Gary Owens: King of KORN

There is no single word to describe the strange niche career of Gary Owens (Gary Bernard Altman, 1934-2015). He is best known for his prominent gig on TV’s hottest show of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Owens was the show’s actual announcer but he also starred in short solo bits where he spoofed old time radio announcers of the 1940s, usually uttering non sequiturs and black-out one-off jokes that played on the dichotomy between his official-sounding, straight laced voice and the anything-goes, way-out vibe of the show and ’60s culture at large, He invariably cupped one hand over his ear, while he read his copy of a hand-held script — that visual is as indelible as any lines he uttered. He also coined the sarcastic phrase “Beautiful Downtown Burbank”, ironically uttered on the show with great frequency, as that was where the show was shot. Owen’s over-association with the show may create a false impression that Laugh-In was the beginning and the end for him. But it was neither.

Owens started out in local radio (station KORN) in his native South Dakoka, and then, like ya do, kept working his way to bigger markets…from S.D. to Iowa to Omaha to Dallas to New Orleans to St. Louis to Denver to Sacramento to Oakland to — Shangri La for a broadcaster — Los Angeles. Like New York, L.A. is a plum assignment for any broadcast personality hoping for national attention. It’s like a daily audition. The chances that you’re going to be heard by some important casting agent or producer are so much greater than if you’re working in the hinterlands. By the time Owens arrived in L.A. in 1961, he had been in radio for almost a decade. He’s roughly of the Bob and Ray generation, and like them and many others, though he arrived after the heyday of radio, he infused mundane announcing and disc jockey chores with personality, and gradually added lots of original comedy material. He invented nonsense words, punned compulsively, and played characters with crazy names, all in the tradition of Fred Allen, with some Lewis Carroll mixed in, with some parallels to Stan Freberg and Wolfman Jack.

1965 was when Owens began to devlop a national profile. That was the year he was hired to provide the voice for the animated Saturday morning cartoon character Roger Ramjet, and appeared in several episodes of McHale’s Navy and The Munsters. The following year he began doing the voice of titular character on the cartoon character Space Ghost, appeared in numerous episodes of Batman and The Green Hornet, usually as newscasters and announcers, and did the same in the Allen and Rossi movie The Last of the Secret Agents? His casting on those camp serial spoofs were a perfect showcase for the kind of comedy he did, and illustrate that he occupied a very narrow niche. For a while there, what he was doing considered hip. Not everyone knew what he was doing or appreciated it, It went over a lot of people’s heads, thus it acquired a kind of cache for a time.

1968 was the year he was hired for Laugh-In, an engagement that lasted until 1973. But there’s so much more. Marx Brothers fans of my generation know him from the record album The Original Voice Tracks from Their Greatest Movies — a crucial product in those dim, dark days before universal access to the team’s movies was possible. There was more cartoon voice-over work on shows like The Perils of Penelope Pitstop (1969), Dynomutt Dog Wonder (1976-77), Captain Caveman and Teen Angels (1977-80), Yogi’s Space Race (1978), and dozens of others over the decades. You can hear his voice in Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), the TV production of the musical It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman! (1975), Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975), Disney’s Return from Witch Mountain (1978), etc etc. He subbed for Chuck Barris as host of the night time version of The Gong Show (1976-77) and for Casey Kasem on America’s Top 40 (1981). His last gig was on The Wizards of Waverly Place (2008)

For more on show biz history, including television variety like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and The Gong Show, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,