike Mazurki. 



Kliph Nesteroff: Love his grizzled mug.

Gary Owens: Diana Ross was part of that, The Temptations were part of it, I was part of it and... I don't know... when you do several thousand shows you sometimes forget until someone will bring up another name. And that will spark you. Spark you Anderson. Sparky Anderson and I used to play baseball together. Sparky has just passed away of course. He and I played, when we were twelve years old, against each other.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, you mentioned that to me last week. When they said that he had died at the age of seventy-six I said, "Geez,  I thought he had been seventy-six years old for the past seventy-six years."


Gary Owens: (laughs) Well, he looked that way. I'm not seventy-six, I'm seventy-three, but you could play little league baseball with a three-year variation.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were in several segments as either a television or radio announcer on Batman and The Green Hornet. I was curious how those segments were filmed or recorded because you were always a disembodied presence and not interacting with the rest of the actors.

Gary Owens: On The Green Hornet I was a regular. That was 1966. Two years before Laugh-In. I was the newcaster and Britt Reid and Kato, which was Bruce Lee of course, would always watch me giving the news. But they would actually sit and watch me at that point and then they supered it into a TV monitor. So that's how that worked. But in Batman I would also do things with the whole cast. Many times because my schedule was strange I would do maybe five or six radio sessions a day. So I couldn't always be there for the entire session. Sometimes for Laugh-In, I would get there at eight o'clock in the morning, leave at noon, go back in and get ready for my radio show or do a couple of commercials and then go back to NBC and join the cast until two in the morning.



Kliph Nesteroff: I am currently writing an article about Frank Gorshin. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about Frank.

Gary Owens: I knew Frank very well. We did a TV special together. I worked with him on a number of things. Frank was an extremely talented man. Very talented. He could do any kind of voice in the world. He could do Kirk Douglas if he wanted or Mickey Mouse. Of course, you couldn't do Mickey Mouse because Disney would sue you! But he could do any kind of voice. He was like Rich Little in so many ways and I also did a number of specials with Rich Little. I guess I've worked with just about everyone in Hollywood.


Kliph Nesteroff: I am also writing an article about the life of Pigmeat Markham...

Gary Owens: Oh, sure. Well, Pigmeat was part of Laugh-In as you know and came out of vaudeville originally. He was just great. Just great. How'd you like to have a name like Pigmeat Markham (laughs)? Maybe Pigmeat Markham meets Joseph Bologna (laughs). He was great fun. He had worked with just about everyone over the years, so to do Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In was not unusual because it was all sketch comedy anyway, so he was very used to that. Great talent all the way around.



Kliph Nesteroff: There's the famous story of you being hired for Laugh-In in the restroom of the legendary Smoke House restaurant...

Gary Owens: Well, that is true to a degree...

Kliph Nesteroff: But Arte Johnson also helped you get on the show.

Gary Owens: Arte Johnson recommended me for Laugh-In. Arte had already been hired [for] Laugh-In to do his many characters, but they didn't have anybody to be in between Rowan and Martin and the rest of the cast. George Schlatter, the producer, didn't want to go from a five or six minute dialogue with Dan and Dick right into a sketch. Arte Johnson said, "Well, why don't you get Gary Owens for goshsakes? He does it every day on radio and he's also done a lot of TV." George said, "Yes, I listen to Gary on radio, but it never dawned on me to have him as they guy who's the announcer for our show." 


So I went over to the Smoke House restaurant. George's office with Ed Friendly was right across the street in beautiful downtown... I was the one who created the phrase "Beautiful Downtown Burbank." I went over there and it was so funny because we were in the men's room washing up to go for lunch ... the accoustics in the men's bathroom were very, very echo-ey. So, I put my hand over my ear doing a nineteen forties kind of an announcer and I said, "My the accousitics are good in here." George said, "My God! That's what you've got to do! You'll be the guy between Dan and Dick and everyone in the cast, so when we have a switch of any kind, ten times a show, you're the guy who switches in between." "Meanwhile in a seemingly deserted warehouse somewhere in Fernun City, you'll find Dan and Dick, standing there in their underwear saying..." and then they would come in or Goldie Hawn or Henry Gibson or Arte Johnson or JoAnne Worley or Judy Carne or whoever it would be. It was a matter of putting them into sudden humor without introducing.


Kliph Nesteroff: You also had lunch at the Smoke House restaurant with Moe Howard.

Gary Owens: Oh, I knew Moe Howard. Many times, yes. We would go to lunch frequently at the Smoke House restaurant. I also knew Larry. I didn't know Curly because he had passed away. But I got the star for The Three Stooges on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was the biggest group ever that was there. Six or seven thousand people were there and it went around four different blocks; this giant, massive audience, all cheering The Three Stooges. I had suggested to The Chamber of Commerce that they make the star tipped up or down so people would fall down when they walked over the star, but they wouldn't do that.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)


Gary Owens: (laughs) But it was magnificent. Every relative of The Three Stooges was there ... I knew Moe and I knew Larry. They were brilliant. I did do that for them and I felt I owed that to them, simply for being amused by them and their wonderful short subjects. I also knew Jules White and I got him a Wall of Fame at the Motion Picture Home; The Motion Picture Hospital. For anyone in the business of motion pictures of television or radio, that's the hospital that they go to.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Jules White like?

Gary Owens: Jules was great. He was a thin man who had a very distinguished look to him. Of course, I'm talking about late in his life. It's like when I met Vincent Sherman. Vincent Sherman I introduced on a giant American Film Institute show. Vincent Sherman was the man who did in one year, in 1939, two major motion pictures: The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind ...


Kliph Nesteroff: We were talking briefly there about Jay Ward Productions. I was going to ask you how you got involved in that in the first place, but I also wanted to ask you about a comedy writer named George Atkins.

Gary Owens: Well, George and I wrote several movies together and George was one of the writers at Jay Ward. Jay Ward had some marvelous talents there. Chris Hayward was there, Allan Burns, George Atkins, at least four or five other writers ... it was just a marvelous time to be there. We didn't make much money, but we sure had a funny time.

Kliph Nesteroff: George Atkins is responsible for one of my favorite comedy LPs of all time called Sing Along with JFK.


Gary Owens: Oh, yes. George has written many, many albums. He's still with us, by the way. I talked to him, he's in his eighties now.

Kliph Nesteroff: God, I would love to interview him.

Gary Owens: Oh, he's wonderful. Well, I'll see if it's all right with him. He's not... depending on his mood. But he's just great. He's one of the funniest men I have ever known. All those Fractured Flickers were written by George and Allan Burns. They hold up very well. All the Bullwinkle things work very well. Jay Ward was a real estate man, I think I told you the other day. Jay was a real estate man in Berkeley, California and Bullwinkle was the name of a used car dealer, but it was spelled differently. Jay was in his office reading the newspaper and a truck goes out of control and goes down this hill, a careening, winding hill ... and smashes into him and breaks both of his legs. In breaking his legs, he sued the trucking company and got enough money to create every kind of a show there was like Rocky and Bullwinkle. So, if you want to create a show... go sit in your office until a truck comes along (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Well, just like I play that Gary Owens outtake a lot, I also regularly play cuts from Sing Along with JFK and people just love that album.

Gary Owens: Well, George has always had a wonderful sense of humor. Always wonderful, always offbeat. He's one of my favorite funny people of all time. How lucky can you be to work with all these brilliant folks that we know? Shelley Berman, Sid Caesar, I mean, we pay an homage to these people. They are the ones that created silliness as we know it. Of course, Woody Allen came later, but another brilliant man.


Kliph Nesteroff: And another fellow who was a very inventive mind that, I think, a lot of people don't know much about, but I think you were close to... responsible for a great novelty record called Dracula's Greatest Hits and the TV Show Shrimpenstein... Gene Moss.

Gary Owens: Oh, yes. Well, Gene Moss and his partner Jim Thurman were writers for Roger Ramjet and Dirk Niblick of the United States Math Patrol, which we did on Children's Television Workshop. We did that for a number of years. I played the lead in both of those cartoons, but they were the writers for it. Gene Moss had a wonderful offbeat sense of humor, as did Jim Thurman. He became the headwriter for The Electric Company on PBS. And Sesame Street along with Dave Connell and Sam Gibbon who had been producers for Captain Kangaroo. A long line of wonderful people who were all very talented.


Kliph Nesteroff: Where did Gene Moss come out of?

Gary Owens: Gene Moss came out of Hollywood. He was a comedy writer who used to do a show, as you say, Shrimpenstein, but he also wrote comedy for other people. So did Jim Thurman. They were a comedy team. I won their basketball tournament. They had a wooden basket on Vine Street next to ABC Television. They had an office right next to ABC. The ball, unfortunately, would bounce and go out onto Vine Streeet. I won the trophy for shooting the most free throws. I shot a hundred free throws without stopping and made every one of them. I won the trophy from them which was The Moss and Thurman Basket Shooting and Bus Dodging Competition - awarded to Gary Owens (laughs). They were wonderfully silly in everything they did. Having a foot tall Frankenstein, what a brilliant idea that was.

Kliph Nesteroff: I love watching clips of that show. It's so entertaining.

Gary Owens: (laughs) I know. It was for adults really.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you went on to Sesame Street... were Gene and Jim the reason that you ended up being a part of The Man From Alphabet and doing some narration?



Gary Owens: Well, we would recommend each other for things. We were all pals. Everybody was connected to the next person. I don't remember the origin of the whole thing ... I was a writer and creator for The Electric Company with a group of people including one of the funniest men in the world, a man who wrote every episode of Bob and Ray for forty-five years. He was from Chicago. He's still with us, by the way, living in Laguna Beach. One person knows the other person. If you want someone to play an old man, you get someone who plays an old man ... you get the right person for it.


Kliph Nesteroff: You want somebody to play an old man, you call Burt Mustin.

Gary Owens: (laughs) Yes, that's right (laughs). I worked with Burt Mustin on a movie. Oh my God, what was it? I'm trying to think of the title of the film. I was trying to think of it the other day. It was a very funny, goofy, offbeat film that we did... Dolly Parton was in the movie. She played the mother of one of the leads .... I've done so many things over the years... that's not being bragadocious, but it attacks my memory.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who was the writer that you were speaking of that wrote for Bob and Ray? Is it Tom Koch?

Gary Owens: Yes, but it's pronounced Cook. Tom Cook - K-O-C-H. That's the way he pronounces it.


Kliph Nesteroff: It's like Bruce Coe-burn, Bruce Cockburn.

Gary Owens: Yes, exactly. And for good reason.

Kliph Nesteroff: Very good reason, but Bruce should have just changed the spelling, really.

Gary Owens: (laughs) Yes, that's for sure. I'll tell ya, it's wonderful to have worked with so many people, that's why I'm writing another autobiography right now. My last book went very well. This one is going to be anecdotes.

Kliph Nesteroff: I was listening to one of your comedy albums, Put Your Head on My Finger, which is wonderful, surreal and hilarious stuff.


Gary Owens: Yes, well thank you. Yes, that was for MGM. As a matter of fact, I saw Mike Curb, who owned MGM Records, Thursday night.

Kliph Nesteroff: And he ran for governor...

Gary Owens: Oh, yes. He's a very talented man. He was a hit song maker when he was sixteen years old.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wasn't he one of the guys they brought in when the record companies and the film studios were struggling because they were all run by old men that just could not relate to the new swath of hippie kids, so they hired a bunch of young hippie punks and gave them offices and put them in positions of power to try and help create what the buying youth would want?

Gary Owens: He was a consultant, yes. He was a consultant for that reason because he knew kids. So did Phil Spector. There are a few people that could say, "Yes, that is right. No, that isn't right." You need somebody like that.

Kliph Nesteroff: There is a track on Put Your Head on My Finger called "What Is a Nurny?" It must be inspired by Steve Allen's "What is a Freem?"


Gary Owens: Well, of course it was, yes. Steve was one of my best friends. We would see each other at least once a week and just chat. What is a Nurny is basically like What is a Freem ... it's just about the same thing, almost. The differences between Richard Nixon and JFK were interesting also - I did an album about that. I've always been a little offbeat, even when I was a kid as a cartoonist and thank God. Because it does make you different than anyone else. At that particular time, most of the disc jockeys were fun and witty, but they didn't do shtick per se. So I would go in the recording room with some of the top voices in Hollywood and do a phony sixty second bit. Excuse me, I have the hiccups. I'm chewing on an Eberhard-Faber pencil right now.

Kliph Nesteroff: You must have known the eccentric Al Lewis.



Gary Owens: Well, yes, I knew Al very well. He was marvelous. When [Chris Beard and myself] were bought out for The Gong Show by [Chuck Barris] he was the first one to call me. Al Lewis phoned and he says, "[Grumbling]." I said, "Hey, we're paid for it, so don't curse." Barris was going to take over. I was the original host for The Gong Show and Chris Bearde and I were the creators and we sold it to Chuck Barris. I said, "No, hey, don't feel sorry for me. That's just fine. I did it for a year and we had tremendous ratings. We were number one in every market we were in so what more could you ask?" So, if you can make money on something - do it. That's why you're in Hollywood. If you just sit and say, "I'm mad because everyone else is taking credit for it..." well, that's okay if you haven't made money for it. But if you made some money, that's fine. That's why you're in business ...

Kliph Nesteroff: On a money note, Ken Snyder Productions did Roger Ramjet. The rest of his cartoons weren't very funny; they weren't supposed to be. But they were all very cheap. I was wondering what the atmosphere of Ken Snyder Productions was like and Ken Snyder himself.

Gary Owens: Well, Ken was a big blustery man. He was about six foot two, weighed a couple hundred pounds and just acted out every scene that we did for those things. He was a wonderful man. Very, very talented. He was an advertising executive and he quit his job to create cartoons. We were the beneficiaries of all that. Just great to work with. He would add lines to things. We had writers; Moss and Thurman, of course, for everything we did. He was the man who put it all together ... CBS-Viacom were the buyers of Roger Ramjet.



Kliph Nesteroff: Ken Snyder eventually got in trouble with the FCC didn't he?

Gary Owens: No, I don't think so. I think with maybe one of his shows he may have, but I don't think there was any trouble where he had any fine or anything.

Kliph Nesteroff: I think it was Hot Wheels or one of the shows that he had based on a toy...

Gary Owens: I think Mattel may have sued him because he may not have gotten the rights for Hot Wheels. He probably thought it was generic. But I don't think it was anything exasperating, but it's possible, because I don't know anything about those kinds of lawsuits or anything. Don't ever get involved. It's possible that he was sued for one reason or another ...



Kliph Nesteroff: Albert Brooks became a regular on your radio program.

Gary Owens: Well, I created Albert Brooks. He worked for me. And Tom Straw who became the producer of the Bill Cosby show and John Rappaport who produced MASH, they were all people who worked for me at KMPC in Hollywood. Albert was always... well, they're all brilliant. Every one of them is brilliant in their own way. But Albert was only eighteen years old at that time. He was next door neighbors with Carl Reiner and he and Rob Reiner grew up together. Albert would come in, working in the [radio station's] sports department and he would hand me scores for my radio show in the afternoon. On the bottom of the scores he would always [write] some little one-liner. At that time [the sponsor slogan] was "With a name like Smuckers, it's got to be good." So, Albert writes down, "Gary, how about this? With a name like Smuckers, it better be good." He still is brilliant ... Albert is one of the great offbeat minds of all time. His whole family is that way.



Kliph Nesteroff: I suppose their father was before your time; Parkyarkarkus.

Gary Owens: I didn't know Parkyarkarkus, but I had many friends that were there when he died. He died onstage at a Friar's Club luncheon. He put his head down on the shoulder of Milton Berle and died.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right, and the story that I heard was that Milton Berle actually yelled, "Is there a doctor in the house?" and everyone thought he was joking.

Gary Owens: Yes, right. He did. Milton has been the emcee for so many thousands of things. How sad it was, but that's the way that [Parkyarkarkus] would have wanted to go anyways. Albert had to be silly. His brother is equally hilarious. They're both wonderful. Both very talented and both offbeat humorists.


Kliph Nesteroff: Bob Einstein is one of the absolute masters of the deadpan.

Gary Owens: Yes, he is. Never smiles. He was an advertising copywriter for Grey Advertising when I first worked with him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Listening to Albert Brooks' comedy records, I can totally see how he was influenced by you. It's the same kind of wacky, surrealist comedy...

Gary Owens: Well, I don't know how much I influenced Albert but he did work with me. I would say he probably learned more from his father. But I'm so honored that these kids worked for me ... How lucky to live in a city... I think first of all, you must live in either New York City, Chicago or Hollywood if you want to sell something to someone. That's why most people move to Hollywood, even though Hollywood is not a large city by itself. Generically, people call Los Angeles Hollywood.


Kliph Nesteroff: One of the things that thrills me about Los Angeles is just knowing the history. To just go to a certain street corner and wait for the bus and realize that on this street corner such and such happened between so and so and so and so in 1942.

Gary Owens: Exactly. I had an office at the corner of Hollywood and Vine and I also had an office on Susnet Boulevard... I've had a lot of offices. It is part of Hollywood. My office was across from Louella Parsons. Louella Parsons was the top gossip columnist in Hollywood and Dorothy Manners was the leg woman for her. So, usually the main star wouldn't always come in every day and she would either rewrite it or fix it in some way. So, I knew Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, all of these people. And they were so powerful. They probably had five to ten million readers everyday. That's a lot of people.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a columnist... he wasn't that kind of a columnist... he was a television and radio critic who I think was magnificent. John Crosby.

Gary Owens: John Crosby usually worked out of New York, but I was familiar with him. He was a great critic. He was biting - a very biting crick... er critic. All the way around. He was biting crickets! Oh, yes, all of these people were there. The Hollywood people got their stories first because they would have what you'd call leg people running back and forth, listening in on conversations at the Brown Derby and some of the main restaurants.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, Gary I should probably let you go. I could go on talking for hours and I will.

Gary Owens: Oh, that's fine. I have to go in and do a commercial, but I did postpone it so I could talk to you. I'm glad to help and continue the great work. When my book comes out I'll give you a call.

12 comments:

gnumoose said...

Great work as usual Kliph.

except one tiny faux paus. It was Lon Chaney SR who appeared in The Unholy Three.

Lon Jr once told, I believe it was Beverly Garland when they were making "The Alligator People" that they better get most his scenes in the morning.

Jeff Overturf said...

I love the fact that in our digital age, there's room for such an in-depth interview.

The way it ought to be. Great job!

Kliph Nesteroff said...

Yes, if you look over it again, you will see we were talking about Lon Sr at that point.

Anonymous said...

Kliph, I like to stop by for the videos you post but I stay for the
great interviews! The thing I love
about Gary Owens is, as great a professional talent as he is, he is
also a tremendous fan of all these
people he's known and worked with,
and can remember so many great stories to share with us.

Sam Kujava

gnumoose said...

please accept my humble apologies.

Mike Doran said...

Love these interviews.

They belong in book form (perhaps with accompanying DVD?).

I believe that Cliff Arquette's partner (the name that Gary Owens couldn't come up with) was the wonderful Dave Willock (aka the doting dad of Baby Jane, among many other roles).

More,please, and soon.
(I envy you your Rolodex ... )

Kevin K. said...

Until now, I never realized how much Sparky Anderson and Max von Sydow looked alike.

Keep these interviews coming!

J.P. Skelly said...

Superb! Gary is a treasure! I'm News Director at KORN Radio in Mitchell, South Dakota where Gary began his broadcasting career. In fact he was News Director at KORN in 1956, the year I was born. We chat occasionally and when we finish it's like a completing a show business history class. Thanks so much for posting!

Timmy said...

A superb document of an interview. Thanx!!!!!!!

Michael Powers said...

God, Owens doesn't say a bad word about anybody! (Which is somehow unsurprising.) No wonder he's so popular with everybody. Quite a switch from most of the acerbic comedians you've been interviewing. I wish I could be more like Gary Owens and less like Pat Cooper but it's no use. I have a feeling it would make life a lot easier. I'd rather read an interview of Cooper, though.

Keith Scott said...

Mike Doran beat me to the comments but I was going to say that Dave Willock (whose name Gary was trying to recall)was also the comedy partner of the late Jack Carson for many decades - they both did a short-lived radio show in 1941 (The Signal Carnival, starring Carson's then-wife, the singer Kay St. Germain, with many support voices by Hal Peary). Willock then appeared in all of Carson's starring radio shows for Campbell Soup throughout the 40s.

rockfish said...

Amazing! These interviews are hysterical and historical documents for pop culture and old time comedy fans. I wish he had elaborated a little more on Grandpa Munster, tho. And it was Victor Fleming, not Vincent Sherman who did Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind... Although Sherman may have nailed more members of those two classic films...